If someone was to travel to the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan today, they would see lush greenery and a beautiful town hewn from the rock of the surrounding mountains. 50 years prior, they would have seen a similar sight, with one notable difference: where there are now three empty enclaves, there would have been two Buddha statues, each over thirty meters high. Where did they go? Why were they there in the first place? And, most importantly, what did they signify? At a lecture hosted by the Religion Department on Oct. 26, former Mary L. Cornille Distinguished Visiting Professor Deborah Klimburg-Salter attempted to answer that question.
Professor Deborah Klimburg-Salter earned a PhD in Art History, focusing on South Asian and Islamic Art, from Harvard University in 1976. She then went on to receive her habilitation in Asian Art History from the University of Vienna. She has been a visiting fellow at multiple institutions, including at Wellesley College in 2009. Between 2006 and 2015, she was the founding Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Documentation of Inner and South Asian Cultural History (CIRDIS). She focuses especially on monasteries in Afghanistan, India and Tibet, and is an expert on the Bamiyan Valley.
The Bamiyan Valley lay at a major crossroads in the earliest centuries of humanity. It was considered a zone of cultural transference, with Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian and Eastern European cultures interacting within Bamiyan. The valley and city were initially carved out by Buddhists, who erected statues of the Buddha to be used in cultural ceremonies. These statues and their maintenance were no small feat for the people of Bamiyan; Klimburg-Salter describes them as “swaying with golden color and shining with gold decoration,” with one being 55 meters high and the other being 38 meters. These had extreme cultural significance for the people in the area, and a religious ceremony called circumambulation occurred with the large stone statues, during which they were moved, “radiated fire,” and were adorned with masks. As time went on, however, the statues began to disintegrate, so their distinct Buddist artwork and style began to fade.
It was during this time that groups of Muslim populations began to move into the Bamiyan valley, and as the Buddhist culture slowly faded out, so did the concept of the statues as Buddhas. The Muslim settlers reclaimed them as Islamic iconography, saying that the Prophet Muhammad sent them to protect the people of Bamiyan, as well as drawing on popular Islamic legends to name the figures. In this way, what had once been a Buddhist religious site slowly became a Muslim one. As Klimburg-Salter said during her lecture, “Although the whole world knows that the colossi are Buddhas, the people of Bamiyan are not of the same opinion.”
Sadly, the statues — be they Buddhist, Muslim or something in between — were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Taliban leader at the time, Mullah Omar, claimed that they were idols and therefore went against the Quran as idolatrous. It is also believed, however, that the Taliban was firmly against the statues because of Western interest in them and their connection to Western tourism. The people of Bamiyan, often referred to as Maulawi Muslims, refused to have the statues destroyed, and the Taliban had to bring in reinforcements to take them down. It was only when the Taliban regained control of the area again, after the US withdrew, that they began to encourage cultural preservation: by then, it was too late.
The question historians, artists and politicians are left with is this: should we rebuild and repatriate these statues, specifically as the original Buddhist religious monuments? I asked Nathalie Hanzlik-Meech ’27, a student who attended the talk, her thoughts. She grew up in Dubai, and she is also taking a class called “Religions of the Silk Road” with Professor Louise Marlow, so she finds this issue very important. She said the most essential thing she took away from the talk was this idea that “these structures had stayed intact surrounded by Muslim communities,” despite the Taliban’s claim that they went against the Islamic faith, and that the beauty of reclaiming these statues to fit a changing cultural influence should not be overlooked. She believes, as does Klimburg-Salter, that the lack of these statues is just as historically significant as their existence. They reflect a natural shift in history and a changing world, but also the diverse interpretations of religion and faith. Rebuilding them, and especially reclaiming them as Buddhist, would erase both the culture and the struggles of the people of Bamiyan.
So, if you went to the Bamiyan Valley today, you would be able to take in rolling green hills, towering rock faces where cities were formed, and two large, empty enclaves. But those empty enclaves aren’t just where Buddhist statues once stood, or a long-gone part of history; they are evidence of religious transhistorical movements, of reclamation and repatriation through faith, and the potential dangers of taking the opinion of one extreme religious faction — a faction in a diverse and widespread religion — as the opinion of all. Perhaps we should stop looking at the lack of Buddhas as a loss, therefore, and start looking at them as a gain: a new way to understand the history of the Bamiyan Valley, Muslim faith and religious movements in our modern world.