By Jessica Ziqing Liu
In March 2001, two Buddhist statues, the largest in the world and nearly 1500 years old, were blown up in Afghanistan by a group associated with the Taliban. The niches that housed them were now totally empty.
During a prolonged destructive process, and after having failed with artillery shells and tanks to destroy the statues, the Taliban militants finally recruited some local Afghanis who knew in detail the inside structure of the caves behind the statues’ bodies and directed the vandals to the caves to bomb the statues with dynamite. When another attack happened in the Bamiyan Valley in 2003, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put the Bamiyan Valley on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The destruction is a big loss not only to Afghanis, but to all human beings, since the Bamiyan Valley has a long and rich cultural history that significant to people with different cultural backgrounds.
The importance of its history began 1,500 years ago. It is around 100 miles west of Kabul in Afghanistan. The busy trade because of the Silk Road as well as other routes connecting China and India made the area a cultural and economic crossroads.
In a broader region characterized by religious diversity, Muslims in Afghanistan were a minority but also the ruling class. The ruling Muslims coexisted with Buddhists, Jews and Jains in harmony. There existed then a record of this religious tolerance in the 16th century. An Islamic emperor named Akbar respected non-Islamic faith and established temples for his Hindu citizens, which made people with different beliefs from Islam willing to live under his reign. The cultural and religious diversity contributed to the flourishing of artistic achievements. Since the 6th century, monks have carved dazzling Buddhist statues out of the sandstone to show their respect toward Buddha’s teaching. The two blown up statues were created between the 6th and 7th century and were 180 feet tall. Monks also built cells and shrine shells on the rocks of the mountains and decorated these cells with wall paintings.
The history of religious diversity in the Bamiyan Valley contributed to its artistic importance today. Today the Buddhist statues are important for Buddhists because these statues refer to Buddha’s enlightenment and teaching, which are two important themes in Buddhism. Therefore, the Valley serves as a holy place for Buddhists. There were also images which reflected the unique blending of Islam and Hinduism in the Valley. The statues themselves were created with great skill. They were painted with gold and the craftsmen combined styles from India, Persia and even from far Turkey and Greece, which resulted in designs of broad artistic and cultural reference. For instance, some small statues adopted Hellenistic drapery. This explains why the Valley and its art are an important treasure to many people with different backgrounds.
Sadly, the art in this area continues to be targeted by Taliban terrorists today. In fact, they are not only destroying sites in the Bamiyan Valley. In September 2007, the Taliban also attacked one Buddhist statue near Manglore in the Swat district in Pakistan. The Taliban took control of 90% of Afghanistan in 1996 and put lots of limits on ordinary Afghanis. To strengthen their position, they finally made the decision to attack the Bamiyan Valley in 2001. The Taliban believed that the Buddhist statues encouraged idolatry; God should not be represented according to the laws of the Koran and all fake idols must be destroyed. The Taliban also claimed that they would only destroy things that were harmful to Islam.
According to their reasoning, when money flew into the Bamiyan Valley because of tourism, children around the area were dying of starvation. The statues in the Bamiyan Valley were the harmful source of children’s malnutrition so that they deserved to be destroyed. For a long time the Taliban used different excuses to destroy the statues continuously, so it is unpredictable when they will make another attack. Thus, it is still necessary to be cautious about what they might do to the Bamiyan Valley in the future.
Furthermore, the Taliban is not the only threat. In recent years, some local Afghanistan families have chosen caves as their homes in the Valley. Ramazan is a local Afghanis of modest means. He and his wife Zahra have been dwelling in the cave for eight years. He tried to move out, but he was not able to pay rent elsewhere. Similar to his family, currently there are still around 700 families living inside the caves because these people have no land and cannot afford conventional housing. The government tried to relocate the cave dwellers some years ago, but they failed because there was no running water in the area where they wanted to relocate the people. When families occupied the caves, many original historical sites on the rock were damaged, as, for example, when occupants tried to install windows and doors. There will be more mural paintings damaged in the future if dwellers continue living in the caves. Another threat to antiquities in the Valley is smuggling. Artifacts around Afghanistan have been traded illegally in Pakistan. Some antiquities even flow into western countries like Germany, UK and US through intermediary cities like Dubai and Sharjah.
The damage to the Bamiyan Valley has already raised some international attention. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) began documenting the destruction. It published the “Red List” recording artifacts at risk for smuggling and those already looted. UNESCO attempted to preserve the damaged statues through mitigation in 2004. It used 3D images of the Buddhas to project into their niches. Not only international organizations, but some other countries have also realized the seriousness of antiquities lost in the Bamiyan Valley. Until 2004, Japan and Germany conducted protective actions toward the Bamiyan Buddhas statues. Experts from Japan, Afghan and UNESCO realized that less than 20% of mural paintings could survive over another 22 years, and some niches were in imminent danger of collapse. Because of these calculations, around 2004 they conducted the plan of limiting visitors’ access to the niches and collecting fragments that had already fallen off. Germany even fortified niches in danger of imminent collapse. Since 2004, Bert Praxenthaler, who works for ICOMOS, has been working on anastylois, which is a method that uses a minimal amount of material to put fragments back together. This method has been used on the Parthenon and the Acropolis in Athens, and he has been researching how to use this method on the damaged Buddhist statues. However, there are still existing difficulties. A chief problem is the financial support. In 2011 UNESCO was against the rebuilding of the statues, since reconstructing a small Buddha costs millions of dollars, and it would be an even larger expense to rebuild the two giant Buddhas in the Valley. Also, lack of roads and electricity makes it more difficult to rebuild the statues. In this case, the consensus is it is better to focus on what is left. Religious concerns are also involved. Bruno Praxenthaler working at ICOMOS raised the problem that “Here the Muslims strictly oppose images–to recreate the Buddhas would be an insult even to non-Taliban Afghans.” Any project that aims to rebuild the Buddhist statues would have to take into consideration the religious and social customs of the Valley’s inhabitants. Some local non-Taliban Muslims maybe agree to restore the statues so that there will be more income from tourism. However, it is necessary to consider how to be less offensive to those non-Taliban Muslims who are against idolatry. The problem also concerns the Afghanistan government. It is a question whether the government will continue to allow these dwellers to live in the caves and damage the mural paintings. For the problem, international efforts are not enough, since it is an Afghan domestic issue and government plays an essential role in solving this problem.
Stein, Gil J. “The War-Ravaged Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan: An Overview of Projects of Assessment, Mitigation, and Preservation.” Near Eastern Archaeology Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in the middle East 78 (2015): n. pag. Web. 16 Nov 2015.