In void where Buddhas were, Afghan province imagines a future

A tower in Shar-i Ghulgullah, the City of Screams, an ancient city in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, whose residents were slaughtered by Ghengis Khan???s Mongol hordes. Shari-Ghulgullah is one of several historic sites around Bamiyan that local officials are trying to preserve.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Once a favorite destination for travelers on the Hippie Trail, this idyllic provincial capital high in the Hindu Kush mountains is now famous for what’s not there. Three glaring holes in the cliffs that rise over the town tell the story of what Bamiyan lost 12 years ago.

Carved out of sheer sandstone walls, the Bamiyan Buddhas, massive stone monuments to the area’s Buddhist past, once towered over the city, but the Taliban government had them dynamited in 2001 after declaring them idolatrous and un-Islamic. Since the overthrow of that regime by U.S. forces in late 2001, Bamiyan province has been working to rebuild its tourism industry, with the Buddhas as a centerpiece.

“The Buddha statues of Bamiyan area [are] a treasure of the whole world and it’s part of the world’s history,” provincial Gov. Ghulam Ali Wahdat said.

Massive pieces of the statues are piled at the base of the outlines of the Buddhas — three in all, representing a man, a woman, and a child — and what to do with the destroyed UNESCO World Heritage site has been a subject of great debate. For now, the outline of the largest Buddha, which stood about 170 feet high, is crisscrossed by scaffolding to keep the cliffside from collapsing.

The Buddhas are the most famous of several historic monuments in Bamiyan, which is also home to the dramatic Shar-i Ghulgullah, or “city of screams,” a former Silk Road stop whose inhabitants were slaughtered by Ghenghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, as well as the ruins of Shar-i Zuhak, another ancient city.

Some have advocated rebuilding the Buddhas, others recommend leaving the empty husks as a testament to the dangers of religious extremism. Still others have floated the idea of a night-time laser representation of what the Buddhas used to look like. A conference is planned next year to discuss what to do, according to Mohammad Isaq Azizi, the weary head of Bamiyan’s Culture and Tourism Department who spends each day looking at the destruction of his city’s cultural heritage.

Azizi hopes for a middle ground — rebuilding of one of the Buddhas and leaving the others as heaps of rubble, a reminder of what happened.

“Then it can tell the history of both what it was and what happened to it,” he said.

While the discussion of what to do with the Buddhas is a philosophical one for Western archaeologists and U.N. planners, for locals like Azizi it’s also one of economic survival for one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, which produces little and has aspirations to reclaim its place as a destination for international tourists.

“The people of Bamiyan don’t have many sources of income — the only major source for the economy is tourism,” Azizi said. “If we restore our monuments, it can turn into a very good source of income for the people of Bamiyan.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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