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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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The Buddhas of Bamiyan

CIRCA 554 CE
THEMES:

Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

2001 MS ZI Statue of Bamiyan Buddha Exploding. Video. Archive Films / Getty Images.

"Bamiyan Buddha Afghan Commemerative Stamps." Digital image. Silk Roads and Siamese Smiles. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://silkroadsandsiamesesmiles.com/2008/05/02/bamiyan-buddha-afghan-commemerative-stamps/.

Bluuurgh. "Taliban in Herat." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taliban-herat-2001_retouched.jpg.

Boukhari, Sophie, and UNESCO. "Head of Buddhist Statue." Digital image. UNESCO. http://photobank.unesco.org.

The Boy Mir. Directed by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art Productions. http://www.theboymir.com/ The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Directed by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art Productions. Film. http://www.theboywhoplaysonthebuddhasofbamiyan.com/

"Dastgah-e Mahur "Serr-e 'eshq"" Recorded April 15, 1989. In Music of Iran I. Kyoji Hoshikawa and Hatsuro Takanami, 1989, CD.

Dupree, Nancy. 49-33. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 49-40. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. 49-42. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. A73-23. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Dupree, Nancy. Painting of Buddha on Clay. 1965. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Hunter, Tracy. "Boulders from Destroyed Buddha." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boulders_from_Destroyed_Buddha.jpg.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Hunter, Tracy. "The Top of Buddhas Bamiyan." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_top_of_Buddhas_Bamiyan.jpg.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Hunter, Tracy. "Welome Sign, Bamiyan, Welcome to Bamyan Ancient City, 2007." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welome_Sign,_Bamiyan,_Welcome_to_Bamyan_Ancient_City,_2007.jpg. Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Massoud, Ahmad, and UNAMA. "Photo of the Day: 10 December 2009." Digital image. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/unama/4173203765/in/photostream/.

Montgomery, Carl. "Buddahs of Bamiyan, Afghanistan." Digital image. Carl Montgomery's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/carlmontgomery/3068063004/. Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Phecda109. "Larger Bamyan Buddha from Base, Afghanistan 1977." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BamyanBuddha_Larger_1.jpg.

Phecda109. "Smaller Bamyan Buddha from Base, Afghanistan 1977-08-10." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BamyanBuddha_Smaller_1.jpg.

Podzemnik. "Taller Buddha of Bamiyan." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taller_Buddha_of_Bamiyan.JPG.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

"Smaller Bamyan Buddha from Top, Afghanistan 1977." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BamyanBuddha_Smaller_2.jpg.

Sqamarabbas. "A View of Bamyan Valley Near the Big Budha Statue." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BamyanRectanglular.jpg.

Sqamarabbas. "A View of Bamyan Valley Near the Big Budha Statue." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BamyanRectanglular.jpg.

Sqamarabbas. "Big Budha Statue Used to Be Here." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BigBuddha.jpg.

Top of the Head of the Buddha Statue in Bamiyan. 1926. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Zaccarias. "Taller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after Destruction." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taller_Buddha_of_Bamiyan_before_and_after_destruction.jpg. Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en


Producer: Kate Harding

Reveal Transcript

For more than 1500 years, they watched over the Bamiyan Valley.

Then one day they were gone.

And then, they started to come back.

Act I: BIRTH

In the 6th century, two statues were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan.

They were the largest statues of the Buddha in the world, and they were the jewels of the Kushan Empire.

They were painted with rich colors, a bright beacon for travelers along the silk road, and their surrounding caves housed the earliest oil paintings in the world.

Throughout the centuries, Bamiyan was a vibrant resting place, as traders and religious pilgrims from across Asia flocked to see the works of art. The area was rich, fertile, and cosmopolitan.

Here we find obviously looking at the monasteries that surrounded the Bamyan Buddhas that this was an incredibly important place because trade caravans passed through here. And it has enough agricultural surplus to be able to support what you might consider to be the cultural level of a city without necessarily having the population to maintain it.

But while the Buddhas invited guests, they also invited enemies. Mahmud of Ghazni, Genghis Khan, and Nadir Shah all tried to destroy the statues to prove their own might. But the statues survived, as if mocking the arrogance of emperors.

Over the years, as Afghanistan transitioned and became almost entirely Muslim, the Bamiyan statues grew less important religiously. But they remained a source of pride for Afghans and an exceptional site of cultural heritage.

They were Afghanistan’s symbol to the world.

Act Two: DEATH

In 1996, the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan and began a cultural campaign to transform their country.

Hoping to provide quick order to a disordered nation, they adopted a radical form of Islam. This fundamentalism forbade artistic depictions of the human body.

Such depictions were seen as idols that might be worshiped in lieu of the invisible and infinite power of god.

By 1999, the Taliban was indiscriminately destroying all Buddhist works of art in Afghanistan.

But even they recognized that Bamiyan was an exception. In a public statement, they announced they would preserve the statues for the sake of tourism and cultural heritage.

But the statues were a delicate issue for the Taliban. Every day that they remained standing, they challenged the tenets of the Taliban ideology.

On the other hand, the Taliban were well aware that they could use the statues as bargaining points with the international community. Several countries were growing increasingly concerned about the fate of the Buddhas, and the Taliban knew they could win last-minute favors if they threatened to destroy the statues altogether.

But as the Taliban grew increasingly unpopular, they knew they needed to flex their muscles more than ever. In 2001, they flew in the faces of the international community and many of their own countrymen. They dynamited the statues and destroyed them.
VIDEO of blast.

In the age of instant media, the destruction of the Buddhas became a sensation. People who had never heard of Bamiyan or of the Taliban were suddenly gripped by the story and disgusted by what they were learning about what was happening in Afghanistan. It seemed as if the Buddhas had become a potent symbol for the cruelty of the Taliban’s ideology. This may have been precisely what the Taliban hoped to achieve.

But it also meant that the Taliban would have to wonder if idols could be more powerful when they could no longer be seen.

Act 3: REBIRTH

Though the statues have been destroyed, Bamiyan remains one of the most fertile valleys in Afghanistan. It is still a popular tourist destination for Afghans, and there is even talk of rebuilding the Buddhas.

Life goes on in Bamiyan, as Afghans everywhere work to rebuild their cultural heritage.

In 2002, filmmaker Phil Grabsky traveled to Bamiyan to document the life of a boy living in the ruins of the Buddhas. He has continued to follow the boy’s life as he grows up and becomes a man.
 

Their story in three acts: birth, death, and rebirth.

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