Remembering Bamiyan

Added over 6 years ago

By Andrew Forbes

Bamiyan buddha

The giant Buddha of Bamiyan. Photo by Andrew Forbes / CPA


Early in 2001 Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic shrines and statues in the shattered land over which he presides.

Moving with precipitate haste, and in defiance of appeals from international bodies such as UNESCO and the 55-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference, Taliban's fundamentalist zealots implemented Mullah Omar's edict with single-minded ferocity. First the rich Buddhist holdings of Kabul Museum were smashed, then a 16-metre long reclining Buddha at Tapa Sardar--Afghanistan's third largest such image, dating from around the 7th century AD--was reduced to rubble. But what really captured the world's imagination, as well as drawing forthright condemnation from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Islam's oldest and most prestigious seat of learning, was the wanton destruction of the two standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, amongst the oldest and greatest relics of Buddhist antiquity.

It is probable that, before Taliban implemented its infamous edict, few people had heard of the soaring images of Bamiyan. They stand in a remote region of central Afghanistan, far from the Buddhist World, surrounded by a sea of Islam. For the last two decades their isolation had been all but complete. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, their valley became part of a free-fire zone between Communists and Mujahideen. After the Russian withdrawal, Bamiyan became the fief of heavily-armed Mujahid warlords. Until recently it was the scene of bloody fighting between Taliban and the Hezb-i-Wahdat, a local Shia militia. In early 2001 Taliban captured the valley, and have now applied their destructive interpretation of iconoclastic fundamentalism to the ancient images.

on the road to BamiyanOn the road to Bamiyan. Andrew Forbes / CPA

I am fortunate enough to have visited Bamiyan and to have spent time exploring the mysterious cave complexes and antique cities of the valley. On my last visit, one chilly autumn dawn shortly before the Soviet invasion, I climbed into the cab of a battered truck carrying rice, pulses and other dry goods from Kabul to Bamiyan, and headed northwards. It was five in the afternoon, and the sun was beginning to set, when we entered the high Valley of Bamiyan. Dusty, poplar-lined lanes indicated the proximity of the oasis; to the south, illumined by wan sunlight, the battered remains of Shahr-i-Zohak, the "Red City" destroyed by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century, were clearly visible. Quite suddenly the sun disappeared behind the distant peaks of the Koh-i-Baba Mountains, and the cold evening set in. I checked into a basic mud-and-wattle guest house, warmed by a central, wood-burning stove. Dinner--mutton pilau cooked with nuts and strips of orange peel, washed down with green tea--was simple but good, and sleep, after the road to Bamiyan, came easily.

I awoke to a chill lemon-coloured dawn and wandered outside. There, massive, immediately behind my room, which huddled in the lee of a sharp cliff, stood the great Buddha. Of course I had expected to see it - this was what I came for - but neither so suddenly nor so close. At a height of 53 metres, the larger image was impressive indeed. The smaller image, standing 40 metres high in a niche some little way off, was less well preserved but equally difficult to ignore.

the vale of BamiyanThe Vale of Bamiyan.  Andrew Forbes / CPA


Our earliest records of Bamiyan suggest that the region, which had been controlled by the Bactrian Greeks, passed under the rule of the Kushans, a nomadic people of Central Asia, around 130 BC. The zenith of Kushan power was reached in the 2nd century AD, under the illustrious King Kanishka, whose empire stretched from Central Asia to India. The Kushans were patrons of both art and religion, which came together in the form of Buddhist art known as Gandharan, combining elements of both Greek and Asian traditions.

A major branch of the Silk Road carrying luxury goods and ideas between Rome, India and China passed through Afghanistan, and Bamiyan developed as a centre of religion and philosophy as a consequence. Mani, the founder of the Manichaean religion, is believed to have lived and taught at Bamiyan in the 3rd century AD. At around the same time the smaller and older of the two giant Buddha figures was cut into the cliffs; the larger is thought to have dated from the 5th century.

Around 630 AD the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsüan-tsang passed through Bamiyan. He noted that, at the time of his visit, Bamiyan was a flourishing Buddhist centre 'with more than ten monasteries and more than a thousand monks', whilst both Buddha figures were 'decorated with gold and fine jewels'.

Islam first came to Bamiyan with the conquest of the valley by Ya'qub ibn Leys in 871. Subsequently Muslim iconoclasts painstakingly cut the eyes and nose off the large Buddha image, but left the figure standing. An Afghan source comments tersely: 'the face was scratched by Amir Abd-ur-Rahman on Islamic considerations'. Subsequently, in the 17th century, the Persian ruler Nadir Shah is said to have 'broken the legs' of the larger Buddha, though this is less clear--the right leg, slightly bent at the knee, remains intact, whilst the left appears to have sheared away naturally at the hip.

Four centuries after the Islamic conquest, in 1221, a terrible disaster befell Bamiyan when it was conquered by Genghis Khan. The great Mongol, never pleased when faced with resistance, fell into a rage when his grandson, Mutugen, was killed in the attack. Genghis ordered Bamiyan to be utterly destroyed, and all the defenders killed. The ruins of the citadel, and the crumbling remains of the old city, are still clearly, eerily, visible from modern Bamiyan. Genghis caused no further damage to the Buddha images, however, which survived both his passing and the return of Islamic authority to the valley--the only major relics of Buddhism in ancient Afghanistan to have survived, at least until last week.

Damage to face and left leg aside, the great Buddha was in reasonable shape when I last saw it. In its prime the figure was partly clad in crumbling stucco, and cords were draped down the body to simulate the folds and drapes of the robe. Although once brightly painted, time rather than religious vandalism had caused most of the outer coat to fall away, leaving rows of holes which once held wooden pegs to stabilise the stucco, causing the figure to look something like a Gruyère cheese. Reports from Bamiyan suggest that these very holes were packed with dynamite by Taliban during their demolition. Certainly the 1500 year old images proved resilient, causing Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal to lament that "this work of destruction is not as easy as people might think; you can't knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain". Sadly, this is no longer the case, as pictures of the destruction have since confirmed.

When I last left Bamiyan, as my truck groaned and rocked up the road out of the valley, I kept my eyes fixed on the great images until we crested the first hill and they disappeared from sight. Despite the passage of centuries, the Bamiyan Buddhas undoubtedly had a numinous power to awe the visitor and conjure up images of Buddhism's glorious Afghan past.

In retrospect it may have been this very quality which condemned them in the eyes of Mullah Omar. Islam proscribes the worship of images, but it does not stipulate their destruction if nobody is actively engaged in worshipping them - and Buddhists are notably thin on the ground in present-day Afghanistan. Rather it seems probable that the notoriously provincial leaders of Taliban were filled with horror when confronted by evidence of their own pre-Islamic past. The most obvious and impressive evidence of this past was to be found at Bamiyan, and it was the uncomfortable knowledge of this past, as much as the images themselves, that Taliban has now sought to obliterate with sledgehammers, rockets and high explosives.

The Bamiyan Buddhas survived for sixteen centuries in the remote fastness of the Afghan Hindu Kush. Neither the ravages of time, nor the conquering armies of Islam--not even the scourge of Genghis Khan--had laid them low. By any standards, these towering images formed part of the common cultural heritage of mankind. Viewed in this context their recent destruction by Taliban is truly a mindless crime, both against antiquity and humanity.


Reprinted with the kind permission of Andrew Forbes.  Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.  Pictures courtesy of Pictures From History.  Andrew graduated in Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds and has an MA in Islamic Studies and a Ph.D in Central Asian History. He is also a Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford and a writer for CPA Media.

This article was originally published in the Asian Wall Street Journal.

Tags: Afghanistan, Ancient History, Buddha Statue, Buddhism, Central Asia


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