Bamiyan sits at the heart of the Hazarajat in a wide valley braided with mountain rivers and is one of the poorest yet most beautiful parts of Afghanistan. Once a major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage, modern Bamiyan is now more closely associated with the destruction visited on Afghanistan’s culture by war. The two giant statues of Buddha that once dominated the valley now lie in rubble, victims of the Taliban’s iconoclastic rage. Despite this, the Bamiyan valley still holds a powerful draw over the imagination. It was made a World Heritage site in 2003 for its cultural landscape and is a must-see for any visitor to Afghanistan.
While isolated today, it wasn’t always so. Bamiyan was once an important way station on the Silk Road. Trade and pilgrims flocked to its temples and in return Bamiyan exported its art – a synthesis of Greek, Persian and Indian art that had a major influence on Buddhist iconography as far afield as China. Centuries later, Bamiyan became the focus of Afghanistan’s nascent tourist industry, as visitors came to rediscover its past glories and gaze in awe at the monumental Buddha statues carved from its cliffs.
War brought an end to that. Initially isolated from the fighting, Bamiyan suffered terribly under the ideological fervour of the Taliban, whose anti-Shiite doctrines drove ethnic massacres as well as the smashing of idols.
Since the Taliban’s defeat, Bamiyan has returned to the peace of earlier years and is currently home to a New Zealand–led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). It has consistently been one of Afghanistan’s real oases of calm, although locals grumble about the slow pace of reconstruction.
For many, Bamiyan can best be experienced at sunset from the hills overlooking the valley. The niches of the Buddhas evoke a particular power at this hour and as the light of the day changes so does the colour of the cliffs, from honey to pink, ochre to magenta.