Photo: Nasim Dadfar / Unsplash

Opinion: Civilization in ruins: Bamiyan after Bamiyan

By Professor Llewelyn Morgan

It is May 2016 in Palmyra, Syria. An orchestra plays in the “orchestra” of an ancient theatre, the semi-circular space in front of the stage. The musicians of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg are performing a programme of classical music before an audience of Russian and Syrian service people, locals, and foreign media. Vladimir Putin delivers an introductory address via video link.

It’s an extraordinarily compelling spectacle, there’s no denying it. A triumph of agitprop. Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces, supported by Russian helicopters, had just retaken the town of Tadmur and the adjacent ruins of Palmyra from Islamic State. In this same theatre a year earlier IS had staged the execution of 25 Syrian soldiers, shot dead by boys, the eldest of them 13. Later they tortured and murdered the retired former head of antiquities in Tadmur, Khaled al-Asaad. 

Islamic State had also destroyed or severely damaged a number of ancient buildings and monuments on the site, notably the impressive temples of Bel and Baalshamim, from the first and second centuries AD respectively, or strictly the cella of each at the heart of their large temple precincts. Like the Russians, who had bused journalists in for the performance in the theatre, IS made sure that their actions gained wide publicity. In the eleventh issue of Dabiq, Islamic State’s glossy English-language magazine, published in August-September 2015, two “photo reports” (“Destroying the shirk temple of Baalshamin”; “Destroying the shirk temple of Bel”) showed the laying of explosives, the huge explosions, and before/after images of both temples. 

Our sympathies unavoidably gravitate to the Russian violinist performing Bach’s Chaconne, not the fighters lugging blue canisters packed with high explosives into temples that had survived for two millennia. But something unites the activities of IS and the Russians at Palmyra, and it is a shared symbolic language the terms of which are ancient monuments, to be respected or demolished. 

A foundational moment in this discourse fell twenty-two years ago, at Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved from the cliff face in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, were blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. The site had been celebrated as a marvel in Buddhist pilgrim narratives, eighth-century Abbasid anthropological texts, twentieth-century travel literature, and a great deal in between, but the melancholy truth is still that Bamiyan had never before enjoyed the kind of celebrity that it has achieved with the Buddhas’ destruction. Bamiyan not only seized the headlines in March 2001, but has in the years since become the archetype of cultural heritage under threat, its name cited each new time such a threat is levelled or realised. Timbuktu in 2012, when Ansar al-Din and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb destroyed Sufi shrines and threatened libraries, was another Bamiyan; similarly Palmyra in 2015. But the transformation of Bamiyan into a meme wasn’t just a phenomenon of Western media. Islamist extremists had also learnt from events in Afghanistan how to give powerful expression to their puritanical interpretation of Islam, how to do so in such a way as to draw maximum attention to themselves, and how most effectively to provoke the wider world to outrage and hostility.

An act of iconoclasm that achieved less notoriety than Timbuktu or Palmyra, but one obviously inspired by Bamiyan, occurred in Swat, north-west Pakistan, in September 2007. At Shakhurai (Jahanabad) a six-metre high relief image of the Buddha in the padmasana or lotus position, dating to the seventh century AD, is carved high on a cliff face. In 2007 members of the Pakistani Taliban, who were in the process of seizing control of the Swat valley, blew off much of the Jahanabad Buddha’s face. This Buddha has been painstakingly restored by Pakistani and Italian experts—an unusually delicate task because the image was designed, like much Gandharan Buddhist sculpture, to be viewed from an oblique perspective, in this case a point ten metres below it.

If the motivations of the Taliban at Jahanabad are evident enough, and by implication how they read events at Bamiyan in 2001, why exactly it was that the Afghan Taliban went to the effort required to destroy two huge statues, 55m and 38m high and carved in deep relief from the rock, is less so. The action entailed the deployment of significant resources and expertise to a remote valley in the heart of the Hindu Kush in the middle of a war. It has been explained as a protest against international sanctions, or as an act of revenge against the Hazaras, the ethnic group dominant at Bamiyan who were determined opponents of the Taliban, but neither account seems enough to explain that level of mobilization.

Attributing a simple religious motivation to the Taliban works better, the destruction of physical expressions of another faith, but can perhaps be elaborated. It is striking how closely the destruction of the Buddhas coincided with Osama bin Laden’s taste for symbolically meaningful—and broadcastable—spectaculars. Bin Laden and his foreign fighters in early 2001 were exerting significant influence over their Taliban hosts, and it is not a great stretch to see attacks on artefacts in the National Museum in Kabul, which preceded the demolitions in Bamiyan, as the actions of Taliban seeking to match the standards of doctrinal purity set by their charismatic guests. Also of interest is evidence released in connection with proceedings at Guantanamo against a senior Al-Qaeda figure named Nashwan Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Baqi, alias Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a close collaborator of Bin Laden sometimes described as No. 3 in Al-Qaeda, which identifies him as leader of a “Bamiyan Group” of Al-Qaeda operatives “who assisted Taliban members in the destruction of the Buddha statues at or near Bamiyan, Afghanistan.”

Bin Laden’s taste for symbolic action is illustrated by his own commentary on the Al-Qaeda attack that severely damaged the USS Cole at Aden, Yemen, in October 2000, as described by Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower. Glossing the suicide attack by two men in a small boat packed with explosives who detonated the boat alongside the warship, Bin Laden had commented that “the destroyer represented the capital of the West, and the small boat represented Mohammed.” “The symbolism and assymetry of the moment were exactly what bin Laden had dreamed of,” Wright explains. Someone was supposed to be videoing the attack for broadcast, but he’d slept through his alarm.

As for the symbolic force of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Bin Laden made much of an equation of his modern enemies—the US, the West and secularized Muslim administrations—with an ancient past: the US was the “Hubal of this age” he said in one broadcast after 9/11 (in Karen Greenberg, Al Qaeda Now: Understanding Today’s Terrorists, 2005), Hubal being a pre-Islamic god in Mecca whose image the Prophet had removed from the Kaaba and smashed when he captured Mecca. Before Mohammed there was polytheism, idol-worship, shirk.Jahiliyya is another term favoured by the modern tradition of Islamist writers to whom Bin Laden was indebted, a “Time of Ignorance” which might describe the period when people in Mecca waywardly worshipped Hubal and other gods, or the current moment when the world is in thrall to Western moral corruption. Jahiliyya might even be rendered “barbarism”, the absence of that which brings mankind to a proper appreciation of its role in the world, of civilization. 

There is a parallel, in other words, to a certain way of viewing things, between two gigantic idols constructed before Bamiyan’s conversion to Islam in the ninth century or so and the Twin Towers (“those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity”, Bin Laden called them) that Al-Qaeda attacked six months later. The Jahanabad Buddha in Swat was attacked on September 11, 2007.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas dominated international news in a way that, for instance, the Taliban’s brutal treatment of the local population had not. Bamiyan, not unlike Putin’s extravaganza in Palmyra, was a media-conscious performance. Mullah Omar’s decree in February 2001 that “all fake idols must be destroyed”, contradicting earlier assurances, was distributed to international journalists. Al-Jazeera had a cameraman in Bamiyan to film the explosions, and other journalists were flown up to Bamiyan to view the scene after the event. 

None of which rises above strictly circumstantial evidence of a formative Al-Qaeda role at Bamiyan. But what is not in doubt is the reading of events in Bamiyan by the Pakistani Taliban in Swat, by jihadists in Mali when they demolished the UNESCO-listed shrines in Timbuktu, and by IS in Palmyra. Damaging symbols of shirk, pagan religious practice, they learned, was both a sound act of piety and an expression of the same that was guaranteed to draw attention to itself, very widely if it could be made to generate compelling images. Such an action handily defined allies and enemies, simultaneously provoking conflict and recruiting support. 

Meanwhile the message of “Praying for Palmyra: Music revives ancient ruins”, as the Mariinsky orchestra’s performance was billed, was transparent. Civilized values, represented by orchestral music and Greco-Roman architecture, had been restored. Vladimir Putin underlined the point in his speech from Moscow, while an image of Khaled al-Asaad, the murdered archaeologist, balanced Putin’s screen on the opposite side of the stage. The conductor, Valery Gergiev, hailed the event as a response to “barbarians who destroyed wonderful monuments of world culture.”

It’s perhaps even easier in 2023, as Russian rockets rain down on Ukrainian cities, to see this performance for the grotesque charade it was. On cello was Sergei Rodulgin, notorious as one of Putin’s closest henchmen in his kleptocratic raids on Russia’s public finances. Moreover, while it has suited Bashar Assad and his Russian allies to emphasise their opposition to IS, in comparison with whom it is not difficult to sparkle, the implication that all Assad’s Russian-backed campaigns against his own people share this civilizing mission—the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas in Aleppo, for instance, and the chemical weapons—has all the plausibility of Putin’s claims to be de-nazifying Ukraine. Not only the performance in the theatre but the whole campaign to capture Palmyra looks like a stunt, especially given how quickly IS managed to recapture it before the end of 2016. These were the early days of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, and Palmyra represented an obvious opportunity for a propaganda coup. When IS recaptured Palmyra at the end of 2016, predictably, they set about demolishing the scaenae frons, the elevated façade behind the stage, that had formed the impressive backdrop of this Russian performance.

With that in mind, a final aspect of Assad’s capture of Palmyra in 2016 circles us back to Bamiyan. This is the prominent role played within the Syrian government forces of so-called Fatemiyoun fighters, members of an Afghan militia recruited under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) to support Assad. The Fatemiyoun are drawn from the Hazara Afghan refugee community in Iran, and their role at Palmyra and elsewhere, not to put too fine a point on it, is as cannon fodder, rank exploitation of an ethnic group shabbily treated in both Iran and Afghanistan. While the ethos of the unit is overtly religious (the name “Fatemiyoun” identifies them first and foremost as defenders of Shia Islam), Bamiyan and the Buddhas have become increasingly central to Hazara identity in recent years, the destruction of the Buddhas building on the impact of Hezb-e Wahdat, a Hazara military-political organisation, established in 1989 and active during the Afghan civil war, which had its HQ in Bamiyan. Placing Hazara troops in the vanguard of a campaign to expel iconoclasts from Palmyra starts to look like a crude form of symbolism, too. 

The concert at Palmyra was an exercise in laundering Assad’s brutality (and Putin’s support for it) in a currency all-too acceptable to the wider world, classical music in a classical theatre. There is another history worth pondering here, of an archaeological site transformed into an “archaeological site” by demolishing the town of Tadmur that had grown up around the Temple of Bel, and relocating it—as French archaeologists did just a hundred years ago. It’s a salutary reminder that our own notion of ancient sites as sacrosanct spaces is as historically and culturally contingent as the language of cultural heritage itself. 

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be dismayed and angry when a Palmyran temple is destroyed or a Buddha image smashed. But—and it pains someone of my profession to say it—if we were less devoted to antiquities, or at least more circumspect and self-aware in our reverence for them, a few things might follow. There wouldn’t be so active a trade in ancient artefacts, for instance, which in both Afghanistan and Syria has helped to fuel a brutal conflict back at source. But also, we wouldn’t be so susceptible either to deliberate provocation by iconoclasts in pursuit of the End Times, or to cynical efforts to claim leadership in the defence of civilized values. 

Llewelyn Morgan is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Oxford University and the author of The Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Opinions reflect the views of authors, not KabulNow.

  1. For the vast majority of the world’s population, antiquities exist and only ever will exist as published images, descriptions and commentaries (i.e. we can’t all visit the sites or handle the objects.) The likes of Osama and Vladimir actually play to that bigger audience, imposing their own images, descriptions and commentary on exisiting mountains of published images, descriptions and commentary. And soon enough, their own destruction enters the public record in graphic style, before they eventually slide away into obscurity, leaving the mountain still untouched for the vast majority of us. Meanwhile, scholars should hurry to add solid reports, while there is still time, because people will always climb mountains and you can’t stop the traffic for long.

  2. Interesting juxtaposition. Particularly interesting conclusion. Hadn’t thought through that aspect! Hope you are well!

  3. What I cannot understand is the involvement of Putin in all this. It seems to me very provocative for the representatives of colonialism to speak against the legal government of Assad, while at the same time Americans (Turkey included) have invaded the country and continue stealing its resources. Cyprus has so very much suffered from the English colonianism, and this is only an example of the politics of this country. We here in Greece were bombed during the second WW, with more than a thousand of victims in Pireaus.

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