History and Culture of the Silk Road City: Bamiyan, Afghanistan

History

The Afghan city of Bamiyan was famed for centuries as a center of commerce and philosophy.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Its position on the Silk Road between the Roman Empire and China brought throngs of travelers to this spectacular mountain valley.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ For centuries, it was especially renowned for its towering Buddhist statues, one of which was the tallest in the world.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ More recently, it became famous when these treasures were destroyed.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ In 2001, the Taliban toppled the two colossal Buddhas with dynamite and munitions, because they were “false idols” contrary to Islam.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ The statues, rare examples of Greco-Buddhist art, had survived the invasion of Genghis Khan in 1221 and inspired awe in millions of pilgrims, but international outcry could not stop the Taliban from reducing them to rubble.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ They were carved out of the mountainside in the 6th century A.D. and were once part of a thriving monastic community, with hundreds of Buddhist monks living in nearby caves and grottoes.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ When the Chinese traveler Hsuen Tsang saw the Buddhas in 632, he marveled at the huge painted figures, decorated with gold and precious gems, and declared them “dazzling to the eye.” Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½The mindless destruction of the Buddhas marked a low point in crimes against art and antiquity.

Landscape

Bamiyan is located in central highlands of Afghanistan, in a majestic valley between the Hindu Kush and Kohe baba mountain ranges.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ At an altitude of over 8,000 feet, its winters are cold. Nearby, the five lakes of Band-e Amir are one of the country’s most beautiful natural wonders.

People and Culture

This region, called the Hazarajat, is home to the Hazara ethnic minority, and Bamiyan is their cultural capital.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As a minority, Hazaras have faced oppression and deprivation, and the Hazarajat region is one of the most underdeveloped in the country.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As Shiites, the Hazaras are a religious minority as well; hence their allegiance was often directed toward Iran’s spiritual leaders rather than the Sunni Afghan authorities.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Ethnically, they have Asiatic features and have a mixture of Mongol and Turkish roots.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ The Hazaras speak Farsi with their own special dialect, called Hazaragi.

The primary occupations in Bamiyan are the growing of potatoes and wheat, and herding sheep and goats.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Literacy rates are low, especially among women.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ U.N. studies have found that nearly one-third of Hazarajat’s children suffer from stunted growth. Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½The caves which were once part of the ancient monastery are now makeshift homes for displaced people.

“The Hazaras were always economically weak and politically excluded,” said Qasim Aghar, a Hazara intellectual and educator, as quoted in the Washington Post.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “We were separated by religion and geography. No one ever even tried to build a road to Hazarajat.”

The Hazaras were targeted for persecution by the Taliban because of their differences, as the Taliban were Pashtun and Sunni.�¯�¿�½ Bamiyan resisted Taliban capture until 1998 (two years after Kabul fell).�¯�¿�½ When the Taliban took control, many Hazaras fled to Iran.

The Buddhas were destroyed in 2001.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Several months later, after the US invasion, the Taliban were driven out by the Hazara fighters of the Hezb-i-Wahdat faction.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ In the course of the fighting, Bamiyan was completely destroyed.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ At least three mass graves were discovered at this time, evidence of the Taliban’s brutality and “ethnic cleansing.”

Recent Developments

One of Hamid Karzai’s vice presidents is Karim Khalili, a former Hazara warlord.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Many in Bamiyan have placed their hopes in him for increased access to aid and resources for their area.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ When he visited Bamiyan after attaining his government post, however, he had to lower their expectations, stating that rebuilding would be an uphill battle, since all Afghan provinces were in need of money.

However, 2004 showed signs of progress for Bamiyan: the first cell phone relay station was installed, and Italy began building the first paved road to Kabul.

Before the Taliban destroyed it in 2001, the University of Bamiyan had approximately 500 students of both genders and flourished for seven years.�¯�¿�½ The University was re-opened in 2004, with 165 students and 36 instructors with a curriculum of agronomy and teaching.

As quoted in the Washington Post, Peter Maxwell, the senior U.N. official in the region, said, “The Hazaras are unusually open-minded about the participation of women.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ This has emerged because of the community’s exclusion from economic and political processes in the past.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ They realize that women and girls are a resource in themselves. You see lots and lots of girls in school, some of them walking one or two hours a day to get there.”

Although Bamiyan faces huge challenges, one of its main assets is good security, in part due to its location.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ There are no skirmishes among warring militia groups, and no resurgence of Taliban that would threaten relief efforts.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “Extremist and anti-government elements are not at all welcome here,” said Peter Maxwell.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ “This has a very beneficial effect on all sorts of activities.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ People are eager to rebuild their lives, they support the government and they have no time for the kinds of extremism found in other areas.”

Thanks to its rich history and unique culture, Bamiyan is on the way to recovery.�¯�¿�½ With the determination already shown by the Hazaras to create peaceful prosperity, the outlook is promising.

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