DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Theodore Flattmann

Laura Heath-Stout

WR150 P1: Identity, Oppression, and Politics in Archeological Heritage

April 30th, 2017

Extremists Groups Shift Focus Towards Eliminating History


It’s 2017 and the Bamiyan Valley, in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, has evolved into one of the safest areas for tourism in Afghanistan. The region could be benefit from tourist income, after three decades of civil conflict and poverty. But there’s a problem. The biggest attractions in the valley were destroyed in 2001. The valley’s famous Bamiyan Buddhas were demolished over the course of twenty-five days in March, 2001. 

The demolition destroyed fourteen centuries of accumulated history. The two Buddhas, built in the sixth and seventh centuries, towered 55 meters and 37 meters above the Silk Road. They survived the reigns of conquerors and empires, each culture contributing to the greco-buddhist art of the statues. Legend has it that the Buddhas, when Buddhism was prominent in the region, were decorated in jewelry. 

The Buddhas had been a popular attraction and source of tourism income before civil conflict struck Afghanistan. Now, rather than statues, tourists can expect large empty niches carved into the valley’s cliffs, with maybe some rubble on the bottom.

The demolition was commissioned by the Islamic extremist group known as the Taliban, after the Buddhas were labeled ‘idols’ by the Taliban’s leadership. International contributions were being sent to the Taliban’s government, to cover the costs of preserving and maintaining the Buddhas. A famine moved across Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership accused contributors of having the audacity to donate money towards preserving statues instead of lives. When the leadership labelled the Buddhas idols, in their strict Islamic law that  meant they must be destroyed. 

While the demolition was carried out as a statement, it also took away a valuable attraction for tourist  income, which in the long run would alleviate famine in the region. As Taliban envoy Rahmatullah Hashimi testified, “‘They want to change our policies through economic sanctions,’...‘That does not work. For us, our ideology is first, then the economy. To try to change our ideology with economic sanctions is ridiculous.’” (Barbara 2). 

The Hashimi statement spoke volumes. It declared the prioritization of ideology over citizens’ well-being, from getting upset over beneficial donations, to the very methods used to demolish the Buddhas. The Taliban used prisoners for labor.  One prisoner, Mirza Hussein, recalled the brutality of the Taliban during the demolition.  “One of the men who had a bad leg, couldn't carry the explosives any more. The Taliban shot him on the spot, and gave the body to another prisoner to dispose of.’" Twenty prisoners were used in the demolition. Mr.Hussein could participate, or be shot. Mr. Hussein expressed remorse over the demolition of the Buddhas in an interview; he said hopes they will be rebuilt. 

The Taliban had also passed laws banning women from laughing loudly, prescribing the stoning of women accused of sex outside marriage, and a requirement for non-Muslim minorities to wear a badge.

The Taliban are not the only Muslim extremist group targeting a world heritage site.  Incidents have already spread out from the middle east. One group, ISIL, targeted Palmyra, destroying two of the Roman theater’s four remaining pillars. 

The ISIL and Taliban attacks, very similar to one another, evidence the push by these groups to attack not only a group of people, but also a people’s heritage and culture. The attacks on the Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley and on the Theater in Palmyra are described by the international aid community as acts of “cultural terrorism.” These actions come from a policy, the underlying strategy of which is designed to completely undermine a people’s identity. 

Currently progress towards reconstruction has been minimal. Hypothetically new statues could be created using concrete or resin. This approach would be similar to the building of the Freedom Tower in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, as a demonstration of unity and resistance. The idea, however, has been met with resistance of its own.  Critics ask whether the new statues could capture the same meaning as the originals, and whether the replicas would survive in the relative, if fragile, political stability in the region.   

Despite the potential of another attack, the majority of the valley’s inhabitants have moved in favor of reconstruction. The statutes for generations were a symbol resilience, peace, and heritage. For them to be allowed to disappear is to lose a part of that heritage, the Taliban’s desired effect. 

While the local consensus is for reconstruction, the people themselves do not have the resources to do it. Professor Michael Petzet, president of the German branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, said, “I’ve talked with many Afghans, and they do not want… their children and grandchildren [to be] forced by the Taliban to see only ruins.” (Nordland 1). By targeting the modest-living inhabitants of the Valley, the Taliban know their victims are unable to rebuild on their own.

These are the desired effects of Taliban, to destroy a culture not just to change the present but forever-after future generations. 

Which makes rebuilding more important. In regard to the future safety of the statues, allied U.S. military forces have used the area in recent years as the formal site to hand over control to Afghan forces. Noting “...so great was the sense of security that Bamiyan was chosen by Nato to be the very first place in the country where Afghan forces officially took over from foreign troops,... in 2011” (Graham-Harrison). Likewise insurgency is minimal in the area. Though in the event of an attack, statues made of concrete could be easily maintained or replaced with little cost. Each one rebuilt, theoretically demonstrating an unwillingness to concede the future over to terrorists.

A stance of resilience is the first step. Cultural terrorism will not disappear immediately. Both these kinds of attacks and these kinds of groups are growing in number, spreading internationally. One professor Reza Said stated, “The destruction of [the] Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in March 2001 not only challenged the world heritage and undermined the international law, it brought home the rising threat of religious extremist groups whose target this time was cultural heritage.” If acts like the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, or ISIL’s damaging of the Roman theater at Palmyra, are seen as successful, probable copycat acts will grow in number. 

In regards to the Bamiyan Valley Buddhas, the local population support rebuilding, despite the fact that statues made of new materials won’t have the same meaning. The new statues, however, may come to represent something new--a formal, united unwillingness to surrender on the part of the region's people, and also on the part of the international community that offers support. In an active refusal to allow these radical groups to alter the future, we render their tactics ineffective. Which is one step closer towards protecting the world’s cultural heritage.

Dear readers,


The New York Times is a liberal American daily news outlet. With over 100 pulitzer awards and a long history based in New York City. I chose this media outlet due to the standard for seriousness and reliability in their articles. There is also a general liberal presence which I believe caters to my article. As I attempt to describe the plight of the Bamiyan Valley’s inhabitants and sell the idea of providing support to the region. I feel the readers of the New York Times will be more open towards the importance in preserving a foreign group’s heritage as opposed to only their own. Or rather the acceptance of a foreign group’s heritage as the world’s responsibility to protect.


Work Cited:


  1. Graham-Harrison, Emma. "Bamiyan Was a Safe Haven in Afghanistan – but What Now? | Emma Graham-Harrison." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 May 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

  2. Reza 'Husseini', Said. "DESTRUCTION OF BAMIYAN BUDDHAS TALIBAN ICONOCLASM AND HAZARA RESPONSE." Himalayan and Central Asian Studies16.2 (2012): 15-0_4. ProQuest. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

  3. Nordland, Rod. “Countries Divided on Future of Ancient Buddhas.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

  4. Bilefsky, Dan. “ISIS Destroys Part of Roman Theater in Palmyra, Syria.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. 

  5. Crossette, Barbara. “Taliban Explains Buddha Demolition.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Mar. 2001. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

  6. Behzad, Nasir, and Daud Qarizadah. "The Man Who Helped Blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas." BBC News. BBC, 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

  7. Dr. Melody Rod-ari. “Khan Academy.” Khan Academy. N.p, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.