Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD


Afghanistan: Treasure chest of early Asian culture

(CNN) -- When Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ordered the destruction of statues that he says are "un-Islamic", he also turned his back on a culture that is unique because of its geography.

For centuries, Afghanistan was a key stop on the legendary Silk Routes that linked east and west. Its mountainous terrain sheltered travelers whose caravans carried Chinese silks and Indian ivories.

The Silk Route was also fertile ground for traveling Buddhist monks in search of converts.

One historian notes: "In the early centuries of the Christian era, Eastern Afghanistan was full of lively Buddhist monasteries, stupas and monks." Islam was not introduced to the region until at least the ninth century.

It was around the fourth or fifth centuries that monks are believed to have carved the Buddhas of Bamiyan. One of the statues stands at 58 meters, while the other is at 38 meters. The larger of the pair is considered the world's largest stone statue and the tallest image of the buddha.

The statues were hewn out of a cliff face; parts were were covered with a mud and straw mixture to create the faces and hands.

In their heyday the larger Buddha was red, and the smaller was blue. Both had gold faces, which were long ago destroyed by forces thought to have been offended by the artistic reproduction of the human form.

But the statues at Bamiyan are not the only reminders of Afghanistan's rich cultural past.

The Kabul Museum once housed an extensive collection of gold and silver coins dating back to the 8th century B.C.; priceless Indian ivories depicting dancing courtesans and goddesses; as well as a unique collection of images of Buddha in various poses.

Today though, the Kabul Museum is just a shell of its former self.

In 1993, a rocket slammed in to the museum, wiping out a 1,500 year old wall painting, shattering much of the museum's pottery collections and burying its acclaimed collection of bronzes under tons of debris.

Decades of civil war also left the Museum defenseless against looters, and archaeologists believe that as much as 70 percent of the institution's collections may now be in the hands of private collectors in the Middle East and across Asia.

But even the looting didn't trigger an international outcry of the kind that the Taliban now faces for ordering the destruction of Afghanistan's art treasures.

"After Islam came in, they [the Buddhist statues] were left as they were. The Muslims didn't worship them, but they were left alone," historian Ahmed Hasan Dani, a leading member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage told

However, the Islamabad-based historian is skeptical that the Taleban's foot soldiers would fan across Afghanistan to carry out their leader's edict.

"Real believers don't destroy statues. They don't worship them, but they can view them as objects of art," he said.

The historian is adding his voice to calls urging the Taleban to dispose of the artifacts in a way that would benefit the international community.

"We're trying to preserve antiquities, and archaeological objects," he said. "We're now trying to convince Mullah Mohammad Omar that if you don't like them [the objects], you can sell them."

It's advice scholars and archaeologists around the world are hoping the Taleban will hear.

See related sites about Asia
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


Back to the top