A year ago, Afghanistan's Taleban rulers destroyed two giant Buddha statues that for centuries had towered over the central Afghan town of Bamiyan. The Taleban deemed the statues an affront to Islam, but their destruction outraged many Afghans as well as other people around the world.
As the sun sets over the Bamiyan plateau, the sandstone cliffs turn a fiery red. They once held ancient treasures that were part of the cultural legacy of the Hezara people who live here. Two giant Buddha statues and many smaller ones once stood here, hewn into the rock 1,700 years ago.
The larger of the two, the male Buddha, stood 55 meters tall, while the female Buddha was 38 meters tall. For centuries, they watched, undisturbed, over the town of Bamiyan.
But last year the Taleban rulers of Afghanistan pronounced them un-Islamic and ordered their destruction. What remains today are rubble and huge gaping holes, like giant scars on the landscape.
Thirty-six-year-old Mirza Hussein lives in Bamiyan and was there last March when the destruction of the statues was carried out. He says the Taleban forced him and several other men to help destroy the giant Buddhas.
He says they worked for about 21 days. Every day they would come and place huge bombs under the feet of the Buddhas. They brought in truckloads of explosives. He also says that Pakistani and Arab engineers were involved in blowing up the statues.
Mirza Hussein says the earth shook and there were huge explosions and fire as parts of the Buddha statues went in every direction.
Though Mirza Hussein is a Muslim, he calls the destruction of the Buddhas a barbaric act. He says when they placed the explosives under the Buddhas, Arab and Pakistani engineers and the Taleban were very happy and were dancing. But it was part of our heritage, part of the history of Bamiyan that they destroyed.
He is not the only person in Bamiyan who feels this way. Before the Taleban came, 47-year-old Sayid Mohammad Hussein was a teacher of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. He says the Buddhas were not against Islam.
"People here were not worshipping the Buddha statues. They were just part of the historical site," he said. He says the Taleban destroyed the Buddhas because they did not respect anyone's religion. Mohammad Hussein says that many tourists used to come here and would bring money with them, adding the Taleban also wanted to hurt the people economically.
Over the centuries, visitors, including Buddhist worshippers and archeologists, came to Bamiyan to see the Buddhas and the many shrines and paintings. But then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, followed by civil war, and the takeover by the Taleban and tourism became virtually impossible.
The giant Buddhas were once covered in gypsum plaster and painted in brilliant blues, yellows, and reds. The two statues were less than a kilometer apart and in between them and surrounding them are numerous niches in the cliffs, where smaller Buddha statues once stood along with grottos decorated with ornate paintings.
The carvings stem from the time of the Kushan dynasty when Bamiyan was a prosperous center along the Silk Route. It was a stopping off point for caravans carrying goods between Europe and Asia. Buddhism flourished in the region at that time and the Hezara people who now live here were Buddhists until their conversion to Islam in later centuries. Buddhist monks once lived in the caves surrounding the statues. Now those caves are filled with refugees, displaced by war, drought, and poverty.
Even after all these years and after all the shelling, it is still possible to walk up the narrow stairway leading to the grottos next to where the smaller Buddha once stood. Twenty-six year old Zalmai Yawar came here several years ago and says even then the Taleban had begun destroying the faces of the statues and works of art.
"I came to the left of the small Buddha in these rooms and ... as you can see in those holes there was the head of a Buddha, but ... now there is nothing. These walls were all plastered and had beautiful paintings all over ... I was very much impressed because I knew these statues were about 1,700 years old and I was amazed that 1,700 years ago people had the ability to build such huge statues. And when I saw it even though the face of the Buddha was blackened, but the Buddha was standing there very proudly and was very beautiful. It is really sad that they are destroyed now. I cannot say how sad I am," he said.
Zalmai Yawar says he hopes the Buddhas might be rebuilt some day.
There is talk the Buddha statues may be rebuilt, but that would have to be done almost from scratch since there is little left of them except piles of rocks. And it is difficult to see how Bamiyan might once again become a tourist attraction. There is no infrastructure, landmines are still strewn around the edges of the airport, and tourist accommodations are non-existent.
But this is starkly beautiful land in the middle of the fabled Hindu Kush mountains. And even if the tourists do not come, rebuilding the Buddhas might just help heal some of the scars left by years of warfare and brutality.