Taliban destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas

Bamiyan, Afghanistan


 Chang Gao and Yiwei Wu



On 2 March 2001, two Buddha statues in Bamiyan were dynamited by Taliban state. These two giant standing buddhas are precious historical relics that were built by buddhist monks in 2nd century. However,Afghanistan’s radical clerics started to crack down ‘un-islamic’ segment in Afghanistan society from 2000, soon, the Taliban banned all forms of ‘un-islamic’ culture. In 2001, although was condemned by many countries and international organizations in the world, Mullah Mohammed Omar,  the leader of Taliban, still gave the order to destroy Bamiyan buddhas. Bamiyan buddhas,as the idol of buddhists and the cultural heritage of the whole humanity, were completely destructed by Taliban.

 Mesi, Alex. “In pictures: Buddhas of Bamiyan.” BBC News. Last modified March 8, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12674541.

Bamiyan buddhas before destruction

Since it is an incident took place in Afghanistan, the majority of the society went great length criticizing the irresponsibility of Taliban regime, then the ruling government of the country since the Soviet Union retreated in 1989.[1] As the administrator and representative image of a nation, what is the national authorities‘ attitudes towards the historical relics (or, places of great fame and value) in its own country?


To begin with, the Taliban regime rose from the least developed, least literate and most conservative Pashtun provinces. Although they were known as religious “students”, most Taliban members had little experience with proper Islamic scholarship. “Their education was limited to basic instruction in the Qur’an, Islamic law, and early Islamic history.” As a result, it is not hard to imagine their rejection on modern values, ideas, social structures, religious diversity, and modern political and economic theories[2]. Driven by the fanaticism of their ideology, some members of the Taliban have almost no tolerance to behavior of any kind that may disobey the Islam law.


Iconoclasm[3] is an infamous tradition occurs in many religions around the world, and there is no exception in Islamic world. From islamic law as well as many islamic artistic artifacts and drawings, we can get to the conclusion that in islamic world the figure representation of god (i.e Mohammed) are strictly forbidden. All of the figures are, at least, faceless. On the contrary, figure drawings and statues are fairly common and worshiped in Buddhism. The Buddhists cherished the statues as they are the representative of the Buddha. In this case, the Bamiyan Buddhas were not as offensive to Muslim eyes as a representation of Mohammed would be, but since they were created by a completely different religion, they had been targets of Muslim iconoclasts throughout the centuries[4]. No wonder the official statement is that according to Islamic law, since the buddhas are figure icons, they should be destroyed. Therefore, from the government’s official perspective, the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas is a religious action.

Explosion of  Bamiyan Buddha
Explosion of Bamiyan Buddha [7]
However, other people believe that the action of Afghanistan government might have other rather important meanings that laid behind. In 2001, Afghanistan was undergoing undergoing severe famine. Meanwhile, in order to force Afghanistan to turn over terrorists Osama Bin Laden, some western countries agreed to pass an economical sanction on Afghanistan, which made the domestic famine even worse. By means of attracting attention of the world to get financial aid, Taliban regime claimed to bomb the buddhas, hoping that they can use the money for the rebuilt to relieve the dire conditions. Whereas the western states (for instance, Switzerland[5]), were willing to offer a large amount of money on rescuing the buddhas, but refused to help solve Afghanistan’s hunger crisis on political consideration.


To see this incident from a more basic scale, Afghanistan is a typical developing country in East Asia, presenting typical social issues such as the deficiency of educational popularizing, the instability of social security and the scarce in social infrastructure, especially the construction of public communication. For instance, in Afghanistan, only one over a thousand Afghanistan get access to telephone service, and it has a poor coverage of radio countrywide of only ten percent[6]. Therefore, it is very difficult for the citizens to learn about latest information, not to mention the diversity of the resources of the information. On one hand, the Afghanistan, to some extent, are isolated from the global society. On the other hand, the international organizations are hard to get involved in cultural incidents in Afghanistan. Under such civic environment of conservative minds, strict self-regulation and strong belief in Islam, some extreme actions such as the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas occurred. To some citizens, neither did they have the ability to protect the Bamiyan Buddhas due to the poverty, nor did they have the knowledge to aware the great history value of the relics. There were also groups of local Afghanistan particularly in Bamiyan province that strongly objected to the government’s execution. But their voices were not prompt replied and supported by the international society, therefore were not much accounted of seriously in the execution.


Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?
Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?[8]
 In this incident, it is apparent that the Bamiyan Buddha, the iconic objects that got dynamited, are the main characters which connected all the involved elements. If we consider the buddha statues as a form of “religious architecture”, then what is the role of the “architecture” in this or similar incidents? Does the tragedy happened in Bamiyan has universal meanings that are shared by other cases in the world? What can we learn from the already-destroyed Buddhas?


Suppose that the architecture is considered as a kind of plastic media which is fragile, easily affected by outside forces. The forces of which we are talking about can be a type of culture, a religion or a real, physical action. Take the Bamiyan Buddha as an example, the Buddhism creates architecture that embodies its symbolic characteristics. Ever since the media is created, it has to sustain remolding and transformations performed by different forces. When different forces are applied to the media, the media changes to a form so unique that belongs to neither of the forces. After the Afghanistan became an Islamic country, the face of the buddha was chiseled off to cater for the Islamic law. The faceless buddhas are the vivid reflection of the social and religious situations in Afghanistan, even west and south asia.

Incineration of historical heritage during Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Incineration of historical heritage during Chinese Cultural Revolution.[9]
 Occasionally, some extreme situations happens. Strong forces which are beyond the capacity of the media results in the destroy of the media. However, the media can always be interpreted all over again by later forces. Sometimes, they can still affect the society even after they have got demolished to rubbles. Some people may argue that the media can not affect the environment or attract public attention any longer if it is totally destroyed: It is inanimate and has been “wiped out”from the real world, what else can it do? However, when architecture is not fit in the same case. The architecture, when transformed by different forces over the time, it left traces on it surrounding context. Here we can see that even if the buddhas are now no longer exist, but the dark, hollow caves on the cliff of Bamiyan province are telling the visitors the past and present history of the ancient relics. Under such circumstances, the context of the media continues to attract people’s attention. Therefore, after the extreme Taliban members dynamited the buddhas, experts along with international organizations tried their best rebuilding the buddhas. The architecture as a medium is easily affected by forces, but it will survive in different forms; It will never be really deleted from the history.

Similar incidents happened around the world in the history. When the french conquered Egypt, the emperor Napoleon was very upset about the east-facing orientation of the sphinx and blasted off the nose off the statue. In this case, even though the statue suffered serious purposive destruction, it still represents as one of the most characteristic and charismatic figures of Egyptian culture in the world. What’s more, the destroyed face which marked a part of the egyptian history becomes the new form of the Sphinx, adding even more historical meaning and mystery to it.

Another example can be found during the cultural revolution in China during 1960s, people blindly submitted to the instructions from the leaders of the government, believing that all the Chinese tradition such as the Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism, were hurdles to “the development of the new country”. No one was permitted to study, talk about “the rotten culture”, even possessing artifact is strictly forbidden. Those dark ten years no only ruined countless ancient relics, but took away millions of lives. It seemed like that the traditional culture had been completely destroyed and nobody was going to revive it. However, almost right after the revolution people started to ponder the great destruction of the cultural revolution did to Chinese culture. Due to the impression Chinese traditional culture left on “the great context”, the minds of Chinese people. People soon realized that not all elements in the traditions are not adaptable for modern society. That is why today Chinese traditional culture is once more respected and studied by the citizens, and further spread in the world. This is the effect of the “disappeared”.

France invading Egypt. Napoleon standing in front of Sphinx.
France invading Egypt. Napoleon standing in front of Sphinx.[10]
The architecture takes on forces from the human society, changes its form and then influences the environment and society. In such way the architecture as media, document the history of the region where it is placed by changing its from. We can read the past and present of a certain place from architecture, no matter it is an ancient ruins or a newly-built monument. We think that in the future, how to better preserve architecture from a political perspective, balancing the benefits between different groups and cultures is a question that worths further researches and discussions. Furthermore, it would be an interesting topic to discuss if the designers can take advantages of the media-like characteristic of architecture, initiatively consider the possible social forces around the site that may change the form of the design in the future. In this way, even if the architecture is transformed into new looks, it would be still in the control of the architects who first create it.




1. “Taliban.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2325 (accessed 16-Sep-2013).

2. “Taliban.” In The Islamic World: Past and Present. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t243/e336 (accessed 16-Sep-2013).

3. Hankes, Beth. “Bamiyan Buddhas: Iconoclasm.” Mount Holyoke College. Accessed September 16, 2013. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~bhhankes/iconoclasm.html.

4. Hankes, Beth. “Bamiyan Buddhas: Iconoclasm.” Mount Holyoke College. Accessed September 16, 2013. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~bhhankes/iconoclasm.html.

5. Hankes, Beth. “Bamiyan Buddhas: Politics.” Mount Holyoke College. Accessed September 16, 2013. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~bhhankes/Politics.html.

6. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Afghanistan,” accessed September 16, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/7798/Afghanistan.

7. CNN. “Destruction of Buddhas March 21 2001.” Accessed September 16, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Destruction_of_Buddhas_March_21_2001.jpg.

8. Leann, Ogasawara. “Bamiyan, The Destroyed Buddha Images & Meditations on Art : Japan Subculture Research Center.” Japan Subculture Research Center. Last modified December 22, 2012. http://www.japansubculture.com/bamiyan-the-destroyed-buddha-images-meditations-on-art/.

9. servethepeople. “servethepeople: The Battle for China’s Present: Mao and the Cultural Revolution.” Last modified August 7, 2008. http://mike-servethepeople.blogspot.com/2008/08/battle-for-chinas-present-mao-and.html.

10. Gérôme, Jean-Léon. “Bonaparte Before the Sphinx.” 1867. Accessed September 15, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Léon_Gérôme_003.jpg.





Rathje, W.L. “USATODAY.com – Why the Taliban are destroying Buddhas.” USA TODAY: Latest World and US News – USATODAY.com. Last modified March 22, 2001. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/science/archaeology/2001-03-22-afghan-buddhas.htm.

The author analysis the reason why the Taliban is trying to destroy buddhas. Firstly, he thinks that buddhas are ‘easy target’ because the early Muslims were opposed to buddhist. Secondly, Buddhism stands for the northern alliance’s ‘rebel’ force, so Taliban wants to humiliate their enemy by destroying their heritage. Terminally, the ignorance of the contemporary situation of Afghan by international organizations or countries, such as no international humanitarian aid  after earthquakes or famine, leads to the anger of Taliban government.

Bergen, Peter. “Taliban-destroyed Buddhas may never be restored – CNN.com.” CNN.com – Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. Last modified May 11, 2007. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/05/10/afghan.buddhas/.

This article introduced that the Bamiyan Buddha was destroyed by Taliban government into 5000 fragments so it might never be restored. This destruction may be the campaign to demolish pre-islanmic culture and heritage. Besides, Taliban government rejected to apologize to this action.

Piscopia , Patrizia. “Did the Taliban know about the ‘CNN effect’? Bamiyan and the media. | Patrizia La Piscopia – Academia.edu.” Academia.edu – Share research. Last modified March 5, 2011. http://www.academia.edu/1682514/Did_the_Taliban_know_about_the_CNN_effect_Bamiyan_and_the_media.

Presented as a powerpoint presentation online. This powerpoint introduces the ‘CNN effect’, which means the more powerful we are the more visible our action become through the worldwide medias. We only know little about Afghanistan and Taliban before Taliban made the decision to destroy the Bamiyan buddhas, but after that, a number of countries and international organizations payed attention to this event and Taliban through all forms of global media.



Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Buddhas of Bamiyan.” Accessed September 15, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamiyan.


The resource introduces the history of how the buddhas were built, its importance in regional culture communication, the demolition of Taliban government as well as the recent plans on rebuilding of the buddhas.



Centlivres, Pierre. “The Controversy over the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. Last modified February, 2008. http://samaj.revues.org/992.

 The author first stresses the similarity between destruction of Bamiyan buddhas and the destruction of Artemis temple in 365 BC, and the author emphasis the uncertainty of identification of victims.The article then elaborates the self-justification of Taliban, in the end, the author argues the conflicting visions of the meaning of ‘cultural heritage’.


Flood, Finbarr B. “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum.” In The Art Bulletin, 644. [New York]: College Art Association of America, 1919.

This article explores the reception of buddhism of Islamic culture, how the Afghanistan responses to the Buddhism and Hindu religion.



Burnes, Alexander. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Calcutta: Bishop’s College Press, 1832. http://archive.org/stream/journalofasiatic02asia#page/n617/mode/1up.

Elevation of Bamiyan buddhas
Elevation of Bamiyan buddhas

“Google Maps.” Accessed September 15, 2013. https://www.google.com/maps/preview?hl=en.

geographical position of Bamiyan buddha
geographical position of Bamiyan buddha
geographical position of Bamiyan buddha in satellite
geographical position of Bamiyan buddha in satellite

UNESCO. “Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed September 15, 2013. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/208.

The orthographic article from UNESCO has detailed information about the cave art in Bamiyan region in Afghanistan, including the geological position and the specifications of the buddhas. It also introduces the connected small caves and galleries that calved on the cliff which are next to the two main buddhas. Additionally it provides the criterions and related protection and management requirements of the buddhas, which are of great value for both  the rescue/rebuilt of the buddhas in the future and the maintenance of other precious ancient relics in the world.




Brajnovic, Tomislav. “Buddhas of Bamiyan / excerpt on Vimeo.” Vimeo. Last modified 2003. https://vimeo.com/26539744.

Buddhas of Bamiyan / excerpt from tbrajnovic on Vimeo.

An Afghan is using a shredder to shredding pages that have buddha image on it. Not only the Bamiyan buddha statues were destroyed but also books that contain buddhas, Taliban is going to destroy all medias contain ‘un-islamic’ culture .


Tarik, Abu. “Afghanistan Taliban Muslims destroying Bamiyan Buddha Statues on Vimeo.” Vimeo. Last modified 11, 2012. http://vimeo.com/52797131.

Afghanistan Taliban Muslims destroying Bamiyan Buddha Statues from Abu Tarik on Vimeo.


Taliban Muslims is dynamiting the Bamiyan buddha statues. They are trying to crack down all the ‘un-islamic’ culture, ignoring oppose of lots of people and countries. The Bamiyan buddha is not only historical heritage of Afghanistan but also the relics property of the whole world.


Adams, David. “Afghanistan-The Lost Buddhas of Afghanistan on Vimeo.” Vimeo. Last modified 2009. http://vimeo.com/5603833.


The video recorded an unusual experience of David Adams, who hitched a ride with the Taliban to cris-cross Afghanistan which by then few westerners dared to visit. He finally reached the Bamiyan Buddhas, just before they were destroyed. In his journey, he noticed that the capital of Afghanistan — Kabul was full of evidence of war. He stayed at the only hotel in Kabul, although the hotel is supposed to full of businessmen and travelers,in fact,  it’s empty,which indicates the international isolation of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan-The Lost Buddhas of Afghanistan from David Adams Films on Vimeo.


UNESCO. “Bamiyan: Ten years on.” YouTube. Last modified February 28, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nENvd7Zj1Qs.

More than a decade, unesco is still protecting the Bamiyan buddha site, even though the two giant standing buddha statues were destroyed in 2001. They are still protecting the mural in the cave and the niches of buddha.













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