Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Bamyan, First Ever Cultural Capital of South Asia: A big party, but what else?

Qayoom Suroush 9 min

Five months late and almost half-way through its crucial year, Bamyan has finally been inaugurated as the 2015 South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) cultural capital, the organisation’s first ever. Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, Second Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqeq and Minister of Information and Culture Bari Jahani were among the guests who also included a handful of officials from SAARC countries (mainly staff from Kabul embassies), some Afghan artists and local people. AAN’s Qayoom Suroush reports that the ceremony itself which, according to the advisor on SAARC to the former governor, cost some four hundred thousand dollars, appears to have been the main achievement. He looks at how lack of government interest, lack of a budget and lack of security in the wider region has meant that, for Bamyan, getting cultural capital status has, so far, been a near profitless enterprise.

Bamyan from above: the view out of the head of one of the buddhas. Photo: Christine Roehrs

A few days before the opening ceremony, there was nothing to suggest Bamyan was soon to be SAARC’s first ever capital of culture. Many in the bazar did not know what SAARC meant or when the celebration was to be. Then, on Thursday 4 June, the day before the inauguration, official guests began arriving – several dozen – by plane, mainly from Kabul. On the day itself, thousands of people gathered in Bamyan city park for the inauguration, fewer, locals said, than the annual Silk Road Festival. Later on the same day, there was a small official gathering in the new, fancy Gholghola Hotel (owned by Abdul Karim Khalili’s family, former Second Vice President and the most powerful former mujahedin commander in the province). Sarwar Danesh, the current Second Vice President who is from Khalili’s party said, “destroying the Buddha statues was the worst and bitterest cultural crime of the Taleban.” He also said Bamyan has received less development aid than other provinces and more balance was needed. In the evening, there was a music event at Gholghola city.

The point of having a city of culture?

Naming a city as ‘cultural capital’ has been a common practice since the 1970s, carried out by organisations like the UNESCO (United Nation Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations), ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and, jointly, the European Commission and the European Parliament: it is a way of highlighting a city’s attractions, inspiring art, attracting additional investment from governments or private business and drumming up the tourist trade.

Bamyan is Afghanistan’s second ever ‘cultural capital’, following Ghazni becoming city IESCO’s Islamic Cultural Capital for 2013 (read AAN Report here). It was the Afghan government, through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Information and Culture, which put the bid in for Bamyan to be the SAARC capital of culture 2015. On 21 June 2014, a SAARC delegation announced the city had won the bid and the inaugural ceremony would be held in January 2015 to launch the start of its year as cultural capital. The delegation agreed that around eight events would be conducted throughout the year, including a photo and painting exhibition, seminars, traditional music recitals, art and craft workshops, a handicrafts bazar, a film festival, a food show, a literary festival and, in December 2015, a valedictory ceremony. Most of the programme was to be managed and financed by the Afghan government. Additionally, according to an official report from the SAARC secretariat, a copy of which AAN has seen, SAARC agreed to organise some events which officials or artists from other SAARC member states would participate in, such as an artists camp, a South Asian food festival, South Asian music festival and South Asian handicraft exhibition, as well as some Afghan-only events, including a film festival, the launch of a ‘cultural anthem’ for Bamyan and the release of commemorative stamps or coins.

The Afghan government’s plans for preparing Bamyan to be SAARC’s first cultural capital were ambitious. In early November 2014, the cabinet decided to carry out around 40 development projects for Bamyan by the start of 2015, with almost every Afghan ministry responsible for two or three projects. For example, the Ministry of Public Health promised to promote the provincial Bamyan hospital into a regional hospital by expanding hospital facilities and increasing the number of staff in order to provide more diverse services; the Ministry of Higher Education promised to add medical and fine art faculties to Bamyan University; and the Ministry of Counter Narcotics – why it chose to do this is not clear – (and later, the project was handed on to the Bamyan governor’s office with the help of Indian Embassy in Kabul) said it would build two symbolic gates to mark the city’s new status.

Bamyan’s suitability as a cultural capital might seem obvious. It is the site of the two massive Buddha statues (build in third and fifth centuries) which were destroyed by the Taleban in 2001; although smashed (see AAN dispatch here), the site is still breath-taking and archeologically significant. Then there are the still impressive remains of Shahr-e Gholghola, (the City of Sighs) which was built in the sixth century and destroyed by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth, and another pre-Islamic city, Shahr-e Zohak, built on the top of crimson rock sediments, with walls, towers and ramparts in the same colour. It is situated at a strategic point to the east of Bamyan where the two main roads leading into the valley meet, one from the south, through the Kalu gorge, and the other from the east, over the Shibar pass. (For more on Bamyan province’s cultural heritage and AAN tips on the sights – many of them off the beaten trail – to see, take a look here). In a peaceful country, these remains and the beautiful landscape of the Bamyan valley would attract many tourists – as it did before the war. However, other than the archaeology and potential tourist appeal of Bamyan, it is not clear what new and innovative culture – art, music or literature – it is producing now.

Delays and disappointments

In autumn 2014, it became clear Bamyan would not be ready for the planned inauguration ceremony in January. A ministerial meeting of SAARC in September 2014 announced that the ceremony would be delayed until April 2015. Later, because there had been no budget allocation, the inauguration was further postponed, until June, almost half-way into the city’s year of being ‘cultural capital’.

Moreover, none of the 40 or so promised development projects have been implemented. A few of them are very important. For example, the Afghan government had promised that the Ministry of Public Works would carry out, before the inauguration ceremony, a cobbling of the road in front of the Buddha niches; a separate asphalted road is planned for further away from the protected area, but, for now, the cobbling would be a temporary solution for a major problem. The large trucks which now thunder past the cliff, still a precious archaeological and tourist site, cause underground vibrations which are widening the shearing of rocks in the cliff. On a recent trip by this author, a guide pointed out a rift in the cliff which he said had widened recently; chunks of the cliff, he said, were at risk of falling off. Previously, tourists had been allowed to climb both sides of the smaller Buddha niche up to the level of where its head used to be. Now, however, due to the danger of falling rocks, the eastern steps have been blocked off. The road is an urgent project, but like all the other promised projects, has not been carried out. (It is worth noting that Bamyan cultural heritage is still on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites in danger because of the ongoing war in the country and the government’s neglect of the site. (1))

Bad timing and lack of interest

One wonders why the Afghan government asked for Bamyan to be a cultural capital and then did almost nothing to ensure the project was a success. One wonders especially why the Karzai government and SAARC representatives had the confidence to make any plans in June 2014 during the acrimonious and disputed presidential elections, as well, obviously, as during an on-going war. The fact that none of those 40 development projects were actually implemented can be blamed partly on the protracted electoral crisis itself – which meant not much governing happened for many months – and partly, on falling state revenues and budgets. However, there has also been a basic lack of interest in the programme. Bamyan’s recently ex-governor, Ghulam Ali Wahdat, admitted to AAN that, despite the government’s ambitious plans, nothing fundamental had been done for Bamyan.

He told AAN they had asked for a four and half million dollar budget to prepare Bamyan to be the cultural capital, but in the end, had received “only” 400,000 dollars for the whole programme (development projects, ceremony, everything). Wahdat said paying for the programme out of the province’s own budget would have been impossible as, he said, it was too small. He blamed the Ministry of Finance for creating problems for the organisers; what he called “this small amount of money” had only been paid over a month ago. “President Karzai approved the budget for Bamyan,” complained Wahdat, “but the Ministry of Finance asked for fresh approval from the new president and only when we had gained President Ghani’s approval, did it pay us the funds.”

Further evidence that the government was not thinking about Bamyan and its cultural ambitions came in the decision to appoint a new governor (on 20 May) just before the celebrations were due to start. Moreover, while ex-governor Ghulam Ali Wahdat had left the province before the ceremonies started, new governor Tahir Zuhair had yet to be introduced. Not everyone was happy with the appointment, including the province’s four MPs, one of whom took the opportunity the SAARC ceremonies afforded to complain publically. (2)

Insecure roads and small airport

However, there was a more fundamental and obvious flaw in the whole SAARC project – the war. Afghan officials told AAN the main goal of getting the cultural capital status was to attract tourists from South Asian countries to Bamyan and boost the economy of the province. However, tourists need to be able to get to the city. Both main roads, one through Ghorband valley from Parwan province and the other through Hajigak from Wardak province, though, are insecure and insurgents have made the road treacherous for years for those working with government or NGOs. The Afghan security officials installed different security check-posts on the Ghorband road, as a part of SAARC ceremony preparations, but it is not clear if they will remain after the event. In other words, they were a stop-gap measure for the ceremony, but will have no lasting ramifications on security in the province or the ability of Bamyan to attract tourists.

SAARC and Bamyan officials had also asked the Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authorities to prepare direct international flights to the city, but this was always going to be impractical. Bamyan airport is small and only small aircraft can fly in and out. At present only two private Afghan airline companies fly to Bamyan (a Kabul-Bamyan return ticket costs 10,000 Afghani or 170 US dollars per person).

In other words the hope of attracting an influx of South Asian tourists, following on from the cultural capital status, was doomed by regional insecurity from the start.

Mugs, T-shirts and flags

After months of inactivity, the celebrations went ahead anyway. The SAARC legal framework says the overall goal of the programme is “to establish Bamyan as ‘cultural capital’ and fine example of good cooperation in the SAARC-Region” (sic). However, the only tangible outcome of the SAARC cultural capital status for locals so far has been hundreds of memorial mugs and T-shirts with the SAARC logo and some flags for them to wave at the guests. Former Bamyan governor Wahdat admitted to AAN, “We failed to achieve what we planned.”

Stronger words came from Alfred Horn, head of the NGO HELP and a senior adviser on SAARC Affairs to the Bamyan governor. He told the weekly newspaper Sada-ye Shahrwand (Voice of the Citizens), on 20 May 2015, well ahead of the event that, “After five days of inauguration ceremonies, there will not remain a single Afghani for Bamyan people, only some chairs and containers. Nothing will have been done for Bamyan or the employment for jobless people. Local people’s only official role is to wave flags at the ceremony.” Horn said in May that all of the allocated budget – 24,538,000 Afghani or approximately 400,000 dollars ­– would be spent solely on the inauguration ceremony. Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor (both current and previous), denied this, saying the government did have money for two or three events (he gave no details). However, Hamidullah Arefi, the SAARC focal point in Kabul, said the 400,000 dollars was only for the opening ceremony and had all been spent. One civil society activist told AAN the SAARC project had amounted to “just one big party for officials.”


(1) Unrelated to Bamyan’s status of city of culture, UNESCO has chosen the design for the Bamyan Cultural Centre and plans to start building the facilities next year. This centre will function as a museum and a training centre for Bamyan and the surrounding region.

(2) All four of Bamyan Members of Parliament, Abdul Rahman Shaidani, Fakuri Beheshti, Muhammad Akbari and Safura Elkhani, have protested against Zuhair’s appointment and predicted – or claimed – that, with him as governor, insecurity would increase in the province (here and here).

Tahir Zuhair is a member of Khalili’s post-2001 split faction of Hezb-e Wahdat to which current Vice President Sarwar Danesh also belongs and which supported Ghani during the elections. Zuhair was an active spokesman for Ashraf Ghani during the presidential election. Sources inside the Ghani team have told AAN that, per an agreement between Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, the Bamyan governor would be ‘selected’ by Khalili, while the other Hazara-majority province, Daikundi, would get a governor ‘chosen’ by Abdullah’s second deputy, Muhammad Mohaqeq. Such a division of power has upset some other former Shia mujahedin parties active in Bamyan who believe they have been neglected by Ghani and Abdullah. None of the province’s four MPs belong currently to either Mohaqeq or Khalili’s factions. MP Muhammad Akbari (an old adversary of the two main Hazara strongmen, former Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili and Abdullah’s second deputy, Muhammad Mohaqeq) addressed people in the SAARC inauguration ceremony, saying the people of Bamyan would accept anyone but Zuhair. MP Safura Elkhani told AAN their protest was not because Zuhair was not a native of the province, but because of his past experience in Bamyan. Safura added that when Zuhair was chief of the police division for the province (arkan-e ferqa), he had provoked religious and ethnic tensions (she gave no evidence for this contention and all the individuals concerned, governor and MPs, are Shia Hazaras).

However, Hassan Ranjbar, the head of the Jombesh-e Melli party office in Bamyan, told Pajhwak that, out of 13 active political parties in Bamyan, only three of have protested against Zuhair as governor. Moreover, Bamyan civil society activists who held a press conference on 5 June 2015, said that they had no problem with Zuhair as governor and the MPs did not reflect the whole of local opinion about him.


Afghan government Bamian Bamyan cultural capital cultural heritage SAARC