avatarFarshid Wahdat

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“The Lost Wonder: The Tragic Demise of the Buddhas of Bamiyan”

Destruction of UNESCO World Heritage: Buddha Statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Buddha statues in 1963 before destruction (black and white photo on the left) and in 2008 after destruction (color photo on the right)

Bamiyan, a city in Afghanistan, has a rich cultural and historical heritage due to its connection to civilizations like Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Despite its importance, research on the city is scarce or nonexistent. Despite its fame, it struggles to attract foreign tourists due to a lack of social infrastructure and public safety. Only fifteen historical artifacts have been registered as national monuments, with eight inscribed as World Cultural Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2003 AD.

Although Bamiyan, as one of the cities of Afghanistan, has numerous historical artifacts such as the cities of Shahr-e Zohak, Ghulghula, and thousands of small and large caves, which have made Bamiyan globally famous, in this article, we only intend to have a brief discussion about the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues. For more information about Bamiyan and Afghanistan, follow us.

Painting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues by Alexander Burnes, in 1832 AD/1211 SH

The Buddhas of Bamiyan refer to the large statues that were constructed within the heart of a mountain in the Bamiyan Province of Afghanistan. The standing statues of these historical sculptures were carved into the cliffside during the prevalence of Buddhism in Afghanistan, in the Bamiyan Valley. The geographical coordinates of these statues are approximately 230 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Kabul. These two statues, measuring 53 meters and 35 meters in height, alongside a series of historical structures in the area, were major tourist attractions in Afghanistan for a long time. The smaller statue was built in 507 AD, and the larger one was built in 554 AD. These two statues represent a blend of ancient Greek and Buddhist artistic styles, which were prevalent in Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan.

Bmiyan_Afghanistan

The quiddity:

The largest clay statue is called “Salsal,” meaning dried flower and the other statue is named “Shahmama,” meaning queen. Although Bamiyan was a cultural and religious center for Buddhists from the early centuries AD until the advent of Islam, the standing statues are not directly related to Buddha. This is because they clearly depict the faces of a man and a woman, whereas Buddha was never depicted alongside his wife. Another theory suggesting the statues’ Buddhist origins is that since the clay statue turned out smaller than intended, they inevitably carved the queen statue next to it.

Structure and Size:

The 53-meter Buddha statue was situated within a hall or cave carved into a rocky mountain, with a measured height of 58 meters. Prior to its explosion and destruction, there were spiral decorations and stairs carved into the side of the mountain beside the statues. Tourists and students used to climb up beside the Great Buddha, and there, the hall’s ceiling was adorned with paintings depicting various civilizational figures, resembling Hindu and European characters such as Roman and Roman Catholic figures. Some scientists reject this theory as Christianity did not exist at that time; however, European archaeologists believe that these statues were carved between 300 and 700 AD, when Christianity was introduced to the eastern regions of Iran by the Eastern Roman Empire (Constantine) from “Istanbul.” The 35-meter Buddha statue was measured within a hall or cave carved into a rocky mountain, with a height of 38 meters. This means that the height of the Shahmama chamber is two meters higher than the larger statue. The size of the statues has been estimated differently by various archaeologists, but a research group from the University of the German Army in Munich measured the heights in 2003. They measured the heights of the pedestals to be 58 meters and 38 meters, respectively, which matched the measurements made by archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s without laser light. Researchers from the University of Munich Military measured the heights, determining the height from the feet to the head of Shalsal as 53 meters and the other as 35 meters.

The smaller Buddha in 1977

In the case of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Salsal, the male figure, was seated on a throne rather than on the ground, while Shahmama, the female figure, was also seated. If we delve deeply into the numerical aspects of the Bamiyan statues, we find that one number reflects another. Salsal is said to symbolize masculinity, while Shahmama symbolizes femininity. Between these two, there is another smaller unit, which represents offspring, resembling a reclining statue, intending to prove a thousand feet, equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, and was said to be 323 meters outside of Afghanistan, representing offspring.

Destruction:

Finally, on March 9, 2001 AD (1379 Solar Hijri), according to Mullah Mohammad Omar, Taliban forces ignited the gigantic Buddhas of Bamiyan. By the evening of March 11, only two cavities remained from Salsal and Shahmama. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction during Taliban rule, were considered the largest Buddhas and tallest stone statues in the world. According to some experts, if the Bamiyan Buddhas were symbols of ancient history in this land until yesterday, today they are memorials to the years of religious extremism in this country. This act, which shook the world, was termed “cultural devastation” by UNESCO.

Destructing of Buddhas

The destruction order methodology:

In 1999, Mullah Omar issued a directive to protect the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, which had been carved into a cliff in the Bamyan Valley in the 6th century AD.

However, in March 2001, the statues were destroyed by the Taliban under the personal order of Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, explained the reason for the destruction order in a conversation:

“I did not want to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they wanted to carry out restoration work on the Buddhas, which had been slightly damaged due to the rain. This shocked me. I thought these individuals were insensitive to the thousands of living Afghans dying of hunger, but they were concerned about lifeless objects like the Buddhas. This was very tragic. Therefore, I ordered their destruction. If they had come for humanitarian purposes, I would never have given such an order.”

Then, Syed Rahmatullah Hashemi, the Taliban’s roaming ambassador, also said that the destruction of the statues occurred after a proposal from a Swedish expert to restore historical structures for the reconstruction of the statues was rejected by the Council of Scholars. It has been reported that Hashemi said: “When the central council of Afghanistan asked them to spend money on food for children instead of rebuilding the statues, they refused and said, ‘No, this money is only for the statues, not for the children.’ As a result, the decision was made to destroy the statues.”

This action sparked international outrage from various countries, such as Japan, India, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Nepal, Iran, Qatar, and Russia. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which were among the three countries that recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, condemned the Taliban’s actions. UNESCO’s Arab branch called this destruction “barbaric.”

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A Chinese couple returned the Salsal statue to Bamiyan using 3D light.
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