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The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan

A writer and photographer crisscross a nation ravaged by a quarter century of warfare to inventory its most sacred treasures

On to Bamiyan, some 250 miles away. In A.D. 632, before Islam, the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang crossed the Himalayas from western China into present-day northern India and then to Afghanistan. In his journal he writes of gorges, deep with snow, making travel impossible; of murderous bandits who killed travelers; of precipices, avalanches. At last Hsuan-tsang crossed into the BamiyanValley, where he found a peaceable Buddhist kingdom with this oasis city at its heart, watched over by two great stone Buddhas carved into the face of a giant cliff. In time, of course, the kingdom fell, Islam supplanted Buddhism and Genghis Khan came through, demolishing and slaughtering. Later, about 1900, Pushtun monarch Abdurrahman marched in, persecuting Shi’a inhabitants and hacking the faces off the Buddhas.

 

When I first came to Bamiyan, in the winter of 1998, the local Hazaras, descendants of the Buddha builders, were again under siege from the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. Like Abdurrahman in his day, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Ladin and their followers despised any Muslim who did not profess the Sunni form of the religion. I was part of a small aid group that flew into Bamiyan from Uzbekistan with two tons of medical supplies in a creaky, unmarked Antonov transport plane. Because of Taliban bombing, we were forced to land at an airstrip on the plateau above Bamiyan and convoy the medicine down by truck. I will never forget rounding the corner of the snowy valley in the late afternoon sun and seeing, in the cliffs, the two Buddhas, the larger one 180 feet high, the smaller 125, looking down upon us with their invisible Buddha faces. Young Shi’a fighters armed with assault rifles stood sentry at the base of the cliff. Though Muslim, they were still defiantly proud of these monumental figures, hewn out of stone by their ancestors 1,500 years ago.

 

I’m not sure if it is a blessing or a curse to see something beautiful and precious before it vanishes forever; a bit of both, perhaps. I left with a feeling of foreboding. Within eight months, northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, leaving the Hazaras increasingly isolated. On September 13, 1998, Taliban forces captured Bamiyan itself, killing thousands, razing the ancient town and finally, of course, in March 2001, blowing up the two Buddhas with hundreds of pounds of explosives.

 

Now, as we drive toward the 10,779-foot ShibarPass, the gateway to Bamiyan, we pass ruined Hazara villages, relics of Taliban genocide; our vehicle, ominously, is the only one on the once-busy road. When we arrive in Bamiyan, we find most of the town lying in rubble. Then I take a second look. Everywhere rebuilding is going on: people are making bricks from mud, conjuring their houses and shops back to life. Farmers are loading up trucks with potatoes to sell in Kabul. U.N. vehicles, too, scurry about, part of a massive international campaign to bring Bamiyan back to life. A contingent of U.S. Army Special Operations troops are helping build bridges and schools while they also keep order.

 

From the ruins of the bazaar, I finally look up at the place where the Buddhas once stood. Though the niches are empty, the outlines of the figures are still visible on the stone sides of the caves, and in some transcendental, incorporeal way the Buddhas seem to be here too. Is it possible, I wonder, that the Taliban “liberated” the Buddhas from the inert stone? Dizzy thoughts in the glare of the sun, perhaps. A young Hazara man sees me looking up at the cliffs. “Buddhas,” he says, pointing to where I am gazing. I nod. “Buddhas khub [good],” he says. “Taliban baas [finished].” He makes a throat-cutting motion across his neck with his hand.

 

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