A Buddha carved on a rock in the Swat district of Pakistan's northwest has been restored after militants attempted to destroy it in 2007, spurring hopes that tourists will come back to see a sculpture that has watched over the scenic valley for over 1,000 years.
Once disfigured by drilling and a blast, the face of the 6-meter-tall sculpture in Jahanabad, known as the "Jahanabad Buddha," has now been patched up, the result of repair work that began in 2012 and continued until last fall as part of a project financed through a Pakistani-Italian debt swap agreement.
In September 2007, the militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan partially destroyed the rock-carving with explosives, claiming that Buddhist structures go against Islamic teaching that bans worshiping idols.
At that time, the militant group was expanding its area of control from the neighboring Tribal Area, a semi-autonomous area near the border with Afghanistan. After the Pakistani army ended a major offensive against the group in July 2009, many of the more than 2 million people who were displaced have returned.
In 2012 in Mingora, the most populous city in the Swat district, around an hour's drive from Jahanabad, Taliban militants attacked Malala Yousafzai, the outspoken teenage advocate of female education who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But security in the area has since improved.
The restoration work that began in 2012 for the Jahanabad Buddha made use of the latest technology such as a 3-D scan. To patch up the Buddha's disfigured face, the restoration team used remaining fragments of the sculpture and stones found locally.
"Although the restoration work is clearly distinguishable...the onlooker's eye and brain can finally read the work in its entirety," said Luca Olivieri, the Italian archaeologist who directed the project.
The sculpture, the largest among the hundreds of Buddhist rock carvings that remain in the Swat valley, is said to have been carved in the 7th century, but some researchers believe that it was sculpted centuries earlier.
The area is rich with ancient Gandhara relics, and until the security situation deteriorated, many Japanese tourists as well as tourists from Europe and the United States had visited there. Even Tibetan monks were seen visiting there.
"As Pashtuns, we always welcome our guests," Saad Khan, a 21-year-old local university student, said. Noting the Swat district's rich history and culture, he also said Buddha structures like the restored rock-carving should not be targeted again.