The Bamiyan Buddhas symbolised complexity of Afghan identity

For 15 centuries the Bamiyan Buddhas watched benignly over the inhabitants of the Hindu Kush valley, until 10 years ago when they were ordered destroyed as false idols.

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Bamiyan is a place of promise and potential. It recalls an Afghanistan of young girls who skip to school, women who work in the potato fields without worry, tourists who hike in the mountains in the summers, and of the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas, who would watch benignly over the inhabitants of their valley as they have done for centuries.

But the idols carved into the Hindu Kush mountains 1,500 years ago no longer exist. The empty sandstone niches that housed them stand as silent, permanent reminders of Taliban savagery.

They were destroyed 10 years ago this month upon the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, who issued an edict explaining that because the idols were once worshipped they may be again and so must be torn down.

The destruction shocked the world and cemented Afghanistan's reputation as a place of barbarism inhabited by a people without respect for culture. A former cabinet minister in Kabul once told me he tried to reason with the moderates in the Taliban movement in 2000 but by then, Osama bin Laden's influence on Mullah Omar was so strong that any negotiations to save the Buddhas were useless.

For al Qa'eda's fighters, Afghanistan was, and is, cheap real estate to raise and train militants. Destroying the Buddhas was a taste of what they were capable of in their quest to establish a supposedly Islamic state.

For me, the Buddhas symbolised Afghanistan's identity in all its amazing complexity. Our intricate culture is not one of warring tribesmen harbouring ancient hatreds and practising medieval codes of honour. This is also the country of Behzad of Herat, famous for his school of miniature paintings, and of Kharwar, the sprawling Pompeii of Central Asia in the south. That the outside world does not know this is to be expected, but the greater tragedy is that Afghans are also forgetting who they are.

I have visited Bamiyan several times since 2001, often staying with some cool French kids who ran a small aid organisation. They listened to electronica music, hiked in the demined hills and taught their Afghan cook how to make creamy scrambled eggs and a divine salad dressing.

It was idyllic and indeed Bamiyan can be said to represent Afghanistan's struggle to find peace.

One summer I met Zemaryalai Tarzi, a French-trained Afghan archaeologist and one of the world's experts in pre-Islamic Afghanistan. Guided by the memoirs of a 7th century Chinese monk who travelled in Bamiyan, Mr Tarzi has been carrying out excavations at the foot of the destroyed statues convinced that a third Buddha, perhaps 300 metres long, was buried here in a reclining position, representing the last earthly moments of the Buddha's life before entering the state of nirvana.

"I want to tell people our grandfathers were not smugglers. They were artists. They had honour," he told me.

Bamiyan was a wealthy trading post in the ancient world, the "Manhattan of the Silk Road" as Mr Tarzi liked to call it. The great Afghan Buddhist king, Kanishka, who had grown wealthy from the trade, wanted to popularise the Buddhist religion by giving it a human form. Until then Buddha had been represented by footprints or a Bodhi tree. Kanishka invited artists from Rome who merged their skills with eastern philosophy and the human form of the Buddha was created in Bamiyan for the first time in the second century CE.

The statues were built between 544 and 644CE.

The residents of the valley, the Hazaras, have traditionally been at the bottom of Afghan society but have benefited from post-Taliban rule. They are equal before the law, vote in great numbers (particularly the women), send their girls to school and many stand for public office. The governor of the province is a woman. Not surprisingly, they refuse to give the insurgents refuge. They have already lost much - but still have much to lose.

Bamiyan, then, is an inspiring place. It is also a land of extraordinary, unearthly beauty. The entrance to the lush green valley is framed by steep black- and ruby-coloured mountains rich in iron-ore deposits. The light is like nowhere else, a thin, golden veil that saturates every surface.

The Buddha statues stood at the end of an avenue lined with poplar trees. The leaves flash silver and green when the wind blows and Afghans say during a full moon the pale outline of the Buddhas' figures are still visible. For hundreds of years, Buddhist faithful from all over the world came to pray and meditate in the hive of 600 cells and monasteries carved into the cliffs.

I once climbed up the cliffs to the top of the smaller Buddha. A warm earthy smell lingered in the passages connecting assembly halls with vaulted ceilings, cells, balconies. I tried to imagine yellow-robed monks praying and meditating. My guidebook described paintings that were a fusion of Indian, Iranian and Sassanian style.

But barely anything remains. They have been chipped or torn away. There was no Buddha wearing a maroon-coloured robe walking in fields of flowers, no white horses drawing the Sun God's chariot across a blue sky. The silken canopies, the fluttering robes and the flowering fields have disappeared in the black soot of the fires lit by cave squatters.

I reached the very top and walked across a platform held up by scaffolding above the Buddha's head and gazed across the valley. The light passed through the afternoon sky, glowing warm and flooding the fields and the mountains in gold, caramel and pink. Below, a column of boys walked home from school. Women in blue and red dresses bent over their wheat harvests in the green and gold fields.

"Bamiyan is a purified place and when we are in Bamiyan we should have pure hearts." Mr Tarzi's words echoed in my head. "It is a place of meditation. It is not for lying, crime or killing."

Hamida Ghafour is a former senior reporter for The National and author of The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family.