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Taliban Orders Statues Destroyed Archaeologists, Historians Outraged Over Demolitions

By Molly Moore

Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban Islamic militia said Thursday that its troops have begun destroying all statues in the country, including the world’s tallest standing Buddha, hewn from a rock cliff 1,600 years ago.

Carrying out an edict that stunned the world of archaeology and cultural preservation and unleashed an outpouring of international protest, the radical Islamic group said tanks, rocket launchers and “any means available” would be employed to demolish the statues, deemed to violate the tenets of Islam. Some have stood sentry over history stretching from the conquests of Genghis Khan to the Great Games of the British and Russian empires to the intrigues of the Cold War.

“All statues will be destroyed,” Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban’s information and culture minister, told reporters Thursday in the Afghan capital, Kabul, saying the statues did not conform to Islamic prohibitions against depicting the human form in photographs, statues or paintings. “The work began early during the day. All of the statues are to be smashed.”

Jamal specifically identified as a target Afghanistan’s most renowned historic site: a sandstone carving of Buddha that towers 175 feet on the face of a cliff near the town of Bamiyan, 90 miles west of Kabul. That Buddha and a 120-foot one set in a nearby cliff were cut from solid rock between the third and fifth centuries A.D., when Afghanistan was an important center of Buddhist teaching and pilgrimage.

Jamal’s assertion could not be independently verified because the Taliban has refused to allow journalists or preservationists near any of the endangered sites.

“We do not understand why everybody is so worried,” the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mohammed Omar, said through the official Taliban news agency, brushing off worldwide appeals to abandon the order he issued Monday. “All we are breaking are stones.”

Historians and archaeologists said the Taliban’s decree, which threatens not only antiquities and historic sites but hundreds of smaller relics in museums, could be the fatal blow to preserving a cultural heritage already decimated by war, looting and theft. A decade of guerrilla warfare that drove Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by bitter factional fighting and widespread lawlessness. Even after the Taliban consolidated its control over Afghanistan in the late 1990s, fighting against opposition forces has flared around Bamiyan and in the northeast.

The Taliban’s promised destruction of antiquities drew condemnation worldwide. Other Muslim nations -- including Pakistan, one of the Taliban’s closest allies, and Iran, one of its rivals -- joined with Western countries and Buddhist-dominated Far Eastern nations in urging that the statues be spared.

“Islam never preached the destruction of objects that depict the belief and history of millions of people throughout the world,” the English-language daily Iran News said in an editorial. It accused the Taliban of trying “not only to erase the past and present of Afghanistan, but also to strip the country of anything that may form a cultural basis for its future.”

Cultural preservationists compared the Taliban’s actions to those of other intolerant regimes that attempted to obliterate religious cultures. “It is absolutely sickening. I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Nancy Dupree,” a leading expert on Afghan history, said Thursday in a telephone interview from London.