The Bamiyan Valley
I shall never forget the approach to Bamiyan. After hours of pitching and rolling our way along the way, we finally came down off a hilly plateau and off in the distance were trees edging a river, a sizable-looking town of mud-brick houses, against a backdrop of buff-colored cliffs marking the edge of the plateau opposite. The town itself wasn't so impressive, though there was a shop or two with a few interesting items. Not that I could buy anything; at the time I was living on less than a dollar a day.
What made Bamiyan extraordinary were the remains of the Buddhist monastery that once thrived in the valley. The cliffs were riddled with caves -- some natural, some hand-hewn -- where as many as 50,000 monks and their family had once lived. The walls of these caves had been frescoed originally, though there were only a few remnants of scenes from the Ramayana to be seen when I got there.
The real point of any trip to Bamiyan, however, was the two gigantic statues of the Buddha. One was some 180 feet tall, reputedly the tallest Buddha on earth; the other was 15 or 20 feet shorter. They were both faceless, of course. Centuries ago, Muslim zealots had sliced off their features in a fit of religious fervor, leaving only the chins and the outlines of the heads. (The faces had actually survived longer than anyone would have imagined, however; Bamiyan was so isolated that it wasn't even found by the Muslim population until two or three hundred years after Islam had arrived in the region.)
The Buddhas were remarkable in other ways, too. If you look at the photograph below, you will notice drapery covering the body. Closer inspection reveals that it is of the same style as that used by Greek sculptors at the time of Alexander the Great. Indeed, this Greek patina derives from artists who had stayed on after having traveled across Asia with Alexander the Great and his armies.
This Grecian drapery overlies a stiffly static stance that characterizes other Asian and Buddhist sculpture. Originally, the statues would have been painted; all that was left of the color were some faded frescoes on the surface at the top of the stone niche where the Buddhas stood. These were being painstakingly restored at the time of my visit. The archaeological work made it impossible for me to climb up to the heads. Later on in the 70s before the Soviet invasion, that was possible for the lucky few who managed to make the trip.
But beyond all this, there was a feeling that you got when you were there that was quite indescribable and intangible. The cliffs, the caves, and the statues felt holy, somehow. I got the same feeling there that I had when I later visited some of the shrines in Jerusalem, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, or the remarkable stupas in Katmandu. I only hope that the scum that has since destroyed the site suffers some singularly hideous fate in the Hereafter.