At Risk: Buddhist Art in Afghanistan

Ancient statues of the Buddha in the war-torn country of Afghanistan are under threat.

Reports hit the international media on Saturday that prior threats by the Taliban authorities of Afghanistan to destroy all of the statues within that nation were being summarily carried out. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, first initiated the order on February 26th, claiming that statues were tantamount to idols, and thus were against the tenants of Islam. The edict proclaimed, “Because God is one God and these statues are there to be worshipped, and that is wrong, they should be destroyed so that they are not worshiped now or in the future.”

In addition to some 6,000 works of art held in the Kabul museum, attention has focused primarily on two monumental statues of Buddha carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan. The statues, dating from the fifth century, are 120 feet and 175 feet, the latter believed to be the tallest statue of a standing Buddha. Reports were issued on March 3rd that the destruction of these two works was already underway, as explosives were used to demolish the heads and legs of the figures. While no images showing their present condition can be obtained due to an outlaw of photography by the ruling government, the Taliban’s Information Minister Quadratullah Jamal has stated, “Our soldiers were working hard to demolish their remaining parts. They will come down soon.”

This hardline stance has led to a wave of international reaction. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has begun an international petition and has founded a special bank account for the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, which will be used for emergent funding of actions to protect these cultural objects. While many Buddhist nations have been relatively quiet on the issue, claiming that criticizing the action would be against Buddha’s teachings, other nations have voiced their opinions. Iran, which is also ruled by an Islamic government, came out against the Taliban’s order, along with Pakistan, Russia, and Germany. And while United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan also requested that the Afghan government spare these statues, the larger international community is diplomatically powerless to impact Taliban’s decisions. The authority of Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of Afhanistan, is not recognized as legitimate by the UN, which instead upholds the ousted government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Sanctions against Taliban, issued because of their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, have increased the hardships suffered by the people of this war-torn nation. With the country entrenched in civil strife and facing a humanitarian crisis, many suspect that the timing of this edict may have as much to do with politics as religion.

The museum community has also spoken out against the destruction of these statues. The Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been at the forefront of this movement, issuing a statement on March 1st that they would fund the rescue and preservation of transportable works of art. Officials from other institutions such as the Harvard University Art Museums and the J. Paul Getty Museum have expressed their support for this action, as have the Association of Art Museum Directors. ArtWatch International has similarly lauded the Metropolitan Museum’s efforts to salvage any remaining statues.