Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Photo: Tracy Hunter via flickr
Photo: Tracy Hunter via flickr

Afghanistan is strictly off-limits. Due to one war after another, it has been for years. Given what’s happening in not just the landlocked country, but the entire region, that shows no sign of changing anytime soon. But you still wonder what the country is like beyond the headlines you see in the news.

Take Bamiyan, for instance. The small town in central Afghanistan is one of the most visited places in the country. Sure, that doesn’t say much given how few people travel to this part of Asia in the first place. But it’s surprising since it’s 150 miles northwest of Kabul, the most stable and most visited city in the country. The Place of Shining Light was the location of an early Buddhist monastery during the Kushan Empire. It was the most westerly place to where Buddhism expanded, as well as an important stop along the Silk Road trade route that connected China to the Middle East.

Though Islam replaced Buddhism as the area’s religion, Muslim rulers didn’t destroy the religious artifacts. Three huge Buddha statues, carved into the cliffs, remained facing the town. Oil paintings, believed to be the oldest in the world, were left untouched in the caves where monks used to meditate. While the ruins of a citadel and an acropolis lie south of Bamiyan. Add views of the Hindu Kush and Baba Mountain ranges, fields of barley and wheat, colorful flowers in the spring, and yellow poplars in the fall for what seems like a picturesque spot.

Then the Taliban arrived. Fifteen years ago, clashes between the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces destroyed parts of Bamiyan. The three Buddha statues were demolished. Weapons were stored in the monks’ caves. Plus the safety of the Hazara people, much less visitors, couldn’t be guaranteed. The Taliban is long gone, but in a country with much bigger problems, rebuilding historic sites isn’t their primary concern.

Hopefully, one day, it will be. The restoration of Bamiyan would be a much better headline for Afghanistan.

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