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History & Culture
From Prehistory to the Medes
Achaemenid Rule
Alexander the Great
Seleucid-Mauryan Rule
Graeco-Bactrian Kings
Parthian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Yuezhi Rule
Kushan Empire
Sassanian, Kushano-Sassanian, Hephthalite, Hindu Shahi Rule
Islamic Period
Rediscovering the Past
Afghanistan Cultural Property Law
The Impact of War on Afghan Cultural Heritage


With its Central Asia position, Afghanistan has always been subject to the upheavels and turmoils of its neighbors. This was never more true than during the second quarter of the 3rd century AD.

Thousands of miles to the West, the economically strained and overstretched Roman Empire was crumbling and near collapse in a phase that historians describe as the Crisis of the Third Century   (235–284). Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the East, the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) sent China into a period of turmoil and near-continuous warfare known as the Six Dynasties period.

These events, plus the sudden overthrow of the Parthian Empire in 224 AD by Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid (or Sassanian) Empire soon put the profitable Silk Road trade on which the Kushans depended at grave risk.

Under Ardashir (ruled: 226-241 AD), who considered himself the natural successor to the Achaemenid Dynasty, the Sassanians swept across Bactria (230-240 AD), destroyed the Kushan's summer capital and Silk Road trading complex at present-day Begram (241 AD) and pursued the Kushan kings all the way to India.

By the end of the reign of Ardashir's son Shapur I (240-270 AD), the Sassanian empire stretched from the Euphrates River in the West to the Indus River in the East, and the once-mighty Kushan Empire had devolved into a patchwork of petty kingships under Sassanian control, which persisted during the long reign of Shapur II (310–79 AD). In the east, this regime was known by various names: Indo-Sassanian, Kushano-Sassanian or Kushanshas.

During the mid-fifth century, mass southward migration of a Turkic tribe from Central Asia known as the Hephthalites (also called Huna or White Huns) invaded Sassanian lands and created a new kingdom (or khanate) that centered on Afghanistan.

After a disastrous campaign against the Hepthalites during the late fifth century, the Sassanians did not recover Afghanistan until Khosrow I (531–79) allied with the Central Asian Göktürks to defeat the Hephthalites.

During this tumultuous period, any semblance of stable rule in Afghanistan depended on strong local kings at places such as Bamiyan and the region around the Kabul Valley where a final brilliant flowering of cultural pluralism mixing various Greek-inspired Buddhist styles reached great heights at a series of Kushano-Sassanian sites and monuments such as the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Buddhist monastery at Fondukistan and magnificent Buddhist stupas at Tepe Maranjan (Kabul), Shewaki, Guldura and other sites.

In the years following the death of Khosrow I, internal revolts and wars with the Byzantine Empire weakened the Sassanians in Persia, which created an opening for Arab forces, newly united by Islam, to sweep north from 633 to 640, conquer Persian Mesopotamia and defeat the Sassanian army at the Battle of Nihawand in 642.

The end of the Sassanian regime during the mid-seventh century set the stage for the introduction of Islam to Afghanistan in the decades and centuries to come.


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Sassanian and Kushano-Sassanian (Kushansha) Rule

The Kushanshas (also known as the Kushano-Sassanids, Indo-Sassanids, or Indo-Sassanians) were a branch of the Sassanid Persian Empire who filled the power vacuum during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD left by the declining Kushan Empire.

The Kushanshas established their rule over a broad swath of territory corresponding to the old Gandhara region (NW India in the east to the Kabul Valley in the west). Displaced by Hephthalite invaders around 410, the Kushanshahs re-established their authority after the Sassanians destroyed the Hephthalites in 565 AD. But their rule finally collapsed under Arab attacks during the mid 600s.

Kushano-Sassanids culture embraced Buddhism as well as the secular arts, as evidenced in traded goods such as silverware and textiles that show Sassanid emperors hunting or administering justice. The example of Sassanid art remained influential for several centuries in Afghanistan and northwest India.

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The Bamiyan Valley, situated about 250 kilometers northwest of Kabul between the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush and Koh-i Baba linking Kabul with the Silk Road at Balkh, is one of the most important sites in all of Afghanistan. Between the 4th and the early 7th centuries AD, an unknown combination of engineers, artisans and Buddhist pilgrims built in this remote location the civilizational link between Afghanistan and India.

Buddhism — introduced to the region by Ashoka the Great (3rd century BC), embraced by the Indo-Greek kings (2nd century BC), tolerated by the Scythians and the Yuezhi tribes (2nd-1st century BC) and embraced by the Kushans (1st - 3rd century AD) — attracted so many adherents that vast numbers of Buddhist monks chose to gather at pilgrimage centers, often near Silk Road trading posts, from the western border of India to the doorstep with China.

By the 3rd century, the city of Bamiyan had become the location of a great monastery, administrative center, Silk Road caravan stop and pilgrimage center, where thousands of Buddhist monks settled in richly decorated rock caves that honey-combed the great cliff on the north side of the Bamiyan Valley. Other nearby valleys at Kakrak (southeast of Bamiyan) and Foladi (to the southwest) also became successful monastic centers.

Their remote location allowed Bamiyan, Kakrak and Foladi to prosper for long after the demise of the Kushans‚ to co-exist alongside the Sassanian and survive for more than a centuryl after the arrival of Islam to Afghanistan during the 8th and 9th centuries. We know this from the writings of the Korean monk, Hui Chao, who passed through the Hindu Kush around 827 AD and paused at Bamiyan. Even at this late date, Hui Chao tells us, the king of Bamiyan was a Buddhist, exercising considerable power and autonomy in the shadow of the two colossal Buddhas that made this place famous for the next eleven centuries.


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The largest figures of their kind in the world — 55 meters and 38 meters high — the giant Buddhas were carved by hand from the sheer rock face on the north side of the valley between the 4th and 6th centuries (more precise dates remain a topic of lively debate among scholars).

Though built at different times (smaller Buddha was carved first), both Buddhas were constructed in essentially the same manner. The high-relief sculptures were carved out of the relatively soft rock cliff-side.

The niches were carved out first. Sculptors then blocked out and finished the figures using scaffolds that were slotted into holes cut into the cliff-face (later replaced by wooden ladders). The drapery was created by applying and molding or roughly carving a mud-like mixture on the surface of the rock. The mud was then allowed to dry and covered with lime plaster and, finally, paint with molten metal (probably bronze) enrichments.

Suspending ropes covered with mud plaster formed the ridges of the folded drapery. The naturalistic clinging appearance of the garment suggests ties to both late Hellenistic and Gupta sculpture.For the next 1500 years, the colossal Buddhas and the rock-cut sanctuaries at Bamiyan epitomized the glory, splendor, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan during its golden age – a civilization in harmony with its neighbors.

The Chinese pilgrim and chronicler Fa-shien, who passed through Bamiyan circa 400 AD, on his way from China to India, recorded seeing more than 1,000 pilgrims in attendance. Another Chinese traveller, Hsüan-Tsang, who visited Bamiyan around 630 AD, described an even larger Buddhist center with many hundreds of monks living in the caves dotted around the two Buddha statues.

The Buddhas' Hellenistic-style togas were brightly painted and enriched with some type of metal, perhaps bronze, and "fine jewels" — perhaps quartz. Hsüan-Tsang doesn't describe the faces of the Buddhas, leading some scholars to suggest that both Buddhas wore masks, while others suggest that the faces were carved in wood and finished with plaster and paint. Peg holes around the colossal heads indicate that some wooden framework had been placed around the front of the heads.

Finally, Hsüan-Tsang does add one intriguing detail: the existence of a third, much larger, "reclining" Buddha that archaeologists believe is buried under the fields that now occupy the Bamiyan Valley floor, some distance to the east of the smaller standing Buddha.

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History of attacks on the Buddhas: 12th through the 20th century. When Mahmud of Ghazni conquered Afghanistan, Pakistan and part of west India during the twelfth century, many Buddhist monasteries and other artifacts were looted or destroyed, yet the Buddhas and there surroundings were largely spared.

The same occurred during the early 13th century, when Genghis Kahn's Mongol army laid waste to Balkh, Herat and a number of Afghan cities and towns but left Bamiyan relatively untouched.

The first intentional damage to the Buddhas did not occur until the early 1930s, when Afhgan king Nadir Shah ordered cannon fire be directed at the statues during his "Pastunization" campaign.

Nothing, of course, could prepare Afghanistan (or the world) for the destructive drive of the Taliban. In July 1999, Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favor of the preservation of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Because Afghanistan's Buddhist population no longer existed, which removed the possibility of the statues being worshipped, he added: "The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors. The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected."

Afghanistan's radical clerics began a campaign to crack down on "un-Islamic" segments of Afghan society. The Taliban soon banned all forms of imagery, music and sports, including television, in accordance with what they considered a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

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Information and Culture Minister Qadratullah Jamal told Associated Press of a decision by 400 religious clerics from across Afghanistan declaring the Buddhist statues were against the tenets of Islam. "The statues were against Islam," said Jamal. Quickly, a meeting of ambassadors from the 54 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was conducted. All OIC states - including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, three countries that officially recognised the Taliban government - joined the protest to spare the monuments. A statement issued by the ministry of religious affairs of the Taliban regime justified the destruction as being in accordance with Islamic law. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates later condemned the destruction as "savage".

The statues were destroyed by dynamite over the course of more than two weeks in early March, 2001, and was carried out in different stages. Reportedly, the giant statues were fired at for several days using anti-aircraft guns and artillery, which damaged but did not obliterate the Buddhas. Next, the Taliban placed anti-tank mines at the bottom of the niches, so that when chunks of rock broke off from artillery fire, the statues would fall and be blown up again. Ultimately, the Taliban tied ropes around some local Hazara men, lowered them down the cliff face, and forced them to place explosives into holes in the Buddhas.

On March 6, 2001, The Times of London quoted Mullah Mohammed Omar as stating, "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them." He had clearly changed his position from being in favor of the statues to being against them.

By March 10-11, global news media reported the destruction of the Buddhas with photos and video taken by al Jazeera reporter Taysir Alony (in September 2005, Alony was convicted by a Spanish court and sentenced to a prison sentence of seven years on charges of being a courier for al Qaeda).

During a March 13 interview for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun, Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel stated that the destruction was not in retaliation against the international community for economic sanctions: "We are destroying the Buddha statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue". But this statement was contradicted years later. In an interview to a Pakistani journalist Mohammad Shehzad on April 19, 2004, Mullah Mohammad Omar was quoted, "I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings — the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas' destruction."

Should the Buddhas be rebuilt? Though the figures are almost completely destroyed, their outlines and some features are still recognizable within the recesses. It is also still possible for visitors to explore the monks' caves and the passages which connect them. As part of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan after the Taliban war, the Government of Japan and several other organizations, among them the Afghanistan Institute in Bubendorf, Switzerland, along with the ETH in Zurich, have committed themselves to creating computer models as a prelude to rebuilding the two Buddhas.

In a fitting postscript to this story, Mawlawi Mohammed Islam Mohammadi, the Taliban governor of Bamiyan province at the time of the Buddhas' destruction, was elected to the Afghan Parliament in September 2005. Sixteen months later, on January 26, 2007, Mawlawi was gunned down in Kabul on the way to prayers. Mullah Mohammad Omar remains at large, probably in the NWFP region of Pakistan.


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In the remote Ghorband Valley, Parwan Province, some 117 kilometers northeast of Kabul, archaeologists in 1936-37 discovered one of the most significant monuments in the history of Buddhist art, the early seventh century monastery of Fondukistan.

Miraculously untouched after more than a thousand years of abandonment, the site yielded a number of truly magnificent examples of painting and sculpture. A blending of Indian style and some of the pictorial characteristics of the stuccos made at Hadda, centuries earlier, Fondukistan represents an entirely different mood — comprising the final and most delicate flowering of Buddhist art in all of Central Asia.

The exaggerated gracefulness and langour of the Fondukistan figures — hauntingly sensuous and personal at first glance, other-worldly and untouchable after a moment's contemplation — are perhaps the purest expression of the device ever achieved in Buddhist art.

The monastery was found at the top of a steep hill which dominates the valley. Only a small part of the complex has been excavated thus far, comprising a temple and an adjoining building connected by a vaulted passage. The latter structure, built of adobe, houses a number of pilgrims' cells, congregation halls and other chambers for the Buddhist community at that time.

No detailed description or documentation of the site has ever been published. Even the most basic data about the installations, such as the size of the structures and the ground plan of the squarish temple ground, are still unavailable. It appears to have been an open courtyard with a large stupa in the center. In the walls of the temple there are twelve deep niches, three on each side, covered by elliptical vaults with arches supported by pilasters with corinthian-style capitals, carved-scroll ornamentation; the walls and vaults inside the niches were decorated with magnificent frescoes.

In niche E there is an image of Maitreya Buddha (illustrated in color, center left, in the group of photos to the right) seated cross-legged on a throne, his head is inclined over his right shoulder; in his right hand he is holding up a blue lotus flower and in his lowered left hand a Brahman water flask.

Many sculpted figures, Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, devata, princes, princesses, and local chieftains, each more impressive than the last, was epitomized by a carved and painted stucco seated Boddhisattva, richly bejeweled, wearing a diadem, earrings, bracelets — a masterpiece by any definition.

As Benjamin Rowland remarked, “These little shrines, densely packed with sculptured figures set off by gaily painted backgrounds, must have given the effect of a kind of religious peep-show, in which, as on a stage, the visitor obtained a glimpse of celestial realms” (Rowland and Rice, Ancient Art of Afghanistan, p. 45). Both the sculptures and frescoes of Fondukistan exude a sense of elegance, sweetness and warmth in the subtle curvatures of the body and flower-like gestures of the hands, as if capturing for eternity the complex movements of a dance. The genesis of this art — a synthesis of the art of Gandhāra, Gupta India, Sassanian Persia and Central Asia, particularly of western and eastern Turkestan — underscore the many influences that shaped Afghanistan craftsmen at the crossroads of Asian culture.


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The Kidarites

The end of Kushano-Sassanian rule left a power vacuum at the end of the fourth century AD that was soon filled by the first tribe of Huns to arrive on the scene. They hailed from western Central Asia or the Black Sea region, and they were known as the Kidarites.

The Kidarites probably arrived in Bactria as part of the great migration that occurred during the second half of the 4th century AD, a period during which many Central Asian nomads settled in Afghanistan.

The Kidarites rose to power during the 420s in Northern Afghanistan before heading east to conquer Peshawar (present-day Pakistan), then heading north to conquer a portion of NW India and (farther north) Sogdiana during the 440s.

Many small Kidarite kingdoms seem to have sprung up during this time, known almost exclusively through coinage. Some of these coins include a legend that asserts the Kidarites as the inheritors of the Kushan Empire, which had disappeared as an independent entity about two centuries earlier. Was this true, or merely a boast?

At its greatest extent, the Kidarites' 100-year reign stretched from the Oxus River to the Aral Sea, with their power base located in Transoxiana, in a region that ancient sources termed "Southern 'Red' Hunuk" [location uncertain], and during the fifth century shifted to the Western "White" Kiva [location uncertain]. This is the region where the Kidarites linked with a new aggressive nomadic tribe during the 450s, the Hephthalites.


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The Hephthalites ("White Huns" or Chionites)

The Hephthalites [called Ephthalites by the Greeks, Hunas by the Indians and also "White Huns" and Chionites] were a Central Asian nomadic confederation whose precise origins and composition remain obscure.

They had no cities or system of writing, lived in felt tents and practiced cranial deformation (as a means of proclaiming social rank or status) as well as polyandry (a form of polygamy in which one woman is married to two or more husbands simultaneously).

Descending southward from Central Asia, the Hephthalites conquered Sogdia circa 425 and invaded the Sassanian Empire. At the ancient desert oasis city and military center at Gyaur Kala (near the older Seleucid-era fortress at Merv), the Hephthalite invasion reportedly wiped out the cream of the Sassanian military and political elite. In time, the Hephthalites succeeded in making the Persians pay tribute (circa 483-485) until, a generation later, a series of wars (circa 503-513) repelled the Hephthalites, which led to their defeat in Persia another generation later (in 557) by the Sassanian ruler Khosru I.

Even though Hephthalites (White Huns) ruled over large parts of Afghanistan for almost two hundred years after their arrival around 400 AD, they made little impression on the Afghan landscape aside from the foundations, turrets and 20-foot-high, 12-foot-thick walls of the Bala Hissar at Kabul (5th century AD) and tumuli (burial mounds or tombs made of stones and earth) outside Qunduz on the plateau of Shakh Tapa (identified as Hephthalite by exploratory excavations conducted by French archaeologist Marc Le Berre in 1963); someday this site may reveal a fuller picture of the Hephthalites in Afghanistan.

While ancient sources describe the Hephthalites' destruction of Buddhist sites, little damage seems to have occurred at Bamiyan, where the two colossal Buddhas were in all likelihood built during the closing years of the Hephthalite regime.

Recently discovered Hephthalite- and Kushansha-period manuscripts found in Afghanistan during the 1980s up to circa 1990 (now in the collection of Dr David Khalili, London) indicate that the Hephthalites employed the Bactrian language written in Greek script (the traditional language of administration employed in this region since the Kushan period). The newly discovered documents reference several Turkic royal titles (such as Khaqan), suggesting that Central Asian Turks probably held positions of authority under the Hephthalites. Read an analysis and see more examples of the Hephthalite documents here.

Other than these documents and the coins they left behind, all that can be said about the Hephthalites with certainty is the date of their demise — 531 AD — at the hands of a coalition of Western Turks and Sassanians.

With no central power strong enough to unite the region, anarchy prevailed, with nearly every valley flying the banner of a particular Turk, Kushano-Sassanian, Buddhist Turk-Shahi or later Hindu-Shahi prince — affiliations and designations we know little about for lack of a proper archaeological record.

Priceless accounts from this tumultuous post-Hephthalite period were recorded by the Chinese pilgrim Hsuen-tsang, who travelled the region from 630 to 644. Hsuen-tsang's visit to Kabul during the winter of 644 seems familiar: "The climate is icy cold; the men are naturally fierce and impetuous. The king is a Turk. They have profound faith for (Buddhism); he esteems learning and honors virtue."

These accounts underscore that fact that Buddhist worship persisted in Bamiyan, Kabul, Jalalabad and Gandhara well into the 7th century, and probably continued after the advent of Islam and the first Arab invasions during the 8th and 9th centuries.


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The Shahi dynasties ruled portions of the Kabul Valley (in eastern Afghanistan) and the old province of Gandhara (NE Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and NW India), known as Kabul-shahan, with twin capitals at Kapisa and Kabu, from the aftermath of the Kushan Empire in the 3rd century AD to the early 9th century.

The term Shahi was a popular royal title in Afghanistan — used at various times by Achaemenids, Bactrians, Sakas, Kushan rulers and Huns (Hephthalites), as well as by the 6th- to 8th-century Shahi rulers of Kapisa/Kabul.

Historians divide the Shahi Period of Kabul/Gandhara into two eras: the so-called Buddhist Turk-Shahis (before 870 AD), and the so-called Hindu-Shahis (after 870 AD).

Despite numerous references to the Shahis as decendents of the Kushans or Western Turks, the Shahi rulers of Kabul/Kapisa almost certainly descended from the warrior caste known as Ashvakas (the word from which, several scholars contend, the term "Afghan" is derived) who for many centuries dwelt in the region known as Kambojas on the northern and southern sides of the Hindu Kush range.


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