Destroying the Afghan Past : The Taliban Take Aim at Buddhist Antiquities"

Article excerpt

Carved into cliffs deep in the parched Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, the towering Buddhist statues of Bamiyan seemed as if they might survive forever. The fifth-century sculptures--the tallest standing Buddhas in the world--have held watch over Islam's march through the region, the campaigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and, more recently, 20 years of bloody civil war. But they may not survive a bearded, one-eyed man named Mullah Muhammad Omar, leader of Afghanistan's militant Taliban regime. Last week the unforgiving Omar decreed that all sculptures in Afghanistan, including the Bamiyan masterpieces, be destroyed for contravening the Islamic injunction against false icons. "These idols have been the gods of infidels who worship them even now," he declared. "The real God is Allah."

The Taliban are renowned for shockingly strict edicts. Since coming to power in 1996, the fundamentalist warriors have imposed a radical brand of Islam on Afghanistan, banning television and photography, requiring men to grow long beards and barring women from schools and work. They have defiantly refused to turn over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and have reportedly profited from the country's massive opium crop. They have been shunned by the international community for repressing their own people. Ironically, though, the decision to attack works of stone may have provoked the greatest outrage.

Conservationists around the world have launched a desperate campaign to save the sculptures. Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the Paris- based UNESCO, won pledges from 54 Islamic countries to oppose Omar's edict. In a rare show of solidarity, even Afghanistan's few allies have called on the Taliban to back down. (Neighboring Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates all oppose the decree.) In Asia, even Vietnam, which generally avoids commenting on the affairs of other countries, issued a statement attacking the proclamation. And the list of critics seems to be growing by the day.

The statues of Bamiyan have long captured the world's imagination. Carved out of stone by Greek artists in the early years of Buddhism, the icons have been visited by pilgrims on the way to holy sites in India for almost 2,000 years. The walls that surround the statues are covered with paintings and are themselves considered unique cultural treasures. …