The Taliban destroyed these ancient Buddhas. Now they're welcoming tourists to the site.

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan – The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in early 2001 shocked the world, highlighting their harsh regime, which was overthrown by a US-led invasion shortly afterwards.

Now responsible for Afghanistan again and striving to present a softer image, the militant group operates the site as a tourist attraction.

For around $ 5, curious visitors can wander around and snap photos of the giant holes in the cliff where the ancient Buddha statues once stood.

Under a white Taliban flag, soldiers occupy a stand and sell out tickets.

Sidiq Ullah, a supporter of the militant group, came this week with friends from Kandahar, about 350 miles southwest of Bamiyan, to see the historic site. Now that the Taliban are in control, he can tour the country.

“I was young when these were destroyed, around 7 years old, and it’s been a dream ever since to come and see what happened here,” he said.

“I’m glad it was destroyed. I’m here to see the ruins. “

The site of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Deputy Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images

Carved into a cliff, the two Buddha statues from the 6th

The area was a sacred site 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 came under strong international pressure to keep them alive. But the group labeled them un-Islamic and brought down the statues with heavy explosives.

Since the recapture of the country a few months ago, the Taliban have been trying to give the world a more moderate face in some areas despite brutal crackdowns. While the hardline Islamist group is mastering the country’s government’s economic and security challenges after years of insurrection, it is also under pressure from international organizations to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

“Bamiyan has always been a part of the outside world focused on Afghanistan,” said Llewelyn Morgan, author of The Buddhas of Bamiyan and professor of classics at Oxford University.

“The Taliban know this and are therefore still trying, in their somewhat clumsy way, to present themselves as a constructive government.”

A Buddha statue in Bamiyan in 1997 before the Taliban destroyed it. Jean Claude-Chapon / AFP via Getty Images

Caves on the rock face once housed Buddhist monasteries and shrines.

Now those around the Buddhas are empty, while other caves further away house families. Clothes flaps on clotheslines, children play in empty caves and some have even built in glass windows.

UNESCO or the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization declared the Bamiyan Valley a World Heritage Site in 2003.

It worked with the US-backed Afghan government to preserve the remains of the Buddha statues after the site was destroyed by the Taliban.

The organization had also supported a cultural center and museum in Bamiyan to “integrate local communities and identify the rich cultural background of Bamiyan,” according to it his website.

Under the leadership of the Taliban, their future was unclear. UNESCO did not respond to requests for comments.

In the days after the militant group came back to power in the summer, UNESCO released a statement calling for the preservation of such sites.

“Protecting and preserving these landmarks is critical to Afghanistan’s future,” said the agency.

Although there are still scaffolding in the niches where the Buddha statues once stood, the conservation work has now ended. Despite the Taliban’s declared willingness to welcome tourists, few visitors came when NBC News was on the scene.

Abdullah Sarhadi, the region’s governor, who spent nearly four years as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, said the Taliban has changed and that historical monuments will be preserved.

For now, he’s waiting to hear more from the upper echelons of the Taliban government before making changes to the website.

“We want to show the world that there is now peace and security in Afghanistan,” said Sarhadi.

Gabe Joselow reported from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and Rachel Elbaum reported from London.

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