Bamiyan: Crossroads of Cultures


Afghanistan’s history can be traced back to when the land was called “Ariana.”. Situated at a geographical crossroad Afghanistan was influenced by different cultures and civilisations, and its unique culture was born from a creative synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements.

Bamiyan is often described as “the place of shining light.” The rolling hills of the Bamiyan valley offer an austere and beautiful landscape of variegated colours. The central valley sits 2,500 meters above the sea level. Two rivers flow into the valley from sources in the Kuh-e-Baba Mountain: The Kakrak River to the east and the Foladi River to the west. The principal archaeological sites are located in the long east-west central valley of Bamiyan and in the Kakrak and Foladi river valleys.

Bamiyan’s central cultural monuments are the two Buddha niches for giant statues carved at the eastern and western ends of a high cliff facing the central valley. Some thousand caves inhabited or used by Buddhist monks are also cut into the cliff face and decorated with a rich variety of murals. The Buddhist art of Bamiyan, which enjoyed a renaissance after the collapse of the earlier Gandharan culture, spread and influenced various countries along the Silk Road. The Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley were inscribed on the World Heritage List at the 27th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2003.

A. The 4th -7th Centuries: Bamiyan Seen by Xuanzang:

The name “Bamiyan” first appears in historical records around the late 4th Century. The first detailed description of the region did not appear until around the year 630, when a Chinese monk named Xuanzang on his way to India visited Bamiyan for about 15 days,. In his travel record, Da Tang Xi Yu Ji, he mentions the kingdom “is situated in the midst of the Snowy Mountain. The people inhabit towns either in the mountains or the valleys, according to circumstances.” The description reveals that the people of Bamiyan probably lived in caves dug into the cliffs. Xuanzang also mentions that the Bamiyan Kingdom “produces wheat, and few flowers or fruits. It is suitable for cattle, and affords pasture for many sheep and horses.” Thus, by the seventh century, the landscape of Bamiyan consisted of thousands of caves dug into the Great Cliff and large grain fields in the valley below.

Two statues of Buddha were also reported in detail in Xuanzang’s Da Tang Xi Yu Ji. He notes that the West Buddha’s “golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness”, indicating that the statues were lavishly decorated.  Xuanzang’s description adds that there were 50 to 60 Buddhist temples with several thousand monks. When he visited Bamiyan in the early seventh century, Bamiyan was at its peak as a Buddhist religious centre, with the statues of Buddha and numerous cave temples.

Xuanzang also writes that “the people remain faithful to the Three Treasures (Buddha, Law and Priesthood) at the top, down to various gods, and respect them most sincerely,” which suggests that different religions besides Buddhism were also practiced in Bamiyan. When Xuanzang visited Bamiyan, the area was very prosperous as a commercial cross-road, connecting many different areas of Afghanistan and beyond.

B. Between the 8-9th Centuries: The Islamic Period

In the early eighth century, a monk called Hyecho from Silla ( now Korea) visited Bamiyan, and described it as an area where Buddhism flourished. At the same time, he wrote that the area was not subject to any other country and had not been invaded, thanks to Bamiyan’s strong army. Not long after Hyecho left Bamiyan, however, the king of Bamiyan surrendered to the Abbasid caliphate, after which Islamic culture gradually spread.  Up to this period, Buddhism, Islam and other religions seem to have coexisted in the region but in the late ninth century, the Saffarid dynasty (861-910) demolished many Buddhist temples and statues and from that time onward, Buddhist culture in Bamiyan gradually declined.

D. 19-20th Centuries:

In the 19th Century, Bamiyan reappears in historical records. Many expeditions entered the region. In the early 19th Century, Alexander Burnes and Charles Masson visited Bamiyan and sketched the statues of the Buddha.

In the early 20th Century, the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) began the first full-scale archaeological investigation of Bamiyan. Under the supervision of Alfred Foucher, André Godard and Joseph Hackin, DAFA researched the mural paintings and architecture of Bamiyan in great detail, and published two comprehensive reports and several articles.

In the late 20th century, Zemaryalai Tarzi of the Institute of Archaeology in Afghanistan started doing major archaeological research in the area. In addition to archaeological and art history investigations, conservation and restoration of the Bamiyan site were carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Owing to such long-term international investigations and research, Bamiyan became known for its role as the crossroad of civilisations from India, Persia, and Central Asia. After 1979, the war prevented further academic research there. In 1997, the Taliban regime took over the Bamiyan valley and threatened to demolish the site.