Centuries-old Buddha statues under threat in Afghanistan
- By JEAN-CLAUDE CHAPON,
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- For centuries they have gazed benevolently from their mountain homes as wars raged across the Afghan plains. But now the two massive Buddha statues could themselves become casualties.
The statues, carved into the sides of the mountains bordering the central province of Bamiyan during the second and third centuries, are under threat from neglect and a warning by a local Islamic Taliban commander that he will blow them up.
Frescoes on the walls surrounding the statues, as well as grottoes dug in the fifth and sixth centuries by Buddhist monks, have all but disappeared through neglect.
Previously protected by hordes of pilgrims, the statues -- 181 feet and 110 feet high -- are now only visited by children who love to climb up them despite the danger.
The grottoes which pepper the sides of the mountains were built by the monks as living quarters. They are now occupied by refugees, many of them fleeing the Taliban.
The arrival of Islam in the valley also led to the mutilation of the statues, which have managed to retain their heads but have had noses, ears, eyes and mouths defaced.
But it is not just their size which makes the statues uniqe.
Both are dressed in togas of a Grecian style imported into India by the soldiers of Alexander the Great when he invaded the region in 334-327 B.C.
Inspired by one invader, they now face possible destruction from another -- the Taliban.
Abdul Wahid, who is leading the Taliban fight against the Hezb-i-Wahdat who currently hold the region, threatened in April to blow up the statues if he captured the area.
He said they represented a pre-Islamic Afghanistan which was of no interest. "These statues are not Islamic and we should destroy them."
The Taliban, who control some two-thirds of the country, have imposed strict Islamic laws in the areas they control. They have stopping women from working or getting an education and banned photographs, scultures and paintings of people. Even dolls are off limits.
For the moment calls by the international community to preserve the masterpieces have apparently earned a reprieve.
Taliban minister for culture and information Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi said no decision had been taken on the statues. Then the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, said they would not be destroyed as they were "not part of a religious cult."
The Taliban offensive in the area has also run out of steam but there are concerns that if it ever picked up the fate of the Buddhas would again be seriously in doubt.'
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