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Planned Destruction of Buddha Monuments Causes Worldwide Controversy

Aired March 2, 2001 - 4:39 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: An international effort is underway to save ancient Buddha statues that face destruction by a fundamentalist Muslim group in Afghanistan. The leader of the Taleban organization, which controls 95 percent of the country, has ordered that the priceless works of art be destroyed. He's branded these artifacts idols of the infidels. Two items targeted are sandstone figures of Buddha carved out of a mountainside. They are located near Bamiyan, which is about 100 miles west of the capital city Kabul. They are among the largest stone statues in the world; one is about 174 feet tall, the other one is 120 feet tall. These statues are believed to date back to the 3rd and 5th centuries.

CNN's Nic Robertson has more on the Taleban and what may be the real reason for a move denounced by Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.


NIC ROBERTSON (voice-over): Belying growing international outrage at the Taleban decree all representations of non-Islamic gods should be destroyed, a handful of Buddhists gathered in the London cold to demonstrate their anger.

MOUNIR BOUCHENAKI, UNESCO: I'm asking Taleban people not to destroy these statues. These statues are not just stone. This is world heritage, this is a culture, this is a history of Afghanistan.

ROBERTSON: The world protests may be too late. Unconfirmed reports from Afghanistan say a pair of ancient Buddhas about 100 miles west of Kabul have already been targeted. Almost 1,600 years old, the towering statues are a relic of the furthest reaches of Buddhism's ancient westward expansion and are considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Their destruction for being un-Islamic is bringing wide criticism, even from other Islamic countries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All ambassadors from Islamic countries, whether from Africa from Asia or from Arab states -- they were all unanimous in saying that this act and this decision is totally contrary to the principles of Islam.

ROBERTSON: With time apparently running out, desperate bids are being launched to save the statues, believed to be the world's tallest. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the Taleban do not wish to retain this inheritance, India would be happy to arrange for the transfer of all these artifacts to India.

ROBERTSON: The Taleban's opponents, who still hold about 10 percent of the country, say the Taleban's treatment of women, the harsh justice, the assault on education, and now the attack on the country's history is helping them build a stronger opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are change of attitudes, change of feeling amongst these Afghans who are living outside Afghanistan who were once pro-Taleban, but now surely they have changed their attitude and tones.

ROBERTSON: Inside Afghanistan, however, the Taleban present a united front in the face of strict U.N. sanctions and worldwide pariah status. Moderate Taleban, who only two years ago forced through legislation protecting archaeological sites, now are silent.

(on camera): The destruction of the Buddhas highlights the isolationist path the Taleban are following. International outrage, however, will likely only harden their uncompromising position that seeks to define them as the victims of an international conspiracy aimed at destroying their society.

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


CHEN: The Taleban's action, of course, not the first time an assault has been launched against works of art; a few recent examples include churches and mosques targeted during a Balkan's war and China's Red Guards wrecking artworks and monasteries during the Cultural Revolution.

Joining us to talk about this kind of destruction: John Huntington, professor of art history at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Professor, I understand that you've actually been to Afghanistan and seen some of this work yourself. Can you describe the grandeur -- the shear magnitude of what we would be looking at if we were allowed to step forward and see this?

PROF. JOHN HUNTINGTON, OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY: One of the best viewpoints is from across the valley that they are -- that they line. They are on the north face of a cliff that lines a very green, beautiful valley. And you can see these huge images -- it's about a mile 1/2 across, and they go -- reach clear to the top of the cliff on the west side; about halfway up the cliff on the right side. They are very spectacular images.

CHEN: Big enough, I mean -- just -- I can't imagine how you would compare this to a skyscraper building -- to what?

HUNTINGTON: Very much compared to a building. The 175-foot Buddha is so tall that when I went out on top of his head I was on a platform about 30 feet across. And being scared of heights, I didn't go near the edge, but I felt no fear in the center because it's just a big, broad space.

CHEN: It seems that this is extraordinary work; and it's not just the statutes that we're talking about here. I think you can see in the video, there are caves, I guess, stuck into the side walls that contain some other artifacts as well?

HUNTINGTON: The Buddhists have used excavated caves as a place of residence and as a place of worship since the 2nd century B.C. in India. And because of this, there is a tradition all across of Asia of excavating caves into the side of cliffs, or mountainsides that are then used as parts of the temples or residence halls. The Bamiyan site is no different; it just happens to have these gigantic Buddhas, which is part of a movement that was going on during the 5th, 6th and 7th century all across Asia.

CHEN: Is the concern by the Taleban or Afghan leaders that Buddhists will come, try to flock into this area? I mean, is there some feeling that they need to keep people out, and don't want to have this as an attraction? How would you explain this?

HUNTINGTON: I have no idea what the Taleban feel about it. I wish I did; maybe I could say something that would make a difference. But the truth is they are simply great monuments in the history of mankind; they are great monuments in the history of Buddhism, and they reflect the importance of the Afghanistan area in the history of Buddhism in this region and at that time.

CHEN: I have to ask for a quick answer here: Do you think there's any chance these things can be saved?

HUNTINGTON: I would only hope so. Last time it was a fraud; this time I am afraid I think it's not.

CHEN: Professor Huntington, John Huntington of Ohio State University at Columbus joining us to talk more about these artifacts, apparently in line for destruction.



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