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12 / Conflict and Resistance

Afghan soldiers from the ruling Taliban movement and visiting journalists stand in front of one of the destroyed Buddha statues in the central province of Bamiyan, March 26, 2001.
Afghan soldiers from the ruling Taliban movement and visiting journalists stand in front of one of the destroyed Buddha statues in the central province of Bamiyan, March 26, 2001.
Artist / Origin Sayed Salahuddin (Afghan, b. 1970)
Date 2001
Material Photograph
Credit © Omar Sobhani/Reuters/CORBIS

expert perspective

Tarek KahlaouiAssistant Professor of Islamic Art and Islamic History, Rutgers University

Additional Resources

Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Bruno, Greg, and Eben Kaplan. “The Taliban in Afghanistan.” In Backgrounder. The Council on Foreign Relations Web site. http://www.cfr.org/publication/10551.

“Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley.” UNESCO World Heritage Web site. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/208.

Flood, Finbarr Barry. “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum.” Art Bulletin 84.4 (December 2002): 641–659.

Afghan soldiers from the ruling Taliban movement and visiting journalists stand in front of one of the destroyed Buddha statues in the central province of Bamiyan, March 26, 2001.

» Sayed Salahuddin (Afghan, b. 1970)

Situated along the ancient trade network we now know as the Silk Road, the Bamiyan Valley, located in present-day Afghanistan, has had a rather cosmopolitan cultural history, one marked by religious and artistic cross-fertilization.

Beginning in the second century BCE, Bamiyan became an important Buddhist site where numerous monastic complexes and sanctuaries were erected. Buddhist art and architectural remains from that period on show a rich intersection of Indian, Hellenistic, Roman, Sassanian, and Ghandaran styles. Among the most impressive of the monuments created in Bamiyan were two colossal Buddha statues. Hewn out of a cliff in the sixth century, the Buddhas stood 120 feet (37 meters) and 175 feet (53 meters) tall, respectively, and were, according to one awestruck contemporary account, originally decorated with gold and gems. By the ninth century, the reign of Buddhism in Bamiyan was essentially over, replaced by Islam. As potent religious symbols, the Buddhas, which had once attracted multitudes of pilgrims to Bamiyan, now drew hostility. The armies of Ghenghis Khan attacked the statues as early as the thirteenth century and in the seventeenth, they were damaged by the Mughals acting at the behest of the Emperor Aurangzeb. The Bamiyan Buddhas suffered their final assault when the radical, fundamentalist Muslim group, the Taliban, decimated the statues in March 2001.

The generalization made by many non-Muslims that all followers of Islam eschew representational art is false. Muslims have a long tradition of representing the Prophet Muhammad, and figuration has played a role in the secular arts of almost all Islamic cultures. Nevertheless, images have been at the heart of controversy in the Islamic world for centuries and representational art is prohibited by some of the more orthodox sects. Although the Taliban referenced Islamic dictates against figuration to explain their iconoclastic act—declaring the Buddhas “idols”—at issue was much more than religious difference. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was also a powerful statement of political and cultural opposition. Recognizing this, the Taliban invited foreign journalists and photographers to Bamiyan to report on and record the inflammatory event.

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