The Buddhas of Bamiyan
Some time ago, I heard Afghanistan described as the “swallower of empires”. Needless to say, this tweaked my interest. How does a country acquire such notoriety? So I asked Twitter and was recommended a number of books that would improve my knowledge of this legendary and timeless country. I have started my Afghanistan journey with The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Dr Llewelyn Morgan from Oxford University.
I clearly remember the vision of the two enormous monoliths being destroyed by misguided extremists. I was so very sad for the people of Afghanistan for their cultural loss - and I was sad for the world. Once gone, these statues can not be replaced, cannot be rebuilt and can not be seen by future generations. What an act of barbarism! This is where Morgan starts his book - with trying to explain who was responsible for the destruction, how and why. He also outlined the various groups who desperately tried to prevent the destruction, including some senior imams. But alas, they were destroyed.
Morgan then takes the reader on an amazing journey to uncover the rich history of the statues, of Bamiyan and of Buddhism and Islam. He begins:
Over the fourteen centuries of their existence the Buddhas of Bamiyan were an object of fascination for people of many faiths.
Morgan draws upon a rich range of primary sources, witnesses to the majesty of the buddhas from as far back as Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk travelling in the 7thC CE. He includes extracts from diaries and letters so that the reader can cast their own eye on the descriptions and comments from the writer. Xuanzang:
To the north-east of the royal city, on the side of the mountain, there is a stone statue of the standing buddha. It is 140-150 feet high, of a dazzling gold colour and resplendent with ornamentation of precious substances.
A tenth Century Arabic writer comments:
If the eye should fall upon them from a distance, a man would be obliged to lower his eyes, overawed by them.
Morgan leads the reader through an extensive analysis of the various tribes, groups and empires - including the British and Russian - who attempted to subdue or claim Afghanistan - and Bamiyan - for themselves. He spends some time outlining Alexander the Great’s approach to acquiring Afghanistan as part of his own expanding empire. He then introduces the reader to modern Afghan leaders who sought to unify Afghanistan. In doing so, he reveals the difficulties of uniting an ethnically diverse group of tribes. Discrimination of the Hazaras at the hands of Abdur Rahman - Emir of Afghanistan- in the 19th C lead to mass killings, expulsions and enslavement. The Hazaras still suffer discrimination to this day.
The final chapter tries to make sense of the future for Afghanistan. Archaeologists are returning to Afghanistan, and there is some talk about trying to acknowledge the presences of the buddha statues by using laser light shows, or recreating them in concrete or resin. As always, there is debate and Morgan comments:
…the empty niches have seemed to many a powerful monument in their own right.
So began my journey to Afghanistan. Thanks to helpful Twitter-peeps, I have several more books to read and I look forward to learning more about the ‘swallower of empires’.
Go forth and conquer