The fate of two ancient Buddhas captured the world's attention last week, as Afghanistan's Taliban leaders said they were beginning to carry out a decree against all representations of animals and humans. But the government-sponsored destruction in Afghanistan could extend even to artifacts from its own, Islamic tradition, as well as to countless lesser-known items that experts say combine Western and Eastern traditions in unique and irreplaceable ways.
The Taliban leaders so far have rejected pleas by the United Nations to rescind the decree, and mocked offers by museums to purchase smaller objects. "I ask Afghans and the world's Muslims to use their sound wisdom," Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar was quoted as saying 4 March on official radio. "Do you prefer to be a breaker of idols or a seller of idols?" The Taliban believe representations of animals are antithetical to Islamic teaching and must be destroyed.
"It is a most enormous tragedy," says Norman Hammond, a Boston University archeologist who worked in Afghanistan in the 1970s and has written about its treasures. Afghanistan was the crossroads of ancient Asia. Alexander the Great left behind artisans who built Greek-styled statues at cities such as Alexandria Oxiana, now Ai Khanum, on the Oxus River. Chinese caravans crossed Afghanistan's rugged terrain heading west. Islam swept eastward across the region, and Buddhist influence seeped in from India to the southeast.
The two giant Buddhas, whose current fate is unknown, stand 37 and 54 meters high in the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan and date from the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. They have become a symbol of the perfidy of the new policy. But the decree apparently also covers objects in the Kabul Museum, such as a thousand-year-old copper dish bedecked with mythical animals and a quotation from the Koran. Hammond also fears the worst for Islamic-era palaces at Lashkair Bazar, which has frescoes, and at Ghazni, which includes a building decorated with a stone frieze.
However, it's unclear how much of the Kabul collection was intact even before last week's decree. The museum, closed to Westerners for years, already has been severely damaged and at least partly looted. There are few details about the extent to which the decree is being enforced, or how quickly. A special envoy from the United Nations is trying to broker a solution, while other Islamic nations have expressed outrage over the decree.