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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

These Silent Giants Spoke Eloquently to Me

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Now our worst fears have been confirmed. Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil rebuffed the pleas of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and reaffirmed his government's intention to destroy the unique Buddhist statues in the Bamiyan Valley. On Monday, photographs of the destruction began emerging, showing these giant monuments — carved in the fourth or fifth centuries — being destroyed by shells, artillery fire, explosives. Looking at them made me shudder.

About 25 years ago, I was in Afghanistan — "the land of mountains and legends," as Soviet guidebooks and travelogues usually called it. Having studied both Pashtu and Persian, I was overjoyed to be assigned for more than four years to the Soviet Embassy in Kabul, an assignment that gave me ample opportunity to communicate with the Afghan people and to visit almost all the major cities and historical monuments of this impoverished, but hospitable land.

Shortly before my final departure from Afghanistan in 1976, some friends and I decided to make the difficult two-day jeep safari to Bamiyan, about which I had heard so much from my colleagues. None of us, of course, were Buddhists, but all were consumed by the desire to see with our own eyes the renowned giants. We knew that these were by far the largest statues of Buddha in the world, the "small" one standing 36 meters and the large one 53 meters high. All the other giant Buddhas in the world are depicted either lying down or sitting.

Once we turned off the main highway from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif, our journey became difficult as our Toyota Land Cruiser rumbled over a gravel track littered with potholes and large stones. But we learned the truth of the saying that "the traveler overcomes the road." On the way, we stopped off at the mountain lake of Bande-Amir, which sits majestically in a bowl of bare stone against the background of the harsh azure sky.

It was already evening by the time we reached Bamiyan. We settled into a traditional Afghan nomad camp that had been set up for tourists, each occupying a tent generously lined with wool carpets. Our hosts prepared a feast in the traditional shepherd style consisting of lamb shashlik, to which we added traditional Russian vodka. Full of anticipation, we went to sleep early in order to set out and explore the monuments before the mid-day heat.

Our knowledgeable local guide unexpectedly proposed that we first visit the ancient ruined city of Shahar-e Golgola ("the City of Noise"), which is located about 2 kilometers away from the Buddhas. At first, we didn't understand why we should make a side trip to some ruins that we had never heard of before instead of heading straight to the object of our journey. But as it turned out, we were right to heed the guide's advice. I don't think it would be possible to imagine the full effect of these ancient stone giants without first viewing them from this perspective.

Each morning, the residents of Shahar-e Golgola would be greeted by the exhilarating sight of these two giant Buddhas, illuminated by the first golden rays of morning sunlight. Back then, legend has it, the statues were painted red and blue and their faces were decorated with gold leaves and precious stones. From this distance, one could see the bright glow of their strength and power.

The nearer we approached to the two giants, the more we were impressed by their grandeur. We could imagine the colossal effort that the ancient stone carvers mustered to sculpt these creations out of the naked cliffs of central Afghanistan.

Even when we were there, both statues had been partially destroyed. Apparently, the damage was done shortly after the area was settled by Moslems. Both statues had already lost most of their faces, and parts of their arms and legs had also been destroyed. Their massive bodies were pockmarked with holes, some of which had been drilled by robbers trying to lift themselves to the top in order to confirm local legend that the statues' heads concealed hidden treasures. Other holes were most likely originally drilled to fasten the gold leaves that formed the garments of the silent giants.

However, in the quarter century since I visited Bamiyan, the statues stood more or less unmolested. Over the entire 1,200-year period of Islam in Afghanistan, no one had ever attempted to completely wipe them off the face of the Earth — until the Taliban.

Other irreplaceable Buddhist monuments have also been destroyed, including the fabulous temple at Khadda just off the road between Kabul and Jalalabad. As late as the mid-'70s, that temple still housed marvelously well-preserved wall frescoes and sculptures of the reclining Buddha. Many priceless exhibits from the Kabul Museum have also been sentenced to death by the Taliban. Taliban officials have announced their intention to destroy monuments in the cities of Ghazni, Gerat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and others.

But do the canons of Islam really dictate such pitiless treatment of the cultural treasures of other faiths? The Foreign Ministry of Pakistan — one of only three countries in the world that recognize the Taliban — appealed to them to save their historical monuments saying, "the Koran commands respect for other religions and confessions." The government of Iran noted that "the statements of the Taliban leaders, including those relating to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, once again demonstrate how far they are from Islam."

Indeed, several passages in the Koran note that everything on Earth belongs to Allah. Moreover, many Islamic countries have adopted the concept of "cultural extra-territoriality" for historical monuments such as the pyramids of Egypt, the remains of Carthage in Tunisia and the ancient Roman ruins in Libya.

Obviously, Afghanistan could have benefited enormously from these monuments, which were part of UNESCO's World Heritage Program. Or the government could have sold the statues to any of the world's Buddhists countries, or even to New York's Metropolitan Museum, which offered to pay a generous amount to save the treasures. India, for its part, offered to take the monuments under its protection, and a British engineer even proposed building a wall in front of the niches that would conceal the giants from general view. Any of these proposals — all of which were rejected by the Taliban — would have brought enormous benefits to local residents.

Instead, the destruction of the statues will simply alienate from the Taliban those who were still hoping that their seizure of power would finally bring order to this country and security to its historical heritage.

For my part, I can't help but regret that the leaders who condemned the giants did not remember the words of the Pashtu poet Khushal Khan Khattak: "Respect others and you will be respected; look upon others with contempt and you will evoke contempt in others."

Vladimir Kozin is a senior counselor for the Foreign Ministry. From 1972 to 1976, he worked as an intern and translator at the Soviet Embassy in Kabul. He contributed this essay, which reflects his personal opinions, to The Moscow Times.