On 26 February 2001, the leader of the Afghan Taleban movement, Mullah Muhammad Omar, ordered from his headquarters in Kandahar that “all statues and non-Islamic shrines in the different areas of the Islamic Emirate must be broken” because they were worshipped by people of non-Islamic religious beliefs and were therefore ‘idols.’ This kind of worship, he added, had to be prevented from happening in the future. (The full text of his edict was never published, but was widely reported.) The destruction covered the two famous Buddha statues at Bamian. Preparations for their demolition started today 14 years ago, on 1 March 2001. This act of cultural vandalism was met with shock not only in the international community but also among Afghans – although most of them were unable to articulate it openly. Attempts to rescue the statues failed and their destruction led to the further isolation of the regime. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark look back, based on their contemporary reporting.
The decision had been taken, Taleban radio Voice of Sharia reported, after “consultations with the religious leaders” of the Emirate, as a result of a “religious judgment” of the ulema and the regime’s Supreme Court. According to Taleban sources at the time, Minister of Culture Qudratullah Jamal – who was considered a hardliner among the Taleban – had personally asked the ulema for a decision on how to deal with the ‘idols’ which the ‘Islamic Emirate’ had, till then, protected as part of the cultural heritage of the country – also per en edict by Mullah Omar. In 1998, he had prevented the Taleban commander who took Bamian from destroying the statues. The Taleban had till then tried to compare themselves favourably to the mujahedin who had looted all that could be carried away from the Kabul museum during the civil war.
Before the destruction: one Bamian Buddha with his face already blackened by the Taleban. Photo: SPACH.
In 2000, the president of the Museum told AAN colleague Kate Clark (then the BBC correspondent and the only western journalist based in Kabul) that idols were safe in the Emirate, so long as no-one worshipped them: “It’s nothing to do with ideology. It’s about the culture and history of the country and how the country has been defined by them.” In Bamian, the Taleban regime had even put guards in front of the Buddha statues, organised access for tourists, including selling tickets, while preventing any photos from being taken. It is still not clear what made them change their minds.
On 12 February 2001, Clark had broken the story of how the Taleban had secretly smashed statues in Kabul’s National Museum. Jalal denied the story, but refused to allow journalists or diplomats to enter the museum. Concern grew that the Taleban would destroy the colossal statues of the Buddhas at Bamian. Then, on 1 March he said all available forces had been moved five hours previously to carry out the fatwa of the Afghan ulema. Apart from Bamian and the National Museum in Kabul, he explicitly mentioned Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni and Jalalabad. (In Ghazni, less reported, another important Buddha statue, at Tapa-ye Sardar, was destroyed.)
Not much left: The Buddhist stupa at Tapa-ye Sardar in Ghazni, 2005. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.
The Taleban’s fatwa caused a worldwide wave of horror and protest. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan got involved. In Paris, Zmaryalai Tarzi – Afghanistan’s chief archaeologist in the 1970s – demanded: “We urgently have to alert world opinion against this unacceptable decision.” Former Afghan king Muhammad Zaher Shah in Rome denounced the fatwa in one of his rare press statements as directed “against the national and historic interests of the Afghan people.”
On 1 March, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched his Personal Representative, Francesc Vendrell, to Kabul. Vendrell, however, did not get any assurances from Taleban foreign minister Ahmad Wakil Mutawakel that the artefacts would be spared. The fact that Jalal announced the implementation of the destruction exactly while Vendrell and Mutawakel were holding negotiations showed that the Taleban gave little importance to the anyone else’s opinion. They said their attempts to maintain a normal relationship with the outside world had been the only reason that the non-Islamic statues had been kept thus far; with the new UN sanctions adopted in late January this reason was no longer valid.
Apart from the ulema, Afghans inside the country were not consulted about the affair (but nor were they about anything). While the Taleban claimed dismissively that their decision had only been rejected “by some intellectuals and artists,” conversations in Afghanistan painted a totally different picture: the author and all his interlocutors had not met a single Afghan who was in favour of the destruction or even indifferent. Indeed, the destruction made their spirits sink: the destruction of important historical monuments destroyed their hope that the Taleban might be ready for political moderation.
Clark also reported that it was difficult to find an Afghan who agreed with the Taleban’s destruction of the two ancient statues. Then, (now President) Ashraf Ghani, in an interview with the BBC Pashto Service on the fatwa, described the Taleban as “jahil” (ignorant, in the way humanity was before the coming of Islam). Mullah Omar ordered Clark’s expulsion from the country. After her expulsion, she said:
The destruction of the statues has felt like an attempt to wipe out history. And for a country that has seen so much destruction, this deliberate demolition of something ancient and irreplaceable felt obscene.
Jalal had already reported that tanks and rocket launchers were being put to use against the two giant Buddha statues. When this did not work, holes were drilled into the statues, filled with explosives and the two statues blown into pieces. TV footage of the explosions broadcast on al-Jazeera on 19 March 2001 confirmed the destruction of the two colossi.
Also destroyed: The third, smaller Buddha statue in Bamian, 2004. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.
According to the Vienna-based Afghanistan expert, Professor Max Klimburg, the two monumental Bamian statues from the 3rd and 5th centuries, 55 and 38 metres high, embodied the Buddha Dipankara, the ‘Buddha of the Previous Era’, and the Buddha Shakyamuni, the ‘historical’, ie of the (then) current era. An Iranian traveller from the 11th century called them the Surkh But (Red Buddha) and Khing (or Khonuk) But (Moon-White or Cold Buddha). In medieval Persian and Turkish sagas, as well as in Bamian itself, the two statues were referred to as Salsal (“the light of the universe”) and Shamana (or Sha(h)mama, “the king’s mother”).(1) and considered as among the wonders of the world for centuries – although on 8 March 2001, The Economist claimed that “almost no one” had heard anything about the “two stone statues until ten days ago.”
As French journalist Frédéric Bobin reported in a recent Guardian article, the meaning of the two statues changed further in local legends. Local people had forgotten they were figures of the Buddha and made them into “an allegory for unhappy love, a foreshadow of Romeo and Juliet set in the Hindu Kush. Salsal, prince of Bamiyan, Shamana, a princess from another kingdom. Their love affair was impossible so, rather than live apart, they turned into stone, beside each other for all eternity.” Bobin also describes the recently invigorated debate whether the two statues could be reconstructed, although experts have repeatedly said that putting the rubble back together would be impossible. The Taleban’s work of destruction cannot be undone.
(1) See for example here, in an Afghan source, and in Oxford professor for classics, Llewelyn Morgan’s authoritative 2012 book The Buddhas of Bamiyan: The Wonders of the World.
Earlier AAN dispatches about the Bamian Buddhas you can read:
“The Destruction of the Bamian Buddhas” (1) and (2) by Thomas Ruttig (28 February 2011) here and here
“Why the Buddhas of Bamian were destroyed”, a guest dispatch by Michael Semple (2 March 2011)
“Museums and Massacres”, by Kate Clark (21 March 2011)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020