Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 29, 2001
Bamiyan residents return to find history a casualty
Where two statues stood, a grim monument to the Taliban.

At War With Terror

Militiamen stand in front of the cavity where one of the ancient giant Buddhas was located before it was destroyed by the Taliban..

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan - It took the Taliban four days in March to destroy two giant Buddhas carved from the cliffs in this spectacular valley - less than 100 hours to wipe out 17 centuries of history.

Now, with the Taliban routed, the returning exiles of Bamiyan are dealing with the damage wrought by war, and by the rule of the Islamic extremists.

"It was very sad to come back here and see the Buddhas were gone," said Karim Khalili, an ethnic Hazara political leader and military commander who was responsible for the Northern Alliance push into the area. "One of the most beautiful things about Bamiyan is no longer here. It has been destroyed."

Two huge, empty niches remain in the face of the tan sandstone wall, a reminder to future generations that something great once stood here. Only dust and a few boulders are left; the Taliban carried most of the debris away.

"It was sad they were destroyed, because it was a historic site and part of the heritage of the people," Khalili said. "It was a cruelty, not only against the people of Afghanistan, but the whole world."

Afghanistan's patrimony - as much as the thousands killed and the millions made homeless - has been a victim of 23 years of war. The Soviets, the mujaheddin and the Taliban have all contributed to the looting of the National Archives and the emptying of the Kabul Museum. Many of the country's archaeological sites have been chiseled away, the artifacts sold in bazaars of neighboring countries.

The Taliban's leaders aren't the first to build new temples on the ruins of old ones. But their contorted interpretation of Islam made them particularly zealous about expunging any traces of previous cultures.

The black-robed mullahs who banned music and frowned on secular pleasure so hated the pilgrimages that fans made to the grave of Ahmed Zaher, a wildly popular singer of love songs who died in 1979, that they planted explosives on his tomb and blew it to bits.

Opposed to any depiction of the human face, they prohibited photography and movies.

And early this year the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar - citing the Koran's injunction against idol worship - ordered the destruction of any and all statues in Afghanistan, calling them "gods of the infidels." It was a death warrant for the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

There once were thousands of carvings of Buddha in the region. The two giant statues were the most remarkable; the smaller one, about 120 feet tall, was carved in the third century, the larger, 175 feet tall, in the fifth.

"People loved them because they were historic things," said Naroz Ali, 25, one of the few residents of the largely deserted town to watch as the giant Buddhas were blasted with a barrage from tanks, mortars and rockets.

The Bamiyan Valley is rich in history. Alexander the Great once marched his army through this cleft high in the mountains on his way to India. There are vestiges here of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Babur, the founder of the Mughals.

At the height of the Roman Empire, Bamiyan was an important way station for caravans on the web of pan-Asian trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road, connecting China with Rome and all points between.

The caravans also carried ideas, Buddhism among them, and Bamiyan became one of the outposts of that Indian-born faith. King Kanishka, whose Buddhist Kushan dynasty stretched from northern India to the Caspian Sea, grew wealthy from trade and constructed the first of the two colossal Buddhas.

Buddhism flourished in Bamiyan, a city built on the floor of a valley today covered by green fields of winter wheat, almond trees, and nearly leafless poplars. Pilgrims and monks came here to worship, carving three tiers of caves into the rocks, painting some with frescoes celebrating the cult of the Buddha.

With the influx of Islam from the Middle East in the seventh century, Buddhism declined, and by the 10th century nearly everyone was Muslim.

Various invaders left their marks on the Bamiyan Buddhas. British soldiers in the 19th century were said to have fired guns at the statues.

In 1998, after bringing Bamiyan under its control, the Taliban presaged last spring's assault by dynamiting the face off the smaller Buddha and firing rockets at it.

Finally, in March - weeks after announcing its plans and repeatedly rejecting international pleas to reconsider - the Taliban sent soldiers to destroy the Buddhas, ordering local residents to stay out of the way.

Mohammed Ali, a farmer who watched from a distant hill, said the barrage was relentless. "The dust was all over the place," he said.

Afterward, the Taliban ordered the townspeople to sacrifice some sheep to mark the occasion; 50 were killed.

"When they finished, they were very happy - they were firing in the air," said Naroz Ali, who had seen the attack from the town bazaar.

The bombardment severely damaged the rock around the statues. The irregular spiral staircases excavated inside the niches have deep cracks and are in danger of collapse; the niches' roofs also are fractured.

Some have suggested rebuilding one or both of the statues, but the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization frowns on reconstruction of destroyed monuments, believing that pieces of the cultural heritage are irreplaceable.

"People here loved the Buddhas," said Abdullah Noori, 27.

Khalili, the local guerrilla commander and leader of the Hezb-i-Wahdat party, said that while his group would guarantee the safe passage of archaeologists to study the damage, the Northern Alliance had many more pressing concerns than rebuilding statues.

So it is likely the Buddhas are gone forever. But their vacant niches will remain, a long-lasting memorial to emptiness, and the Taliban. home page   
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