In early 1997, I was a fledgling foreign correspondent living in Delhi, which journalists from all over the world then used as a base for visiting Afghanistan.
A few months earlier, like others in the region, I had dashed to Kabul after the Taliban seized the city and made headlines around the world with their almost comically cruel brand of Islam. The country was territorially divided, with the fundamentalists controlling the south, the south-east and the capital, and various warlords controlling the west and north.
The Taliban were determined to control the whole country. Their next target was the Bamiyan valley, in the western reaches of the Hindu Kush, which was home to Afghanistan’s most outstanding attraction: two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff face in the sixth century.
To the rest of the world, these – the oldest images of the Buddha anywhere – were little short of a wonder, and were recognised as such by Unesco. To the Taliban, they were idols that sullied the country. The Hazara people who lived in the valley were likewise under threat: as Shia Muslims, they were regarded as apostates by the Sunni Taliban. There was clearly a story to be told.
Reaching Bamiyan required flying north from Kabul on a small UN propeller plane to Mazar-i-Sharif, the seat of the opposition to the Taliban, and then driving back south for five or six hours. With my companions – Amir Shah, the fixer of all fixers in Kabul, and a Danish photographer called Nikolai – I spent a bone-rattling, somewhat hazardous but thrilling journey bundling across the northern plains and into the Hindu Kush in a Japanese saloon car.
As the road snaked down the mountainside and into the valley, which lies at an altitude of 8,100ft, the Buddhas came into view. Set into a high sandstone cliff behind the rather drab, wintry town of Bamiyan were these giant, serene sentries, unaware of the concern brewing about their future. It was unthinkable that any human would want to destroy such breathtaking, inanimate beauty.
We untangled ourselves from the car and were met by teenage boys with guns and loose turbans – members of the Hezb-e Wahdat militia, who, in time-honoured fashioned, whisked us away to meet their leader. His name was Karim Khalili, a kindly and reserved figure, with a warm smile beneath horn-rim spectacles. He is now one of the country’s vice-presidents.
The mighty Buddhas, Mr Khalili said, were a symbol of his country’s rich, diverse and ancient civilisation, and must be protected at all costs. The y had been constructed when Bamiyan was a major stop on the ancient silk route that linked China to Europe. The town marked the westernmost point of expansion of the Buddhist religion.
After our interview with Mr Khalili, we were granted time to visit the statues themselves. Some of the boy-guards came with us. The Buddhas didn’t impress them much. Perhaps like Athenians who live under the Acropolis, the wonder had worn off.
As a new arrival, I was awestruck. From a distance, it had been hard to tell how deep the recesses were that housed the giant figures and just how many tons of rock the labourers had had to gouge out. It had been hard to detect that the Buddhas had not lived alone for their 1,400 years in the world: the rock face was honeycombed with dozens of niches that hundreds of monks had used as homes, and which Hazara families still did.
At 176ft, the bigger of the two figures was about the height of a lighthouse . Its body was punctuated by rows of holes, where wooden rods had held in place an outer layer of mud and plaster stucco that had once been painted bronze, and, according to a seventh-century Chinese visitor, decorated with gold and jewels.
The figure had lost much of a leg and its face to time and weather, and to earlier Muslim marauders who did not approve of Buddhist icons and who had taken to it with rams and axes. The Taliban were not the first to regard the figures as blasphemous.
There was a doorway that led to a staircase. We climbed gingerly to a gallery behind the Buddha’s head. From there one could look out over a valley chequered with fields and mud farmhouses, a view that probably hadn’t changed in a millennium and a half, aside from the recent addition of a few tanks and jeeps. It was an immense blessing to visit something so magnificent in such tranquillity.
Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Bamiyan received several thousand tourists every year, mostly backpackers and tour groups from Buddhist Japan, but just three of us were left to roam around a sight whose majesty was on a par with the Giza pyramids or the Taj Mahal.
On our way down the stairs, we explored rooms and chambers that led off the staircase. A few retained traces of cave paintings then regarded as the oldest oil paintings in the world. But most had been hacked out of the walls by Russian and Afghan soldiers for sale on the black market.
We couldn’t hang around for long. Our hosts were keen for us to visit Hezb-e Wahdat troops on the front line, and we duly spent the night in a freezing mountaintop shelter hoping that the Taliban wouldn’t attack. They didn’t then, but 18 months later, in the autumn of 1998, the Taliban finally seized the Bamiyan valley.
Nikolai and I must have been among the very last foreigners to see the Buddhas intact , as the Taliban virtually closed the country to the media. After some debate within the Taliban’s leadership, in the summer of 2001, to cries of “Allah o Akbar” (God is Great), the statues were dynamited to bits in an act of such brainless iconoclasm that it still dismays today.
Alex Spillius is the Telegraph’s Diplomatic Correspondent