Now, artist Hiro Yamagata plans to commemorate the towering Buddhas by projecting multicolored laser images onto the clay cliffsides where the figures once stood.
"I'm doing a fine art piece. That's my purpose — not for human rights, or for supporting religion or a political statement," said the 58-year-old artist, whose other laser works include a permanent display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Against a canvas of desert darkness, 14 laser systems will project 140 overlapping faceless "statues" sweeping four miles across Bamiyan's cliffs in neon shades of green, pink, orange, white and blue. Each image will continuously change color and pattern.
Powered by solar panels and windmills, the 125- to 175-foot-high squiggle-style, Day-Glo images — the same size as the original Buddhas — would be in stark contrast to the austere, rural valley below, a land wracked by poverty and violence; a land that has little electricity of its own.
In March 2001, Taliban militants disregarded worldwide protests and used dynamite and artillery to blow up the original fifth-century statues, famed for their size and location along the ancient Silk Road linking Europe and Central Asia. The fundamentalist group considered the Buddhas idolatrous and anti-Muslim.
"The destruction of the twin towers and the two Buddhas have been linked as a moment in time," said Robert Brown, 60, an art historian from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a curator of Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Yamagata's lasers obviously have a commemorative notion to them, like the 9/11 memorial in New York."
Afghan government officials first approached Yamagata in 2003 about the project and gave him conditional approval last year, pending a green light from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO has been a prominent presence in Bamiyan, evaluating ways to preserve mural paintings in caves surrounding the Buddhas.
"They are the ones who will make a decision and will advise us," Gulam Sakhi Yousafzai, former acting deputy minister in charge of arts and culture in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They are the experts. We are waiting for their response."