Context & Culture

The Destruction of the Bamian Buddhas (1)


Together with the systematic exclusion of women from almost all spheres of social life, public executions in stadiums and massacres of minority groups that had resisted their takeover of certain parts of the country, it was the iconoclastic destruction of the two ancient Buddhist statues in early March 2001 which shaped the world’s image of the Afghan Taleban. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig remembers the days – and the statues themselves, damaged but still not destroyed.

This is one of the moments in my life I will never forget: On 19 March 2001, I was just coming home for a short leave from Afghanistan where I worked with the UN. It was exactly 8 pm and I switched on the TV for the main evening news. When the screen lit up, a big blast hit me in the face – one of the Bamian buddhas that had been blown into pieces by the Taleban. I also still remember the armed people hanging around shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

At that point, it already had been reported that the two big Bamian buddhas had been blown up earlier that month – and also, what was less reported, a smaller one in the Ahangaran valley, a side-valley of the main valley of Bamian, and a reclining one in Ghazni). The Taleban themselves had made this known to the unbelieving world.

Hectic diplomatic activity commenced, and some of the biggest museums in the world offered to dismantle the statues and take them into their temporary custody instead – which enraged the Taleban even more. They claimed that the world was more interested in ‘stones’ than in Afghanistan’s starving people – which was not exactly correct since it were UN agencies and NGOs which gave some basic aid to Afghans while the Taleban’s major policy line was: God will take care of this.

The Buddha affair went on for some days and was really confusing. The decision to destroy ‘all the statues’ had already been publicised on the Taleban’s Radio Sharia on 1 Hut 1421 (26 February 2001), ten years and two days ago. But then reports came in saying that the Taleban were not able to destroy the statues. Then more powerful explosives were brought in… But when it was finally shown on TV – al-Jazeera had the doubtful privilege to get exclusive access to the site – it was really a shock again.

I had been to Bamian just a few months earlier, in June 2000. The two giant buddhas were still there. The face of the larger one was blackened because Taleban had burnt tyres on the rim formed by the statue’s chin. The soot marks made it look as if it stared sadly into the valley. At that point of time, the Taleban had banned any visitors from going to the statues or taking photos of them, of course. But there was a famous and well-frequented NGO office, with a toilet strangely enough built on a small hill on its compound from which – through a small ventilation window – one still could take good snapshots of both statues.

Another few months earlier, in winter 1999 when I went there from Kabul, still working as a journalist, the statues were still accessible. One was even welcome to look at them and to take pictures when no one was around. Mulla Omar had earlier issued an edict calling the buddhas part of Afghanistan’s heritage and ordering them to be protected. As a result, three local Hazaras – and old man and two boys – were guarding them, sitting on a wooden platform at the bottom of the larger statue with their AK-47s, playing tour guides for the few foreigners to visit. Those days, Ustad Akbari’s Hezb-e Wahdat faction had joined the Taleban, in his words to give the local population as much protection as possible – which, he said, was still more than it would be if he had decided to fight them (as his Hezb-e Wahdat rival Ustad Khalili did who today is one of Afghanistan’s vice presidents) – and who was sitting behind the mountains in Yakaolang, helplessly watching how the statues were devastated.

What really caused the Taleban’s change of mind – from protection to destruction – will be difficult to find out. There is the secretiveness of the Taleban leadership about their way to take decisions already then and there are question marks about which role foreigners played. Did iconoclastic Arabs from al-Qaeda convince Mulla Omar to give the green light for this act of cultural barbarianism? Did Punjabis and Kashmiris perpetrate it, not Afghans, as some Taleban claimed later? Which role did the ‘non-governmental’ Pakistani advisors with the Taleban – who were everything but without influence – play in all this? Today, the Taleban insurgents are even less accessible and narratives will have evolved anyway, mixed with all kinds of myths and excuses, further away from what really happened.

But maybe, the announcement of the planned destruction might give a hint (in my contemporary translation from Pashto to English, source Hewaddaily, Kabul, 3 Hut 1421 / 28 February 2001) (*):

‘Based on consulting religious leaders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the religious ulema’s and the IEA Supreme Court’s judgment, all the statues in the different parts of the country must be broken because these statues have remained as shrines for infidels and they are worshipping these statues and still the statues are being respected [by them] and probably they will be changed to shrines again, while God Almighty is the real shrine and all the false shrines must be smashed. Therefore, the authorities of the IEA have given the duty to the ministries for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice as well as information and culture to destroy all the statues in order to implement the judgments of the ulema and the supreme court. All the statues must be annihilated so that no one worships or respects them in the future.’

Indeed, during my visit in winter 1999 a foreign couple had shown up to visit Bamian and one of the two had reportedly lightened some incense in front of the buddhas. Of course, this rather innocent gesture – if it happened at all – would not excuse the Taleban’s barbarian act at all but it could have undermined the argument that had been used to save the statues during the previous negotiations that they were no ‘idols’ but ‘just’ cultural heritage.

In the following blog on the Bamian Buddha destruction, read a translation of an article I wrote after the edict became known, in Berlin’s tageszeitung, today exactly ten years ago, under the headline ‘Kulturalarm in Afghanistan’ (Cultural Alarm in Afghanistan).
(*) The original edict was never published in full by the Taleban.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture