The Common Good

Buddhas Brought Back to Life in Central Afghanistan

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Bamiyan is a central Afghan town, home to two monumental Buddha statues carved out of sandstone cliffs. In a zealous attempt to purge anything considered un-Islamic, the Taliban targeted these historic statues a decade ago when they occupied and controlled Afghanistan. The defamation of non-Islamic monuments and sites caused a global response. The efforts of national leaders failed, and the Taliban destroyed the statues in March, 2001. The world community -- from Russia to Malaysia, from Germany to Sri Lanka -- expressed horror at the Buddha's demolition.

Sitting over the Bamiyan Valley since the early sixth century, one of the Buddha figures stood nearly 180 feet tall and the other 120 feet. Before their destruction, these statues were the largest Buddha carvings in the world. They were once a major tourist attraction, but the decades of conflict drove away tourists years before the Taliban blew up the statues.

Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), along with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, have begun the process of restoring the Buddhas. UNESCO was the major proponent in trying to save the statues 10 years ago, convening an emergency meeting of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to try to stop the destruction.

The reaction to the reinstallation of these statues has been mixed. Despite arguments made by the provincial governor, Habiba Sarabi, that the restoration project will rebuild the historic site and bring back tourists to the location, many still feel apprehensive. After years of war, Bamiyan is considered one of the less dangerous areas of central Afghanistan but still bears the mark of one of the least developed countries in the world.

The province of Bamiyan is incredibly isolated and impoverished. Several individuals have suggested the money used on the Buddha project should be put toward community services and infrastructure development like electricity and housing, which are in dire need. Many homeless Bamiyan people have actually taken residence in the caves at the site of the Buddha statues. Driven by survival and practicality, many Afghans in the Bamiyan region find no need for the monument and continue to see the project as a waste of resources.

Does value lie in the restoration of history and capitalization of tourism or in the aid and development of the Afghan people? As the nation of Afghanistan attempts to recover from years of violence and conflict, the government needs to evaluate and prioritize infrastructure investments.

See images of the Buddha statues before and after their destruction, and listen to a story by NPR on the restoration of these statues here.

portrait-hannah-lytheHannah Lythe is policy and outreach associate at Sojourners.

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