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Tuesday, 20 January, 1998, 17:06 GMT
A visit to the giant Buddhas

BBC correspondent Alan Johnston visited the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1997, after they first came under threat from Taleban commanders. This was his report.

Central Afghanistan thrived in the days of the Silk Road. Camel caravans criss-crossed the region as they traded between the Roman Empire, China and India. And as they journeyed through the Hindu Kush mountains they came upon Bamiyan - one of the wonders of the ancient world.

This heart of the now-forgotten Kingdom of Kushan had been glorified by two colossal Buddha statues. They were carved into a cliff in the mountains that tower over the valley of Bamiyan.

One of the statues stands as high as a 10-storey building and has been described as the most remarkable representation of the Buddha anywhere in the world.


These vast statues were painted in gold and other colours, and they were decked in dazzling ornaments.

All around there was a synthesis of Greek, Persian and Central and South Asian art. There were countless rich frescoes. On one cave wall for example there were images of Buddhas in maroon robes strolling in fields of flowers. In another place milk-white horses drew the Sun God's golden chariot through a dark blue sky.

The monks and the pilgrims went many centuries ago

There were 10 monasteries built into the cliff, there were yellow-robed monks, there were pilgrims, festivals, fluttering penants and silken canopies.

Today, Bamiyan is a very much more austere place. The monks and the pilgrims went many centuries ago when Islam came to the Hindu Kush. For a time, the 1960s hippy trail passed this way and there were tourists - but they too have gone.

Embroiled in war

Bamiyan is immersed so deep in Afghanistan's war that even the great stone Buddhas have been drawn into the conflict.

The Bamiyan region is the stronghold of the Hezb-i-Whadat party, the main faction representing the Shia Muslims of the centre of the country. Hezb-i-Whadat is one of the pillars of the alliance that opposes the purist, Islamic, Taleban movement.

During the summer, Taleban forces advanced down the valley towards Bamiyan town.

It's not the first time the Buddhas have faced the wrath of an iconoclastic Islamic crusader

In the Islamic fervour of the march, a Taleban commander said that when he broke through and took the town, he would blow up its famous statues. It wasn't the first time that Bamiyan's Buddhas had faced the wrath of an iconoclastic Islamic crusader.

Eleven centuries ago the fanatical warrior Yaqoub rampaged through the area.

He destroyed Buddhist temples and reportedly seized 50 idols in gold and silver. And on the frescoes the faces of many Buddha figures have been chiselled out by Muslims intent on destroying what they regarded as the soul force of the idol.

Promises, promises

News of the Taleban commander's threat this summer to renew this kind of destruction spread fast.

The Taleban leadership assured the international community that no harm would come to the statues

There was alarm across the Buddhist world and the United Nations expressed grave concern. Later the Taleban leadership assured the international community that no harm would come to the statues. In the event the Taleban were defeated and driven back.

Bamiyan and the Buddhas remain firmly under the control of the forces of Hezb-i-Whadat. But they too have given the archaeologists cause to worry.

For a time they stored large amounts of ammunition in ancient caves built into the cliff at the feet of the largest of the two Buddhas. This giant figure of tremendous historical significance was effectively standing on a mound of explosives.

But the local authorities are aware that the Buddhist complex is important.

They know that it'll be a major tourist attraction again once peace finally comes. They've been persuaded to remove the ammunition stockpile, but they're still using the caves to store sack-loads of wheat.

Every day lorries loading and unloading manoeuvre right at the Buddha's feet. They're sending damanging fumes and vibrations up his giant frame to the fragile frescoes that adorn the area around his head.

Bomb threat

And conservationists continue to be deeply concerned by military activity in the general area of the statue complex, which could at some point attract potentially devastating fighting.

Quite recently, during a Taleban air raid, a jet dropped a bomb just a hundred metres from the largest Buddha.

The whole cliff face is alive with the activity of these modern cave people

And the war is bringing destruction of a different kind to the warren of hundreds of caves that used to house the monasteries and their monks.

Refugees who have fled areas of fighting in other parts of Afghanistan have moved into the maze of grottos. The whole cliff face is alive with the activity of these modern cave people.

I met a man called Janat Mir who was building a wall and a door for the front of the cave which shelters his numerous children.

Their home near Kabul was smashed in an artillery strike which also killed Janat Mir's father. The cave is now all they have. But just by their presence, the family and its donkey, like the other cave dwellers, are of course doing damage to what is a rare archaeological site.

The whole extraordinary, ancient Buddhist complex is in desperate need of proper preservation.

Care and attention

It needs management and control to prevent it being damaged by soldiers or refugees or thieves who might loot what remains of the frescoes.

But of course in poverty-stricken central Afghanistan there aren't anything like the necessary resources or archaeological know-how to care properly for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. The site is being degraded day-by-day.

Local people who care for the complex are appealing to the Buddhist world in particular and to what they call the culture-loving countries of the West to come forward. They're looking to the outside world to help - no matter how great the obstacles posed by the Afghan war.

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