In the cliffs of Afghanistan, a group of men are destroying an ancient wonder. With explosives and heavy artillery, they slowly reduce two giant Buddhas to rubble. But years later, scientists will discover something incredible lurking in the debris.
Back in the 6th century, the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan was an important Buddhist religious site. Where the ancient Silk Road had brought trade it had also brought religion, and several monasteries had sprung up in the region. Indeed, many Buddhist monks lived in caves they’d carved out of the cliffs that lined the valley.
Some time between the years 544 and 595, a giant statue of Buddha was built at Bamiyan. Known as Shahmama, it stood some 115 feet tall. Incredibly, it was carved from the cliff face itself and overlooked the valley from its own niche in the rock.
Later, between 591 AD and 644 AD, another, even bigger, Buddha was built. This one was known as Solsol, and it stood more than 170 feet tall. Along with the Shahmama Buddha, the pair formed a striking landmark for travelers crossing the Bamiyan Valley.
Originally, the carved statues were covered in brightly painted stucco. But although these details faded over time, the Bamiyan Buddhas remained one of the region’s most famous sights. In fact, they were eventually recognized as the largest standing Buddha carvings in the entire world.
For almost 1,500 years, the Buddhas stood proud, despite the region’s shift from Buddhism to Islam in the 9th century. Even the infamous Genghis Khan, with his hordes of conquering Mongols, left the statues untouched. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, fate would finally turn against them.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the region around Bamiyan had come under the control of the feared Taliban. This group of Sunni Muslim religious extremists had little respect for the history of the Buddhas. Even after an initial attempt to destroy them was thwarted by the local governor, the statues’ future still looked bleak.
In early 2001 Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government was in the midst of a campaign against anything deemed “un-Islamic.” Under a strict interpretation of Sharia law, sport and music were banned altogether, as was watching television. Tragically, the Bamiyan Buddhas also fell victim to this new crackdown.
On 2 March, efforts to destroy the Buddhas began in earnest. However, demolishing them would be a difficult task. After anti-aircraft guns failed to obliterate the statues, mines were detonated beneath them. When that also proved unsuccessful, the Taliban placed explosives at strategic points around the Buddhas.
Eventually, the Taliban succeeded in wiping these ancient monuments off the face of the earth. Later, envoys would claim that the decision had been made in protest at Westerners’ attempts to preserve the statues while the Afghani people starved. Whatever the real reason, the destruction caused shock around the world.
Almost immediately, international organizations pledged to come to the Buddhas’ aid. UNESCO, which listed the statues as a World Heritage Site, launched a project to catalogue and preserve the fragments scattered around the valley. And when the Taliban finally fell from power, Afghanistan’s new leaders began to consider the long process of rebuilding Bamiyan’s iconic statues.
As various groups from around the world debated the details of any restoration, however, something unexpected was discovered at Bamiyan. As the statues had fallen, they had revealed a series of secret caves hidden within the cliffs. In fact, an extensive network of 50 caves had been uncovered.
What’s more, those who first ventured inside the caves reported an amazing sight within the tunnels. Apparently, 12 of the caves boasted mysterious paintings, daubed on the walls by persons unknown. Could the tragic destruction of such an iconic piece of history have inadvertently led to an important new discovery?
In 2004 a team of researchers from around the world arrived in Bamiyan. Among them were scientists from research institutions in France, the United States, and Japan. Together, they began studying the paintings found at Bamiyan.
Incredibly, what they found would challenge art history as we know it. Apparently, the paintings in the caves behind the Buddhas dated back to between the 5th and the 9th centuries. More important, however, was the method that was used to create them.
According to the scientists, the artworks had been painted with oils. But there was a problem – this technique was not thought to have been invented until hundreds of years later. What’s more, experts had previously believed that oil painting had originated in Europe, not Central Asia.
The paintings, which featured images of Buddha surrounded by plants and mythical beasts, were subjected to a thorough investigation. Using advanced techniques, the scientists were able to penetrate the layers of the images and reach some amazing conclusions.
“This is the earliest clear example of oil painting in the world,” team leader Yoko Taniguchi stated in a 2008 press release. “Drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics.”
Scientists believe artists traveling from China could have created the paintings using a combination of poppy seed and walnut oils. Historically, political turmoil in the region had prevented experts from studying much of its cultural heritage. Now, they hope to gain a clearer picture of Central Asian art at the time of the Silk Road.
Amazingly, the paintings weren’t the only important discovery made at Bamiyan. In 2008 archaeologists also uncovered the remains of a reclining Buddha statue at the same site. As Afghanistan finally returns to a period of relative peace, who knows what other historical wonders may yet be revealed in the country.