They did it in God's name, they said. Islamic Taliban soldiers exploded two towering statues of Buddha carved in the limestone cliffs in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. One, at 175 feet, was thought to be the world's tallest standing Buddha; the other was 120 feet. They were more than 1,400 years old.
At the same moment those venerable testimonials to humankind's artistic endeavors were crumbling into rubble, an archaeologist somewhere knelt in the dust of an ancient city. Carefully brushing away the sands of time, she touched something hard, and lifted it tenderly into the sunlight. A tiny statue carved from ivory! She shouted to her colleagues to come and see. The priceless find was added to the collection of other pieces of art, contributing yet another piece to the puzzle of our human history.
Such a scene is being repeated daily all over the world by scientists intent on preserving our heritage. Yet, here was a government committing sacrilege against works of art that had survived generations. I felt sick at heart. Why? How could they destroy their own national artistic heritage? The Taliban, a strict fundamentalist Muslim sect that took control in 1996, is said to control at least 90 percent of Afghanistan. It announced last month that it would destroy all statues in the country because such representations of the human form were un-Islamic, according to a report by Reuters.
The report also quoted Nancy Dupree, a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. She said, "I don't know. They've gone completely mad, I think."
She noted that the area where the statues stood, the Ghazni ruins, are a rich mix of Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but Islamic religious leaders are buried there, too. Afghanistan has had an unbroken cultural history of 50,000 years, and lies along the ancient trade route between China and central Asia. Many cultures have come and gone in all that time, each leaving its mark.
Ironically, the Koran teaches that all morally guided religions come from God, and Afghanistan has had in the past a long history of tolerance and religious pluralism. Also ironically, the monks who carved the statues of Buddha would not have regarded them as idols (as the Taliban sees them), as they did not worship Buddha as a god. Nevertheless, the statues are now dust.
Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, said in a Reuters report that there should be new international laws to prevent such cultural vandalism.
Even though most countries in the world have laws protecting cultural treasures, and the 1954 Hague Convention now protects such destruction during war, there was nothing the rest of the world could do to save the Buddhist statues.
We should remember, though, before we piously condemn the Taliban, that destruction of the past insidiously takes place every day in all countries in the name of progress. Economic greed and ignorance are the causes. The bulldozer and the plow are often instruments of destruction of archaeological sites. The prestige connected with owning ancient artifacts continues to create a lucrative market and encourages looting of archaeological sites and tombs just as it did centuries ago in Egypt.
The action by the Taliban was shockingly reminiscent of the centuries of destruction we thought we'd left behind the devastation of Greece's wonders by Rome, the sacking of Rome's treasures by barbarians, the melting down of golden artifacts in the Americas by Spanish invaders, the horrific bombs of World War II and Vietnam. And so much more.
Much destruction of art throughout history has been wrought in the name of religion, sadly, and thanks to this misguided zeal, we are denied the true story of who we are and whence we came.
I mourn for the people of Afghanistan. They have suffered a great loss, as have we all.
Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at mailto:viv @cybertrails.com.