Bamiyan Once Attracted Buddhist Pilgrims

Fighting between Taliban and opposition forces has been intense in Afghanistan's central province of Bamiyan in recent years, and many residents have fled the area.

But there was a time when the mostly Shiite Muslim region was famous for its two towering Buddhist statues.

Its rich Buddhist history has drawn pilgrims from China and Korea for centuries. And, in 600 A.D. more than 1,000 Buddhist monks lived in 10 monasteries scattered throughout Bamiyan.

The province was first taken over by the Taliban religious army that now rules 95 percent of the country in 1997. Since then, the opposition has captured the area, only to lose it again to the Taliban. Like the Taliban, most of Afghanistan's 15 million people are Sunni Muslims.

The rugged terrain of Bamiyan dominated by the Hindu Kush mountain range is today home to about 500,000 people. A poor province, residents survive on agricultural production, mostly fruits and vegetables and some wheat.

Located 80 northwest of Kabul, the capital, Bamiyan's historical sites were originally excavated by the French between 1922 and the start of World War II. The most famous were the two towering Buddha statues, 170 feet and 120 feet.

But not far from Bamiyan was a 33-foot Buddha and a sanctuary exhibiting frescoes of a seated painted Buddha, surrounded by circles of smaller seated Buddhas.