BAMIYAN -- Two decades after the Taliban blasted Afghanistan's famed Buddhas of Bamiyan out of the alcoves in the rugged central highlands where they had stood for centuries, one of them made a brief virtual return.
A three-dimensional projection on Tuesday night (March 9) filled the now empty alcove in a Bamiyan valley cliff where the approximately 55-metre-high Salsal statue, the larger of the two, once towered over the landscape.
The projection, culminating a day of remembrance marking the 20th anniversary of the Taliban's destruction of Afghanistan's irreplaceable cultural heritage, enabled visitors to catch a brief glimpse of the way things used to be.
The Taliban demolished the statues in March 2001 on the orders of then-leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Carved into a cliff in the 4th and 5th centuries, the two were once the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.
"We do not want people to forget what a horrific crime was committed here," said Zahra Hussaini, one of the organisers of the "A night with Buddha" event.
Hundreds took part in a lantern-lit procession to the site, gathering at the base of the cliff where the statues once stood, alongside a network of ancient caves, monasteries and shrines.
When darkness fell, a projection filled the alcove that once housed the Salsal statue, one of a pair that was considered one of the great wonders of antiquity.
"These moments also remind you of what a great treasure we lost," said Gulsoom Zahra, a 23-year-old Bamiyan resident who attended the ceremony.
A centuries-old presence erased
Afghanistan's giant Buddhas stood watch over the Bamiyan valley for centuries, surviving Mongol invasions and the harsh environment until the Taliban arrived.
The Taliban drew international rage when they blew up the statues during their brief, iron-handed rule, as they went on a rampage against Afghanistan's rich pre-Islamic cultural heritage.
With its snowy backdrop and clear blue skies, Bamiyan has been a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs keen to explore the country's archaeological heritage.
The 20th anniversary event also invoked concerns about the Taliban’s lack of commitment to the peace agreement.
"We also want to express our concern about the future, and what will happen to our historical heritage," Hussaini said of the decision to hold the event.
There are concerns that history will repeat itself and that "the remaining artefacts will once again be left to the mercy of extremist groups", she said.