Afghanistan's Bamian cliffs are probably best known for once holding two enormous Buddha statues, as seen in this February 2001 image.Just one month after this photo was taken, Taliban officials began to destroy the mighty carvings as part of a hard-line crackdown on anything they considered anti-Islamic and idolatrous.In 2001 the Taliban destroyed two ancient colossal Buddha statues in the Afghan region of Bamiyan, around 140 miles northwest of Kabul, which were hewn out of sandstone cliffs in the sixth century and, measuring up to 55 metres, were the biggest of their kind.Although caves decorated with precious murals from 5th to 9th century A. also suffered from Taliban attacks on this World Heritage Site, they have since become the focus of a major discovery, revealing Buddhist oil paintings that predate those in Renaissance Europe by hundreds of years.Trudging halfway up a jagged goat trail, guide Mohammad Ibrahim extolled the panoramic view: a vast, ancient landscape of russet-hued cliffs that is on the frontline of Afghan efforts to jump-start warzone tourism.
The destruction of this heritagea crime against cultureshocked the world.
A dozen out of the 50 caves were painted with oil painting technique, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed oils, conclude Ms Yoko Taniguchi from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo, working with the Centre of Research and Restoration of the French Museums-CNRS, France, the Getty Conservation Institute.
"This is the earliest clear example of oil paintings in the world, although drying oils were already used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, but only as medicines and cosmetics", explains Ms Taniguchi, leader of the team."My European colleagues were shocked because they always believed oil paintings were invented in Europe.
Yet behind the two stone giants, a hidden treasure of a different kind was uncovered: around 50 caves with walls decorated with religious frescoes that must have been made between the 5th and 9th centuries AD.
Probably painted by monks or travelers passing through on the Silk road, they represent Buddhas, patterns and scenes related to Buddhist mythology.