Tracing the route on the map from Kabul to Bamiyan, it didn’t look too painful, but after an early start from the Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital, we finally pulled into the city well after dark.
Whilst we were there for some very serious work stuff, my personal goal was to see the holes left by the Taliban, where once stood the biggest Buddha statues in the world. The two 6th century icons, hewn directly from the sandstone,were destroyed under the orders of Mullah Mohamed Omar in March 2001, despite him issuing a decree to save them from destruction in 1999. The obliteration started firstly by using artillery, then tanks, before the final destruction was carried out by explosives at the base.
The following morning dawned chilly, I left the guest house early, wearing a wooly hat and a Rab jacket, just as the sun was rising, to see if I could see them, but fog shrouded the entire valley, so I went back inside for breakfast. Once finished, the three of us left the guest house and went to work. Once the fog had cleared, the holes stared accusingly across the entire area. The empty frames are visible from everywhere in the town, they are truly immense.
After a couple of full working days, I finally got the chance to get up close and personal. I drove up to the base of the larger of the two, and walked towards it. The space I stood in was 58m high, a size that is simple to write but almost impossible to describe.The outline of the Buddha, is etched against the back of the alcove like a photonegative, a radiation shadow from an atomic blast. At the bottom of the hole, huge boulders and rectangular pieces, many larger than the jeep I’d just exited, remnants of what were destroyed a few years previously.
Over 1500 years of history was there, in front of me, in countless pieces of differing shapes and sizes. The personal sense of insignificance, both at the size and the age, was overwhelming, it was all I could do to remain standing. Whilst there was nothing to stop me from sitting on a piece of what it used to be, it seemed disrespectful to do so. I was silent, mute, with an anger and a sense of incomprehension that rose within me. I spent the best part of an hour stood, open eyed and open mouthed, in front of the empty abyss, trying in vain to make sense of the jumble.
When my brain could take no more, I turned, walked back to the car and drove back to the guest house.
I’d visited, I’d marvelled at the size of the holes, I’d found it impossible to understand what forces drove people to destroy such things. In the Bamiyan valley there are no longer practising Buddhists, thus if the Taliban reason was to stop idolatry, nobody was worshipping them anyway.
I shall whisper this quietly to finish with, as even to an atheist it seems somewhat sacrilegious, whilst I would have loved to have seen the original statues, the holes are absolutely awe inspiring and I’m not certain I would have been more impressed if the original buddha’s were still there.