A coincidence has prompted me to write about the giant buddhas at Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. First, while looking for something else, I came across the ticket shown above, hidden away in a drawer. It is my entrance ticket to the buddhas that I purchased during a visit in early March 1975. I still remember very well sitting on the head of the largest buddha and looking out over the green Bamiyan Valley 150 feet below. At that time the only accommodation was in a chai khana where I stayed for several nights.
My recollection is that I was on one of the first vehicles to get through to Bamiyan after the winter snows. Two men perched on the back of the lorry as we travelled from Kabul, holding huge wooden wedges over their shoulders which were placed under the back wheels as we negotiated the numerous steep slopes on the road. The wedges stopped the vehicle rolling back down the slopes, still covered in snow and ice.
Then a couple of nights ago I was reading Eastern Oddysey by Georges Le Fevre, published by Victor Gollancz in 1935. This account of a French expedition in tracked Citroen vehicles from Paris to Beijing, includes a brief mention of a visit to Bamiyan in May 1931. Amongst the expedition members was Joseph Hackin, curator of the Guimet Museum in Paris who was particularly interested in the buddhist sites along the route taken by the expedition. The Guimet Museum today has one of the greatest collections of buddhist art in the world.
Le Fevre revealed that the Taliban were not the first to attempt to destroy the buddhas. The legs of the larger one were used by Nadir Shah and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as artillery targets, while in order to destroy the mural paintings they had coated them in tar and set fire to them. Le Fevre was clearly deeply moved by what remained:
"Such was Bamiyan, where the Expedition arrived after two and a half months of travel - a sort of cross-roads in the history of humanity, where formerly Greece, India and Sassandid Persia met.
"There, to the creative impulse which Rome had given to the world, the Orient had added the expression of its own philosophy - of contemplation and dreams of the Infinite. For us, so recently from the West, who so far had seen only the Islamised face of the East, the pilgrimage to this silent valley in the fastness of the Hindu Kush was not in vain, for it gave us the occasion for contemplation and meditation on the symbol of FAITH and LOVE (author's emphasis) deposited there by Time, the last and living traces of three past and gone civilisations."
Hackin pointed out to the others how the treatment of the wavy hair and the monastic cloak draped over the shoulders of the buddha was very much in the Greek style. The cave paintings, executed three centuries after the figures were carved, had borrowed from the Sassanid civilisation of Iran, he said. New rulers were in charge by then, nomads from central Asia who imposed new conventions in decorative art - floating ribbons, jewelled ornamentation, vases and diadems.
He noted that the family groups of princely figures of either side of the main buddha wore Sassanian headdresses crowned with globes and crescents and the buddhas were in full dress. Another ceiling decorated with medallions engraved with boars' heads was similar to decoration on the robes of one of the Persian emperors on the frescoes at Tak-i-Bostan near Kermanshah.
And so it was for around 1400 years - the statues were built at around the time that Islam came into existence. Until on a whim the Taliban decided to destroy the buddhas.
There has never been a full account of how the decision was taken to destroy the buddhas. It is known that in 1999 the Taliban leader mullah Omar issued a decree in favour of their preservation. That, of course, suggests there were already moves afoot to destroy them. His argument was that the statues would bring substantial tourist revenue into the country.
Over the next two years the argument continued and in the end it was Mowlawi Mohammad Islam Mohammadi, the Taliban governor of Bamiyan, who organised the destruction. Allegedly the decision was taken after a foreign aid group asked to restore the face of one of the buddhas. Personally I find this hard to believe. It is very clear today that this was an act aimed primarily at the Hazara people of the region, who were hated by the Taliban mainly because they were Shias. The Taliban had already carried out several massacres of Hazaras, both in Mazar-i-Sharif and in the Bamiyan Valley. Mohammadi, who was later elected to the Afghan Parliament, was assassinated in Kabul in January 2007.
Will the buddhas be rebuilt? Personally I very much doubt it. A much better case can be made for a campaign to preserve the remaining Gandharan sites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of which have been pillaged and looted in recent years. This wanton destruction has nothing to do with Islam and more to do with greed and revenge.
At the same time, we should remember that the destruction of the buddhas was a crime against humanity. All of us suffered this loss. One day, perhaps, those responsible will face justice for their barbarism.