In Search of Unknown Treasures

Bamiyan, Afghanistan
July 4, 2019

This entire valley has caves dug out of the mountain ridges, some excavated, many not. Many have housed families since ancient times and some still do. What a grand place to feed my penchant for poking around in old ruins.

I was in conversation with a local, droning on about the Kushan period in history. Usually it takes barely a couple of seconds for the eyes of my hapless audience to glaze over. I know then to change tacks, but I had quite the opposite reaction here. A mention of Kanishka had Reza’s eyes pop open. He looked at me quizzically and said

“You know there is a place near here which is believed to be Kanishka’s palace” he said. “Not many people here know about it or go to see it” he said, adding “do you want to see it?”

My saucer-like eyes, wide-open mouth and vigorous nods must have conveyed my enthusiasm and we set off. Walking up the dirt track, we pass the houses of the present-day villagers. The caves are now used for storage and stables for livestock. Further up is a section of the ridge with chambers dug out. These are not a series of caves with arched roofs but large open chambers almost like pavilions and balconies. Far grander than the usual caves, this could very well have been the palace of a king. Reza tells me that a renowned archeologist conjectured that it had belonged to Kanishka, the Kushan Emperor.

We go closer to find a volleyball game in session in the ground below. A group of young boys run out. They stare at first and then ask for pens. I am carrying only one and devise the fairest way to hand it over. I ask which grade they are in and then scratch out a math problem on the ground. The winner will get the pen. They are not too happy about it, but after much counting and muttered calculations come up with wrong answers. A little prompting and one of them finally gets the answer and wins the pen.

We have bonded, and I have a gaggle of guides, all intent on helping. Yes, there are paintings in the chambers they tell me. A lot of the façade has crumbled but this is the playground of these children. Like mountain goats they clamber up the piles of rubble to show us the way. Reza tries to dissuade me but gives up as we both clamber up behind the boys.

The walls are shorn bare but carved patterns on the ceilings remain. The concentric squares and circles are indeed the familiar patterns of mandalas. Remnants of paint along the edges tantalize, their color astonishingly bright even after the passage of almost two millennia. One of the ceilings is blackened from soot from years of cooking fires. There is a balcony with a pillar carved out of rock as well.

What happened here I wondered. Was this the work of the Taliban as well? A man who had come to investigate our presence said the paintings were already gone when he was a child. In his parents’ time, locals had hacked them off the walls to sell to wealthy collectors abroad.

Terribly sad and depressing it might be, but it is inevitable. The lack of funds, lack of personnel, recent wars, general illiteracy and desperate poverty all combine to make it an impossible mission to save sites such as this. Reza tells me that part of the ridge has collapsed, blocking entry to yet more caves. Who knows? Maybe some of this rich heritage is saved yet.

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