Bamyan – “The Place of Shining Light”– sits at the crossroads of many civilisations. Its location near one of the main crossing points through the Hindu Kush means that its history has been heavily influenced by passing merchants, pilgrims and conquerors. In the early centuries of the first millennium AD, Bamyan was part of the Buddhist Kushan empire, which from its base in today’s Afghanistan united large parts of India and Central Asia. The spread of Buddhism from its Indian homeland north into Central Asia and then the Far East began along roads tramped by the traders and soldiers of the Kushan empire.
The earliest references to Bamyan occur in the 4th century, but the first detailed description of the valley was written by the Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan Tsang, who passed through in about 630 AD on his way to visit Buddhist holy sites in India. Recent research has shown that some of the Buddhist frescoes in Bamyan can be dated back to the early 5th century.
Hsuan Tsang was also the first to mention the two monumental Buddha statues carved into the cliff face at Bamyan. (Radio carbon tests carried out by UNESCO date the smaller, 38-metre statue to about 507 AD, and the larger, 53-metre Buddha to about 551 AD.) Hsuan Tsang commented that the large Buddha’s “golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness”, indicating that the statues were once brightly decorated. At the time the number of Buddhist monks in the valley is reported to have reached several thousand, worshipping at perhaps fifty temples or more. This period was the height of Bamyan’s significance as a Buddhist centre.
In the early 8th century a Korean pilgrim, Hui Chao, commented on the extent of the Buddhist population in Bamyan. But with a revival of Hinduism in India and the incursions of the new religion of Islam from the west, Buddhism had begun to decline in its Indian homeland. During the late 8th and the 9th centuries Bamyan came under the control of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad and Islam grad¬ually spread throughout the region. Many of the statues and temples which had stood in the region for centuries were destroyed by the Iranian Saffarids who ruled in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Buddhism had survived in Bamyan after it had faded in India, but this marked the religion’s gradual decline in the valley as well.
The Arab invasions and subsequent Muslim rulers, such as Mahmoud of Ghazni, gradually converted Afghanistan to Islam. Bamyan became a prosperous Muslim city. Its prosperity was abruptly ended, however, by the invasion of Genghis Khan in AD 1221. The city’s citadel then oc¬cupied the prominent hill known today as Shahr-e-Gholghola. The Mongols ransacked the hilltop fortress and massacred the population, giving the hill its name, which means the “City of Screams”.
Not until the 19th century did the valley of Bamyan come to the attention of the outside world again. European travellers then began to visit, such as the British explorers, Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson, who sketched the giant Buddhas. British troops visited the area during their first occupation of Afghanistan in 1839-42. Hostages given to the Afghan forces during the disastrous British retreat to Jalalabad were taken to Bamyan in 1842, where they managed to negotiate their own release. They subsequently returned to Kabul to join a punitive expedition which had arrived from India.
Apart from a second short period of British occupation in 1878-80, Afghanistan remained largely closed to all but the most intrepid travellers until the mid-20th century. Then in the 1970s came explorers of a different sort when the youth of Europe and America discovered the hippy trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu. Bamyan with its Buddhas and the lakes of Band-e-Amir became one of their favourite stopovers.
The giant Buddhas were finally destroyed in 2001 after watching over the Bamyan valley for 1500 years. The Taleban regime then in power in Kabul decided to destroy the statues as a symbol of un-Islamic influence in Afghanistan. When firing tank shells at them didn’t succeed, they planted explosives in the great statues and blew them to pieces.
The Afghan government and UNESCO are researching the possibility of rebuilding the Buddhas.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2003 the archaeological remains and cultural landscape of Bamyan were inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. This status was conferred because of their cultural value as an outstanding representation of the Gandharan school of Buddhist art which flourished during the middle centuries of the first millennium AD -- a cultural expression combining Indian, Hellenistic Greek, Roman and Sassanian influences. The Bamyan valley bears testimony to a significant period of Buddhist history and to a cultural tradition which has vanished from Central Asia. The valley also contains archaeological sites and ruins of important fortified edifices of the Islamic period.
The Bamyan valley was inscribed on the list of World Heritage in Danger at the same time, because the site is in a fragile state and has suffered from neglect, military conflict and deliberate acts of destruction. At the request of the Afghan government, UNESCO coordinates international efforts to protect the cultural landscape of the Bamyan area.Afghanistan has rarely known tourism in the modern sense.
Tourism in Bamyan
Afghanistan has rarely known tourism in the modern sense. Apart from two brief periods of British military occupation in the 19th century, the country was largely closed to outsiders until the 1950s. In the 1960s and 70s there was a brief opening up when the restless youth of Europe and America passed through on the hippies’ overland trail from Istanbul to Kathmandu -- but then came the left-wing Saur revolution of 1978, followed by Soviet invasion the following year. It was to be two decades before Afghans were able to hope for peace again.
With the great Buddhas and Band-e-Amir, Bamyan was one of the favourite haunts for those early tourists. Now it is becoming the focus of plans to revive tourism in Afghanistan. While insecurity has continued in southeastern Afghanistan, Bamyan has remained largely peaceful. It is already attracting tourists – thousand of Afghans visit the shrine and lakes of Band-e-Amir every summer, and hundreds of foreigners also visit the province, many of them aid workers and other foreigners employed in the region.
Buddhism in Bamyan
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, or “Enlightened One”, who lived in northeastern India and probably died around 400 BC. Scholars see it as a reform movement within Hinduism, doing away with the belief in caste and teaching that anyone can find enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that the only way to escape the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth is to learn detachment from the world by following the path of correct behaviour and mental and spiritual discipline. The soul which achieves enlightenment will reach Nirvana, and be extinguished.
From its original homeland in today’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Buddhism spread across northern India. Gandhara – the area of the Peshawar valley in northwest Pakistan -- became an important Buddhist centre under the Kushan empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It was here that the first representations of the Buddha were made, inspired partly by a Greek artistic tradition in the Hellenistic kingdoms which survived the brief conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. From Gandhara, Buddhist ideas and art spread to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and north to Tibet, China and Japan along the Silk Road.
The great Buddhas in Bamyan were created in the early 6th century AD by the area’s large community of monks. Buddhism later all but disappeared from its Indian homeland as Hinduism reasserted itself. In Bamyan it was in decline by the 8th century and Islam gradually replaced it in the remote highlands of Hazarajat.
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Bamiyan Master Plan 2005. UNESCO. (RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, 2005.)
Bamiyan: Art & Archaeological Research in the Buddhist Cave Temple in Afghanistan, 1970-1978. T. Hichuchi. (Kyoto University, Kyoto, 1983.)
Shahr-e-Zohak and the History of the Bamyan Valley, Afghanistan. P. Baker & F. Allchin. (Ancient India and Iran Trust Series No.1 BAR International Series 570, London, 1991.)
Band-e Amir – A Brief Guide. AKDN. (Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, USAID, WCS, Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, UNEP et al, 2005.)
Bamiyan. Nancy Hatch Dupree. (ATO, Kabul, 1962.)
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|Much of the Bamyan region is a fragile, high-altitude environment. Visitors should do their best to protect it. The following guidelines apply particularly when camping. |
• Keep your impact on the environment to a minimum.
• Travel in a small party to minimise overall impact (but for safety reasons, don’t travel alone).
• Cook on a kerosene stove. Avoid wood or dung fires; these fuels are a scarce resource needed by the local people.
• Bring adequate warm clothing to avoid relying on campfires for warmth.
• Wash dishes and clothes and bathe using a basin. Throw away soapy water at least 50 metres (yards) from streams or other water sources.
• Where there are no toilets in the wilderness, relieve yourself at least 50 metres (yards) from open water sources or campsites.
• Burn rubbish that can be burnt. Take other rubbish away with you to where you can dispose of it properly.
• Leave campsites the way you find them – or cleaner. Don’t clear vegetation or cut trees or branches, and don't remove stones from walls or canals.
• Don’t write your name or leave other graffiti on rocks and boulders.
• Don’t harass or feed wild animals or catch wild game.
• Don’t hunt or trade in endangered species.
• Use tour operators who promote environmentally responsible tourism.