The northward advance of the Taliban, the Sunni fundamentalist fighters who took Kabul last September, was halted by the arrival of winter some 50 miles east of here, just beyond the Shibar Pass. But with the melting of the snows, they are preparing to renew their assault on the present- day occupants of Bamian, Shia Muslim Hazaras who claim to be the descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongols.
Mullah Abdul Wahid, the Taliban commander, has vowed to "convert" the Shias and to mark the occasion with a "big explosion" that would destroy the two statues. Although defaced by the first wave of invading Muslims in the 7th century, about 300 years after it was carved, the bigger of the two Buddhas is substantially intact. At 180ft, it is thought to be the largest standing Buddha in the world. India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and Sri Lanka, where most of the population is Buddhist, have both expressed horror at the threat to the monuments.
Bamian was once a caravanserai on the ancient silk road between Rome and China. The 2nd century King Kanishka welcomed Buddhist missionaries from India, and the religious complex that sprang up was a wonder of the ancient world. By 632, according to Hsuan-tsang, a Chinese pilgrim, the valley was filled with the chanting of over 1,000 monks; they lived in 10 monasteries grouped around the two fabulously painted Buddhas. "The golden hues sparkle on every side," wrote Hsuang-tsang of the larger statue. "Its precious ornaments dazzle the eye by their brightness."
Nearly all the red, blue and gold paintwork of the statues has crumbled away, but the sandstone cliffs in which they are carved are honeycombed with thousands of caves which served as monastic cells. Many of these are still covered with Sasanian art forms from Iran and the sumptuous ornamentation of India's Gupta dynasty.
The first European to set eyes on the Buddhas was William Moorcroft, a veterinary surgeon for the East India Company who passed this way in 1824 and wrote his name in charcoal in one of the caves. Like every traveller after him he climbed the spiral staircase to sit on the head of the large Buddha, from where he gazed across the small town of Bamian, and beyond to the immense snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush.
To the east you can see the remains of Jalaluddin royal citadel, sacked by Genghis Khan in 1221. Exasperated by the death of a favourite grandson by an arrow from the walls of a nearby fort, he vowed to kill every man, woman and child, bird and animal in the valley. The citadel is still known as Shahr-i-Gholghola, or City of Noise.
Quite why the Taliban should want to destroy what even Genghis Khan spared is a mystery to Hodem Hussein Notaki Shasoyi, cultural attache for the Shia movement, Hizbe Wahadat. "The Koran demands respect for other religions. How can the Taliban claim to be good Muslims?" he demands.
Mr Shasoyi is well aware of the Buddhas' value to the town. Before the Russian invasion in 1979, Bamian welcomed as many as 6,000 tourists a year, but none have come since. Many of the exquisite cave paintings meanwhile have been defaced by the graffiti of Afghan and Russian soldiers, or gouged out for sale on the black market.
The fight to preserve the Buddhas of Bamian is led by Nancy Hatch Dupree, an American author of numerous works on Afghanistan, who has spent a lifetime documenting its history. Last year she persuaded the Taliban to warn that anyone found in possession of looted cultural artefacts would be punished according to Sharia law. But in Afghanistan, as she ruefully acknowledges, such promises do not amount to much.
Four-fifths of the contents of the museum at Kabul, once one of the richest in the world, have already been looted. Destruction of the Buddhas, however, would be infinitely worse than anything that has gone before.
The zealots from the south have vowed to stamp out Iranian influence among the Shias: apparently in the name of Shia solidarity, Iran has recently established a consulate, a university and a hospital at Bamian, and even plans to extend the airstrip into an "international airport". But although the Shibar Pass is the most weakly defended of the three fronts in this desperate civil war, and promised reinforcements have yet to arrive, Hizbe Wahadat seems curiously unworried, putting its faith in the im- pregnability of the narrow gorges along which the Taliban must pass.
The Shibar Pass, though, is lower and wider than others to the east, where the Shias' allies find it easier to resist. And the Taliban might take Bamian without a fight - in more than 15 years of fighting in Afghanistan, positions have fallen as often by bribery as by force of arms. At the key town of Taleh Barfak, on the poorly defended road to Bamian from the north, I met a small-time local commander who was unequivocally pro-Taliban. "They are Muslims like us," he said. "I don't have any problem with them."Reuse content