MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

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The view from my window



A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of nan, I felt that there would be no need to eat anything else all day.

Khudadad was going out to arrange transport. ‘Is there any chance of seeing the Buddha before we move on today?’ I asked hopefully.

He grinned, ‘Look out the window!’ Directly opposite was the Buddha, all 175 feet of him, and he left me gazing in awe at the giant figure.

A few weeks later, on my return journey, I was able to spend more time viewing the statues. Our little group of tourists comprised, Jon, Rahimy who was coming to Pakistan to be trained as a laboratory technician and Zahir, a leprosy patient coming for treatment and possible reconstructive surgery on his badly deformed face.

General consensus dates the larger, and later, Buddha from sometime in the fifth century. The drapes on the figure would once have been red, the hands and feet gilded. Nothing was left of the face or the hands and only a few very faint traces of red remained.

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The oil drums and the volley ball net give some sense of the scale of the statue

The site was now a major base for the mujahideen. Near the feet of the Buddha a net for volley ball had been erected. We are asked to take photos of the fighters but despite their outward appearance of casual welcome, they would not allow us any closer. The caves encircling the feet of the Buddha which were perhaps once used by the priests, or visited by pilgrims, were now ammunition stores, bomb shelters, living accommodation – as were the caves stretching along the sandstone cliff face between the two Buddhas. It was difficult to visualise the scene of long ago, when the monasteries would have been filled with robed monks and pilgrims from India, China and other far off lands mingled to pray and seek enlightenment and peace at the feet of the Buddha.

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Happy to have their photographs taken but were not going to let us explore the large Buddha

It was sad to think of the countless battles and invasions the Buddha had witnessed and withstood. Even, it seemed, the notorious Genghis Khan – not averse to laying waste to all that he encountered – had drawn the line at destroying the magnificent figures. I wrote in my diary that evening, ‘If ever Afghanistan is again at peace, her doors opened once more to travellers and tourists, one of her greatest treasures, surely one of the wonders of the world, may well have been destroyed. What centuries of war and weather and vandals and thieves have not succeeded in doing the mujahideen look set to achieve in a few short years.’

Only, it was not the mujahideen who destroyed the statues but, some years later, the Taliban, who deliberately blew them up, reducing them to rubble.

The smaller Buddha, at the far end of the bazaar, still very impressive at a height of 120 feet had been sculpted earlier, towards the end of the third or early fourth century. As we started to cross the fields toward the cliff face, a blood curdling shriek stopped us in our tracks.

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Small Buddha. The second opening from top left is as far as I climbed.

It was the mujahideen halt call, a terrifying sound. A sound you did not ignore.  We halted. High above the Buddha we could make out a tiny figure, gesticulating wildly. It started running, and within a few minutes had miraculously scrambled down the seemingly sheer cliff face, and was heading towards us. He didn’t appear to be pointing his Kalashnikov at anyone in particular but we didn’t dare move. With a sweep of his arm in the direction we had been heading, this small, wiry mujahid told us we were about to walk across a mine filed.

If we wanted to see the Buddha, we should follow him. Somewhat shaken, we followed closely in his footsteps, along a barely discernible path, until we were once more on safe territory – gazing up at the unperturbable, if battered, face of the Buddha. Our guide beckoned us from the doorway, ‘You can go inside if you like.’  We liked.

At first the steps were broad and shallow but as we climbed higher they became steeper and narrower. Huge windows were cut in the rock every few feet. They made me nervous, as there was no protective barrier across the yawning gaps, and it would be all too easy to topple straight out – and down.

About three quarters of the way up a doorway led out onto a wide veranda which contained several niches where presumably smaller figures had once stood. A few patches of colour remained of the paintings on the rock walls, but we could not decipher what they had depicted.  Rahimy, Zahir and I decided to wait on the veranda for Jon and the mujahid to complete the climb to the top. Climbing up was easy enough, apart from those gaping windows, but I knew I’d have problems coming back down again, without any handrail to help in negotiating the narrow steps with their sharp turns. Rahimy admitted to having no head for heights, and we were both concerned about Zahir. His asthmatic wheezing was alarming although he assured us he was all right. Partly the problem was caused because, having no nose he had to breathe though his mouth at all times and a heavy head cold was not easing the situation.

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A seated Buddha statue on the cliff face

Jon went on, returning like a jelly, shaking from head to foot. His legs could barely hold him and he had to rest for a while. He said he’d been doing well, until on the way down his legs had suddenly started to tremble and gone on trembling, especially whenever he passed one of the yawning openings. Needless to say, the mujahid had climbed up and down as though he did it as a matter of course every day – which he probably did. He now pointed us in a direction which was mine free, bid us farewell and was back on his cliff top perch before we had even reached half way to the jeep.

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Caves, which were monks’ cells or pilgrims’ rooms, later became refuge for people whose homes were destroyed in the fighting.  

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Ancient burial sites

Khudadad returned with the news all trucks heading  towards Lal sar Jangal and beyond had left at four o’clock that morning. Of course, they had. However, he’d found a driver willing to take us to Yakolang, roughly half way to Lal, from where he assured me it would be easy to find another truck to Lal. We were to be ready to leave around lunch time.

59 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

  1. At least you got to see them before the Taliban destroyed them. Such a sad loss to the history of the region, (and the world) and so completely pointless too.
    I’m sure almost walking into a minefield must have been terrifying! 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I saw them afterwards, too, Pete – well, saw the piles of rubble – when we went back to Afghanistan in 2006. The sound of the muj screaming at us was even more terrifying. I nearly walked into a mined area on another occasion. I was looking for a place to spend a penny when I noticed some suitable rocks behind a roped off part of the path. I’d just put one foot over the rope when someone screamed at me!

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    • It really was awe-inspiring, Darlene. Buddha probably wasn’t too happy at his special place being used as an arsenal but would probably have preferred that to the dreadful destruction wrought by Taliban.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – yes, I do feel a great sense of privilege that I saw the statues before Taliban destroyed them. I was so very grateful to the young guy for warning us about the mines. If he hadn’t seen us – well, I wouldn’t be writing to you now!


  2. Mary, would you have any travel tips for somebody planning a trip to Afghanistan? Obviously it is a dangerous place. But from your experience have you learned anything which you would pass on to any travellers looking to visit the country?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, I missed this. I wouldn’t recommend visiting now. I doubt if you could at the moment. The time I’m writing about was from 1989 to 1996. I went back for a visit in 2006 so even that was a long time ago. There are tour companies who do organised trips, though they are very expensive. Have a look online and you might find other people with more up to date info than I have. If you do go, be prepared for the country to worm its way into your heart and never let go.

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  3. Pingback: The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33 ~ Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  4. Wonderful as always Mary and tragic that the statues managed to survive all the turmoil over the centuries only to be senselessly destroyed… you were so lucky to have seen them up close and personal and thank goodness of the kind heart of that young man to have taken the trouble to warn you of the minefield… I have pressed for later today..hugsx

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    • Thanks, Sally – both for your comments and for sharing the post later today. Yes, I was lucky to see the statues more than once and will always remember them, even if I didn’t have the photos to remind me. I saw them reduced to rubble but seem to have lost those photos. I was with my friend Jawad’s daughter who pointed out, rather sharply, that over the years of the horrific abuses Taliban carried out, especially against women, the world remained silent until Taliban said they were going to blow up the statues. Then, there was a huge outcry and international condemnation. For young women in Afghanistan to realise the world is more concerned about an ancient statue than their fate was a grim lesson to learn.

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  5. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  6. I’m in awe just looking at the photos, never mind actually standing in front of these massive sculptures! Are they made of clay to last so long? It’s interesting the mujahideen didn’t mind you being there (and in fact protected you from a mine field).
    I’m curious if you ever felt threatened as a woman in such a male-dominated country? I read above that you woke to men staring at you and it was thanks to your friend’s glare they dispersed.
    Also, for poor Jahir; was there special precautions you needed to take with his leprosy?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They were carved out of the rock face of the cliff, Jacquie, and were truly awe-inspiring. The mujahideen were definitely not going to let us explore the big statue where they had their base, which I guess is understandable – we couldn’t just wander around any military base at home out of curiosity! I suspect the young guy was on duty to stop any unsuspecting person wandering into the minefield and finding a couple of foreigners probably made his day a bit more interesting. I didn’t feel threatened because the sense of duty and honour to guests is so strong I felt quite protected. Even when I started the journey without Khudadad, the driver was quick to tell me he saw Jon as his brother, thereby telling me I was his sister. As for worrying about leprosy, no I never did. 80% of any population has a natural immunity to leprosy and only one type is particularly infectious so the odds of catching it were very slim.

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        • Your comment makes me so happy, Jacquie. Sometimes, I worry I’m feeding people’s preconceived ideas about Afghanistan so when someone clearly gets the point of these posts I want to do a happy dance around my desk 🙂 Yes, there is war, poverty, pain and hardship but there is also love and laughter and joy.

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  7. What wonderful pieces of art. Now most of the destroyed. But we should not be surprised. Here in Europe, the same thing happened as the Roman Catholic. Church wanted to claim her power. So many places of worship of the Celts were lost. The soldiers are still children. What a loss for their future too. Thank you for another great story, Mary. Best wishes, and stay save. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Michael. Taliban destroyed the statues because they said they were idols and Islam forbids worship of idols. Not that anyone actually worshipped the statues. A great loss. And yes, over time various religions have set out to destroy the art works and buildings of anyone who thought differently. Somehow, we never learn. Yes, many of the soldiers were very young, which is another tragic fact of war. Glad you enjoyed this instalment. Keep well.

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    • They really were awe-inspiring. The discussions continue but personally I don’t think they will be rebuilt. The cost would be phenomenal and if there is so much money going spare then it could be put to better use in Afghanistan. People still live in the caves in the mountain as they have nowhere else to go.


  8. I love your posts, Mary as it depicts the real Afganistan and its people as that always seems to get lost in war zones. Such a shame that such wonderful relics of the past were just obliterated but just as wonderful that you have your photos and memories…Lucky for you that you didn’t step on a mine they always seem to be laid where they know people will walk…What lovely experiences and memories you have… thank you for sharing 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Carol, I appreciate your comment. I hope to show that despite living with war as a constant backdrop to their lives, people simply try to get on with their lives and do the best they can for their families. As for the mines – even today they still have teams working to find and remove them.


  9. I first learnt of the Bamiyan Buddhas while reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, the extravagant manner in which he’d explained the statues before their destruction and then, their merciless destruction and now seeing what remains of them through your blog.. It is immensely upsetting how culture around the world is targeted and destroyed so ruthlessly for no actual reason at all

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