BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Sayed Mirza Hussain faced a wrenching dilemma: commit a shocking act of cultural destruction or be shot by the Taliban.
It was just months before the 9/11 attacks, and Hussain was being held prisoner by the fundamentalist group which controlled most of Afghanistan. The Taliban was at the height of its power and on a mission to destroy all pre-Islamic icons.
At up to 190 feet high, the Bamiyan Buddhas towered over the valley below. The statues dated to the sixth century when the area was a holy site for Buddhists on the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between China and Europe.
Their destruction took place over 25 days in early 2001. Huge cavities in the spectacular sandstone cliffs now mark the spot where the giant Buddhas once stood.
Officials in the historic Afghan province of Bamiyan say that domestic tourism to its famed archeological treasures and nature parks is soaring.
More than 250,000 tourists have visited Bamiyan so far this year, more than double the 100,000 who came last year. Several hundred foreign citizens were also among the visitors.
Bamiyan, a UNESCO world heritage site since 2003, was perhaps best known for the two giant statues of Buddhist deities carved during the third and fourth centuries AD, when Afghanistan was an important junction on the Silk Road.
Standing amid a complex of caves, shrines and grottoes, they survived numerous wars and invasions, including that of Genghis Khan, but were destroyed in 2001 after the Taleban deemed them to be symbols of idolatry.
On 27-29 September 2017, UNESCO will convene a three-day technical symposium in Tokyo, Japan, entitled “The Future of the Bamiyan Buddha Statues: Technical Considerations and Potential Effects on Authentic and Outstanding Universal Value”. This meeting will provide an opportunity to discuss the potential reconstruction of the Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley (Afghanistan), which were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban Regime.
Following the intentional destruction of the Buddha statues, UNESCO led an international discussion aiming to prevent such crimes in the future, which resulted in the landmark ‘UNESCO Declaration Concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage’ in 2003 and, the same year, to the inscription of the “Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley” simultaneously on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Geoff Hann organizes bus tours in the war-torn Afghanistan. This is his unbelievable story.
For about £3500 (or Rs 3 lakh) you could take a three-week trip into the heart of war-torn and Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. Terror tourism is not very new but what makes this three-week tourism package unique is the fact that it is run by a 79-year-old man from England! Meet Geoff Hann who runs Hinterland Travel that takes tourists around Afghanistan. Hann is an old player to the terror tourism business having set up the company in the ’70s, taking tourists into dangerous countries such as Syria, Iraq and Pakistan among others. Interestingly enough, he has never run into trouble… except last year when while driving through the province of Heart his tourist bus was ambushed by the Taliban and fired upon by grenades and machine guns.
For centuries they stood, two monumental ancient statues of Buddha carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan, loved and revered by generations of Afghans — only to be pulverised by the Taliban in an act of cultural genocide.
It felt like the loss of family for many who live and tend their crops nearby — but some 15 years on they are hopeful these awe-inspiring relics can be reconstructed.
But experts are divided on the value of rebuilding the artefacts, with some insisting it is more important to preserve the remains of the entire crumbling site.
Archaeologists and restorers, mostly Afghan, German, Japanese and French, working in the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan will meet from December 1-3 in Munich, Germany.
There are 1007 incredible sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Many sites are inaccessible due to conflict while other are simply hard to reach
The Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan and the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria risk being lost forever
You can still see the remains of the Chimu Kingdom in Peru – if you’re quick
Even the more well-travelled among us would struggle to scratch the surface of Unesco’s World Heritage List.
Jaw-dropping scenery, ancient monuments and incredible wildlife are just a few of the 1007 sites earmarked for preservation by the organisation.
But while well-known destinations such as Machu Picchu and the Acropolis in Athens may feature prominently on many intrepid explorers’ ‘to do’ list, there are a number of stunning sites that the majority of us will simply never get to see.
JAM, Afghanistan — It is the place that launched a thousand postcards, back in the day when tourists still came in any numbers to Afghanistan: the Minaret of Jam.
Even then, few ever actually saw it, tucked into a gorge 12 hours of rough jeep track from anywhere, in a part of the country notorious for its brigandry, Ghor Province in the west-central highlands.
Now, that road passes through Taliban territory as well, and reaching it has become even harder. The track ends at Jam, and in spring and summer the river is too high to cross to the side where the minaret is.
Officials from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization were finally able to revisit the site on Nov. 18, for the first time since 2006.
Bamiyan may not be wracked by violence, but it continues to suffer from poverty and years of underdevelopment.
Ringed by snow-covered mountains, Bamiyan has often been called Afghanistan’s “safest” province.
Its roads, paved for the first time in the central province’s history, make Bamiyan’s natural beauty and historical artifacts more accessible than ever. In interviews with Al Jazeera, residents of Bamiyan city and mountainside villages alike spoke proudly of their province’s safety compared to the rest of the nation.
But despite Bamiyan’s relative safety, poverty remains rampant. Nearly 70 percent of the province’s roughly 418,000 people live on less than $25 per month.
“We continue to struggle, so many people are without jobs,” said 19-year-old Zahra in Bamiyan city’s Titanic Market area.
The winter’s snow brings with it a host of economic and health problems.
After the days I spent on patrol with Malaysia’s MALCON ISAF 2 in the rural areas of Bamiyan building water filters, educating health officials and saving lives, I was glad to be back in the safety of Kiwi Base in the city of Bamiyan.
Bamiyan is actually one of the safest provinces in Afghanistan and this is due to its population of predominantly Hazarat people who fiercely reject the Taliban. They are Shiites and were terribly oppressed, hurt and killed during the rule of the Taliban. So walking the streets of Bamiyan city is really like a walk in the park compared to in Kabul.
Now that I was feeling a bit secure and safe, I wanted to do something that I had dreamed of since I was 15 years old. That’s right!