The Taliban's Twin Towers
by Steve McCarty
Professor, Kagawa JC, Japan
President, World Association for Online Education

This article posits that the Taliban exhibited a similar psychology to al Qaeda much earlier. Arguably with a twinge of envy, they destroyed their own twin towers, the two Great Buddhas of Bamiyan. In recounting that history a tribute is rendered to the lost cultural heritage of Central Asia, represented by the complete looting and destruction of Kabul Museum. The author in Japan, whose background is in Asian Studies, also contrasts Mainland Asia with Japan, where cultural properties are copiously catalogued and exquisitely preserved.

In so-called modern history, Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia have been carved up between Russia and China with rapacious contempt for their enviable cultures. It could be charged that such empires have systematically attempted to snuff out cultures more refined than their own contemporary state. A subtext of jealousy and envy is thus also considered in the effacing of irreplaceable cultural symbols.

For millenia in Asian religions the prevailing ecumenical tolerance was represented by the ancient Hindu philosophy of many paths up the mountain. Buddhism in particular showed a flexible relativism as local cultures were not replaced but enriched by more universal teachings. A similar strain of tolerance in Islam protected the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan until recently, but Islam is a Western religion in its absolutism, in comparison with relativistic and therefore tolerant Asian religions. Recent Islamic fundamentalism has become menacing as absolutism dictates that non-believers must also obey their rules.

First let us take stock of what has been lost besides the most visible symbols in Bamiyan, in terms of only one museum. In 1993 the Kabul Museum was "systematically looted" by mujahideen soldiers, "often guided by detailed instructions from Afghan and Pakistani antiquities dealers" (Far Eastern Economic Review, 1995).

It was one of the richest museums in the entire region, covering 50,000 years of history in Afghanistan and Central Asia ... The collection of ivories, statues, paintings, coins, gold, pottery, armaments and dress from the pre-historic period to the Bactrian, Kushan and Gandhara civilizations, through to the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim periods, was unimaginable ... For thousands of years, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of conquest and commerce for ancient Iran, India and Central Asia ... Forty miles north of Kabul lies the village of Bagram, which the Soviet invaders turned into the largest air base in the country during their struggle with the mujahideen. Bagram is built over the 2nd century AD city of Kapisa, the famed summer capital of the Kushan King Kanishka, whose empire stretched from north India deep into Central Asia. It was a period of peace from Rome to China, and commerce, art and religion moved freely along the Silk Road, with the Kushans at its crossroads. In 1939 ... the most spectacular archaeological find of the 20th century [took place in Bagram:] 1,800 lacquers, bronzes, ivories, glassware and statues from Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, India and Central Asia. The [Kabul] museum's collection of 40,000 coins, ranging from the 8th century BC to the late 19th century, was one of the more extensive in the world. It included the largest Greek and Roman coins ever found and the spectacular Mir Zakah Hoard ... discovered under a spring near Kabul. It yielded 11,500 coins, or 2,000 kilograms of gold and silver, and spanned four centuries and numerous civilizations from Rome to China. Every single coin has now disappeared, sold to private collectors around the world ... Lost were not just the Standing Buddha statues, or countless smaller Buddhist items, but key material for understanding the history of the links between the East and the West in Ancient and medieval times. E.g., the third century B.C.E. Greek cultured city known now as Ay Khanum, in NW Afghanistan that leads into China. The ruins were only discovered in the 1960s, and its trove of treasures, including essentially Greek-style gold and silver coins bearing the images of kings and gods all went to ... the Kabul Museum[, but by 1994] all the coins were gone ... The trade in Afghan antiquities has become the biggest money earner after the heroin trade, and it is often the same mafias who are doing both (Far Eastern Economic Review, 1995).

Turning to the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan, translating from Japanese, the statues are thought to date from the 4th to 6th Centuries (archaeological studies have been insufficient). The Buddhist Monk Hsuan-tsang (Sanzo Hoshi in Japanese) of China's T'ang Dynasty was the earliest to record their existence in writing. At a juncture of the fabled Silk Road, Bamiyan was a most cosmopolitan area at the time. Besides the Buddhas there were exquisite Greco-Roman sculptures and so forth, including the gods Athena, Mercury, and Mars (Asahi Shimbun, 2001).

In early 2001 the world took notice that the Taliban was destroying the Two Great Buddhas of Bamiyan, despite appeals by UNESCO and offers of money in return for their preservation.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have ordered the destruction of all the country's statues, including the world's tallest standing Buddha. Afghanistan's ancient Buddhas are located in Bamiyan, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) west of the Afghan capital of Kabul. One Buddha statue, measuring 53 meters (175 feet), is the world's tallest standing Buddha. A smaller one stands beside it at 37 meters (120 feet). The two statues, which have been damaged in fighting in the area, were carved out of the Afghan mountainside in the fifth century (CNN, 2001).

Islam wiped out Buddhism in Afghanistan fourteen hundred years ago. But the presence of ancient Buddhist statues - from the smallest miniature to the fifty metre high Buddhas carved into a cliff face in the town of Bamiyan - have posed problems for the Taliban. With their ultra-conservative Islamic ideology, they believe the depiction of any human being is blasphemous. They also think - mistakenly - that Buddhists worship the Buddha and that the statues are therefore idols (BBC, 2001).

[Complicating the issue, the] emphasis still placed on the extradition of Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the bombing of US embassies in Africa, also drowned out the voices of more conciliatory elements within the Taliban, the same voices that had made it possible for Mullah Omar to prevent the statues from being destroyed three years earlier (Asia Society, 2001).

Actually in early 1999 the Japanese vernacular daily Asahi Shimbun (1999) ran a front-page story detailing that by the fall of 1998 the Taliban had started to demolish the Great Buddhas, but by the time the Western press got the message it was too late. Despite proclamations going back to the days of Nixon that Japan should serve as a bridge between East and West, the untranslated majority of vernacular sources are not taken seriously. Analyses of Japan based only on English sources often seem to suffice, with the language barrier excusing an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the value of Japanese news sources on non-Japanese matters.

Paraphrasing again from the Japanese, the article stated that in the Afghan civil war Bamiyan had been bombarded from 1997, and the taller Buddha's head was partly destroyed [photos show that the face had been razed then or earlier, in obvious obedience to Islamic fundamentalism]. In the fall of 1998 Taliban tanks blasted the face off the shorter Buddha and destroyed murals such as that of Athena. The Indian, Persian and Greek influences made the site a most precious symbol of East-West fusion for humanity (Asahi Shimbun, 1999).

At that time, two years before Omar's well-publicized threat, this author tried to warn Asian Studies circles that the destruction was being carried out. The criticism of the Taliban was forwarded to a network in Malaysia, possibly raising some hackles in the Islamic world. But East-West fusion is outgunned, with few defenders of its cultural treasures for humanity.

Commentators in early 2001 thought UNESCO had already declared the Buddhas a World Heritage Site, but no one had done the PR. The World Culture Report (UNESCO, 2000) shows that Afghanistan has only received one form of assistance from the World Monument Fund (1998-2000) for Endangered Heritage Sites.

For Afghanistan was not like Japan where well-funded regional groups continually campaign for their historical treasures to be recognized as World Heritage Sites. The UNESCO World Culture Report 2000 includes frameworks for identifying cultural assets of countries. It explicitly endorses the Japanese concept of intangible cultural properties, so people here on the island of Shikoku may succeed in having their pilgrimage of 88 temples so recognized. Fine, but who is speaking up for cultural properties in impoverished or war-torn nations within which different cultures may be in contention?

The Bamiyan twin Buddhas represented another culture facing the Islamic fundamentalists, towering over them, as it were. Throughout Asia and in most cultures, greater age tends to equate with greater legitimacy and venerability. Thus the greater antiquity of the Buddhas in Afghanistan than Islam could imply a superiority evoking a sense of rivalry akin to envy or jealousy. Local people were not Buddhists but still called them mother and father, evidence that culture runs even deeper than religion.

In Japan there is an old saw about keeping up with the Tanakas to explain the booms in consumer goods. But on a closed electronic mailing list for journalists in Tokyo, a local businessman wrote that Japanese society is based on jealousy. There must be other factors explaining why, for example,
moribund businesses are kept afloat. But where the emphasis is on people's similarities, the pressure to conform may tend to evoke more negative emotions of jealousy or envy.

Jealousy cannot explain the worldwide opposition to conspicuous consumption of natural resources, unilateralism and the abrogation of international treaties. But there does seem to be a universally human tendency to envy that adds to the emotional charge of righteous indignation directed on 9/11/01 at America's decadence. People around one make sure that hubris is followed by nemesis, so individuals and institutions would be advised not to make light of jealousy and envy. Rather reflect, and take a step out of harm's way.

Osama bin Laden could easily have become a heroic figure to Americans, like Zorro or the Lone Ranger on his steed in flowing white robes, an underdog against America's enemies. The trouble was that he saw what America's Twin Towers represented as an affront to his faith, looking down on his kind
with more than a whiff of superiority, so this time the David and Goliath story took an unpopular twist.

Nowadays globalization is often used as a dirty word, but there are many areas including education, technology transfer, health, conflict resolution, and so forth where globalization has not gone far enough. As of September 2002 there was promising news that the U.S. was reconsidering its withdrawal from UNESCO after 18 years. If the US would not try to emasculate international organizations, such as by withholding payments to the UN and cutting UNESCO off, those global agencies would be better able to bring rogue governments into the international community.


Asahi Shimbun (1999, February 5). Afugan chubu kodai bukkyo iseki Bamiyan: Sekibutsu no gammen futtobu [Ancient Buddhist Site of Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan: Stone Buddha's face blown away]. Asahi Shimbun [Asahi newspaper], p. 1.

Asahi Shimbun (2001, February 28) Tariban Omar-shi ga fukoku: 'Kami wa tada hitotsu' [Taliban leader Omar decrees that 'There is only one God' (so all Buddha images in Afghanistan are to be destroyed)]. Asahi Shimbun [Asahi newspaper], p. 7.

Asia Society (2001, March 28). Special Report - Taliban: What prompted Bamiyan? AsiaSource: AsiaTODAY. WWW document available at URL

BBC (2001, February 12). BBC Report: Afghanistan museum. From Chandima Thushari Bindu Urugodawatte <>, e-mail correspondence on February 28, 2001.

CNN (2001, February 26). Afghanistan's Taliban orders destruction of statues. From Bindu Urugodawatte, e-mail correspondence on February 28, 2001.

Far Eastern Economic Review (1995, September 23). Looting of the Kabul Museum. In Ganesan <>, H-ASIA electronic mailing list message, available at URL

UNESCO (2000). World Culture Report. Paris: UNESCO, p.337.


Some of the irreplaceable treasures of humanity destroyed by Taliban forces can only be remembered as history, but digitizing for 21st Century media is related to preservation -- of books that go out of print, threatened religious images, and so forth. See, e.g., Lost and Stolen Images: Afghanistan, Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art, Ohio State University, for a panoramic view of Bamiyan before the complete destruction.

By the same author:

"Another Against the Other: Terrorism through Japanese Lenses"
New York University: Online Journal of Education, Media and Health (2002)

"Japanese Perceptions and Reactions to Terrorism: Q & A"
Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan (July 4, 2002)

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