Bamiyan means "the place of shining light." There is great beauty in the variegated colors of its rugged lines of folded hills. At twilight, the subtle combination of glittering stars with the pale light of the setting sun gives Bamiyan an air of mystery. A faint breeze seems to erase the boundary between this world and the world beyond. Bamiyan exists as a visible relic of the complex historical fusion arising out of the interaction of humans and the wonders of nature in this valley; it exists as both a living record of the human past and a living natural landscape. Bamyan continues to have the capacity to profoundly move the spirits of those who visit it.
At Bamiyan we encounter the Buddhist cave temples from several different periods. The center of Bamiyan's cultural legacy was formed by the two colossal Buddha images carved at the eastern and western ends of a high cliff facing the central valley, and perhaps a thousand caves also cut into the cliff face and decorated with a rich variety of murals. The Buddhist religious art of Bamiyan, which enjoyed a renaissance here after the collapse of the earlier Gandharan culture, was a unique synthesis appropriate to an area that has been called a cultural crossroads.
But the culture of Bamiyan did not blossom overnight, it was a long, slow process. The stone chambers lining the wadis and the alluvial fans created here and there where the wadis enter the main valley testify to this. The main valley, now forgotten and desolate stretches of sand, was once the winter grazing grounds for the semi-nomadic pastoral people who paved the way for Bamiyan culture. In this area we find remains of the life of the herdsmen who contributed to the development of Bamiyan culture, as well as the Muslim burial grounds for which many of the chambers were later utilized.
In addition, the legendary sites of Khoja Ghar, Yakhsuz and Mir Hashem, with their sacred groves of chinar (plane) trees, continue to exist in the central valley, evidence of the continuity of Bamyan culture through the Islamic period.
Rising to the north are the immense mountains of the Hindu Kush, easily topping 4,000 meters; to the south lies the rugged Kuh-e Baba (Koh-e Baba) Range, whose highest peak is Shah Foladi, at 5,143 meters. The Bamiyan Valley is situated on the narrow foothills between the two great ranges running in parallel.
The central valley of Bamiyan, located in central Afghanistan (34º51" N, 67º48" E) at an elevation of 2,500 meters, has water from two rivers flowing down from their sources in the Kuh-e Baba Range; the Kakrak River to the east and the Foladi River to the west. A number of villages have been established along these two rivers, the closest to the central valley being Kakrak and Darra-i Tajik on the lower reaches of the Kakrak and Foladi rivers respectively. The main archaeological sites can be found in the long east-west central valley of Bamyan and in the valleys of the Kakrak and Foladi rivers.
History of Bamyan: from the first millennium BC to the early 20th century CE
Bamyan is located on what was once the border between the 12th and 17th tax collection districts [satrapies] (nomos) of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty of Darius I. However, Bamyan is not mentioned. Nor is there firm basis for the theory that Alexander turned south to enter Bactria via Bamyan, rather than going over the Hawak pass to the north. To appear on the stage of history as a proper noun, this remote area would have to wait until the arrival of Buddhism from eastern India.
Around 305 BC, Seleucus Nicator, who had inherited the eastern regions of the empire of Alexander the Great, ceded the Hindu Kush region to the rising Maurya dynasty of Sandracottus (Chandragupta). It was about fifty years later, in 261 BC, that Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka dispatched the eminent monk Maharakkita as a Buddhist missionary to the area, just before Greco-Bactria declared its independence in the northern Hindu Kush. The Rock Edict of King Ashoka discovered at Kandahar is testimony to this.
It is unclear when Buddhism was first practiced in Bamyan, but it quietly began to root itself firmly in the north and south of the Hindu Kush during the Kushan dynasty, and we know that from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD, many Buddhist temples were established in the area.
In the northern Hindu Kush, the Buddhist archaeological sites closest to Bamyan are the cave temples of Surkh Kotal (3rd to 4th centuries) and Haibak (4th to 5th centuries). To the south of the Hindu Kush, monasteries already flourished at Kapisa-Begram, Shotorak and Paitava (2nd to 4th centuries) and Buddhist temples were established at Tepe Maranjan (4th to 5th centuries) in Kabul.
From this, it seems reasonable to assume that the creation of the Buddha images and the cave temples (samgharama) at Bamyan had, at least, begun by the end of the fourth century. This is when we find the name Bamyan started to appear in written records, for example, Chinese Wei Shu, as Fan Yang, and Bundahisn in pahlevi as Bamikan.
The first accurate information regarding Bamyan was recorded by the Chinese scholar-monk Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang) who travelled up the Balkh River and crossed the Hindu Kush, reaching Bamyan in about 630.
According to Xuan Zang, the kingdom of Bamyan was "more than two thousand li (1li = 2km) east to west, and more than three hundred li north to south," a long, narrow land that followed the topography of the river valley. The capital was "six or seven li in length, and at its center stood the palace. In the foothills northeast of the palace was a standing image of the Buddha 140 to 150 chi in height (Corresponding to the 55-meter West Buddha), that survived until recently. To the east of this colossal image stood "a samgharama (temple) built by a former king," which probably stood in front of what is now known as Cave H, which contains Bamyan's largest seated Buddha image. Xuan Zang goes on to note the existence of another standing Buddha over 100 chi in height (corresponds to the 38-meter East Buddha) to the east of the samgharama. Since Xuan Zang tells us that there were scores of temples (samgharama) in the area, it is likely that at least half of the cave temples known today were being used by his time.
Two colossal Buddhas which Xuan Zang admired might have been constructed from the 5th to 6th century based on the grand conception of the Buddhist cosmology. The east colossal Buddha is the Sakya muni Buddha, the west colossal Buddha is Maitreya.
The rule of Hephthalite in Bamyan is still very obscure. From the 6th to 7th centuries, under strong influence of the Western Turks, Bamyan, which had gained importance as a strategic point on the east-west trade route, flourished as a Buddhist center. The Buddhist murals decorating the ceilings and walls of the cave temples show great variety in iconographical design and color. When he left Bamyan, Xuan Zang also left us with a mystery: he describes "a reclining figure of the Buddha about to enter Nirvana, more than one thousand chi in length, in a temple two or three li to the west of the capital."
The Silla monk Hui Chao, the last to describe Bamyan's appearance as a Buddhist city, writes that when he arrived in Bamyan from Ghazni in 726, the ruler belonged to an ethnic group called Hu, with no allegiance to any other nation, but strangely enough, he makes no mention of the colossal Buddhas seen by Xuan Zang. Nearly a century after Xuan Zang's visit, Bamyan was still a Buddhist city, but Hui Chao notes that both the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions were being practiced in contrast to Xuan Zang's time, when the teachings had been exclusively Hinayana.
Not long after Hui Chao left Bamyan, during the reign of the second caliph of the Abbasid caliphate (754-775), al-Mansur, the king of Bamyan surrendered to Islamic forces under Mazahim b. Bistam.
Thoroughgoing introduction of Islamic culture to Bamyan began after Sultan Mahmud assumed control of the Ghaznavid dynasty (998-1030). With the arrival of Islamic culture, it is clear that the center of the ancient city was shifted from northwest of the valley towards the southeast, and the plain surrounding Shahr-i Bamyan (later Shahr-i Gholghola). It is believed that the fortresses of Shahr-i Zohak at the eastern end of the valley and Shahr-i Khoshak at the northeastern end also took on new functions at this time. Under the Ghorid dynasty (1155-1212), Bamyan probably assumed even greater significance.
In 1221 the Mongol armies invaded Bamyan, conquered the fortress at Shahr-i Bamyan, vandalized the Buddhist sites, and left. Shar-i Bamyan became known as Shahr-i Gholghola, and was abandoned. The population dwindled, and Bamyan swiftly sank into obscurity.
Sometimes, though the Arabic geographers mentioned the name of Bamyan, the real situation of Bamyan was cloudy.
When, after a long silence, Bamyan emerged once more to the stage of history, it was unfortunately to the sound of cannon fire. In 1647 as the future Mughal emperor Aurangzeb retreated from Balkh to Kabul, he vented his frustration by having his artillery fire on the colossal Buddha. The legs of West Buddha were heavily damaged in this onslaught.
In the 19th century, Europeans such as Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson visited Bamyan and learned of the existence of the colossal sculptures without even realizing they were of Buddhist origin. In 1885 Talbot, Simpson and Maitland arrived in Bamyan and surveyed the two colossal Buddhas and Caves B, D and E (JRAS XVIII, 1886) having been inspired by Xuan Zang's writings. Later they published their findings in the Illustrated London News, accompanied with a full-page drawing of the west colossal Buddha, causing a great sensation.
However, the first full-scale archaeological investigation of Bamyan began with the founding of DAFA (Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan), and was completed in November 1922, emphasized the importance of the sites at Bamyan. This single letter opened a new page in Bamyan's history (Journal Asiatique, April-June 1923).
Various surveys were conducted between 1922 and 1978. Unfortunately, just as these different international efforts to survey and research the Bamyan sites were reaching a peak, the clouds of war once again enveloped Bamyan.
The unchecked flow of looted antiquities out of war-torn Afghanistan served as one indicator of the dire state into which the country had fallen.
Before and After the Destruction of the Great Buddhas in 1997, when Bamyan fell to the Taliban, a Commander of the Taliban announced his intention to destroy the sites and had holes cut into the rock above the West Buddha for the placement of explosives. In response, UNESCO mounted an appeal for "international cooperation for the safeguarding of Afghanistan's cultural heritage," and the Japanese Society for West Asian Archaeology adopted a resolution calling for an early end to the Afghan civil war and the protection of Afghanistan's cultural assets from destruction, desecration and looting.
In the summer of 2000, in the face of growing international criticism, the Taliban regime hardened its stance, and on February 26, 2001, the Taliban leaders issued a statement saying that "it has been decided that all of the idols in this country will be destroyed." Completely ignoring their historical significance and their irreplaceable cultural value and importance, they prepared a stockpile of explosives and set about their barbarous act.
The colossal East and West Buddhas were not the only victims. A 6.7 meter standing Buddha carved out of the hillside in Kakrak, another valley in the vicinity, and Bamyan's second largest seated Buddha, were also blown up.
The tragedy of Bamyan did not end with the destruction of the Great Buddhas. In the autumn of 2002, a fact-finding mission was forced to conclude that 80% of the gorgeous Bamyan wall paintings, with their profound connection via the Silk Road to the murals of India and Western China, had also been lost; in fact, deliberately annihilated.
Bamyan has lost its glorious Great Buddhas and the murals in the surrounding caves, but many caves with their beautiful wall paintings remain, and the diversity of their construction continues to give them irreplaceable value from the standpoint of religious, cultural and architectural history. The history of Bamyan, including its sacred Islamic sites, has much to teach us about the capacity of the human spirit to give birth to impressive cultural achievements and deserves to be appreciated with open hearts and minds, transcending all differences of nation and religion. In recent years people have come together to restore, preserve and stop the export of material of cultural heritage significance.
-Mr. Kosaku Maeda, the Director of Japan Institute for the Studies of Cultures of Afghanistan.