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There is always outrage when a piece of a heritage falls victim to conflict. Even if it is not particularly celebrated, those who are associated with it, perhaps by location, nationality, or religion, often feel a deep sense of violation. Heritage in a tangible form, particularly when well-known and mythologised, seems to be something that contributes to identity on a level that surpasses the individual.


When we place something into the category of heritage, we acknowledge an emotional connection to it, and as well as drawing an association with ourselves, create a set of obligations based on the way we think the object should be used and treated. War and conflict – in the context of action taken ‘on the ground’ - directly threatens physical forms of heritage and our efforts to preserve them, going against our personal beliefs and expectations. Examples of this range from the bombing of strategic British cities during the Second World War, where the monuments destroyed were collateral damage, to deliberate acts of terrorism such as the shelling and blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. When a concentrated effort has been made to protect a site from disappearing, it is perhaps even more painful when it does, particularly if this is through the actions of other human beings.


On February the 6th, 2001, the Taliban issued a public announcement that the destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan was complete. This attack against cultural heritage is one of the most well-known from this time period in Afghanistan, if not modern history. The Buddhas were not a battlefield casualty: tragic but unintentional collateral damage, they were an active demonstration of Taliban ideology and its grip on the country. ‘Iconoclasm’, the belief that destruction of icons is necessary in order to oppose religious or political beliefs (Wikipedia, 2023) is a term that certainly describes part of this chain of events, and as such, it must be acknowledged that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not solely a conflict event, but a religious and socially motivated act that added to existing unrest.  


The process of this systematic attack on a collection of heritage sites and artefacts began with a decree from the head of the Taliban (Mullah Mohammed Omar), ‘ordering the elimination of all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries in Afghanistan.’ (Centlivres, 2012). This prompted a series of appeals against the enacting of the degree from several countries, neighbouring states, and Muslim clerics. ‘Besides the steps taken by UNESCO to save the statues, the MET (New York), as well as some Buddhist states, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and even Iran, offered to “buy” the Buddhas.’ (Centlivres, 2012). Needless to say, this was unsuccessful. It was this refusal that confirmed that the elimination of the Buddhas was not just a fulfilment of the Taliban belief system, but a statement of power and merciless dominance. The physical attack was one enaction of genocide – not just showing a bid to erase heritage but the identity of entire groups (in this case Buddhists) – whether geographically inside or outside of Taliban rule.


So the impact of destroying heritage doesn’t just entail the physical loss of material or age-based value. It spans much further. The UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune sums this up: ‘when cultural heritage is under attack, it is also the people and their fundamental human rights that are under attack.’ (Bennoune, 2016). This is true of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, but also countless other pieces of heritage, big and small, as long as human beings have recognised ‘property’ and value.



An empty silhouette of a Bamiyan Buddha statue destroyed by the Taliban, filled with scaffolding to support the alcove. 

Photo by Sameer Faqirzada (2022) on Unsplash.

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