20 years since Bamiyan Buddha statues' destruction by Taliban
The world's largest standing Buddha statues had survived for a millennium and a half in Afghanistan — until the Taliban destroyed them.
A Buddhist center in the Bamiyan Valley
The statues were located on one of the ancient major trade routes between China and South Asia. The valley of Bamiyan, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of Kabul, acted as a center for Buddhists. Several thousand Buddhist monks stayed in the valley during the 6th century AD.
Monks turned master builders
Along with the monks came Buddhist art and culture, to the central Afghan mountain region. The famous dwelling caves were created into the walls made of red sandstone. The Buddha statues were also carved from this stone.
Astonished Chinese pilgrim
In the 7th century AD, the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang returned to China after his journey to India. During his travel, he passed through the Bamiyan Valley and reported: "Dozens of temples with over a thousand monks. The standing Buddha statue is about 50 meters high and shines golden in its rich adornment."
Mix of styles
The largest statue was 53 meters high and represented the Buddha Dipamkara, the "igniter of the lights." According to art historians, it combined various stylistic features of Buddhist art with those of the Hellenistic tradition.
Tourist attraction and theater of war
Even after the Islamization of the Bamiyan Valley around 1000 AD, the statues remained. In the 20th century, they became a tourist attraction until the Soviet occupation in 1979. In the following decade-long war, the caves were used as ammunition depots. In the strategically important valley, Soviets and American-equipped mujahideen engaged in heavy fighting.
Furor of the Taliban
In March 2001, the Taliban, which had taken power in Afghanistan, blew up the statues, even though they had long since ceased to be religiously venerated. The radically Islamist Taliban, which opposes any objects of worship, also vandalized the National Museum in the country's capital, Kabul.
It wasn't until after their destruction that the statues became included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. There have been various proposals to rebuild the statues but none have been implemented so far.