Languages
Page last updated at 09:38 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 10:38 UK

Rediscovering treasures of Bamiyan

By Alastair Leithead,
BBC News, Bamiyan

Advertisement

A tour of Afghan caves housing the world's oldest oil paintings

When the Buddhas of Bamiyan were carved out of the mountainside, the Roman Empire still held sway.

They towered over a rich valley in what is now central Afghanistan, where caravans of traders would stop and rest on the Silk Road as they transported goods between east and west.

For centuries the two huge statues stood guard over Bamiyan.

But in 2001, just months before they were forced from power, the Taleban dynamited what they considered un-Islamic representations of the human form.

Today all that remains are the recesses where they stood, and the labyrinth of fragile caves surrounding them.

Iconic art

Today there isn't even a paved road connecting the valley to Kabul, but yet inside the caves are a reminder of Bamiyan's past wealth and glory and a new claim to fame that could put the province back on the map.

Inside those caves the steep, narrow steps are crumbling, there are cracks in the mud tunnels carved into the mountainside, and still visible high in the echoing chambers are pieces of Buddhist iconic art which are now thought to be the oldest oil paintings in the world.

Only a few fragments of the ancient paintings remain
Only a few fragments of the ancient paintings remain

Japanese, European and American scientists restoring the cave murals dating back to around 650AD, discovered oil was used in the paint.

Yoko Taniguchi, one of the Japanese experts working on the caves, told reporters this is the earliest known use of this technique in the history of art.

She said it was previously thought the technique originated in Europe during the Renaissance, eight centuries later.

But wandering through the Buddhist temples carved out of the rock, there is little left of the murals destroyed in the last 30 years of war after surviving for centuries.

A tourist guidebook to Afghanistan written in the 1960s and 70s by Nancy Dupree, a famous traveller who dedicated much of her life to the country, gave an account of the artwork as it was then.

Fragments

"The rest of the hall is elaborately decorated in a varied palette of burnt sienna, green, lapis lazuli blue, and yellow ochre depicting flowers, trees, stylised floral sprays, cornucopias and figures of kneeling worshipers," she wrote.

"A series of Buddhas dressed in sombre-hued maroon robes and framed with aureoles against an azure background walk on lotus pads set among flowers."

Paintings defaced by the Taleban
Most paintings have heads and hands missing

There's little evidence of this today apart from a few scraps of colour and detail here and there, but there are isolated caves higher up the mountain, impossible to get to without a rope, where some of the best examples still survive.

A combination of the vibration from artillery shells, the Taleban chiselling away the depictions of faces and hands, and looting put paid to most of the paintings.

But there are enough fragments left to give a hint of what it must have been like.

The views from the caves looking out over the valley are stunning and there is another twist to the story of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

A Buddhist pilgrim wrote around the time the paintings were finished in the mid seventh century of the amazing statues - but he described three.

According to his account, the third reclining Buddha was a 1,000 feet long and lay on the valley floor.

It would be remarkable if it was buried beneath the river sediment and two teams of archaeologists, one from France another from Japan, are in a race to find it.

It sounds like an Indiana Jones film, but there have been many interesting archaeological discoveries in Bamiyan and this beautiful valley may not yet have revealed all its secrets.



Print Sponsor


RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific