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The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan – review
The story of two Afghan sculptures, destroyed after a millennium and a half
In 2001, in a violent attempt to advance the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, a clutch of men empowered by the Taliban brought down a titanic pair of structures that loomed over their skyline. No lives were lost. The few people living near the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, were cleared out first, before anti-artillery weapons were trained on the sculptures, carved out of the russet cliffs of the Bamiyan valley. "These statues have been and remain shrines of unbelievers," a February 2011 edict from Mullah Omar had proclaimed. Their destruction was carried out with a rare and perverse vim. Failing at first to pulverise the Buddhas, the Taliban called in Pakistani and Arab engineers to finish the job. In The Places in Between, Rory Stewart observed that the Taliban had scorched a fresco on the ceiling of one of the caves that honeycomb the cliffs and then stamped boot-prints over the patina of soot. "This must have taken some effort, as the ceiling was 20 feet high."
The Buddhas had stood for a millennium and a half; the smaller figure, 38m tall, was built around AD550, and the larger – at 55m only a little shorter than London's Monument – around AD615. In The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Llewelyn Morgan, a lecturer in classics at Oxford University, explores not so much the heartbreaking demise of the statues as their remarkably long lives. How and why did the Buddhas survive more than a dozen centuries of an Islamic Afghanistan, only to meet their end at a particular political moment in 2001? The final downfall of these sculptures – their arms already snapped off, their surfaces pitted by erosion and minor vandalism – represented the nadir of a long and complex process of civilisation. In the plangent words of the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, perhaps the Buddhas could take no more: "Even a statue can be ashamed of witnessing all this violence and harshness happening to these innocent people and, therefore, collapse."
The story of Bamiyan, Morgan suggests, is really the story of Afghanistan itself – of a fractured land with the misfortune of being one of the world's great crossroads, the benefits accruing to it from trade and commerce rubbed out by the curse of being coveted for its strategic location. Bamiyan lay on a branch of the silk route that cut efficiently through the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains, providing both merchants and soldiers access to the Indian subcontinent, to China, to central Asia and thence to Europe. It has hosted a multitude of nationalities, religions and armies, a tinder-dry mix ever primed to be set afire: Greek stragglers from Alexander's campaigns; Hazaras descended from Genghis Khan's troops; Indians and Pashtuns and Persians and Turks; Buddhists and Christians as well as Shia and Sunni Muslims; the forces of the British Raj, the Soviet Union, the Taliban and Nato. Incredibly, through this tumult, Bamiyan managed to retain an air of pacific calm; the historian Arnold J Toynbee, visiting in 1960, wrote of "peace in the glistening white poplar-trunks … peace in the shadowy shapes of the Buddhas and the caves".
Buddhism arrived in the Bamiyan valley in the first or second century AD. This was as far west as the religion would advance, but it flourished here; archaeologists have discovered the remains of a great stupa – a domed home for Buddhist relics – and the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who passed through Bamiyan in AD629, wrote of "several tens" of monasteries with "several thousand monks". An uncommon stability prevailed in Bamiyan at the time, the result of a delicate balance of regional powers. Morgan proposes that Buddhism benefited from this stability, but also from Bamiyan's nature as a hub of commerce. The town's monks, Xuanzang noted, shrewdly charged visitors to see their relics, and their monasteries functioned as dormitories, bazaars and banks for merchants. Out of such unexpectedly mercantile zeal were Bamiyan's giant Buddhas funded... Full article
Update from Jihadwatch:
Hatred and Violence in the Qur'an Awareness Month: "Travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth"
One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the niche where it used to be
Why do some Muslims hate pre-Islamic art with such frenzied intensity that they would destroy it, despite its historical and archaeological value? Why did the Taliban blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and why do some Islamic supremacists in Egypt today want to do the same thing to the Sphinx and the Pyramids?
It isn't just because they are artifacts of a religion that Islam rejects as false and idolatrous, although that is a large part of it. It is also because the Qur'an says that the ruins are a sign of Allah's punishment of those who rejected his truth:
Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth. (Qur'an 3:137)This is one of the foundations of the Islamic idea that pre-Islamic civilizations, and non-Islamic civilizations, are all jahiliyya – the society of unbelievers, which is worthless. Obviously this cuts against the idea of archaeological preservation. V. S. Naipaul encountered this attitude in his travels through Muslim countries. For many Muslims, he observed in Among the Believers, “The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.” Naipaul recounted that some Pakistani Muslims, far from valuing the nation’s renowned archaeological site at Mohenjo Daro, saw its ruins as a teaching opportunity for Islam, recommending that Qur’an 3:137 be posted there as a teaching tool.
Their hatred for their own heritage and past was a point of pride for them, inculcated by the Qur'an.