The Buddhas of Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

by Llewelyn Morgan
The Buddhas of Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

by Llewelyn Morgan


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For 1,400 years, two colossal figures of the Buddha overlooked the fertile Bamiyan Valley on the Silk Road in Afghanistan. Witness to a melting pot of passing monks, merchants, and armies, the Buddhas embodied the intersection of East and West, and their destruction by the Taliban in 2001 provoked international outrage. Llewelyn Morgan excavates the layers of meaning these vanished wonders hold for a fractured Afghanistan.

Carved in the sixth and seventh centuries, the Buddhas represented a confluence of religious and artistic traditions from India, China, Central Asia, and Iran, and even an echo of Greek influence brought by Alexander the Great’s armies. By the time Genghis Khan destroyed the town of Bamiyan six centuries later, Islam had replaced Buddhism as the local religion, and the Buddhas were celebrated as wonders of the Islamic world. Not until the nineteenth century did these figures come to the attention of Westerners. That is also the historical moment when the ground was laid for many of Afghanistan’s current problems, including the rise of the Taliban and the oppression of the Hazara people of Bamiyan. In a strange twist, the Hazaras—descendants of the conquering Mongol hordes who stormed Bamiyan in the thirteenth century—had come to venerate the Buddhas that once dominated their valley as symbols of their very different religious identity.

Incorporating the voices of the holy men, adventurers, and hostages throughout history who set eyes on the Bamiyan Buddhas, Morgan tells the history of this region of paradox and heartache.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674503793
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 05/04/2015
Series: Wonders of the World , #49
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Llewelyn Morgan is University Lecturer in Classical Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.

Read an Excerpt

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved in the sixth century AD, represented two aspects of the Buddha, Vairocana (the 'universal' Buddha and Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha). They were Afghanistan's most famous historical monument, indeed the only one which could claim a truly worldwide level of recognition; the threat to destroy them, and the realisation of that threat, provoked outrage across the world. But the circumstances of their destruction raise a fundamental question about them. Whose monument are they? The most impassioned representations to the Taleban not to damage the statues came from the West and the Far East, Japan especially. And while there is no doubt that the local population in Bamiyan, the Hazara, were devastated by what happened, what about the rest of Afghanistan? The authorities have certainly tried in the past to represent the Buddhas as a source of pride for the whole country, but in this notoriously disunited nation it is not a given that the man on the street in Mazar-e Sharif cares any more about the Botha-ye Bamiyan than the Joe the Plumber. That at any rate seems to have been alQaeda's calculation: it was their celebrity on the world scene, combined with the lucky coincidence that they were non-Islamic, which ensured that bin Laden turned his attention to them. The status of this monument is all the more fascinating now that it no longer exists. Destroyed, the statues have greater symbolic potency than they ever had before, the ultimate monument to the evils of religious intolerance. The current plans for reconstruction envisage restoring the smaller Buddha but leaving the larger as it is, an acknowledgement of the monumental power of an empty niche.

(The size of the Vairocana Buddha, and the splendid decoration it will originally have carried, were always meant to remind onlookers that all existence is really empty.) But again, a monument for whom? The Buddhas of Bamiyan have a remarkable story to tell, from their creation in the meeting of Greek artistic styles and the origins of Mahayana Buddhism, the religion of much of East Asia, right through to their role in the lead-up to 9/11, but they also take us into the heart of the Afghan crisis, the search for a common purpose capable of unifying Afghans of all ethnic identities. And it all comes down to the nub of the issue, which is: is this UNESCO World Heritage Site Afghanistan's concern, as well as the world's?

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