The Bamiyan Valley, located in the rugged mountainous district of central Afghanistan is an exceptional cultural landscape which was formed by the Bamiyan River. Surrounded by the extensions of the Hindu Kush, it is situated in a large tectonic basin, composed of rubbed stones forming a long stretch of cliffs. The Valley is of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance, and as the location of religious and cultural development in ancient times, the cliff are deliberately formed into caves, niches and frames for deities. The Valley became inhabited from 3rd century BC. It became an important Buddhist centre during Kushana Emperors and reached its peak from 4th to 8th centuries AD.
The Bamiyan Valley’s monuments and archaeological heritage represent an important interchange of religious values and diverse cultural traditions, contributing to monumental artistic creativity and cultural exchange development. The cave art is a masterpiece of early Buddhist cave art, illustrating a significant period of Buddhism and one of the exceptional testimonies of Gandaharan art. Its monuments exerted a considerable influence on Buddhist art development: in sculpture (establishing certain iconographic types) and painting (creation of a new pictorial style). The two famous standing Buddha sculptures represented a vivid testimony to its creative sculpting genius.
There are about 1,000 man-made caves in Bamiyan Valley, forming an extensive Buddhist monastic and propagation centre. Some of the caves were very large sanctuaries and assembly halls, containing elaborate relief and fresco decorations or sculptures. The Valley was also an important trading centre, which is testified by the numerous cities and fortifications ruins.
The Bamiyan Valley is a landscape which has evolved through geological formation and human intervention. The destruction of giant Buddhas in 2001 testifies to an important tragic event in human civilisation history and an act of deliberate destruction of tangible heritage assets closely linked with its cultural tradition in the 21st century AD.
Bamiyan Cliff. It contains series of caves and niches carved into the cliff walls and adorned with mural paintings and rock-carved decorations. At one time, there were around 12,000 grottoes forming an ensemble of Buddhist monasteries, chapels and sanctuaries. Two colossal niches of standing Buddhas (carved between 3th and 6th century AD) which were destroyed were located. There were also three seated Buddhas sculpted between the standing Buddhas. The principle heritage areas are:
- Niche of 38 meter standing Buddha. The niche was richly decorated with frescos. Caves were accessible around the base of former statue. Groups of galleries are composed of grottoes, initially used as sanctuaries, council halls and monk’s cells, extending over several floors and accessible to the Buddha via a staircase.
- Niches of seated Buddhas. In between the two standing Buddhas is a group of grottoes. One of them sheltered a statue of a large seated Buddha, which disappeared due to water infiltration, but parts of frescos and wall paintings are visible. The niche is surrounded by communicating galleries at different levels. An isolated niche once contained the sculpture of a small seated Buddha. Another grotto contains frescos of the Bodhisattva (Maitreya) surrounded by Buddhas with a crown.
- Niche of 55 meter standing Buddha. This symmetrical niche contained the biggest standing Buddha statue in the world. The sculpture was carved out of the mass of the conglomerate cliff rock. It was richly decorated by paintings representing Buddha and Bodhisattvas and gave access to grottoes at the ground level. At the level of the former statue arms, galleries give access to the top of the niche where the Buddha head was located.
Kakrak Valley, including niche of 10 meter standing Buddha. The Kakrak Valley contains over hundred caves dating from the 6th to 13th century AD. The most remarkable cave was the one with a niche, richly decorated with frescos, which contained a sculpture of standing Buddha (known as the Kakrak Buddha) before its destruction. A sanctuary nearby was richly decorated with wall paintings from Sassanian period. There are earthen architectural towers.
Qoul-I Akram and Kalai Ghamai Caves in Fuladi Valley. These man-made caves dated from the Hephtalo-sassanian (5th-7th century AD) to Turkic and pre-Mongol period (7th-13th century AD). These rock-carved and wall-painted caves are connected by passageways to watch towers on the hills and served as an observation and defence complex to guard the Bamiyan Valley.
Shahr-i-Zuhak. This Islamic heritage fortress dates from Ghaznavid and Ghorid periods (10th to 13th century AD). The spectacular fortress, founded in 6th-7th century AD, rises several levels up the steep mountain-side, its topographical character provided an excellent natural fortification for the valley’s defence and control. There are earthen red architectural defence and citadel structural remains on a plateau.
Qallai Kaphari Monuments. These monumental clusters of earthen architectural structures, date between the 6th – 8th century AD and is composed of towers, fortification walls and citadel complexes.
Shahr-I-Ghulghulah. This impressive fortified hilly citadel dates from the 6th to 10th century AD.
The name Bamiyan derives from the ancient Dari word Bamikan, the “middle roof” and is first mentioned in 5th century AD as kingdom of Fan-Yang (Bamiyan) in Chinese texts. As an important subsidiary route of the Silk Roads, Bamiyan Valley was, for over two thousand years, a centre for trade between east and west, rendering it rich in cultural and religious exchange.
Bamiyan became a Buddhist centre under the Kushan Emperors (2nd and 3rd century AD) when Buddhist culture rose to its apogee in Central Asia and subsequently spread to China as well as to the West. The Bamiyan monastic community and its inhabitants took advantage of the soft cliffs and created cave shelters.
Islamic art and architecture first appeared in 11th century AD when central Afghanistan embraced Islam under the rule of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030). Bamiyan adopted typical Khorassanian urbanism with gates and mosque. Major developments took place during the rule of Ghurids (1155-1212) and include the Shahr-i Bamiyan, which later became known as Ghulghulah. Bamiyan was ransacked and ruined by Changiz Khan’s army in the early 13th century AD.