Bamian, a once renowned city of Afghanistan, situated about 80 m. N.W. of Kabul. Its remains lie in a valley of the Hazara country, on the chief road from Kabul towards Turkestan, and immediately at the northern foot of that prolongation of the Indian Caucasus now called Koh-i-Baba. The passes on the Kabul side are not less than 11,000 and 12,000 ft. in absolute height, and those immediately to the north but little inferior. The height of the valley was fixed at about 8500 ft., and the surrounding country carefully surveyed by Major Pelham J. Maitland and the Hon. M. G. Talbot, during the progress of the Russo-Afghan Boundary Commission in November 1885. The river draining the valley is one of the chief sources of the Sarkhab (Surkhab) or Aksarai, an important tributary of the Upper Oxus. The prominences of the cliffs which line the valley are crowned by the remains of numerous massive towers, whilst their precipitous faces are for 6 or 7 m. pierced by an infinity of ancient cave-dwellings, some of which are still occupied.
The actual site of the old city is marked by mounds and remains of walls, and on an isolated rock in the middle of the valley are considerable ruins of what appears to have been the acropolis, now known to the people as Ghulgulah. But the most famous remains at Bamian are two colossal standing idols, carved in the cliffs on the north side of the valley. They are 173 ft. and 120 ft. high respectively. These images, which have been much injured, apparently by cannon-shot, are cut in niches in the rock, and both images and niches have been coated with stucco. There is an inscription, not yet interpreted, over the greater idol, and on each side of its niche are staircases leading to a chamber near the head, which shows traces of elaborate ornamentation in azure and gilding. These chambers are used by the amir as store-houses for grain. The surface of the niches also has been painted with figures. In one of the branch valleys is a similar colossus, somewhat inferior in size to the second of these two; and there are indications of other niches and idols.
Chahilburj, 28 m. from Zari, on the road to Balkh by the Balkhab, at the east end of the Sokhtagi valley; Shahr-i-Babar, about 45 m. above Chahilburj; and Gawargin, 6 m. above Shahr-i-Babar, are all fortified sites of about the same age as the relics at Bamian. At Haibak there is a very perfect excavation called the Takht-i-Rustam (a general name for all incomprehensible constructions amongst the modern inhabitants of Afghan Turkestan), which consists of an annular ditch enclosing a platform, with a small house about 21 ft. square above it, all cut out of the solid rock. There are hundreds of caves in this neighbourhood, all pointing to a line of Buddhist occupation connecting Balkh with Kabul. As seen from the rock of Ghulgulah, Bamian, with its ruined towers, its colossi, its innumerable grottos, and with the singular red colour of its barren soil, presents an impressive aspect of desolation and mystery.
That the idols of Bamian, about which so many conjectures have been uttered, were Buddhist figures, is ascertained from the narrative of the Chinese pilgrim, Hsüan-Tsang, who saw them in their splendour in A.D. 630, and was verified by the officers above named, who discovered other Buddhist caves and excavations in the valleys of the Balkhab and Sarikol.
Still vaster than these was a recumbent figure, 2 m. east of Bamian, representing Sakya Buddha entering Nirvāna, i.e. in act of death. This was "about 1000 ft. in length." No traces of this are alluded to by modern travellers, but in all likelihood it was only formed of rubble plastered (as is the case still with such Nirvāna figures in Indo-China) and of no durability. For a city so notable Bamian has a very obscure history. It does not seem possible to identify it with any city in classical geography; Alexandria ad Caucasum it certainly was not. The first known mention of it seems to be that by Hsuan-Tsang, at a time when apparently it had already passed its meridian, and was the head of one of the small states into which the empire of the White Huns had broken up. At a later period Bamian was for half a century, ending A.D. 1214, the seat of a branch of the Ghori dynasty, ruling over Tokharistan, or the basin of the Upper Oxus. The place was long besieged, and finally annihilated (1222) by Jenghiz Khan, whose wrath was exasperated at the death of a favourite grandson by an arrow from its walls.
There appears to be no further record of Bamian as a city; but the character of ruins at Ghulgulah agrees with traditions on the spot in indicating that the city must have been rebuilt after the time of the Mongols and again perished. In 1840, during the British occupation of Kabul, Bamian was the scene of an action in which Colonel William H. Dennie with a small force routed Dost Mahommed Khan, accompanied by a number of Uzbeg chiefs.
See Hon. M. G. Talbot, "The Rock-cut Caves and Statues of Bamian," Journal R. Austral. Soc. vol. xviii. part 3; and J. A. Gray, At the Court of the Amir (1895).
(T. H. H.*)