BAMIYAN, Afghanistan – The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in early 2001 shocked the world and highlighted their harsh line regime, soon overthrown in a US-led invasion.
Now back with responsibility for Afghanistan and eager to present a softer image, the militant group runs the place as a tourist attraction.
For about $ 5, curious visitors can wander around and take pictures of the giant holes in the rock wall where the ancient Buddha statues once stood.
Under a white Taliban flag, soldiers mann a stand and print admission tickets.
Sidiq Ullah, a supporter of the militant group, came to see the historic site this week with friends from Kandahar, about 550 miles southwest of Bamiyan. Now that the Taliban are in control, he said, he feels free to tour the country.
“I was young when these were destroyed, about 7 years old, and since then it has been a dream to come and see what happened here,” he said.
“I’m glad it was destroyed. I’m here to see the ruins actually.”
The two 6th-century Buddha statues – one 180 feet high and the other 124 feet high – towered over the valley, carved into the front of a cliff.
The area was a sacred place for Buddhists on the ancient trade route between China and Europe known as the Silk Road.
When the Taliban announced their plan to destroy the statues in 2001, they had come under heavy international pressure to keep them standing. But by marking them un-Islamic, the group brought the statues down using heavy explosives.
Since taking over the country again a few months ago, the Taliban have been trying to present a more moderate face to the world despite a brutal crackdown in some areas. While the hardline Islamic group is navigating the economic and security challenges of governing the country after years of insurgency, it is also under pressure from international organizations to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
“Bamiyan has always been a part of Afghanistan that the outside world has focused on,” said Llewelyn Morgan, author of “The Buddhas of Bamiyan” and professor of classics at the University of Oxford.
“The Taliban know that, and that’s why, in their somewhat incompetent way, they’re still trying to paint themselves as a constructive government.”
Caves on the cliff face were once home to Buddhist monasteries and shrines.
Now those around the Buddhas are empty, while other caves further away are home to families. Cloth flaps on clotheslines, children playing in empty caves and some even have glass windows installed.
UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declared the Bamiyan Valley a World Heritage Site in 2003.
It worked with the US-backed Afghan government to preserve what was left of the Buddha statues after the Taliban’s destruction of the site.
The organization had also supported a cultural center and museum in Bamiyan to “integrate communities as well as to identify Bamiyan’s rich cultural background,” according to its website.
With the Taliban at the helm, its future was unclear. UNESCO did not respond to requests for comment.
In the days after the militant group swept back to power this summer, UNESCO issued a declaration calling for the preservation of similar sites.
“It is crucial for the future of Afghanistan to protect and preserve these landmarks,” the agency said.
Although there are still scaffolding in the niches where the Buddha statues once stood, the conservation work has now been completed. Only a few visitors arrived when NBC News was on site, despite the Taliban’s stated willingness to welcome tourists.
Abdullah Sarhadi, the area’s governor, who spent nearly four years as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, said the Taliban have changed and that they want to preserve historical monuments.
For now, he is waiting to hear more from the top levels of the Taliban government before making changes to the website.
“We want to show the world that there is peace and security in Afghanistan now,” Sarhadi said.
Gabe Joselow reported from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and Rachel Elbaum reported from London.