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Buddhist Traces in Afghanistan: Reminiscences of Peace and War
All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts. Impermanence is the cornerstone of the Buddhist teaching, yet some aspects of Buddhist philosophy transcend the idea of impermanence. The dharmakaya, the truth body of the Buddha, is beyond existence and nonexistence, neither permanent nor impermanent. The dharmakaya is the essence of the enlightened mind of the Buddha, whose symbolic representation is the stupa. One stupa in particular remains as a symbol of peace and light in a time of ongoing war: the stupa at Shewaki in Afghanistan. Even uttering the name “Afghanistan” can bring painful associations with unceasing conflict, but it also serves as a reminder of a long history, a rich culture, and a land of religious diversity.
Buddhism was one of the major religious influences in Afghanistan during the pre-Islamic era, arriving in the region in 305 BCE when the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire (312 BCE–63 BCE) formed an alliance with the South Asian Maurya Empire (322 BCE–185 BCE). The resulting Greco-Buddhist culture flourished under the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (256 BCE–100 BCE) and the later Indo-Greek Kingdom (c. 180 BCE–c. 10 CE). The Buddhist religion in the region began to fade following the Muslim conquests in the seventh century and dissipated in the 11th century during the Persianate Ghaznavid dynasty (977–1186).
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas before it was destroyed in 2001.
While much of Afghanistan’s Buddhist history has been lost forever, numerous traces are still extant today. Undoubtedly the most well known landmarks from this ancient heritage were the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which themselves became a sad symbol of impermanence. This monumental pair of sixth century statues (standing 55 meters and 37 meters high) of Shakyamuni Buddha, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley, central Afghanistan, were annihilated in March 2001 by the Taliban amid shouts of “Allahu Akbar.” It was a huge loss of an ancient archaeological and cultural legacy for Afghanistand and for the Buddhist world. In March 2021, a special ceremony was held at the site to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the destruction.
This year also marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, which began following the 2001 US-led invasion in response to the September 11 attacks. US officials identified the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden as responsible. Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, under the protection of the Taliban. When they refused to hand him over, the US intervened militarily, removing the Taliban and vowing to support democracy in Afghanistan and eliminate the threat of terrorism. A NATO coalition joined the US occupation and a new Afghan government took over in 2004, however the deadly Taliban attacks continued.
In April 2021, Western military forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan following a deal between the US and the Taliban. In early July, NATO forces completed their withdrawal and the Afghan Army began fleeing the nation. Alongside the US withdrawal, an ongoing military offensive by the Taliban and allied militant groups began on 1 May. On 12 August, the Taliban captured the city of Ghazni, making it the 10th provincial capital to fall under their control.
The strategic city of Ghazni, some 150 kilometres from Kabul, has strong ties with Afghanistan’s Buddhist past. The Homay Qala (Humai Qal'a) Buddhist cave complex and the Tapar Sardar monastery complex are located there. Tapa Sardar is an ancient Buddhist site that exhibits two major artistic phases: Hellenistic (3rd–6th century) and Sinicized-Indian (7th–9th century). It consists of a hilltop stupa surrounded by a row of smaller stupas and an 18-meter reclining Buddha. The site of this prestigious religious center was excavated by an Italian Archaeological Mission in the late 1960s, the late 1970s, and again in 2003.
Another important Buddhist site in Afghanistan is Mes Aynak, located 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul in a barren region of Logar Province. A spiritual hub along the ancient Silk Road from the 3rd–8th centuries, Mes Aynak now consists of the remains of an ancient settlement with at least 10,000 artifacts, 400 Buddha statues, stupas, and a monastic complex that were excavated between May 2010 and July 2011. The ancient remains of Mes Aynak quickly became one of the world’s most significant archeological excavations. The Taliban already is in full control of Mes Aynak.
Far less well known is another Buddhist site, Takht-e Rostam, two kilometers south of the town of Haibak in the northern province of Samangan. This site consists of a monastery with five chambers and a stupa, dated to the 3rd–4th century. At the beginning of 2021, the Afghan government began work on renovating the ancient stupa of Takht-e Rostam.
At the height of the War in Afghanistan, another archaeological excavation and reconstruction was underway: that of an ancient Buddhist site in Shewaki village, in the Hindaki area of Kabul Province. The project to document and restore this site was driven by the Afghanistan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organization, with the help of the Ministry of Information and Culture, Afghan Institute of Archaeology, and the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan.* In 2020, eight small stupas as well as fortifications, walls, and 176 other artifacts were found in Shewaki. A team of nine archeologists arrived in 2019, completing about 50 per cent of their excavation. Another 80 experts have contributed to work at the historical site.
On 10 August, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti published impressive photo story titled “Despite the Danger: a Buddhist Stupa is Being Restored near Kabul,” which documented the ongoing excavation.* Each of these photos express more than a thousand words as they communicate the depth of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist past. The holy stupa at Shewaki, dating from the 1st–3rd century, is a great symbol of hope and light in this dark time of violent conflict. Restoring such a holy object during war has been an extraordinary moment in history, prompting us to reflect on the meaning of cultural heritage as the irreplaceable source of life. Cultural heritage is our legacy—what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.
The Taliban published statement in February 2021 on the protection and preservation of ancient artifacts:
As Afghanistan is a country replete with ancient artifacts and antiquity, and that such relics form a part of our country’s history, identity and rich culture, therefore all have an obligation to robustly protect, monitor and preserve these artifacts.**
Many Afghan cultural heritage experts remain skeptical and afraid, especially since the Taliban has taken control of Kabul and 26 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals in less than two weeks. Is there now a renewed threat to the existence of the stupa at Shewaki? And for countless the other Buddhist sites and artifacts in Afghanistan? Only time will tell.
* Вопреки опасности: под Кабулом восстанавливают буддийскую ступу (РИА Новости)
** Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding protection and preservation of ancient artifacts (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan)
Afghanistan: Why is there a war? (BBC)
The Buddhist site of Tapa Sardar (Ghazni Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan)
Conservation of Buddhist-era Built Heritage (Culture in Crisis)
Buddhist Era Relics Discovered in Kabul’s Shewaki Site (TOLO News)
Govt to Renovate Takht-e-Rustam in Samangan (TOLO News)
The Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's ancient treasures. Will history repeat itself? (National Geographic)
Saving Mes Aynak
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Buddhist History Brought Back to Life in Afghan Museum
British Museum to Return “Stunning” Gandharan Buddhist Artifacts to Afghanistan
Archaeologist Killed Near Buddhist Archaeological Site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan
Ancient Buddhist Artifacts from Afghanistan Restored in Japan
Exquisite Ancient Buddha Image from Mes Aynak to be Exhibited at National Museum of Afghanistan
Is Time Running Out for the 5,000-year-old Mes Aynak Archeological Site in Afghanistan?