Bamiyan: Life Beyond the Destruction of the Giant 1,500-Year-Old Buddhas

Spectacular scenery around Band-e-Amir lakes

The word ‘Bamiyan’ (also spelled ‘Bamyan’ or ‘Bamian’) can be translated as ‘The Place of Shining Light’. And fittingly, this small Afghan town was once a beacon to travelers on the ancient and legendary Silk Road. Settled amidst the mountains and valleys of the Hindu Kush, this town has seen countless people pass through its gates over its 1,000-year history, from pilgrims and traders, to entire armies.

Ice and snow cover the lakes during the long, cold winter.

During this long history, Bamiyan has been a place of contrasts – from a place of quiet religious contemplation and grand artistic endeavor, to the scene of violent massacres and destruction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the marks of this varied and turbulent background can still be seen in the ruins of the area today.

A colorfully decorated bicycle

Surrounded by relics of its age-old heritage, the modern town of Bamiyan still seems to live in an almost mythical past. There is no electricity or running water here. What it does have, however, is the stunning surroundings of a valley cradled between two great mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush and the Koh-i-Baba.


The landscape is mostly dry and barren.

The Hindu Kush mountain range, described as the “backbone of Afghanistan,” stretches 800 kilometers (500 miles) across from the country’s center to Northern Pakistan, where it joins its parent range, the Himalayas. At their highest, the mountains reach 7,708 meters (25,289 feet), and are criss-crossed with historical passes once used by different civilizations from both the East and West.


A Hazara girl wrapped in a decorative scarf

The name ‘Hindu Kush’ has a rather sinister meaning related to this trade between East and West: it can actually be translated as ‘Hindu Killer’. It refers to a time when Indian slaves were transported from the subcontinent across these rugged mountains (and perhaps through Bamiyan itself) towards Central Asia. The harsh conditions meant many of them never reached their destination.

A door matching the bright blue sky

Severe weather conditions are still a part of life in the Bamiyan region today. The air is dry and freezing cold during the winter, which lasts for roughly half the year. During the spring months, residents grow crops, chief among them wheat and barley, but are occasionally forced to trade their livestock for food when bad weather destroys the harvest.


Ruins of the past

The people of Bamiyan mostly belong to the Hazara ethnic group, which also makes up the main population of the Hazarajat, or mountain ranges. The origins of the Hazara are not certain, but some believe they may be the descendants of the invading Mongols who passed through this region.

Two donkeys wait on the stony ground.

The theory of the Hazara’s Mongolian ancestry is backed up by the high incidence in Hazara DNA of a chromosome which can be traced all the way back to Genghis Khan himself! Yet this is certainly not the only bloodline in Hazaras, as they have also been found to carry the genes of Turks and Tajiks who were also settlers and travelers in this region.


Very little in the way of vegetation grows around here.

Unfortunately, life has been hard for many Hazaras of modern-day Afghanistan. As Shiite Muslims, they stand apart from the Sunnis of the general population. Their mixed ancestry also means that they have different features from other Afghans, further alienating them from their fellow countrymen.

A pet bird sits in a wooden cage.

Although they are represented in the post-Taliban government, the Hazara have been identified by the Minority Rights Group (MRG) of London as the “most under threat minority group” in Afghanistan. This in spite of the fact that they have literacy rates higher than the national average, both among boys and girls.


Clouds gather, although rain is rare in this region.

For many people outside of Afghanistan, the Bamiyan region is synonymous with the giant Buddha statues that once stood there. The tallest was 53 meters (175 feet) high, and at the time was the largest standing statue of Buddha in the world. Built between 507 AD and 551 AD, when this was a strongly Buddhist area, the statues dominated the cliff face into which they were built for well over a thousand years.

Irrigation for crops comes from streams fed by melting snow.

This description of the statues comes from a seventh century Chinese scribe: “[Their] golden hues sparkle on every side, and [their] precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness.” So not only were they once large, but they were also colorful. They must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight.


Apart from farming, the other main source of income is small-scale retailing.

Bamiyan first came under Muslim rule in the late 8th century, and although many other Buddhist constructions that had stood in the valley were destroyed, the statues survived up until 2001. In that year, the Taliban declared that the effigies were un-Islamic and, to the horror of archaeologists and art historians everywhere, decided to reduce them to rubble. Artillery fire proved ineffective, against the hardy statues, and in the end the Taliban were forced to use explosives.

Hazara men

And yet, despite this grand act of vandalism, the art of the region would rise again. In 2008, another incredible discovery was made. In caves within the cliffs where the statues had stood, scientists analyzed mid-7th-century paintings decorating the walls. What they found was that these murals were in fact the world’s earliest known examples of oil painting, which was previously believed to have been first employed as an art form in 12th-century Europe.


Children wrapped in scarves to keep out the harsh cold

But there’s more! About 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Bamiyan is another first. The Band-e-Amir lakes lies in the middle of a national park – the first ever named in Afghanistan. These beautiful aquamarine bodies of water are set in a spectacular rocky gorge high in the mountains.

The lake gorge of Afghanistan’s first national park

The crystal blue waters of the lakes have been trapped here by natural dams. Rather than flowing down from rivers or streams, the water originates from underground, coming to the surface via fissures and cracks. The abundant minerals in the water settled to create walls that now surround the lakes and keep them from trickling away.


Band-e-Amir in black and white

Band-e-Amir is among the most significant examples of this kind of lake formation in the world. If you can believe it, the lakes become even more amazing during the winter, with the waterfalls which run from one lake to another freezing into dazzling, ethereal natural ice sculptures.

The unpaved roads of the town

Local folk tales have their own version of the events that led to the formation of the lakes. They say that the natural dams were formed by the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, Hazrat Ali, who threw them into place. Afghan pilgrims continue to visit the site in their thousands, praying at a lakeside shrine where it is said that Hazrat Ali prayed after his creation of the lakes.


A young Hazara girl

Since the Taliban were ousted, there have been attempts to undo some of the damage they did. Despite calls for the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, it was recently decided by UNESCO that at least one of the statue niches should be kept empty “as a testimony to the tragic act of destruction.”

But the future may yet be bright for the region. Attempts are being made to increase tourism to this World Heritage Site, with its historical ruins and an astonishing national park in the vicinity.

A trader with various wares

And there’s more good news: for the first time in hundreds of years, the Afghans of Bamiyan are beginning to relearn the art of stone-working. As a 20-year-old student sculptor observes, “Extremists often make propaganda about idols. But this is our heritage, not something religious.” We hope that one day, Bamiyan will again be known for what its inhabitants create, rather than for what has been irrevocably destroyed.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10