Originally posted December 2009

The 2001 destruction of the two giant Buddhas in Bamiyan is, by far, the most spectacular attack against the historical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan committed during the country’s recent period of turmoil.

On February 26, 2001, and after having consulted a college of ‘ulama’, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban, issued a decree ordering the elimination of all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries in Afghanistan. A kind of jihad was launched against the two Buddhas — the one to the east 38 meters high, and the other to the west, 55 meters high — hewn into the cliff of Bamiyan. “Our soldiers are working hard; they are using all available arms against them,” said the Taliban’s spokesman.[1] Rockets and tank shells were brought in to help, and the destruction was completed with dynamite. On March 14, the Taliban issued a public announcement that the giant figures had been destroyed.

Mullah Omar’s decree had prompted many attempts by Western countries and moderate Muslim clerics and heads of state from among Afghanistan’s neighbors to convince the Taliban to call off their plans. The need to preserve a cultural heritage and to respect religious tolerance was at the core of this general protest. UNESCO emissaries pleaded in vain that a necessary distinction should be made between idolatry and exemplarity — between a secular admiration and an idolatrous veneration. Others insisted on the exemplarity of piety, the “lesson of faith,” that these statues could offer to the believers of all religions. In fact, the Taliban’s argument gave these ambassadors of culture no chance of success: “If the statues were objects of cult for an Afghan minority, we would have to respect their belief and its objects, but we don’t have a single Buddhist in Afghanistan,” said the Mullah, “so why preserve false [sic] idols? And if they have no religious character, why get so upset? It is just a question of breaking stones.”[2] Besides the steps taken by UNESCO to save the statues, the MET (New York), as well as some Buddhist states, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and even Iran, offered to “buy” the Buddhas.

Yet, the victory over the Buddhas could only be won if there were witnesses. This is why journalists were flown to Bamiyan on March 26 to see with their own eyes the gaping openness of the niches, deep into the cliff, where the statues had stood. Prior to that, on March 19, the Taliban had agreed for this one occasion to let Al-Jazeera cameramen witness the final phase of the demolition.

Such an extraordinary attack on religious and cultural emblems led many to speculate about the real intentions of the Mullah. Two kinds of explanation of the Mullah’s astounding decision are possible. The first, based on his and his close collaborators’ explicit argumentation, highlights the Taliban clerics’ conception of Islamic law. The second, a more contextual explanation, takes into account the position of the Taliban regime on the international scene. This point of view is supported by the contradictory statements made by the Taliban since they came to power. In July 1999, three years after the entry of the Mullah’s forces into Kabul, the Taliban Minister of Culture spoke about the respect due to pre-Islamic antiquities and also mentioned the risk of retaliation against mosques in Buddhist countries. He made clear that, though there were no Buddhist believers in Afghanistan, “Bamiyan would not be destroyed but, on the contrary, protected.”[3] The famous February 26 decree appears as a real volte-face since it maintains that “these statues were and are sanctuary for unbelievers” — hence the religious obligation to destroy them. The assault against the Buddhas seems thus to be an answer to a changing political context, a kind of reprisal against the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on the Taliban regime and the refusal of most UN members to recognize the Taliban Emirate.

Besides, the Taliban themselves expressed afterwards their indignation and anger at the protest coming from the “West,” which they described as being exclusively concerned with saving “idols” but ignorant of the misery of the Afghans. According to this point of view, Afghan cultural heritage is an indirect victim of the Western countries’ rejection of the Emirate and of their double standard — moved by the destruction of the statues but indifferent to the ordeal of the Afghan people. In the West, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan has been condemned as an intolerable attack against the whole of humanity’s most precious treasures.

The making of the Afghan national heritage with the Buddhas as its jewel is intimately related to the European venture. The first European travellers, who in the 19th century mentioned the gigantic figures in their travelogues, were for the most part secret agents, explorers, and traffickers. In 1832, Alexander Burnes, an agent of the Indian Political Service, described the “couple of idols” as relics of a past cult. He found them inelegant, even unsightly, and good only for savages and their primitive beliefs.[4]

Charles Masson, an Indian Army deserter, while visiting the site in 1833, was the first to recognize the effigy of the Buddha in the figures. He was also the first to admire them. He wrote: “The traveller surveying […] the vast and mysterious idols and the multitude of caves around him will scarcely fail to be absorbed in deep reflection and wonder…”[5]

But what about the Afghans? What was their feeling about this “jewel” of their cultural heritage, this Western invention? For many Afghans, the two giant figures, for them a male and a female, were a reminder of the monstrous idols Lât and Manât mentioned in the Qur’an. This being said, the inhabitants of central Afghanistan looked at the Buddhas as a familiar presence, and, in their religious beliefs, as survivors of pre-Islamic times, whose pagan origins were occasionally recalled by the local mullahs.

For most Afghans and for the Taliban, the category “cultural heritage” hardly existed or was, at best, suspicious. More vehement was their protest and more convinced were they that it only reflected a belief — the cult of masterpieces of Art — as illegitimate as that of idol-worshippers. The Taliban’s position precisely revealed their negation that a space for secular veneration could exist, wherein Art would have replaced the God of the monotheists.

The worldwide mobilization against the Buddhas’ destruction did not cause the foreign military intervention in autumn of 2001 or the collapse of the Taliban regime. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s iconoclasm surely contributed, in the West, to the de-legitimization of their regime.


[1]. Quoted in the Associated Press, March 2, 2001.

[2]. Luke Harding, Guardian Unlimited, March 3, 2001.

[3]. Luke Harding, Guardian Unlimited, March 3, 2001.

[4]. Alexander Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, Vol. II (London: John Murray, 1835), p. 157.

[5]. Charles Masson, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Panjab, Vol. II (London: Richard Bently, 1842), pp. 392-93.


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