One of the Bamiyan Buddha statues, before and after

When in 1967 France Daniel Schlumberger, my professor at the time, asked me to defend a thesis on the Buddhist antiquities of Bamiyan, my interest for the peaceful valley increased.

Until then I had not yet visited nor walked the grounds of Bamiyan and knew it only through pictures. The trip from Strasbourg to Paris and then to Kabul was long. Arriving in Kabul after six years, I noticed the first taxis in front of the Afghan capital's airport.

I was no longer the carefree twenty-one-year old student arriving in France. And after several years of studying at the Strasbourg University, I acquired a certain scientific responsibility. Until I reached Bamiyan, I thought I had it all figured out. But it is only when I arrived in front of the great cliff, dominating the valley to the north, that I was left speechless. I stood in front of the Manhattan of the Silk Road and was minuscule by the Hindu Kush idols.

Thus I realized that photos do not relate accurately the true vision or the dimensions of what is extraordinary and grand. I was completely seduced. Those very last weeks of serenity of that 1967 summer still inhabit me today. I could only become more humble in front of such devotion, which required the very best of artists who dedicated their talent and “savoir-faire”.

Without lingering into metaphysics I’ll say that I found in Bamiyan a source of inspiration, and it is thanks to it that my vocation as an archaeologist definitely began to express itself. It was also during those early days that I came to understand that I would have to stand up and defend this peaceful and pure place and its name, this place where my ashes one day will be scattered.

When in 1973 I became the Director General of Archaeology and Conservation of Historical Monuments, these feelings had increased greatly. Each trip I undertook was satisfying and each question I asked myself had often times fascinating yet painful answers because Bamiyan was placed on one of the main roads of the Silk Route, which connected India to China. And so from the top of its mountains, cliffs, towns, forts, monuments and its giant Buddha statues, Bamiyan has seen passing caravans of precious and rare goods, pilgrims, intellectuals, soldiers and unfortunately slaves and hordes of barbarians devastating everything on their passage, while for the most part, sparing its archaeological jewel.

Then came the times of incomprehension when one attacked idols. Aurengzeb (r. 1658-1707), one of the sovereigns of Mogol India, used the Bamiyan Buddha statues as practice targets for his canons. Despite the attacks of this fanatic iconoclast, the wounded Bamiyan Buddhas continued to stand guard in the face of history. One would have thought they were there for eternity. But when fanatics mingle with politics, the results are hopeless: the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan were taken hostage by the Taliban. Their destruction is a shame for our humanity as a whole. The empty niches that used to shelter the colossal statues stand as pages of history, the witnesses for generations to come.

My return to Afghanistan in 2002 after 23 years of absence was the most moving time of my life. Coming down from the plane in Kabul, I kissed the tarmac cement at the airport of my hometown; at that very moment, I had not yet measured the extent of the devastation that had hit Kabul. Once outside of the airport, I was taken by the desolation and the ruin.

Kabul the Stalingrad of Central Asia was not destroyed for a noble cause, nor following a war fighting a foreign enemy but by rival factions whom each wanted the best part of the cake.

Poor Afghanistan, poor Kabul and poor Afghan people who no longer have a smile at the corner of their lips, humiliated people, despoiled people, suffering and orphan, who owes you reparation?

In Bamiyan the disaster was almost imperceptible for the niches in the shade did not at the first glimpse reveal the absence of the colossal Buddha statues. It was a silent disaster worthy of the tranquillity of the valley. Upon my arrival, I did not want to see the gaping niches from up close. It was the next morning at 6 a.m., from the roof of the house where I slept, that with my camera’s zoom I saw the disaster.

Away from everyone I cried and grieved Bamiyan. Since that morning, I feel neither joy nor pain but a sort of emptiness. Still now I meditate on the actions of the Taliban—history will be judge. As far as I am concerned, I am wounded forever.

Will my discovery of the 1000 feet long reclining Buddha statue give me hope or a bandage for my pride? No, it won’t. Only balm on the hearts of the Bamiyan inhabitants and my own, for since 1967 I am one of them.

By Zemaryalai Tarzi

The Profile of Zemaryalai Tarzi
Born in 1939 in Kabul, Professor Zemaryalai Tarzi completed his studies under the supervision of Professor Daniel Schlumberger, in the process obtaining three PhDs.

From 1973 to 1979, he was Director of Archaeology and Preservation of Historical Monuments of Afghanistan as well as the Director General of the Archaeology Institute of Kabul.

He later directed the excavations in Bamiyan and Hadda on the sites of Tape Shotor and Tape Tope Kalan. Exiled to France in 1979, he assumed the post of Professor of Eastern Archaeology at the March Bloch University of Strasbourg, France. He is currently Director for the French Archaeological Missions for the Surveys and Excavations of Bamiyan. Professor Tarzi is the author of some sixty articles and books. Also he is President for the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, Inc. (APAA) based in San Rafael, California.

Zemaryalai Tarzi

For more info please visit the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology: