Cash-strapped Taliban selling tickets to ruins of Buddhas it blew up

BAMIAN, Afghanistan — The three Taliban soldiers gazed down at the gaping hole in the 125-foot cliff where one of Afghanistan’s two great Buddha figures once stood and wondered aloud who was to blame for its destruction 22 years ago.

“This is the identity of our country,” said Kheyal Mohammad, 44, wearing a camouflage cap as he bent over a railing at the top of the giant cavity. “It shouldn’t have been bombed.”

The soldiers, taking a rare day off from military training to visit the site, agreed that the people who had destroyed the work were “careless,” and it should be rebuilt. “If God wills,” Mohammad exclaimed.

In 2001, Taliban founder Mohammad Omar declared the Buddhas false gods and announced plans to destroy them. Ignoring pleas from around the world, Taliban fighters detonated explosives and fired antiaircraft guns to smash the immense sixth-century reliefs to pieces.

The attack on the treasured ancient monument stunned the international community and cemented the Taliban’s reputation as uncompromising extremists.

With the group now back in power, Bamian holds new symbolic and economic importance to the cash-strapped region: Officials see the Buddha remnants as a potentially lucrative source of revenue and are working to draw tourism around the site. They suggest their efforts are not only a gesture to archaeologists, but also reflect a regime that’s more pragmatic now than when it first ruled from 1996 to 2001.

“Bamian and the Buddhas in particular are of great importance to our government, just as they are to the world,” Atiqullah Azizi, the Taliban’s deputy culture minister, said in an interview. He said more than 1,000 guards have been assigned to protect cultural heritage across Afghanistan, restricting access and overseeing ticket sales. Staffers at Kabul’s national museum were surprised last month to see senior Taliban officials at the inauguration of a prominent museum section dedicated to Buddhist artifacts.

But other Taliban members struggle to embrace artifacts they still find blasphemous. Bamian provincial governor Abdullah Sarhadi said he is committed to preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. But he said tourists should be steered toward other sites.

“We are Muslims,” Sarhadi, who says he was held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay, said in an interview. “We should follow the demands of God.” He defended the order to destroy the Buddhas as a “good decision.”

For archaeologists, Bamian is a test of whether Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage, which also includes synagogues and Hindu artifacts, can survive the return of the Taliban. But it could also help answer a much broader question: What kind of government does the regime want to be this time — and how much has it really changed since 2001?

Visitors entering Bamian’s small provincial capital, surrounded by potato fields in the shadow of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, pass a sign that blames the “terrorist Taliban group” for the Buddhas’ destruction. The word “terrorist” has been mostly crossed out.

Authorities have set up a ticket office at the foot of the larger of the two figures, where they charge Afghans 58 cents and foreigners $3.45 to visit. Armed guards sit next to an ice cream vendor nearby. There are few customers.

The main hotel here is fenced off with barbed wire, but gold chandeliers flicker above Japanese, Australian and Taliban flags. Paintings on the walls depict the Buddhas before they were defaced. A new souvenir market is being planned nearby, according to Saifurrahman Mohammadi, information and culture director for the regional Taliban government.

At 26, Mohammadi is too young to remember the monument’s destruction. He says it’s time for the world to move on.

“We’re talking about something that happened decades ago,” he said. His office building features a map of World Heritage sites from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Since 2003, UNESCO has designated the defaced Buddhas, a fortified citadel and other excavations in Bamian as endangered historic sites.

Last year, Mohammadi said, 200,000 registered tourists, most of them Afghans, visited the province, spending an average of $57 each. With additional efforts to promote and revitalize the area, he added, tourism “could become a significant source of income.”

In one of the world’s least developed countries, Bamian has long been one of its poorest regions. The population tries to eke out its living on coal mining and subsistence farming. “These archaeological sites could massively improve people’s lives here,” Mohammadi said.

But people here are skeptical. Few have forgiven the atrocities that human rights groups say the Taliban committed from 1996 to 2001 against the region’s predominantly Shiite Muslim population of minority ethnic Hazaras, a relatively progressive and educated but impoverished minority that remains outspoken against Taliban policies today.

As the economy continues to deteriorate, with international sanctions imposed and cuts in humanitarian aid limiting the inflow of money, there seems little here for people to celebrate.

The teenage sisters who run a dimly lit souvenir shop in Bamian say the street once bustled with tourists who bought colorful Afghan dresses and hand-knotted rugs depicting the Buddhas. But since the Taliban returned, they say, business has fallen 50 percent.

“The shop won’t survive if things continue as they are,” said one sister, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The day before, she said, the Taliban had inspected the private education center where she studies. Finding boys and girls in the same classroom, they halted classes for the day. The girl said she was too afraid to return that morning.

“I’m scared,” she said. “There is no good future here.”

These days, the Bamian Buddhas mostly attract two very different kinds of visitors. Some are Taliban soldiers stationed nearby who are stunned by the beauty of the carved-out cliffs. Others are educated urban Afghans who are angry at the Taliban for destroying the works — and the lives they built during the 20 years the group was out of power.

As visitors toured the site on a recent spring day, some complained within hearing distance of guards.

“The Taliban have a mentality from 500 years ago,” said a 27-year old man visiting from Iran. “They’re mentally not capable of making use of this place.”

Sayed, a 22-year old Afghan man, said he had driven all day to reach the site, curious to learn about his country’s history before Islam became its dominant religion. The Taliban, he said, cannot be trusted with preserving the site.

“They are professionals at destroying things,” he said. “Not at rebuilding them.”

‘The entire world’s heritage’

While concern for Bamian is shared by a range of organizations and experts, there’s been little archaeological work done here since the Taliban’s return in August 2021 led foreign governments and donors to freeze aid and withdraw their archaeologists.

Mohammadi said the government has added guards and gates to protect the site but is unable to finance more extensive work. The groups that left, he said, are welcome to return and resume their projects. “We urge them as government members but also as humans,” he said. “This is the entire world’s heritage.”

But many nonprofits and donors say it would be immoral to return to Afghanistan while the Taliban increases restrictions on women.

Separately, even before the Taliban returned, foreigners disagreed on what to do with the Buddhas. Some favored reconstruction; others wanted to preserve the current remnants.

Today, the site is overlooked by a sprawling but empty cultural center and museum that was built mostly during the Taliban’s absence. Taliban officials allowed a Washington Post team to peer into the site. Sealed doors led to storage rooms where artifacts, visible through slits, appeared to be intact.

UNESCO, which championed the construction of the center, said its opening “has been postponed indefinitely” as a result of the “political context.” While artifacts in the center appear to be safe, the organization said, it remains “deeply concerned about the conservation of the Bamiyan site” after looting and illegal excavations in 2021.

But in a sign that some international archaeologists could ultimately return, UNESCO recently resumed a project with 100 local workers to secure paths and develop conservation works in Bamian.

Philippe Marquis, who heads a French archaeological delegation focused on Afghanistan, says he’s more worried about other, less famous sites. Examining satellite imagery of northern Afghanistan, he says, his delegation recently spotted signs of large-scale excavations. They fear they were signs that economically desperate Afghans might be trying to sell artifacts.

Azizi, the deputy culture minister, strongly denied any government involvement. He said authorities are committed to prosecuting looters.

Marquis said the Taliban “have understood that destroying archaeological sites or historical buildings is not going to gain them support.”

“But the fact is that they are totally lacking capacity and expertise. And they’re the first ones to acknowledge it.”

Drawing foreign tourists will be a challenge. Marc Leaderman’s British-based company led tours of Bamian before the Taliban’s return. Now, he says, neither he nor his clients are interested in returning.

Afghanistan still has “a huge amount to offer,” Leaderman said, but with the Taliban back in power, “there is just not a lot of joy in the country at the moment.”

Not everyone agrees. One recent afternoon, a group of government officials — some Taliban members, some holdovers from the U.S.-backed government they overthrew — were enjoying a trip to Band-e-Amir, a national park near Bamian that features clear blue lakes and pedal-operated swan boats for rent.

“We’re stunned,” said Mohammad Younus Mukhles, 30, a former Taliban fighter who was drinking tea and laughing with comrades in a pedal boat. “It’s very safe.”

Pamela Constable in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

Cash-strapped Taliban selling tickets to ruins of Buddhas it blew up