Last month, I wrote a set of posts talking about two ‘rediscovered libraries’–Timbuktu and Dunhuang, whose manuscripts were revolutionising the way that we perceived the past in those regions. These stories benefit from the allure of the unknown and the exotic, but to my mind, the most remarkable thing about them is their utter rarity. Huge numbers of documents from the Middle Ages–including the state archives of Byzantium and Safavid Iran, to name only two–simply have not survived, the victims of accidents or deliberate destruction. It’s not only manuscripts that suffer either, as both moveable art and architecture can degrade or disappear.
Today, I’d like to turn my attention to one such pair of lost artefacts, the colossal standing Buddha statues carved into the cliff-face of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan. The region itself has been a crossroads of civilisations for many centuries. Alexander conquered it, the Persian empires ruled it, but it was a local king, Ashoka, who brought Buddhism to Afghanistan from his territories in subcontinental India, in the 3rd century BCE. These events in ancient Gandhara, as the area is known to scholars, bequeathed a diverse cultural tradition to the late antique and early mediaeval residents of Bamiyan, influences clearly visible in the Buddhas.
Carved sometime between the 4th and the 7th century in the time of the Kushans, the Bamiyan Buddhas stood at nearly 175 ft and 120 ft respectively–making the larger of the two the biggest such standing Buddha in the world. They were constructed from a core of stone from the cliff-face, then given a moulded exterior of painted clay. It is this technique which gave the statues their graceful draping robes and delicate details, all of which contributed to the transcendent nature of the figures. Depictions of the human form like this were only introduced into Buddhism through Hellenic influences, but Bamiyan’s statues also display the subsequent influence of Iranian and Indian artistic developments.
Surrounding the Buddhas on all sides were caves and galleries that housed a Buddhist monastic community. Paintings inside the cave walls represent the earliest known oil paintings, and depict a variety of devotional themes, but these images are sadly corroded.
Buddhism flourished in Bamiyan, and in Gandhara more widely, for several centuries, drawing upon the wealth of the Silk Route which it straddled and relying upon the surrounding mountains for protection. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, however, a new religion and a new political power began to influence the area. While the Buddhist monasteries were not deliberately destroyed, they eventually lost the vitality of the earlier centuries, although perhaps did not disappear entirely until as late as the 12th century.
Although the Buddhists of Bamiyan may have disappeared before the end of the Middle Ages, the Buddhas themselves did not. As late as the year 2000, they were visible, though faceless, in their niches above the valleys. In the next year, however, both statues would be dynamited by the Taliban as examples of ungodly idols. The blasts, which reduced the statues to rubble, have also damaged the integrity of the cliff face, endangering the many surrounding caves. Thus, although the site has been formally recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, these Buddhas and many other Gandharan artefacts are already lost.
Visiting the statues now can only be done through pictures or through the words of previous travellers. Peter Levi, who visited Afghanistan in the 1970s, for example, wrote this about them:
“Their faces have been cut away and the restored pieces have a coldness, the feet a solid stance. No statue which has had its face removed can express justice or law or illumination or mercy, but there is a disturbing presence about these two giants that does express something. I do not know if it is ‘expressionless, expresses God’ or not.
We climbed, like all tourists, from gallery to gallery through the monks’ caves, and stood on the head of Buddha listening to the swallows below our feet twittering round his faceless face. Was Buddha put here to contemplate or to be contemplated? …”
Levi, Peter, The Light Garden of the Angel King: Travels in Afghanistan with Bruce Chatwin, (London, 1972), p.39.