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CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN BA MIYAN &

118 BAMIYAN ••

Sights

as reflecting a central teaching of the Bud- dha: nothing is permanent and everything changes. The remaining chunks of statue are a small fraction of the total – the Taliban sold much of what was not simply destroyed to Pakistani antique dealers in Peshawar. The view from the base of the niche to its ceiling is dizzying. The ceiling and walls were once covered with frescoes, using sym- bolism borrowed from Greek, Indian and Sassanid (Persian) art. The fusion of these traditions gave the Buddhist art of Bamiyan its vitality, which would later spread to India and China. The cliffs surrounding each Buddha are honeycombed with monastic cells and grot- toes, and your entrance ticket allows a guided tour. When we visited, the guides were en- thusiastic but didn’t have much English (or information), although a proper train- ing programme is now reportedly in place. When exploring the cells and passages, good shoes are recommended, as well as a torch. Hard hats are provided – less for the fear of falling rocks than the inevitability of banging your head on the low ceilings. The Large Buddha’s grottoes are rela-

tively few in number. You enter them by climbing almost around the back of the Buddha, cutting up some way to the left. The path here is marked with white rocks to show recent demining. The cells were originally decorated with frescoes display- ing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all now lost in this section. In total, it is estimated that around 85% of the paintings disappeared

REBUILDING THE BUDDHAS?

Mullah Omar may have said that all he was doing was ‘breaking stones’ when he ordered the destruc- tion of the Buddhas, but he was being disingenuous. Bamiyan was once the jewel in Afghanistan’s tourism crown and many locals believe that rebuilding the statues will encourage foreign tourism and boost the region’s economy, as well as being an act of cultural healing. Hamid Karzai and Bamiyan governor Habiba Sorabi have both given vocal support. Unesco

have been more ambivalent, claiming a mandate to preserve rather than rebuild and that general reconstruction of the town should take priority. Nevertheless proposals have been put forward by several sources, including an Afghan sculptor and a consortium headed by a Swiss museum. Costs are estimated at US$30 to US$50 million – big money in a town lacking mains electricity. Equally fanciful has been the plan by a Californian artist to project multiple lasers onto the empty niches to recreate the statues. Meanwhile, the only actual rebuilding of the Buddhas has been in China, where replicas have been constructed in a theme park in Sichuan. The empty niches seem likely to exert their mournful auras over the Bamiyan valley for the foreseeable future.

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during the war, through neglect, theft or deliberate destruction. As you follow the passages you eventu- ally emerge above the head of the Large Buddha. The views are amazing, unless you suffer from vertigo. The top of the niche has been braced with scaffolding to prevent subsidence. As with the cells, the ceiling was once elaborately painted. The Small Buddha niche stands 500m to the east. The intervening section of cliff is honeycombed with cells, sanctuaries and passages tunnelled into the rock. Now long gone, a series of stupas and monasteries at the foot of the cliff further served the Buddhist complex. Xuan Zang noted 10 convents and over a 1000 priests and at its peak, Bamiyan is thought to have con- tained around 50 temples. Halfway between the two Buddhas is a smaller third niche, high on the cliff, which would have held a free-standing Buddha statue. In the after- math of the Taliban’s ouster, many of these caves were occupied by Hazara internally displaced people (IDPs). The grottoes of the Small Buddha are far

more extensive and rewarding than those at the Large Buddha, in part because this site is nearly a century older. You enter via stairs at the base of the niche – these stairs encircle the niche, allowing the faithful to circumambulate the Buddha, an important ritual. Although almost all of the frescoes have been lost, a few glimpses remain in a couple of places. The so-called assembly hall on the west side has bright blue and maroon fragments of a huge lotus on its cup-

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ola, surrounded by a red band decorated with delicate white flowers. It’s just enough to give a tantalising idea of how the whole might have looked. Near this hall is a vesti- bule looking out to the valley, which still retains its original façade, with the stone carved to resemble jutting wood beams. The grottoes continue on the east side

of the niche, with rooms containing carved lantern-roof ceilings and wall niches for Buddha statues. Bamiyan’s heyday as a Buddhist pilgrim-

age site barely lasted a handful of centuries. After a brief period of coexistence with its expanding Muslim neighbours, it slipped into terminal decline around the 10th cen- tury, when many statues and temples were destroyed. Memories of the Buddhist past faded and locals began to suppose that the statues were of pagan kings. Amaz- ingly, Genghis Khan left them standing – about the only thing he did leave intact in Bamiyan. Greater damage was done in the 17th century when the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb smashed their faces. A hundred years later the legs of the Larg e Buddha were cut off by the Persian Nadir Shah. During the civil war, the niches and caves

were often used as ammunition dumps, with some soldiers occasionally using the statues for target practice. The final, terrible, indig- nity came with their complete demolition by the Taliban in March 2001, leaving be- hind an indelible testament to Afghanistan’s many cultural losses in recent wars.

Shahr-e Gholghola

A 20-minute walk from Bamiyan stands the

remains of Ghorid Bamiyan’s last

stand against the Mongol hordes. Shahr-e Gholghola was reputedly the best defended of Bamiyan’s royal citadels and was captured by intrigue rather than force of arms. Bamiyan’s ruler Jalaludin held strong under Genghis Khan’s siege, but he didn’t reckon on the treachery of his daughter. She had quit her widowed father’s castle in a fit of pique over his remarrying a prin- cess from Ghazni. She betrayed the castle’s secret entrance, expecting to be rewarded through her own betrothal to the Mongol ruler. But he put her to the sword anyway and slaughtered the rest of the defenders. The noise of the furious violence gave the citadel’s modern name – ‘City of Screams’.

BAMIYAN ••

Sights 119

To get to the citadel, follow the road up

Teppe Baba Shah, but veer left at the first junction. The walk, curving past wheat and potato fields, is a pleasant one, particularly in late summer when you can watch the grain being threshed by yoked oxen. The road skirts the base of the citadel, with a path leading up an area cleared for parking. The ruins were mined during the war, and although there are no red or white rocks visible, it is still strongly advised that you keep only to the worn path to the summit. There is a small police post at the top, where you’ll be asked to produce a ticket – the same one covering the Buddha Niches and Shahr-e Zohak (see p117 ). The views over the valley to the cliff walls

are gorgeous. Looking south, the view ex- tends to the Kakrak Valley, which once held a 6.5m standing Buddha (the niche in the cliff is just visible with the naked eye) and some important frescoes, all now lost. It’s a good couple of hours’ walk, again through pretty farmland. Between the citadel and this val- ley are the remains of Qala-e Dokhtar (the Daughter’s Castle), once home to Jalalu- din’s duplicitous offspring.

Shahr-e Zohak

The imposing ruins of Shahr-e Zohak guard the entrance to the Bamiyan valley, perched high on the cliffs at the confluence of the Bamiyan and Kalu rivers. Built by the Ghorids, they stand on foundations dating back to the 6th century. Genghis Khan’s grandson was killed here, bringing down his murderous fury on the whole Bami- yan valley as a result. The colloquial name Zohak is taken from the legendary serpent- haired king of Persian literature. The towers of the citadel are some of the most dramatic in Afghanistan. Made of mud-brick on stone foundations, they wrap around the side of the cliff, with geometric patterns built into their crenellations for decoration. The towers had no doors, but were accessed by ladders that the defenders pulled up behind them. Passing the towers, a path leads up

through a rock tunnel and the main gate- way of the fortress, before switching back up the hill, past ruined barracks and store- rooms. Take extreme care here – the route is marked with red rocks for landmines (many of then faded or peeling), so don’t

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