Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley

The Bamiyan Valley lies some 264 km by road west of Kabul, enclosed within the high mountains of the Hindu Kush, in the central highlands of Afghanistan. The valley, at an altitude of 2,500 m, follows the Bamiyan River. It formed one of the branches of the Silk Road and its beautiful landscape is associated with legendary figures. It was these aspects that contributed to its development as a major religious and cultural centre. It was inhabited and partly urbanized from the 3rd century BC.

The nominated site consists of eight separate core zones, each with its buffer zone:

  • The Bamiyan Cliffs on the north side of the valley include the two colossal niches that contained the large standing Buddha figures.
  • The Kakrak Valley caves, some 3 km south-east of the Bamiyan cliffs, date from the 6th to 13th centuries. • The two main important groups of the Fuladi Valley caves are the Qoul-i Akram and Kalai Ghamai caves, which have important decorative features.
  • Shahr-i Zuhak and Qallai Kaphari consist of fortification walls, towers, and citadels of earthen structures dating from the 6th to 8th centuries.
  • Shahr-i Ghulghulah is a fortified citadel situated on a hill in the centre of the valley and dates from the 6th to 10th centuries AD.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley represent the artistic and religious developments which from the 1st to the 13th centuries characterized ancient Bactria, integrating various cultural influences into the Gandhara school of Buddhist art. The area contains numerous Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries, as well as fortified structures from the Islamic period. The site is also testimony to the tragic destruction by the Taliban of the two standing Buddha statues, which shook the world in March 2001.

Historical context

Afghanistan was the ancient Bactria, one of the provinces of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids. The region was then ruled by Alexander the Great, the Seleucid dynasty, and the Maurya dynasty of northern India. The Kushans, a group of nomadic tribes, ruled from the 2nd century BCE, reaching the climax in the 2nd cent. CE. The Sasanians controlled Afghanistan from the mid-3rd century, Central Asian nomads ruled in the 5th century; a coalition of Sasanians and Western Turks took the power in mid-6th century. The Silk Roads passed through Afghanistan, and contributed to the diffusion of Buddhism from India in this region in the 1st century CE. The Kushans were patrons of the arts and religion, and were responsible for the introduction of Buddhist art in the Bactrian style, which was influenced by Hellenistic art, and the Sasanians.

Islamic art and architecture were introduced to Bamiyan in the 11th century CE, when the central part of Afghanistan was under the rule of Sultan Mahmud of Chazna (998- 1030). The town of Bamiyan was designed on the model of the Khorassan region of Iran. Under the rule of the Ghurids (1155-1212) the development included the fortified settlements of Shahr-i Bamiyan (later Ghulghulah), Shahr-i Zuhak and Shahr-i Khoshak. The army of Genghis Khan ruined the town of Bamiyan and looted the Buddhist monasteries in the early 13th century. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) ordered his army to shoot off the legs of the large Buddha. The valley was abandoned for a long period, but at the end of the 19th century, the caves were inhabited and used as shelters for domestic animals. In 1979, there were over 7,000 inhabitants in the Bamiyan town. From the 1970s, the area was used by the military. In the 1990s, it was exposed to armed conflicts. In 2001, the large Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban.

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion (i): The Buddha statues and the cave art in Bamiyan Valley are an outstanding representation of the Gandharan school in Buddhist art in the Central Asian region.

Criterion (ii) : The artistic and architectural remains of Bamiyan Valley, and an important Buddhist centre on the Silk Road, are an exceptional testimony to the interchange of Indian, Hellenistic, Roman, Sasanian influences as the basis for the development of a particular artistic expression in the Gandharan school. To this can be added the Islamic influence in a later period.

Criterion (iii): The Bamiyan Valley bears an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition in the Central Asian region, which has disappeared.

Criterion (iv): The Bamiyan Valley is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape which illustrates a significant period in Buddhism.

Criterion (vi): The Bamiyan Valley is the most monumental expression of the western Buddhism. It was an important centre of pilgrimage over many centuries. Due to their symbolic values, the monuments have suffered at different times of their existence, including the deliberate destruction in 2001, which shook the whole world.