The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two enormous Buddhas carved into a cliffside in Afghanistan. The Buddhas of Bamiyan are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 2003. They are considered very endangered, following their virtual destruction by the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001.
Bamiyan is on the Silk Road, the route that historically connected both India and China with Europe and the Middle East. Bamiyan was a part of an Indian kingdom until the 12th century, and was heavily influenced by the Buddhist culture of the kingdom. Small man-made caves dot the mountainside at Bamiyan, and these caves served as home to Buddhist hermits for centuries. These hermits carved religious art into the hills all along the cliffs, but the Buddhas of Bamiyan were far and away the largest and most impressive of these carvings. Historically, Bamiyan was described in the 7th century by a Chinese pilgrim as being a bustling center of Buddhism, with more than a thousand monks living there.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were 121 feet (37m) and 180 feet (55m) high. These statues were, until their destruction, the largest standing Buddha statues in the world. The statues were awe-inspiring both in their size and their intricacy, with details made using mud and straw stucco. The entire statues were at one point painted, but even before their destruction this paint had all but vanished, with only small patches still remaining.
Both of the Buddhas of Bamiyan were carved sometime in the early-6th century. They blend both Indian and Greek artistic styles, and are wearing tunics of the Hellenic type, no doubt as a result of Alexander the Great’s incursion into the region and introduction of Greek styles
Starting in the 12th century, various Buddhist shrines and statues began to come under attack in Afghanistan, primarily by conquering Muslim rulers and armies. Buddhist statues were seen as a direct violation of a commandment against graven images by many hardliners over the years. Nonetheless, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were spared destruction time and time again, even as other holy sites were pillaged and defaced.
In 1999, the Mullah of Afghanistan set out a decree stating that the Buddhas of Bamiyan would continue to be preserved. As his main justification he pointed out that since the country no longer contained a Buddhist population, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were highly unlikely to be the source of reverence, and therefore were not in violation of the commandment.
Over the next two years, however, the radical clerics in Afghanistan began a full-scale attack on many forms of imagery, even those traditionally accepted by Islamic societies. In 2001 this came to a head with a decree ordering the destruction of all statues in the country. In response, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) convened and issued a statement supporting the preservation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The three states which officially recognized the Taliban government were among those who supported sparing the statues.
Nonetheless, in March of that year, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by dynamite. Following their destruction there was an enormous public outcry. After the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, a number of groups joined together pledging money to finance their restoration. Work has begun on this restoration, but it will likely be many years until the Buddhas of Bamiyan are once again visible in their full splendor. Even in their somewhat-ruined state, however, the Buddhas of Bamiyan remain an amazing sight to behold, and although the region is somewhat volatile right now, they are still a popular tourist attraction.