In the beginning, they were the Bamiyan Buddhas: the Western Buddha statue, 55 meters high, and the Eastern, 38 meters high.

It had taken decades, from around 550 AD, to carve them out of porous sandstone cliffs and then model the intricate details in clay mixed with straw and coated with stucco.

Xuanzang, the legendary traveling monk of the early Tang dynasty who journeyed to India in search of Buddhist manuscripts, saw them in all their colored glory in the 7th century.  

Then, with Islam taking over these high central lands of Afghanistan, local Hazara folklore slowly turned them into the Romeo and Juliet of the Hindu Kush.

They became Solsol (meaning “year after year” or, more colloquially, the prince of Bamiyan) and Shahmana (“the king’s mother” or, colloquially, a princess from a remote kingdom). As lovers, they could not be united as a couple in this world; so they chose to turn into statues and stand close to each other forever.

Picture dated December 7, 1997, shows two Afghans sitting under the world’s tallest standing Buddha in central Bamiyan province of Afghanistan. There remained then a hint of hope that Afghanistan’s priceless Buddhist heritage could be saved even as Taliban officials insisted nothing could stop their “Islamic” mission to destroy all ancient statues. Photo: AFP/Jean-Claude Chapon

And then, twenty years ago, after a millennium and a half of living history, the Taliban blew them up.

Killing Romeo and Juliet

Solsol and Shahmana had lived since their inception among the Hazaras, who speak Dari, a Persian dialect with numerous words of Mongol and Turkic origin.

The Hazaras are partly descendants of Genghis Khan’s troops who infiltrated these mountains in the 13th century. Hazaras – whom I had the pleasure to meet mostly in Kabul in the early 2000s – remain essentially Mongols but linguistically Persianized, having adopted the old agricultural tradition of the Iranian mountains.

The Hazaras are diametrically opposed by the Pashtuns – who had an extremely complex ethnogenesis before the early 18th century, when they coalesced into great federations of nomad tribes. Their code of conduct – the Pashtunwali – is straightforward, regulating most of all a mechanism of sanctions.

The number one sanction is death: This is a poor society, where sanctions are physical, not material. Islam added moral elements to pashtunwali. And then there are juridical norms, imposed by hereditary noblemen, which function like the carpet tying the room together. These come from the Turk-Mongols.   

The modern Afghan state was created in the late 19th century by Abd-ur-Rahman, the “Iron Emir.” He pulled that off via a “Pashtunization” of the region that was locally known as the north of Turkestan. Then he integrated the Hazaras in the central mountains via bloody military campaigns.

Also on December 7, 1997, Hazara soldiers belonging to the Shiite faction Hizb-i-Wahdat patrol in front of a hill with the smaller statue. Photo: AFP/Jean-Claude Chapon

Hazara lands were opened to Pashtun nomad tribes – whose members included not only shepherds but also merchants and caravan entrepreneurs. Increasingly plunged into debt, the Hazaras ended up becoming economic hostages of the Pashtuns. Their way out was to emigrate to Kabul – where they hold mostly menial jobs.

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. Hazaras are Shi’ites. Pashtuns are Sunni. Pashtuns consider themselves the owners of Afghanistan – even though there’s persistent, major infighting among Pashtun groups. Pashtuns simply detest the Westphalian concept of the nation-state: most of all they see themselves as an empire within an empire.

This implies that ethnic minorities are marginalized – if they can’t find some sort of accommodation. Hazaras, because they are Shi’ites, were extremely marginalized during Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001.  

The Taliban rolled out en masse from Pakistani madrassas in 1994. The overwhelming majority were Pashtuns from rural areas between Kandahar and Paktiya. They had spent many years in camps scattered along the Pakistani tribal areas and Balochistan.

The Taliban became instantly successful for three reasons:

  • Their implementation of Sharia law;
  • Their fight against the lack of security after the 1980s jihad that was instrumentalized by the Americans to give the USSR its “own Vietnam” (Zbigniew Brzezinski’s definition) and that created warlord anarchy;
  • The sense that they represented the return of the Pashtuns as the leading Afghan force.

No reincarnation?

All of the above supplies the context for the inevitable destruction of Solsol and Shahmana in March 2001. They were the symbols of an “infidel” religion. And they were situated in Shiite Hazara land.

An unidentified official of the Afghan Taliban stands near what before its destruction had been the world’s-tallest standing Buddha statue on March 26, 2001. Photo: AFP / Saeed Khan

Months later, after 9/11, I would learn from Taliban officials close to Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef in Islamabad that first they blew up “the little one, which was a woman” then “her husband.” That implies the Taliban were very much aware of local folklore.     

The destruction process started with the legs of the Great Buddha: one of them was already cut at the knee and the other at the femur. It took them four days – using mines, explosives and even artillery. The Taliban forced local Hazara youth to drill holes in the statues: those who refused were shot dead.  

Yet that was not enough to kill oral tradition. Even the young Hazara generation, born after the smashing of the Buddhas, still delights in the tale of Solsol and Shahmana.

But will they ever reincarnate as living statues? Enter the usually messy “international community.” In 2003, Unesco declared the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the surrounding caves a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”

Still, Kabul and Unesco can’t seem to agree on a final decision. As it stands, Solsol will not be rebuilt; Shahmana, maybe. On and off, they resurrect as 3-D holograms.  

One of the 3-D hologram shows. Photo: Pepe Escobar/Asia Times

What happened so far is “consolidation work at the Eastern Buddha niche”, finished in 2015. Work at the Western Buddha niche started in 2016. A Bamiyan Expert Working Group gets together every year, including Unesco experts, representatives of the administration in Kabul and donors – mostly German and Japanese.

Ishaq Mawhidi, the head of the Culture and Information Department of Bamiyan, is sure that “90 percent of the statues can be rebuilt with the debris” plus fragments of smaller statues, which are currently preserved in two large warehouses on site.

The Afghan Ministry of Culture correctly argues that reconstruction work will require a formidable team, including Buddhism scholars; archeologists, specializing in Gandhara art; historians, ethnographers and historiographers specialized in the first centuries of the first millennium in Afghanistan.

It will have to eventually be up to wealthy donors such as Berlin and Tokyo to willingly finance all this – and justify the costs, considering Hazara lands have been granted only the rudiments of working roads and electricity supply by the Kabul central government.

It’s always crucial to remember that the Bamiyan Buddhas blowup is a crucial case of deliberate destruction of world cultural heritage – in that regard standing alongside appalling instances in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Mali. They all connect, directly and indirectly, to the causes and consequences of imperial forever wars and their spinoffs. (Never forget that the Taliban initially were fully courted by the Clinton administration.)

The Buddha of Dushanbe (detail), at Tajikistan’s National Museum of Arts. Photo: Pepe Escobar

The Buddha of Dushanbe

In the end, I never managed to see Solsol and Shahmana. The Taliban would not issue a travel permit for foreigners under any circumstances. After 9/11 and the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul, I was negotiating a safe passage with Hazara fighters, but then something bigger came up: bribing a Pashtun commander to take a small group of us to Tora Bora to see the Empire B-52 Show against Osama bin Laden.      

Instead of Solsol and Shahmana – either standing up in their niches, or blown to smithereens – I finally managed to see the next best option: the reclining Buddha of Dushanbe.

Afghanistan may be the “graveyard of empires” – the last act being enacted as we speak – and, to a certain extent, a graveyard of Buddhas. But not neighboring Tajikistan.

The original Buddha of Dushanbe saga was published by Asia Times in those heady 9/11 days. It happened as photographer Jason Florio and I were waiting for days for a helicopter to take us to the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan.

Eighteen years later, like a Jorge Luis Borges short story, it all came full circle before I traveled the Pamir highway in late 2019. I went to the same museum in Dushanbe and there he was: the 13 meter-long “sleeping lion,” found in the Buddhist monastery of Ajinateppa, resting on pillows, in glorious parinirvana, and fully restored, with help from an expert from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Somewhere in unknown spheres beyond space and time, Solsol and Shahmana will be benevolently smiling.