Tepe Narenj ancient Buddhist site also Tappe-e Narenj, is the archaeological site for the remains of a 5th or 6th century Buddhist monastery near Kabul, Afghanistan.
Tepe Narenj is a Buddhist monastery founded in the fifth or sixth centuries in the Zanburak Mountains south of Kabul. The site comprises one large and five small stupas, cells for individual meditation, and five chapels adorned with miniature stupas, statues of the Buddha, and standing Boddhisatva figures.
The iconography of these statues attests the practice of Tantric Buddhism in the area. Thought to have been destroyed in the ninth century by Muslim armies, Tepe Narenj was all but forgotten until the conclusion of the war with the Soviets, when it became the first post-conflict site in Afghanistan to be excavated.
The site provides valuable evidence for the expansion of Buddhism in the region, and preserves several examples of sculpture made in the unusual method of clay overlaid with fabric and covered with stucco. The excavated portions of the monastery are now subject to erosion and weather conditions harmful to its fragile clay sculpture and building material. Although the Institute of Archaeology in Kabul has overseen temporary consolidation of the in-situ sculpture and the tops of the walls, the site’s exposure to the elements is a major threat. It is estimated that the site can survive no more than two years without some kind of protection. Conflict in the Kabul area makes conservation fieldwork in the region extremely challenging, and often dangerous.
It is hoped that listing will draw attention to the loss of cultural heritage as a by-product of the ongoing armed conflict in Afghanistan.
Another brief History of Tepe Narenj
The monastery is first mentioned in the Chinese novel Journey to the West, first published in the 1590s. In the novel, it is stated that the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang had visited the monastery while returning from India in the 7th century.
The iconography of the archaeological artifacts recovered demonstrates the practice of Tantric Buddhism in the area. It is believed that Muslim armies destroyed the monastery in the ninth century and was forgotten until post-conflict excavations following the Soviet–Afghan War.
The ancient phase
The earliest sculptural phase documented at Tepe Narenj is marked by the exclusive use of unbaked yellow clay, almost always combined with stucco and appropriately represented by both the colossal and smaller sculptures found on the middle section of the site (T5).
The aesthetic models are distant from the canons of Hellenistic naturalism (of which only a few automatic and decorative hints remain, for example in the wavy hair styles). The forms are idealized (broad shoulders and narrow waist, sinewy flexible hands, round faces, high eyebrows and bulging eyes).
The use of colour is highly symbolic as suggested by the blue colour used for the hair and to emphasize the shape of the eyes.
The terminus post quem of this period is certainly 484 CE as indicated by the finding of a Nezak coin inside the base of the main sculpture in Chapel 3 (the earliest chapel on Terrace 5), representing the Buddha Śākyamuni.
The recent phase
The most recent sculptural phase is characterized by a typical lengthening and thinning of the figures, by pronounced mannerism and to an even great extent by the use of red unbaked clays, in particular as a surface coating on the sculptures.
This phase is fully represented by the sculptures found in Chapel 6, Chapel 8 and in Zone 14, where the chronological links between the two products is suggested by the extensive restoration work carried out in this phase, with red clays being used on sculptures already present in Zone 14 that had originally been executed in yellow unbaked clay.
In view of the fact that Chapels 2 and 4 were built ex novo on Terrace 5 only at the end of the 7th century, the beginning of the recent phase cannot be earlier than the late 7th century (a dating that is in agreement with that commonly accepted for the well-known similar productions, such as the red unbaked clay production of Tapa Sardar and Fondukistan).