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Afghanistan's famous Buddhas under death sentence

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The 53-meter (175-foot) tall, 2000-year-old Buddha statue located in Bamyan, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) west of the Afghan capital Kabul, is shown in this undated photo. Afghanistan's hardline Taliban rulers ordered the destruction, Monday, Feb. 26, 2001 of all statues as insulting Islam, including this world's tallest standing Buddha statue which was already damaged in fightings. (AP Photo)

KABUL, Feb 26 (AFP)

Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art are under a sentence of death in Afghanistan after the ruling Islamic militia ordered their destruction Monday.

The Taliban militia, who have already fired mortars at two ancient Buddha statues in central Bamiyan province, have now decided to finish them off.

The massive Buddhas, carved into a sandstone cliff near the provincial capital Bamiyan, stand 50 meters (165 feet) and 34.5 meters tall and date back to the second century AD.

Before their faces were lost to the elements and Taliban vandalism, they wore the same serene smiles of the much later Buddhas in the far East, but their classical features and Hellenistic Greek robes represented their unique place not just in the history of Afghanistan, but of the world in general.

Previously protected by hordes of pilgrims and monks who lived in nearby caves, the statues are now only visited by children who climb all over them.

When they were built, Afghanistan was one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the world, a melting pot of merchants, travellers and artists from China and India, central Asia and the Roman Empire.

Now, under the Taliban, it is a place where few travellers dare to visit, where ethnic minorities live in fear of persecution or take up arms to defend themsleves, and where anything "un-Islamic" is forbidden or denied.

Bamiyan was still a Buddhist land in the mid-800s. Islam was not fully established there until the 11th century, but either way, the Taliban's zealous project of re-creating a Mohammadean world of pure-Islam now has no room for history.

They have banned photographs of living creatures, television and music. Men are forced to grow long beards like the Prophet, and women are barred from most work and official education.

The militia's supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar, a veteran of the 1979-89 Soviet war and an Islamic student (Talib) who shuns most contact with the outside world, has now ordered all statues in Afghanistan to be destroyed.

His edict was broadcast on Taliban radio as a visiting group of Western diplomats visited Kabul to check reports of official vandalism of ancient relics in the national museum.

Mortars were fired at the small Buddha's groin in 1998 and a year later burning tyres were placed on the chin of the larger figure, causing a long smoke stain.

Now the silent guardians of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic history are again in the Taliban's sights.

Sincere thanks to Ven. Thich Quang Ba for providing us with this article


Updated: 1-3-2001

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