More than 1,500 years ago, the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan’s central highlands was a vibrant Buddhist monastic center—a destination for pilgrims and stopping point on the ancient Silk Road, where traders and travelers exchanged goods and ideas from both East and West. People came to Bamiyan to worship, to learn, and to see the two colossal Buddhas carved into the valley’s sandstone cliffs. Standing about 175 feet high, the Buddha on the western end of the cliffside was taller than the Statue of Liberty from base to torch, and the eastern Buddha measured about 120 feet tall. Dating to around the fifth century CE, the Buddhas reflected Indian, Central Asian, and Greek and Roman influences. The statues were covered in stucco and painted dazzling colors. In the cliffsides surrounding the massive Buddhas, hundreds of caves served as chapels and places of contemplation for monks and pilgrims, with colorful murals covering the walls and ceilings.
The Bamiyan Buddhas stood for more than a millennium, surviving Mongol ruler Genghis Khan’s destruction of the city in 1221 CE and later defacement in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. In 2001, however, they fell. In late February of that year, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar—possibly encouraged by al-Qaeda—ordered the destruction of Afghanistan’s famous Buddha statues, declaring them “insulting to Islam.” Heads of state, religious leaders, and cultural heritage advocates around the world pleaded with the Taliban to save the Buddhas; New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art even offered to buy the statues if that would ensure their preservation.
Taliban leaders refused.
Beginning on March 2 and continuing for weeks, Taliban troops launched an all-out assault on the Buddhas, firing at them with guns, tank shells, rocket launchers, and anti-aircraft weapons. When this only succeeded in damaging the statues, they ordered men to drill holes into the Buddhas and plant explosives that would destroy the ancient figures once and for all. By the end of March 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas had been reduced to piles of rubble, the only sign of them were the empty niches in the cliffsides where they had stood for 1,500 years.