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Buddhas of Bamiyan: A Crime Against Culture

Published on 1 October 2002

Author(s): The New Courier #1 October 2002

Type:  News

The Buddhas continued to survive invasions, for another thousand years. They could not, however, survive the Taliban, which last March, reduced them to a pile of rubble. The question of whether to reconstruct the destroyed giant Buddhas of Bamiyan is very controversial.

The Valley of Bamiyan lies at the heart of the Hindu Kush Mountains about 150 miles northwest of Kabul. During the early centuries of our era endless caravans of luxury-laden camels plodded along the Silk Road, passing through the valley. Later, Buddhist monks joined these caravans and a great religious center burgeoned in Bamiyan. About 400 AD the pilgrim Fa Hsien came to Bamiyan from China, and described a sumptuous assembly attended by such large numbers of monks that they came, it seemed, «as if in clouds.» The great wonders at Bamiyan were two monumental Buddhas carved into the face of the sandstone cliff dominating the town from the north. The eldest of these two statues, was 38 meters tall. The other measured 55 meters. Around and between them a maze of cells and sanctuaries were painstakingly cut out, their ceilings and walls smoothed over with mud-and-straw plaster and then painted with inspirational scenes. The Buddhas were probably executed during the 3rd to 4th centuries; the murals mainly during the 7th.

The encounter between Buddhism and Islam did not result in the immediate decline of the monastries of Bamiyan. Although the local ruler embraced Islam during the late 8th century, Buddhism and Islam existed side by side for at least another hundred years. By the 9th century, however, Buddhism had faded from the valley, to be replaced by Islam. The Buddhas continued to survive invasions, for another thousand years. They could not, however, survive the Taliban, which last March, reduced them to a pile of rubble. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said it was abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties that were the heritage, not only of the Afghan people, but the whole world. “The Buddhas of Bamiyan were not inscribed on the World Heritage List but deserved to be and their destruction represents a true cultural crime. The loss is irrevesible.”

The question of whether to reconstruct the destroyed giant Buddhas of Bamiyan is very controversial. However, all involved are agreed that the cliffs of Bamiyan and the 600 caves and remains of the mural paintings with which they are decorated, should be protected and restored. UNESCO proposes to shore up the cliffs at Bamiyan, conserve in situ the remains of the statues, and make archeological test probes to find new caves. A small museum will also be created and new excavations undertaken to try and locate a giant reclining Buddha several hundred meters long said to be buried somewhere in the Bamiyan Valley. The $700,000 project will be financed by Japan through their Funds-in-Trust at UNESCO.

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