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When the Taliban Blew Up the Buddhas
An Afghan Tale
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A Bamiyan Buddha statue after being blown up by the Taliban. Screenshot: BBC
A Bamiyan Buddha statue after being blown up by the Taliban. Screenshot: BBC

In the beginning, they were the Bamiyan Buddhas: the Western Buddha statue, 55 meters high, and the Eastern, 38 meters high, carved for decades since 550 A.D. from porous sandstone cliffs, the intricate details modeled in clay mixed with straw and coated with stucco.

Xuanzang, the legendary traveling monk of the early Tang dynasty who journeyed to India in search of Buddhist manuscripts, saw them in all their – colored – glory in the 7th century.

Then, with Islam taking over these high central lands of Afghanistan, local Hazara folklore slowly turned them into the Romeo and Juliet of the Hindu Kush.

They became “Solsol” (“year after year”, or, more colloquially, the prince of Bamiyan) and “Shahmana” (“the king’s Mother”, or colloquially a princess from a remote kingdom). As lovers, they could not be united as a couple in this world; so they chose to turn into statues and stand close to each other forever.

And then, twenty years ago, after a millennium and a half of living history, the Taliban blew them up.

Killing Romeo and Juliet

Solsol and Shahmana lived since their inception among the Hazaras, who speak Dari, a Persian dialect with numerous words of Mongol and Turk origin. The Hazaras are partly descendants of Genghis Khan’s troops who infiltrated these mountains in the 13th century. Hazaras – who I had the pleasure to meet mostly in Kabul in the early 2000s – remain essentially Mongols, but linguistically Persianized, having adopted the old agricultural tradition of the Iranian mountains.

The Hazaras are diametrically opposed by the Pashtuns – who had an extremely complex ethno-genesis before the early 18th century, when they coalesced into great federations of nomad tribes. Their code of conduct – the Pashtunwali – is straightforward, regulating most of all a mechanism of sanctions.

The number one sanction is death: this is a poor society, where sanctions are physical, not material. Islam added moral elements to pashtunwali. And then there are juridical norms imposed by hereditary noblemen – which function like the carpet tying the room together: these come from the Turk-Mongols.

The modern Afghan state was created in the late 19th century by Abd-ur-Rahman, the “Iron Emir”. He pulled that off via a “Pashtunization” of the region that was locally known as the north of Turkestan. Then he integrated the Hazaras in the central mountains via bloody military campaigns.

Hazara lands were opened to Pashtun nomad tribes – who featured not only shepherds but also merchants and caravan entrepreneurs. Increasingly plunged into debt, the Hazaras ended up becoming economic hostages of the Pashtuns. Their way out was to emigrate to Kabul – where they hold mostly menial jobs.

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. Hazaras are Shi’ites. Pashtuns are Sunni. Pashtuns consider themselves the owners of Afghanistan – even as there’s persistent, major infighting among Pashtun groups. Pashtuns simply detest the Westphalian concept of the nation-state: most of all they see themselves as an empire within an empire.

This implies that ethnic minorities are marginalized – if they can’t find some sort of accommodation. Hazaras, because they are Shi’ites, were extremely marginalized during Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban rolled out en masse from Pakistani madrassas in 1994: the overwhelming majority were Pashtuns from rural areas between Kandahar and Paktiya. They had spent many years in camps scattered along the Pakistani tribal areas and Balochistan.

The Taliban became instantly successful for three reasons:

  1. Implementation of Sharia law.
  2. Their fight against the lack of security after the 1980s jihad instrumentalized by the Americans to give the USSR its “own Vietnam” (Brzezinski’s definition), and the subsequent warlord anarchy.
  3. Because they incarnated the return of the Pashtuns as the leading Afghan force.

No reincarnation?

All of the above supplies the context for the inevitable destruction of Solsol and Shahmana in March 2001. They were the symbols of an “infidel” religion. And they were situated in Shi’ite Hazara land.

Months later, after 9/11, I would learn from Taliban officials close to ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef in Islamabad that first they blew up “the little one, which was a woman” then “her husband”; that implies the Taliban were very much aware of local folklore.

The destruction process started with the legs of the Great Buddha: one of them was already cut at the knee and the other at the femur. It took them four days – using mines, explosives and even artillery. The Taliban forced local Hazara youth to drill holes in the statues: those who refused were shot dead.

Yet that was not enough to kill oral tradition. Even the young Hazara generation, born after the smashing of the Buddhas, still delights in the tale of Solsol and Shahmana.

But will they ever reincarnate as living statues? Enter the usually messy “international community”. In 2003, Unesco declared the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the surrounding caves a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”

Still, Kabul and Unesco can’t seem to agree on a final decision. As it stands, Solsol will not be rebuilt; Shahmana, maybe. On and off, they resurrect as 3-D holograms.

What happened so far is “consolidation work at the Eastern Buddha niche”, finished in 2015. Work at the Western Buddha niche started in 2016. A Bamiyan Expert Working Group gets together every year, featuring the administration in Kabul, Unesco experts and donors, mostly German and Japanese.

Ishaq Mawhidi, the head of the Culture and Information Department of Bamiyan, is sure that “90 percent of the statues can be rebuilt with the debris”, plus fragments of smaller statues currently preserved in two large warehouses on site.

The Afghan Ministry of Culture correctly argues that reconstruction work will require a formidable team, including Buddhism scholars, archeologists specialized in Gandhara art, historians, ethnographers, historiographers specialized in the first centuries of the first millennium in Afghanistan.

It will have to be eventually up to wealthy donors such as Berlin and Tokyo to willingly finance all this – and justify the costs, considering Hazara lands barely have been granted with working roads and electricity by the Kabul central government.


It’s always crucial to remember that the Bamiyan Buddhas blow up is a crucial case of deliberate destruction of world cultural heritage – alongside appalling instances in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Mali. They all connect, directly and indirectly, to the causes and consequences of imperial Forever Wars and their spin-offs (never forget that the Taliban initially were fully courted by the Clinton administration).

The Buddha of Dushanbe

In the end, I never managed to see Solsol and Shahmana. The Taliban would not issue a travel permit for foreigners under any circumstances. After 9/11 and the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul, I was negotiating a safe passage with Hazara fighters, but then something bigger came up: bribing a Pashtun commander to take a small group of us to Tora Bora to see the Empire B-52 Show against Osama bin Laden.

Instead of Solsol and Shahmana – either standing up in their niches, or blown up to smithereens – I finally managed to see the next best option: the reclining Buddha of Dushanbe.

Afghanistan may be the “graveyard of empires” – the last act being enacted as we speak. And, to a certain extent, a graveyard of Buddhas. But not neighboring Tajikistan.

The original Buddha of Dushanbe saga was published by Asia Times in those heady 9/11 days. It happened as my photographer Jason Florio and myself were waiting for days for a helicopter to take us to the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan.

Eighteen years later, like a Jorge Luis Borges short story, it all came down full circle before I traveled the Pamir highway in late 2019. I went to the same museum in Dushanbe and there he was: the 13 meter-long “sleeping lion”, found in the Buddhist monastery of Ajinateppa, resting on pillows, in glorious parinirvana, and fully restored, with help from an expert from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Somewhere in unknown spheres beyond space and time, Solsol and Shahmana will be benevolently smiling.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: 9/11, Afghanistan, Buddhism, Taliban 
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  1. They were the symbols of an “infidel” religion.

    Which had been protected for centuries since Islam first arrived in Afghanistan:

    In July 1999, three years after the entry of the Mullah’s forces in Kabul, the Taliban minister of Culture promulgated several directives insisting on the necessary protection of the antiquities and other legacies of the past. He specifically mentioned the statues of Bamiyan, pointing out that since the advent of Islam in Afghanistan, ‘they never suffered any damage’.6 The minister spoke about the respect due to those antiquities and also mentioned the risk of retaliation against mosques in Buddhist countries. He made it clear that, though they were no Buddhist believers in Afghanistan, ‘Bamiyan would not be destroyed but, on the contrary, protected’ according to Luke Harding (2001). In comparison, the famous 26 February decree appears as a real volte-face since it maintains that ‘these statues were and are sanctuary for unbelievers. These unbelievers continue to worship and to venerate these statues and pictures’.7

    So what happened?

    According to most commentators, the burst of the crisis had political reasons, not theological ones; the latter being a screen for the former. The fate of the Buddhas was linked to the ostracism forced upon the Taliban regime by the members of the UNO—with the exception of Pakistan and some Arabian States.

    A special report written by Asia Soura in 2008—a resource of the Asia Society (2001)— enumerates five factors, which may have contributed to the Mullah’s decision. The first is related to the range of UN sanctions imposed in December 2000. The second and the third factors are related to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and to the offer made by western states (and, as we have seen, not only western) of substantial sums of money to protect the Buddhas, when little attention was being given to the humanitarian crisis. The fourth is the lack of reactions of the international community after Mullah Omar had banned poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and the fifth factor is the fact that the U.N. still allowed the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani to occupy the Afghanistan seat at the U.N., while the Taliban’s forces controlled 90% of the country.

    Talha has first-hand knowledge about the political context to the destruction of the Bamiyan statues:

    • Replies: @Anon
  2. Link to the quoted article:

    The Controversy over the Buddhas of Bamiyan
    Pierre Centlivres

  3. A really interesting read, Mr. Escobar. Thank you.

  4. The caption to the photo was erroneous; the snap was of one of the Buddhas before the Taliban’s iconoclasm.

    The last I heard – I was very briefly teaching at the American University in Afghanistan some years ago – a Japanese Buddhist foundation was proposing to replace both destroyed Buddhas with holograms replicas which could be conveniently switched on and off when required.

    • Replies: @nokangaroos
  5. Russians restore. Americans destroy through proxies so they have plausible deniability.

  6. Russians restore things [and now I’m going to just throw in a whole bunch of words in here because the computer mammy seems to think that I said this somewhere else when I most assuredly did nnnnnnnnnnnnot.] Americans destroy through proxies so they have plausible deniability.

  7. I remember well when the news of the destruction of those statues hit the newspapers. Being an admirer of Buddhism, I was outraged and I immediately thought out loud that we would be at war with such extremist zealots before long. And I was correct.

    By the end of the year the twin towers were gone and we had boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

    And a struggle to save the West was even begun on the big screen in marvelous style in Peter Jackson’s LOTR. What a coincidence.

    I’m inclined to agree with Obwandiyag for once. The destruction of those statues may have been a western operation to demonize the Taliban so that we might be more easily convinced to blame them for what was a homegrown ZOG operation.

    • Replies: @showmethereal
  8. Religion and government, two sides of the same coin, are what the worlds stupidest people fight about. If all the religious and government symbols didn’t exist, the world would be a safer and saner place.

    My religion is better than your religion and I’ll kill you if you say anything bad about my god. My form of government is best and you’re going to accept it or else I’ll kill you.

    This has been going on for millennia and no one ever learns.

    • Agree: vox4non
  9. If Buddha had been there he would have been laughing as he helped them tear down the statues.

  10. @Jefferson Temple

    In actuality – all Abrahamic (Judaism – Christianity – Islam) religions are supposed to destroy idols. In modern times most just don’t do it – while the Taliban did…

    • Replies: @Jefferson Temple
  11. @showmethereal

    Well, yes, maybe they did. But did they get a little nudge from the friendly neighborhood spooks from America?

  12. Franz says:

    In actuality – all Abrahamic (Judaism – Christianity – Islam) religions are supposed to destroy idols.

    Yep, and that’s where our Antifa Taliban will probably head next.

    In fact, verbally it’s already started:

    “…Babylon stands identified — and the statue to the Babylonian Queen of Heaven, known as the Statue of Liberty, also stands revealed! May YHWH help us to “Come out of Babylon” in every way!”

    We have been warned. The next statue to come down is in their gun sights already:

    IS THE STATUE OF LIBERTY PAGAN? by William F. Dankenbring

    • Replies: @Jefferson Temple
  13. Resartus says:

    If their reign had lasted more than just a few months,
    you have to wonder, what kind of plan would the
    Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have had to dismantle the

    • Replies: @AnonStarter
  14. @Resartus

    Given the fact that only one sultan in the entire history of Islamic rule in Egypt ever attempted to do that and failed miserably in the attempt, it’s safe to say they had no such plan.

    Of course, one could always present some kind of tangible evidence to refute this. That tends to work much better than rank speculation.

  15. Resartus says:

    That tends to work much better than rank speculation.

    No doubt some of them had the desire…
    I discussed their fantasy about pyramids with several friends
    and determined that was all they had…..

  16. Anon[213] • Disclaimer says:

    Taliban made an interesting poignant observation before the detonation.
    Japan and few other western countries were making a big deal about culture heritage woman’s rights while keeping the country under sanctions . Same time they were expressing worries about the protection of some of the old monuments including the tall statue of Buddha.

    How many structures were destroyed when USA decided to start a war in Afghanistan and lure Soviet in ?
    How many were destroyed when America started bombing out of fun and revenge in 2001?

    What structure the wretched racist murderer Comedian Rumsfeld was talking whew he lamented that there was no target left in Afghanistan ? What target did he choose in Iraq?
    Water supply , schools , universities , hospitals , old iconic markets , and Shia and Suni mosques – that’s what he chose .

    History is written by winner . Taliban won’t win against West . But China – -Iran-Russia will . History will be rewritten the way British did from 1700.

  17. @Billy Corr

    Definitely before, yes …

    though they had already been pretty much fucked over since Aurangzeb used them for artillery practice – must be something in the water there.

  18. @Anon

    Water supply , schools , universities , hospitals , old iconic markets , and Shia and Suni mosques – that’s what he chose .

    Not to mention more than a few wedding parties. I remember reading regular news about this first hand, then watched it slip just as suddenly down the proverbial memory hole.

    Taliban won’t win against West.

    They haven’t lost. I wouldn’t count them out.

  19. @Franz

    I hope they try. Americans love that statue. The scales might fall from their eyes and they wouldn’t stand for it. And neither would Isis

  20. Franz says:

    I hope they try.

    I must agree. She became Our Lady of Open Borders about 50 years ago.

    • LOL: Jefferson Temple
  21. @Anon

    They will lose the information war – but they never lost militarily. Some of it using some of the same tactics they were taught by guess who??

  22. Bao says:

    Wherever the US brings freedom, there is always destruction, death, and strife, but never any freedom. Out of that, the worst is the destruction, because death and strife can be overcome through generations. But the destruction may include the destruction of thousand year old peoples and cultures, to be replaced with barbarism.

    When the Taliban blew up those statues, I knew that Islam is an evil religion. And who is responsible for the existence of the Taliban?

  23. Religious leaders throughout the world chorally declare,”The Taliban actually did what their religion says to do!” Nodding their heads, they go back to relentless fund raising.

  24. Bhudda was a nobleman whose family owned slaves and was racist to the lower castes. Cancelled.

  25. Smith says:

    Not a lot comment over why they destroyed these statues, they destroyed it because other countries want to sanction and starve Afghanistan while mulling over stupid rock statues.

    Rock statues cannot come over human’s lives, so cut the crap and blow them out.

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