I haven’t been following events in Pakistan all that closely, but I take it that the Taliban has been allowed to take over the Swat Valley as part of an agreement with the government of Pakistan. No one seems even to be pretending this is going to settle anything.
By all accounts the Swat Valley is a lovely place, popular with tourists. Centuries ago it was the site of a thriving Buddhist civilization. It was said that at its peak of Buddhist influence, the Swat Valley was filled with fourteen hundred stupas and monasteries. Until very recently, museums of Buddhist art and the ruins of temples were drawing many tourists from places further east, such as Japan. There’s no news I can find about what’s happening to the relics of Buddhism remaining in the Swat Valley, and I assume they are being destroyed.
I wrote an article on the history of Buddhism in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the other website that some of you might find interesting. In a nutshell, Buddhism reached Pakistan-Afghanistan — an area once called “Gandhara” — during the reign of the Emperor Ashoka (ca. 304â€“232 BCE) and thrived there for well over a thousand years, until some time after the 12th century CE.
Among several things I learned while I was researching the article is that the artists of Gandhara were the first to depict the Buddha in human form. Most of the conventions common in depictions of the historical Buddha to this day were invented in Gandhara and then spread to east Asia. Early Gandharan art was in the style of Greek and Roman art and is especially beautiful.
The other thing I learned is that Buddhism and Islam peacefully co-existed in the Middle East for several centuries. Islam reached Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 7th century, and some Buddhist monasteries were still operating as late as the 12th century, although for how much longer after that no one knows. For the most part the Muslim rulers of the area left the Buddhists and their art and monasteries respectfully alone. Buddhism was not forcibly driven out of the Middle East, but seems to have just withered away.
Beside the lost Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, there were no end of smaller stone Buddhas, cave paintings and other artifacts in the Middle East that survived mostly intact all these centuries — until the Taliban. The real concern is for the living people subjected to Taliban atrocities, of course, but I thought someone should say something about the art.