Taliban gunmen now stand guard in the rocky caves that once housed two ancient Buddha statues – desecrated with dynamite by Islamists during their last term in power.
The monuments in Bamiyan province stood for 1,500 years, but their destruction was ordered in 2001 by a regime that had already been discredited, imposed ultra-strict rules banning television and governing the conduct of women. After doing – for being against Muslim religion.
Hundreds of activists across the country demolished huge statues carved into the side of a cliff for more than three weeks, sparking global outrage.
“Buddhas were destroyed by Taliban officials in 2001,” reads a bronze plaque set in stone, while the white flag of the country’s new leaders flies over the nearby gatehouse.
Two young fighters wander inexplicably only a few yards away.
According to historian Ali A. Olomi of Penn State Abington University, the new prime minister of Afghanistan, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, was “one of the architects of the Buddha’s destruction”.
Asked whether it was a good idea to blow up statues, considered one of the biggest crimes against world heritage, Saifur Rahman Mohammadi, a young Taliban member, does not hide his embarrassment.
“Well… I can’t really comment,” said Mohammadi, recently appointed to the cultural affairs office of Bamiyan province.
“I was very young,” he told AFP. “If they did, the Islamic Emirate would have had its reasons.
“But what is certain is that we are now committed to protecting the historical heritage of our country. It is our responsibility.”
Mohammadi said he had recently spoken to UNESCO officials who had fled abroad after the Taliban takeover and asked them to return to Afghanistan and guarantee their security.
Local officials and former UNESCO employees told AFP that nearly a thousand priceless artifacts once stored in nearby warehouses were stolen or destroyed after the Taliban takeover.
“I confirm that there was looting, but it was before we arrived,” Mohammadi said, accusing the old officers of the theft at the void left after their escape.
“We are investigating and we are trying to bring them back,” he said.
crossroads of civilizations
The Bamiyan Valley lies at the heart of the Hindu Kush mountain range and marks the westernmost reaches of Buddhism from its birthplace in the Indian subcontinent.
Persian, Turkish, Chinese and Greek influences have also intersected there for centuries and left behind an extraordinary built environment, much of which remains undetected.
The sculptures survived a 17th-century incursion by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and later by the Persian king Nadar Shah, who damaged them with cannon fire.
Traces of them lie around the Bamiyan site under canvas tents torn by the winds of the valley.
World Heritage experts are highly doubtful that they will ever be rebuilt.
But the new Taliban regime insists it wants to protect the country’s archaeological heritage despite the global shock of the disappearance of images of Buddhas in clouds of dust.
Philippe Marquis, director of the French archaeological delegation to Afghanistan, said “along with the country’s economy” they feel that work to protect the heritage provides a regular income.
As part of a $20 million UNESCO-backed project, workers are working to finalize a cultural center and museum in Bamiyan, which was to be inaugurated with great fanfare this month.
“Now we have to see how it will work,” said Philippe DeLanghe, currently the head of the culture program at UNESCO’s Kabul office in France.
“The current administration wants us to get back to work together. It seems pretty safe,” he said.
(This story has not been edited by NB staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)