The daring journey to reach Afghanistan’s famous Buddhas—before they were lost

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Twenty years after the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, all that remains are empty niches—and memories.

By Nina Strochlic | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Photographs By Pascal Maitre

Pascal Maitre’s first, second, and third attempts to reach the colossal Buddha sculptures carved into the hillsides of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan were futile. It was July 1996 and the French photographer was in Kabul on assignment for the magazine L’Express. The journey from Kabul to Bamiyan was little more than 100 miles, but each morning his driver canceled the trip, even as Maitre raised the pay.

As it turned out, armed groups were manning checkpoints along the route and four-wheel drives were in high demand. Afghans knew their cars would be seized as soon as they tried to pass. Finally, Maitre asked a friend for help. A few days later, he sailed through the checkpoints on a city bus he had rented filled with commuters, sitting among them in a loose Afghan tunic and pants, known as Perahan Tunban.

The larger of the two Bamiyan Buddhas still sat in the central Afghan valley when photographer Pascal Maitre visited in 1996. Five years later—and 20 years ago this month—they were destroyed by the Taliban. The Buddhas of Bamiyan valley were built starting in the sixth century, when the area was a bustling hub along the Silk Road.
Fighters from the Hazara ethnic group lived in a village at the base of the Buddhas as they stockpiled weapons to battle the Taliban before the Islamic fundamentalist movement took control of Afghanistan.
For centuries, tourists, archaeologists, and pilgrims would visit the colossal Buddhas. UNESCO named the entire valley, which includes painted caves and Buddhist monasteries, as a World Heritage Site.

Bamiyan was worth the risky journey. Built starting in the sixth century, the pair of stone Buddhas, one 125 feet tall and the other 181 feet tall, stood overlooking the valley. They were weathered by age, neglect, and war, but still a striking reminder that the area had once been a bustling stop on the Silk Road and a center of Buddhist study. Bamiyan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had drawn tourists and archaeologists until the country became too unstable to host them.

Maitre had been to Afghanistan many times, but never to Bamiyan. From a hill, he admired the Buddhas, the wheat fields at their feet, and the Hindu Kush mountains behind them. The valley teemed with armed men from the Hazara ethnic group that had long controlled it. They were storing weapons and ammunition in the caves around the Buddhas’ feet to aid their fight against the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that was battling to control the country. War refugees returning from Pakistan had also made their home there. The caves, too, are designated as part of the World Heritage Site, their ceilings decorated with 7th-century oil paintings that are among the world’s oldest.

Hazara fighters walk past the Bamiyan Buddhas. The area at the time this photo was taken, in 1996, was also full of Afghan refugees returning from exile in Pakistan.

A few months after Maitre’s visit, the Taliban seized control of Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. At first, they respected the famous Buddhas and, after a commander shot at the statues, issued an order to protect Afghan cultural heritage. Later, likely frustrated by the lack of international recognition and increased American sanctions, the leaders changed their mind.

In March 2001, the Taliban placed explosives at the base of the Buddhas and reduced them to a pile of rubble. It took a few weeks for the 1,500-year-old Buddhas to fully collapse. Twenty years later, Maitre believes his photographs were among the last taken of them still standing.

A mural in a cave near the Bamiyan Buddhas dates to a time when Buddhist monks lived in the region. Some of the art they left behind is among the world’s oldest known oil paintings.

“It was a disaster,” he says. “It was one of the first World Heritage sites destroyed…What shocked people was that many other places were destroyed for looting. But with the Buddhas, nobody looted. They just destroyed them. At this point, it really started to make the world understand that something had changed: There was no respect anymore for world heritage.”

Maitre went back in 2006, when the Buddhas were long gone and only a giant, empty niche existed in the mountainside. A group of Afghan archaeologists were there, searching for a long-fabled third Buddha—one even larger than the first two, and allegedly carved in a horizontal position. It was the first time Maitre had seen the destruction in person, and he found it hard to comprehend the precious cultural history that had been obliterated.

“You have this big hole, and nothing left,” he recalls. “I could not understand. I had seen it—and then it disappeared.”

When photographer Pascal Maitre visited in 1996, the Buddhas of Bamiyan had already experienced years of strife, leaving them pockmarked and fragmented—but still standing.
In March 2001, the Taliban placed explosives at the base of the Buddhas and reduced them to a pile of rubble. Maitre returned five years later to photograph the empty niches where they once stood.
Taliban leaders had originally pledged not to harm Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. In 2001, frustrated by a lack of international recognition and increased U.S. sanctions, they reneged on that promise.

Pascal Maitre is a French photojournalist whose work focuses on conflict, tradition, and the environment. Since 1985, he has covered stories in Afghanistan including the Soviet-Afghan war, the rise of the Taliban, and the looting of the Kabul museum. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.

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