Bamiyan valley Afghanistan
The millennia-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan were destroyed under artillery fire in 2001, when Taliban founder Mullah Omar and his followers declared them “un-Islamic” and “idols”. File photo from Twitter shows the site before the destruction.

Visit Afghanistan, pay a fee, and view…nothing, says Taliban

Can a non-existent relic draw foreign tourists and be a source of revenue for an administration? The Taliban regime in Afghanistan appears to believe so.

The millennia-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan had historic and design values and attracted the interest of the world community – till about two decades back. They were destroyed under a barrage of rockets and artillery fire in 2001, when Taliban founder Mullah Omar and his followers declared them “un-Islamic” and “idols”.

The decision drew strong condemnation from across the world, but the Talibs remained undeterred, saying the statues stood for religious belief and that their own religion forbade idol worship. And thus, these were pulled down under a rain of rockets and shelling.

The larger structure was 180 feet tall and the smaller about 125 feet tall. They were dated between the sixth and seventh centuries AD. The statues were carved out of the sandstone cliff. These were ensconced within a depression formed on the face of the cliff with the rear merged into the wall.

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Bamiyan was included among United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Creative Cities Network as a Crafts and Folk Art city in 2017. It is now listed by the body as a World Heritage Site in Danger.

Historic Bamiyan

Bamiyan, around 180 km southwest of Afghan capital Kabul, was the stronghold of the Hazaras, who are predominantly Shias in a Sunni-dominated country. However, the earlier regime of the Tadjik-Uzbek – even Pashtun – leaders usually left them alone and even included them in governance after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989.

Not the Taliban. They stormed the Hazaristan region in central Afghanistan and captured the territory. And soon brought down the structures.

Now, a cash-starved self-proclaimed government has resorted to reaching out to certain tour operators to organise visits to Bamiyan and view – well, an empty cliff face. According to some inputs, foreigners may have to pay equivalent to about $3.50 to visit the area in and around where the statutes once stood and would also need to shell out an extra, similar amount for a guide.

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An interesting summary has been recently shared by an Italian sociologist of religions, Massimo Introvigne, who said that he received an email from an agent about the Taliban opening Afghanistan to European Union tourists. Perhaps aware that he and his wife liked to visit unusual places connected with religion, the agent sought to know if he intended to travel to Bamiyan.

Bamiyan tour?

“The proposal was interesting, but what puzzled me is that a visit was offered to the Buddhas of Bamiyan, if we were willing to pay to the Taliban government the price of a special and not inexpensive ticket,” he wrote in Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China.

“There was only one problem. There are no Buddhas of Bamiyan. Believing them to represent a ‘pagan’ and ‘demonic’ religion offensive to their ultra-fundamentalist idea of Islam, the Taliban smashed the 6th century CE (or AD) giant statues in 2001 with artillery fire and by detonating anti-tank mines,” he noted.

A fee is also charged from visitors to see the Nuremberg propaganda headquarters of the Nazi Party as well as the location of the Khmer Rouge mass graves in Cambodia.

Introvigne considers that as “different”. He argues that in Germany the ticket is not sold by Adolf Hitler nor are Pol Pot supporters collecting a fee in Cambodia. Rather, he contended, there were now governments who keep these sites open to visitors to expose the evil nature of the regimes that perpetrated the crimes.

However, in Bamiyan, “we would pay to the same criminals who destroyed the statues. Some of those who gave the order are part of the government today,” the sociologist summed up.

During the US occupation of Afghanistan, teams from Unesco and the International Council on Monuments and Sites, among others, were painstakingly trying to put the relics back together. Some reports suggested that perhaps half of the fragments could have been recovered. However, the return of the Taliban has made the reconstruction uncertain now.

Unesco’s lament

“UNESCO is closely following the situation on the ground and is committed to exercising all possible efforts to safeguard the invaluable cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Any damage or loss of cultural heritage will only have adverse consequences on the prospects for lasting peace and humanitarian relief for the people of Afghanistan,” the world body said in a statement soon after the Taliban recaptured Kabul on August 15, 2021.

The last US military forces departed Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, leaving it under Taliban rule.

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“Unesco further underlines the need for a safe environment for the ongoing work of the country’s cultural heritage professionals and artists, who play a central role for Afghanistan’s national cohesion and social fabric,” the statement added.

Regarding the site itself, Unesco says: “The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley represent the artistic and religious developments which from the 1st to the 13th centuries characterized ancient Bakhtria, integrating various cultural influences into the Gandhara school of Buddhist art.

“The area contains numerous Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries, as well as fortified edifices from the Islamic period. The site is also testimony to the tragic destruction by the Taliban of the two standing Buddha statues, which shook the world in March 2001.”

The empty niches on the cliff face now are a perpetual reminder of the world’s duty to protect cultural heritage, and what future generations stand to lose if this was not done, it said.

Today, these niches are inscribed on the World Heritage List as part of the “Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley” World Heritage property.

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