KABUL - In the long history of Afghanistan, the Taliban will go down as the Islamic iconoclasts who inflicted cultural destruction that exceeded the onslaught of even infamous conquerors like Genghis Khan.
Using artillery and explosives, the Islamic movement that is determined to destroy all images of animate objects on grounds they are pagan idols took 20 days to turn two gigantic statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan into rubble.
The Buddhas, Afghanistan's most famous historic treasures, were nearly 2,000 years old.
Far from being ashamed of an act that drew worldwide condemnation, the Taliban arranged a plane to take reporters to the valley of Bamiyan on Monday to show that they had carried out their vow to obliterate the pre-Islamic monuments.
It was a brutal end for monuments that had survived nearly 13 centuries of Islamic rule with only minor damage -- and an end to a scene that appeared on Afghan postage stamps, its calendars and every photo book.
"Bamiyan is a small town lying at the very heart of the Hindu Kush in a beautiful valley containing one of man's most remarkable achievements -- the Colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan," wrote a guide book published before Afghanistan plunged into its two decades of war that led to the Taliban taking power.
The author of the study, Nancy Dupree, has spent most of her life helping Afghanistan and this year joined in the outrage over the destruction of the country's heritage. Many smaller statues unearthed at Bamiyan had been moved to the National Museum in Kabul, which the Taliban opened to journalists last Thursday to show none survived.
But the giant Buddhas were the most famous, the centrepiece of a spectacular scene across the fertile valley from what was once the citadel guarding the region.
While they had always astounded visitors, the sight was nothing compared to the era when this was a centre of Buddhism. In the second century, Kanishka became king of the Kushan federation and built a rich empire stretching from the Ganges Valley to the Gobi Desert.
To the west, the Roman Empire was at its height. To the east the Han dynasty ruled China. To the south lay the riches of India. In the middle, Kanishka's empire sat astride the trade routes, with Silk Route caravans passing over the Hindu Kush mountains through Bamiyan.
It was in the glorious era inaugurated by Kanishka, who was a patron of Buddhism, that the colossal statues were carved into cliffs overlooking Bamiyan. The smaller of the statues, towering 38 metres (125 feet), may date from the third century, the giant statue that rose 53 metres (175 feet) a bit later.
At the time the valley resonated with Buddhist activity. The statues were painted and yellow-robed monks lived in the caves that dot the cliff face. Stupas and monasteries were scattered across the landscape.
Witnesses said on Monday the Taliban had methodically obliterated the paintings devout Buddhist monks had made in the caves.
CITY OF NOISE
The Buddhist kingdom was resilient. Huns from Central Asia swept over Afghanistan in the fifth century, initially destroying Buddhist sites. But a subsequent Hun ruler of Bamiyan became a Buddhist and led a revival that produced some of the most famous art to emerge from the valley -- all anathema to the Taliban.
The valley submitted to early Islamic invaders in the eighth century, but quickly reverted to the old religion. That drew another Islamic invasion a century later, ending forever the Buddhist religion in Afghanistan.
The valley, still profiting from trade, continued to thrive under Islam. But prosperity ended abruptly -- and permanently -- in 1221. Genghis Khan's armies, having already destroyed much of Central Asia, stormed into the valley.
The resistance from the citadel in Bamiyan was so strong -- they killed the conqueror's favourite grandson -- that he set out to kill every living thing when he triumphed. To this day, the site of the citadel is known as Shahr-I-Gholghola, the city of noise, because of the shouts of the victims.
But, although he is said to have defaced the large Buddha, the giant statues survived. Countless visitors, gunmen and individual iconoclasts inflicted pockmarks and graffiti over the centuries, but the damage was relatively minor.
In 1998 that changed. The Taliban captured Bamiyan and within a year the head of the smaller statue had been destroyed. Assurances from the Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar that he would protect Afghan heritage failed to allay fears.
Then at the end of last month, Omar issued a decree calling for the destruction of all statues. With the minister of defence overseeing the operation, holes were bored into the statues and filled with explosives.
To shouts of Allahu Akbar, God is Greatest, the Taliban totally destroyed with modern explosives the Afghan heritage that had survived centuries of previous invaders.
Copyright 2001 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.