Unearthing Afghanistan's Glorious Past

Nov 28, 2010 By Deepa Gopal

Lets go back to 5th century AD. Imagine a weary traveler on the Silk route, the main trading route between Europe, Northern Africa and Asia (China, India). After crossing through rugged mountainous country, he reaches a city at the crossroads -- a beautiful lush green valley with a river winding through it. It is a sight for sore eyes!

Carved into a red sandstone cliff are two gigantic statues of the Buddha - one 175 feet tall and another 125 feet tall. The face is covered with gold and decorated with precious gems that glitter in the sun. The entire landscape is filled with smaller statues and stupas (mound like structures, used as places of worship). The cliff face is dotted with caves where the monks live and meditate. Frescoes on the walls of the cave depict stories from the life of the Buddha.

What is this heaven on earth, an oasis of beauty and tranquility? It is the city of Bamyan, an ancient seat of culture and learning in present day Afghanistan.

Buddha statue before it was blasted

Reach of Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who renounced his kingdom and sought enlightenment. The simplicity of the religion made it popular with the masses. As the religion grew popular, it was carried by traders traveling along the Silk route and made its way to present day Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was situated at the crossroads of different cultures and trading routes, which shaped Buddhism as it took root there. The original religion did not advocate idol worship; however for the first time, the Buddha was portrayed in human form. The statues and frescoes had a distinct Greek influence and this was known as the Gandhara school of art.

King Kanishka, a ruler in 2nd century AD is credited with spreading the religion, building cultural centers throughout his empire and ordering the construction of these giant statues. From Afghanistan, Buddhism spread to China and the Far East (Japan).

Lost to history

The statues survived the rule of Alexander the Great as well as the many Muslim invaders over the ages. But in 2001, they fell to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan who blasted the statues completely using dynamite and anti-aircraft weapons, inspite of appeals from the international community. The Talibans preached a fundamentalist, intolerant form of Islam and viewed the images of the Buddha as an affront to their religion.

Race against time

The Talibans were removed from power forcibly after the U.S led war on Afghanistan. As the country tries to get back on its feet, it has given the rights to a Chinese mining company to tap into its vast deposits of copper. Mes Aynak, the area that is to be mined, is also home to the remains of a 2000 year old monastery and twelve other such sites.

The monastery complex has been dug out revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.

The mining company has given the archaeologists three years for a task that may take upto ten years. The government of Afghanistan is eager for the revenue from the copper mines as well. Archaeologists are racing against time to map the ancient city and unearth the statues and artifacts that once belonged to Afghanistan's glorious past.

Rap   5 years ago

Could the statues be reconstructed?

kenn   5 years ago

I wish the statues could be reconstructed., but I don`t think so. Even if they could, it would be really hard.

kwalden   5 years ago

wow thats amazing that the staue was destroyed, i wonder what it is like today and i liked when they used the dynamite and sad.

Matthew14   5 years ago

The copper can be used in many ways. It can be used in weapons, used as an income for the government, ect.... Copper is a very widely used material.

Genna   5 years ago

They most likely want copper to use in bombs.

Arjun   5 years ago

These ancient statues are much more important than some copper. Surely the Afghanistan government can see that.

Nikhil_2   5 years ago

I agree, but at the same time, Afghanistan really needs the income. I think there might be copper deposits somewhere else, though.

Matthew14   5 years ago

Why does the Afghan government want with the copper? If the copper is mined, that will be some income for the government. The statues have no value, except in historical terms.

Genna   5 years ago

Me too Matthew14, mostly all I remember seeing is this plane crashing into the world trade center, and wondering what was going on,and my mom and aunt crying. I was soooo scared.

745496gfu (not verified)   5 years ago

Cool a building made of stone

Matthew14   5 years ago

Once we leave, they are free to attack us again. And they are now developing Nuclear missiles. And yes Genna, I remember 9/11. I remember sitting down at the table eating pancakes when my dad rushed out of a nearby room yelling," Turn the TV on!!!" All day Mom, Dad, and I watched the news, and waited to hear the reports.

Genna   5 years ago

call a truce, are you CRAZY????? if we leave do you know what they will do to us? or maybe you don't remember 9/11.... I was almost five, and I remember seeing a plane crash into the world trade center. Who here remembers that?

Nikhil_2   5 years ago

I don't, I was 1 year old!

Arjun   5 years ago

Genna, I think we've learned from that experience. maybe we can handle not interfering in any wars other than defensive war.

Matthew14   5 years ago

The problem is, if we didn't start this offensive war years ago, we probably would have been attacked again! By waging this war, we are keeping the terrorists at bay.

Rap   5 years ago

There really isn't a good answer to the whole problem.

Armaan   5 years ago

Just call a truce in the area, right?

Sammy02   5 years ago

Time is so less for evacuation!
Why do these Talibans not understand the importance of all these statues? Others don't interfere into their holy places, then why do they?

luv2read   5 years ago

that's amazing- its like a treasure trove! I hope they get enough funds to excavate it properly.

To add comments...
Javascript is required to view this map.


Advent of Islam

Islam became firmly rooted in Afghanistan in 9th century when it came under Persian empire. Much of the country was ravaged by Genghis Khan's army in the 12th century. The country later came under Moghul rule along with much of South East Asia, and Islam continued to flourish.