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History of the Bamiyan Buddhas

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Taliban Destruction of the Buddhas, 2001
The Taliban considered the Bamiyan Buddhas to be idols, against the laws of Islam.

An empty niche where the Bamiyan Buddha once stood; the Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Stringer / Getty Images

Beginning on March 2, 2001, and continuing into April, Taliban militants destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas using dynamite, artillery, rockets, and anti-aircraft guns. Although Islamic custom opposes the display of idols, it is not entirely clear why the Taliban chose to bring down the statues, which had stood for more than 1,000 years under Muslim rule.

As of 1997, the Taliban's own ambassador to Pakistan stated that "the Supreme Council has refused the destruction of the sculptures because there is no worship of them." Even in September of 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar pointed out the tourism potential of Bamiyan: "The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors." He vowed to protect the monuments. So what changed? Why did he order the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed just seven months later?

Nobody knows for sure why the mullah changed his mind. Even a senior Taliban commander was quoted as saying that this decision was "pure madness." Some observers have theorized that the Taliban was reacting to tighter sanctions, meant to force them to hand over Osama bin Laden; that the Taliban were punishing the ethnic Hazara of Bamiyan; or that they destroyed the Buddhas to draw western attention to the on-going famine in Afghanistan. However, none of these explanations really holds water.

The Taliban government showed an incredibly callous disregard for the Afghan people throughout its reign, so humanitarian impulses seem unlikely. Mullah Omar's government also rejected outside (western) influence, including aid, so it would not have used the destruction of the Buddhas as a bargaining chip for food assistance. While the Sunni Taliban viciously persecuted the Shi'a Hazara, the Buddhas predated the Hazara people's emergence in the Bamiyan Valley, and were not closely enough tied to Hazara culture to make that a reasonable explanation.

The most convincing explanation for Mullah Omar's sudden change of heart on the Bamiyan Buddhas may be the growing influence of al-Qaeda. Despite the potential loss of tourist revenue, and the lack of any compelling reason to destroy the statues, the Taliban blasted the ancient monuments from their niches. The only people who really believed that to be a good idea were Osama bin Laden and "the Arabs," who believed that the Buddhas were idols that had to be destroyed, despite the fact that nobody in present-day Afghanistan was worshiping them.

When foreign reporters questioned Mullah Omar about the destruction of the Buddhas, asking if it wouldn't have been better to let tourists visit the site, he generally gave them a single answer. Paraphrasing Mahmud of Ghazni, who refused ransom offers and destroyed a lingam symbolizing the Hindu god Shiva at Somnath, Mullah Omar said "I am a smasher of idols, not a seller of them."

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