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116 BAMIYAN ••


Bamiyan never fully recovered from the Mongol devastation. While the Hazaras now claim descent from the Mongol invad- ers, they spent the next 600 years independ- ent but isolated from Afghan history. The Hazaras’ adherence to Shiite Islam meant they were further distrusted by the Afghan mainstream.

In the 1890s Abdur Rahman Khan led a

military campaign to bring Bamiyan and the Hazarajat under the control of the Af- ghan state. He declared a jihad against the Hazaras, taking many into slavery and giv- ing their land to Pashtun farmers. Ironic- ally, the Hazaras were allowed to return when the newcomers found it impossible to raise crops in Bamiyan’s marginal environ- ment. The area remained the most under- developed part of Afghanistan throughout the 20th century. Bamiyan rebelled against the commu-

nist government in early 1979, with the town inspired by the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shiite revolution in Iran. After the Soviet invasion, the mountainous sur- roundings were a blessing to the resistance, who drove the Russians out of the Hazarajat by 1981.

For the first time in their history the Haz- aras could organise themselves politically and militarily. Bamiyan was ruled by the mujaheddin party Hezb-e Wahdat, sup- ported by Iran. By the middle of the 1990s, Hazara influence extended as far as Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. The rise of the Taliban saw the return

of anti-Hazara sentiments. Following their capture of Kabul, the Pashtun militia imme- diately started a blockade of the Bamiyan valley. The region was dependent on food aid but the Taliban refused access to the international community, in a bid to starve their enemies. By the time the Taliban cap- tured Bamiyan in September 1998, much of the population had fled to the mountains. In an echo of Abdur Rahman Khan’s policies, the Taliban tried to encourage Pashtun’s nomads to settle on the Hazaras’ land. Almost immediately, the Taliban threat- ened to blow up the giant Buddhas, but backed down in the face of international outrage. Mullah Omar even went as far as declaring that they should be protected to encourage a future return of tourism to Afghanistan.


You’ll be hard-pressed to find pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud in Bamiyan: locals still remember his 1995 shelling of Hazara civilians in Kabul. Instead, pictures of the late Hezb-e Wahdat leader Abdul Ali Mazari are prominently displayed, including a large billboard overlooking the town. Mazari was mysteriously killed by the Taliban in 1995 after trying to form an alliance with them against the mujaheddin government in Kabul and the Hazaras are now led by Karim Khalili – another favourite on the walls of Bamiyan.

Such ideals didn’t last long. With UN

sanctions biting, and faced with a newly resurgent Hazara resistance, the Buddha statues were declared un-Islamic and their destruction was decreed. Over two days in the beginning of March 2001, dynamite and tank-fire reduced the monumental statues to rubble. The world – and the Afghan population – was horrified. The Taliban celebrated by selling picture calendars of the demolition on the streets of Kabul. The US-led campaign in November 2001

saw a final Taliban spate of killing and de- struction before Bamiyan’s liberation. But peace has finally returned to Bamiyan, even producing the country’s first female governor in the figure of Habiba Sorabi. Economic development has been slower to follow.


Bamiyan is set in a wide and pretty valley, dominated by the sandstone cliffs that form its northern wall. Approached from the east, a large sign misleadingly welcomes you to the city of Bamiyan; the town lies a further 15km down the road. Minibuses drop you off outside the chaikhanas along the main bazaar (Shahr-e Nau), where you’ll also find most of Bamiyan’s amenities. The Buddha niches, a short walk over the river from the town centre, are visible from everywhere in Bamiyan. Bamiyan’s old bazaar lies de- stroyed in front of the Large Buddha and much of the area between the two niches has been marked for mine clearance. At the southwestern end of Shahr-e Nau a road leads uphill to Teppe Baba Shah,

which offers the best scenic views of the valley, as well as being the location for many NGO offices. As it curls uphill, the road splits left towards Shahr-e Gholghola. From Teppe Baba Shah, continue south to the airstrip and the village of Sir Asyab, where you will find some more sleeping options (a taxi from Shahr-e Nau will cost around 80Afg).


Internet Access

Bamiyan Business Centre (Shahr-e Nau; per hr 60Afg; h2.30-7pm) Well run with fast internet connections.


There are plenty of moneychangers’ offices along Bamiyan’s main bazaar.

Kabul Exchange (Shahr-e Nau, next to Marco Polo Hotel) Has a branch of Western Union, but keeps erratic business hours.

Post & Telephone

At the time of research, only Roshan offered mobile phone coverage in Bamiyan. There are PCOs along the main bazaar.

Post office (Shahr-e Nau) Look for the hand-painted ‘Post’ sign on the door, but it’s more reliable to send mail from Kabul.

Tourist Information

An excellent guide to the valley is the re- cent reprint of Nancy Dupree’s Bamiyan, but frustratingly this is only available in Kabul.

Afghan Tourist Organization (Bamiyan Hotel, Teppe

Baba Shah) Has little tourist information, but can organise cars and drivers.


The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang, who visited the valley in the 7th century, is our best chronicler of Bamiyan. After accurately describing the two standing Buddhas, he left a description of a third to entice later generations of archaeologists: ‘In the monastery situated two or three li to the east of the city, there is an image of the Buddha recumbent, more than one thousand feet long, in the posture of entering Nirvana.’ If true, this Buddha would be as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall – but what happened to it? Since the fall of the Taliban, a team led by the Afghan archaeologist Professor Zemaryali Tarzi has been searching for it, believing it to have been buried under rubble from an earthquake. In an area southeast of the Small Buddha, he believes he may have found part of the toe of this Reclining Buddha. A major problem is that the statue is thought to have been made of mud bricks, and so would have been highly susceptible to erosion. However, Professor Tarzi’s excavations have un- covered several small Buddha statues and carved heads, which have been presented to the Kabul Museum. The fate of the Reclining Buddha may never be known, but the search continues.


Information 117


The Buddha Niches

The empty niches of the Buddha statues dominate the Bamiyan valley. Carved in the 6th century, the two statues, standing 38m and 55m respectively, were the tall- est standing statues of Buddha ever made. Now gone, the emptiness of the spaces the statues have left behind nevertheless in- spires awe and quiet contemplation in equal measure. The bases of the niches are fenced off and although it is quite possible to view them for free from some distance, a ticket from the office of the Director of Information

and Culture (in front of Large Buddha niche; 160Afg, ticket also valid for Shahr-e Gholghola & Shahr-e Zohak; h8am-

5pm) allows further access to the site. Next to the director’s office is a large shed containing the salvaged remains of the Large Buddha, which give an insight into the construction of the statues. They weren’t simply carved out of the sandstone cliffs – rough figures were instead hewn from the rock, which was then covered in mud and straw to create the intricate folds of the robes, before being plastered and painted. The Large Buddha was painted with red robes, while the Small Buddha was clothed in red. Their faces were covered in gilded masks, although all traces of these disap- peared in antiquity. The Chinese monk Xuan Zang visited Bamiyan at the height of its glory in the 7th century, writing of the statues that ‘the golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eye by their brightness’. As a de- vout pilgrim, Xuan Zang may have looked back on the statues’ ultimate destruction

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