Obscurity fell upon the valley of shining light

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

Imprinted in our collective memory, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 still needs explanation.

History of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

This story started long before statues were carved on the cliff of a mountain in Afghanistan. It began over 2,300 years ago, when one of the great conquerors of history, Alexander of Macedon brought Greek culture to Afghanistan. A description of the history of the Buddhas and how they would have looked like.

But the quiet beauty of the valley would be shattered by Genghis Khan's attacks. After the massacre mineral silence shrouded the valley, with the exception of the ruins left by Genghis, the 'City of Laments'. Life and memory had vanished from the valley, the giants remained but their meaning got lost.

1,200 years of Muslim coexistence with the Buddhas

A reminder that the Buddhas were part of Afghanistan's Muslim history for 1,200 years, that in 1922 the Afghan government asked France's help for the preservation of its patrimony, leading to archeological digs and restoration all over Afghanistan, including Bamiyan.

The Government of Afghanistan did realise how much Bamiyan was an asset to the country, using the site as a symbol of the country, illustrating Bamiyan on banknotes and stamps, and asked UNESCO to send a team in 1970 to assess Bamiyan.

The Taliban first forbade the destruction of the Buddhas, then reversed the decision

In 1997 the Taliban stated “the Supreme Council has refused the destruction of the sculptures because there is no worship of them”.

Then the protection was emphasised with a 1999 edict “The government further considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban government states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed, but protected”.

Calls from the Muslim world to prevent the destruction, offers to safeguard the statues and global calls to stop the destruction

Mufti Wassel, the highest Sunni Islam authority in the world, said “from a religious viewpoint it is clear - these statues are part of humanity's heritage and do not affect Islam at all. The proof that these statues have no negative impact on Islam is that throughout Islam's history in Afghanistan they were preserved and no Muslim doctrine has suggested their destruction”. Pakistan, Iran, UNESCO, museums, scholars, the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage called to prevent the destruction.

Eleven Muslim scholars, Sharia judges and professors travelled to Afghanistan to try to stop the destruction.

The world community acted almost as one, with a United Nations General Assembly call “on all Afghan parties to protect the cultural and historic relics and monuments of Afghanistan, which are part of the common heritage of mankind”.

Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum offered that “since they find these images objectionable, rather than destroying them, we the Metropolitan, would be prepared to come with experts at our own cost and in collaboration with them take pieces that are obviously portable and preserve them in the Met”.

Several Buddhist nations offered to safeguard the statues. Dismantling and relocating large statues would have been a complex but achievable operation. It had been done before, when the formidable Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel and Philae were disassembled, transported and rebuilt.

It was just a question of time, with so many countries and museums ready to move the statues out of Afghanistan, the finance and organisation would have been put in place. The reader discovers how the destruction was considered urgent even with multiple offers to avoid tragedy.

It is easier to destroy than to build

The Taliban commander declared “The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can't knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain. Our soldiers are working hard to demolish the remaining parts. They will come down soon. It is easier to destroy than to build”.

The operation took two weeks, using 50 tons of explosives to finish off the giants. The destruction was already under way while the international envoys trying to stop it were received. But what can reasonable arguments do when “we do admit all these statues were the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. But we will not leave the part which is contrary to our belief”?

Effects of the destruction

Soon after the destruction, the condemnation from Muslim leaders was nearly unanimous “it is an outrageous act. It should be treated as a crime against humanity. Bamiyan is part of the world's cultural heritage. The destruction of Buddha statues is an act of cultural genocide against humanity”.

A few months after the destruction of the Buddhas, in Doha, Qatar, a conference was organised by UNESCO and the Ulamâ (Islamic religious leaders), the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (representing 57 countries over four continents, the collective voice of the Muslim world), the Islamic Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation, and the Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation discussed solutions.

Their joint declaration was to promote cultural values in education; pursue the dialogue among cultures and civilisations on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance; to underscore the need to respect cultural and religious diversity in dealings with others, and thereby to uphold human rights and enrich human civilisation; and to endeavour to preserve the heritage and to ensure the return of stolen cultural property.

In reality, as few people were even aware of the existence of the Buddhas of Bamiyan before their destruction, obliterating them had the reverse effect than intended.


This is a preview of the chapter about the story of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the numerous attempts to prevent their destruction, from the book Lost Treasures.