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Sunday, 11 March, 2001, 14:58 GMT
Bamiyan: Wonder of the ancient world
Bamiyan Buddha statue viewed from below
The taller Buddha towered five storeys high
The giant Buddhas, carved into a mountainside at Bamiyan in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, were among Asia's great archaeological treasures.

Bamiyan history
2nd-5th Century
Statues carved
7th Century
Islamic conquests
20th Century
1978: Civil war
1998: Taleban seize area
In antiquity, central Afghanistan was strategically placed to thrive from the Silk Road caravans which criss-crossed the region trading between the Roman Empire, China and India.

One of the stopping-off points was the old kingdom of Kushan, whose people were responsible for carving these wonders of the ancient world.

The larger statue stood at 53 metres (125 feet) above the town of Bamiyan - as high as a 10-storey building - and was considered to be the most remarkable representation of the Buddha anywhere in the world.

Bamiyan statue seen from a distance
An amazing site greeted travellers through the Hindu Kush
Once, it and its 38-metre-high companion 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, there remain traces of a painting of Buddhas in maroon robes strolling in fields of flowers.

In another painting, milk-white horses draw the Sun God's golden chariot through a dark blue sky.

It was a place of pilgrimage, and there were 10 monasteries built into the cliff - the home of yellow-robed Buddhist monks, who presided over festivals.

Muslim Afghanistan

The monks and the pilgrims left 14 centuries ago when Islam came to the Hindu Kush and Bamiyan fell into neglect.

Time has ravaged Bamiyan's rich frescoes
For a time, the 1960s hippy trail passed through Bamiyan and it became a hub for a new kind of traveller.

But Afghanistan's 20 years of civil war put a stop to that, with the area playing an important strategic role.

For many years it was the stronghold of the Hezb-i-Whadat party, the main faction of the Shi'a Muslims of the centre of the country.

Hezb-i-Whadat is one of the members of the Northern Alliance which opposes the purist Taleban movement.

They apparently approached the site with a mixture of suspicion and disinterested neglect. It became variously an ammunition dump and a home to dozens of families displaced by the war.

Taleban inspect Buddha statue in Kabul museum
Until now, the Taleban had resisted the urge to destroy non-Islamic art
Those who visited Bamiyan said this treatment was threatening the integrity of the monuments.

The Hezb were driven out by the Taleban in the campaigns of 1997 and 1998.

Despite their abhorrence of idols and un-Islamic images - the Taleban initially assured the international community that the site would come to no harm.

But that restraint has now been dropped, apparently in the belief that there is little to be gained from bowing to the sensibilities of the outside world.

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See also:

02 Mar 01 | Europe
Battle to save world treasures
26 Feb 01 | South Asia
Afghan statues face destruction
12 Feb 01 | South Asia
Taleban 'destroy' priceless art
17 Aug 00 | South Asia
Afghans display ancient stone
07 Jan 98 | World
Historic monuments under attack
20 Jan 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan
03 Aug 98 | South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
03 Aug 98 | South Asia
Afghanistan: 20 years of bloodshed
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