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The Buddha Statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan

In 2001, The Taliban Demolished 1,500 Years of History and Art


Bamiyan, Afghanistan
Paula Bronstein/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, the novel he wrote after The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini has his hero Laila and her childhood love Tariq visit the magnificent, centuries-old Buddha statues in the valley of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, about 100 miles west of Kabul:
The two Buddhas were enormous, soaring much higher than she had imagined from all the photos she’d seen of them. Chiseled into a sun-bleached rock cliff, they peered down at them, as they had nearly two thousand years before, Laila imagined, at caravans crossing the valley on the Silk Road. On either side of them, along the overhanging niche, the cliff was pocked with myriad caves.

A Fusion of Cultures from China to Greece

The two Buddha — one was 165 feet high, the other 114 feet — were carved into the sandstone face of the mountain at Bamyan, most likely in the seventh century A.D. by Buddhist monks, thousands of whom once lived in the caves and grottoes along the two colossi. (For years the sculptures were dated to the second or third century, until art historian Deborah Klimburg-Salter in 1989 convincingly set the statue’s origin in the seventh century.) With their flowing Greek robes draped in stone over the familiar look of sub-continental Buddhas, the sculptures were a sublime fusion of the Hellenic influence on the region dating back to Alexander the Great’s conquests around 330 B.C. and the South Asian influence that prevailed until the Arab-Muslim conquests of the 9th century.

“The art,” The New York Times Holland Cotter wrote in 2001, “is a compendium of ancient styles, from India, Persia and Gandhara, where Greco-Roman-inspired traditions survived. For years the Buddhas were dated the fifth century and assumed to be prototypes for rock-cut sculpture in China, notably in the caves at Dunhuang.

Afghanistan’s Hazara Minority at Bamiyan

In the 1990s the caves were filled with mostly Shiite refugees fleeing the civil war raging in Kabul and many other places in Afghanistan. The Bamiyan region is predominantly Hazara, an ethnic minority of Shiites, 3 to 4 million of whom have historically stayed autonomous from Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups, especially the Pashtun. Thousands of Hazara were killed by in 1893 by the Pashtun King Abdul Rehman, thousands more reduced to serfdom or outright slavery at Pashtun hands.

Beginning in 1994, the Hazara’s new enemies were the Taliban, whose perverse version of Sunni Islam doesn’t recognize Shiites as Muslims; worse: the Taliban resented the relative freedoms that Shiite Hazaras afforded women, who took part in the Bamiyan Valley’s politics, its militias and social enterprises. The Taliban’s enmity toward the Hazara of Bamiyan was immediately brutal.

The Taliban vs. the Statues

In 1998, a Taliban commander fired grenades at the smaller statue, knocking off its upper half. The Taliban bombed the mountain above the statues frequently, cracking the niches that held the statues and damaging the colossi further. By winter 2001, pleas were raining down on the Taliban from around the world to spare the statues. Pleaders included the Buddhist Thai monarchy and Sri Lanka, itself home to a set of giant Buddha statues. “Unesco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a leading Islamic scholar in Cairo were also among those begging the Taliban not to carry out their threat to the Bamiyan statues and other Buddha images in museums across the country,” wrote Barbara Crossette in The New York Times.

To no avail.

On Feb. 26, 2001, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, declared that “these idols have been gods of the infidels” and ordered them destroyed. By early March, the statues were rubble.

A Postscript

In September 2008, archeologists bin Bamiyan unearthed a 62-foot Buddha statue, along with other relics, near the demolished statues. The unearthed statue of the badly damaged Buddha, which was in a sleeping position, was dated to the third century. The 88 other relics included coins and ceramics.

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