01 April 2016
jean claude-chapon / afp / getty images
jean claude-chapon / afp / getty images

A military truck parks at the foot of a colossal statue of the Buddha in Bamiyan Valley, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, sometime around the turn of the twenty-first century. Carved into a sandstone cliff and standing 53 metres tall, this was the world’s largest standing Buddha statue. A similar, but slightly smaller Buddha figure stood to its left.

The Buddhas were built around 500 AD, at a time when the Bamiyan Valley was the world’s westernmost centre of Buddhist culture and learning. In the ninth century, the statues came under threat when the valley was invaded by the Muslim Saffarid dynasty, which suppressed Buddhism. But the Buddhas survived, and continued to for over a millennium, through attacks such as a Mongol conquest in the twelfth century and a Soviet invasion in the twentieth.

In 1996, Afghanistan fell under the control of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group. In early 2001, its leader, Mohammed Omar, vowed to destroy all idols depicting “gods of the infidels.” Work to demolish the Buddhas began that March—despite pleas from the United Nations, and from many individual countries, including India and Pakistan. Taliban teams first fired artillery and anti-aircraft guns at the Buddhas, but to little effect. They then began dynamiting the statues, drilling holes in them to place explosive charges. After several weeks of this, the Bamiyan Buddhas were razed, leaving behind two massive hollows. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of their destruction.