Destruction of the Bamiyan Statues

Taliban vs the Buddha

Workers Attempt To Restore Buddhas Of Bamiyan
A worker adjusts his radio in front of an alcove which used to contain a giant Buddah overlooking the area September 5, 2005 in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. John Moore / Getty Images

In March 2001, six months before the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Taliban destroyed two ancient statues of the Buddha called Bamiyan in an attempt to cleanse the country of Afghanistan of what they perceived as Hindu heresy.

An Old Story

To be perfectly blunt, this is an old story. New landowners of a country move in and do their best to obliterate all traces of the conquered and now minority population. Former cultural monuments, particularly if they are of a religious nature, are pulled down, and monuments for the new group built, frequently right on the top of the foundations of the old. The old languages are forbidden or limited, along with other cultural phenomena such as marriage customs, rites of initiation, even food taboos.

The reasons the conquerors give for this trashing of the old ways and structures are varied, and include everything from modernization to saving the souls of the recently conquered. But the purpose is the same: to destroy the remnants of a culture which represents a threat to the new dominance. It happened in 16th century AD in the New World civilizations; it happened in Caesar's Rome; it happened in the dynasties of Egypt and China. It's what we as humans do when we are afraid. Destroy things.

An Ominous Warning

It shouldn't have been as shocking as it was, to see the Taliban in Afghanistan blast two enormous 3rd and 5th century AD statues of Buddha to powder with anti-aircraft guns.

"We are not against culture but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam," the Taliban's Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil is reported to have said.

The Taliban has never been known for a generosity of spirit or interest in cultural diversity, and as I say, the erasure of the past to protect the present is an old story. As archaeologists, we’ve seen evidence of it hundreds, maybe a thousand times. But the Taliban's destruction of the two Bamiyan Buddha statues was still painful to watch; and today it is recognized as an ominous forewarning of the Taliban's distaste of anything other than their own set of extremist Islamic values.