The pair of majestic Buddha cliff-carvings are still disfigured, vandalized three years ago by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. But little by little, what remains of the ancient treasures is being restored, with iron rods shoring up their niches and concrete being pumped into cracks across the crumbling stone.
Below, in the lush but impoverished valley that stretches along the cliffs, a political, economic and cultural revival is unfolding among the ethnic Hazara populace that was overrun and driven into the frozen mountains by Taliban forces during the late 1990s.
"This was a ruined place, but now everything is being rebuilt," said Azizullah, 31, a policeman who fled the fighting in 1999. He returned two years ago and has constructed a solid mud house by a stream that rushes past the Buddhas, irrigates acres of golden wheat and quenches flocks of goats festooned with bright ribbons.
"The militias have put down their guns and gone home to their fields," he said. "We have the best security in Afghanistan, and we welcome everyone who wants to visit and help. Our people want only unity and peace, and they ask only for their rightful share in national life."
The ravages of the Taliban are only one chapter in the long, bleak history of discrimination, abuse and slaughter that has afflicted the Hazara ethnic group. Shiite Muslims with distinctive Asiatic features, Hazaras are estimated to account for about 20 percent of Afghanistan's population.
A century ago, a rapacious ethnic Pashtun ruler, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, drove the Hazaras from their homeland, a vast and remote region in Afghanistan's central highlands known as Hazarajat. Several Hazara uprisings were crushed without mercy: Men were tortured and killed, religious leaders were imprisoned and women were carried off as slaves and concubines.
According to a recent history of the Hazaras, Rahman Khan's soldiers were encouraged to devise fiendish punishments. They used horses to draw and quarter Hazara victims, threw them to packs of wild dogs, put red-hot stones inside their clothes and severed their heads and hung them on poles as a warning to other would-be rebels.
For most of the 20th century, the Hazaras languished in poverty and humiliation. In the rural highlands, they were scattered and isolated among inaccessible hills; in urban centers, they were confined to menial servitude and insulted as donkeys.
"The Hazaras were always economically weak and politically excluded," said Qasim Aghar, 53, a Hazara intellectual and educator in Kabul, the Afghan capital, 80 miles west of Bamian. "We were separated by religion and geography. No one ever even tried to build a road to Hazarajat."
During the civil war of the early 1990s, the Hazaras staged a brief comeback, uniting behind a charismatic but ruthless militia leader, Abdul Ali Mazari. But Mazari was killed in 1995 and the Taliban -- a repressive Sunni Muslim movement that abhorred Shiism -- turned against the Hazaras with a vengeance.
Taliban fighters repeatedly attacked Bamian and other towns, driving many poor families to hide in the nearby mountains while more affluent Hazaras fled to Iran or Pakistan. The onslaught culminated in March 2001 with the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues, which researchers believe were created between the 5th and 7th centuries. The act shocked the world.
The collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001 gave the Hazaras a new lease on life. In the Bamian area, international aid groups built schools, clinics and houses, drawing waves of displaced families home. This year, Italy began building the first paved road to Kabul, while the U.S. military rebuilt a regional university that its forces had bombed as a Taliban outpost in 2001.
Although Hazarajat is still one of Afghanistan's poorest and most underdeveloped areas, it has several unique factors in its favor. One is security. Unlike many other regions, there are no armed feuds between rival militia bosses and no attacks by revived Taliban forces to deter foreign aid projects and disrupt preparations for the presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 9.
"Extremist and anti-government elements are not at all welcome here," said Peter Maxwell, the senior U.N. official in Bamian. "This has a very beneficial effect on all sorts of activities. People are eager to rebuild their lives, they support the government and they have no time for the kinds of extremism found in other areas."
One recent political development appears likely to benefit the most deprived part of Hazarajat, a region of barren hills and remote villages south of Bamian that U.N. reports call the "hunger belt." Several months ago, the government carved out a new province from that area called Daikundi, which will have its own public services and jobs, sparing residents multi-day journeys to more populated areas.
Moreover, after years of brain drain, the Hazara homeland is beginning to make something of an intellectual and cultural comeback as well.
U.N.-sponsored restoration work on the Buddhas has attracted a trickle of tourists from Kabul -- though most are aid workers on short breaks who do not mind jolting roads and erratic electricity.
Last month, the first cell phone relay station was installed, creating a quantum leap in communications between Bamian and the outside world. Meanwhile, the reopening of the university in March has lured 36 young instructors back from Iran, where many educated Hazaras fled years ago, as well as 165 students to its first-semester courses in teaching and agronomy.
"This university will change everything," said Jafferi Hussain, 28, the campus administrator, sitting in his empty office in the new, bright yellow, two-story classroom building. "We want educated people to come back from abroad, though we don't have enough facilities for them yet." During summer break, he said, all the new teachers rushed to Kabul to get visas to visit their families in Iran.
Still, some Hazaras complain that not enough has been done to help the region, an issue that is sure to dominate the country's first presidential election here. Campaigning will not begin until next month, but voter registration among Hazaras has been higher than among all other ethnic groups, both in Kabul and Hazarajat.
Two senior officials of Hazara origin will figure prominently in the race: Vice President Karim Khalili, the former governor of Bamian province who is one of President Hamid Karzai's two running mates, and Mohammed Mohaqiq, the former planning minister who recently quit Karzai's cabinet to run against him.
At some levels, Mohaqiq appears to have gotten a head start. His posters are affixed to almost every shop in Bamian, and some of his aides and supporters are former Khalili loyalists who jumped ship, complaining that the longtime militia boss had abandoned his needy Hazarajat roots after joining the central government.
But in interviews last week, Hazaras working in fields, shops and aid agency offices around Bamian said their primary concern was electing a national leader who would represent their interests as a religious and ethnic minority without provoking renewed bloodshed.
"This election is very important to us. The Hazara people will still be a minority, but this means we can now be the equal of others," Mohammed Sharif, 33, said while squatting in a potato field at dusk as his children scampered among the neat rows of earth.
Sharif pointed to a range of brown hills to the south, where he said hundreds of families froze to death while fleeing winter attacks by the Taliban. When survivors returned, he said, they found their houses burned and their animals stolen. "We hear on the radio about fighting in other provinces, but we have started again from zero," he said. "We don't want to lose everything again."
Several Hazara professionals seemed disappointment in both major Hazara candidates and expressed concern that the election could fracture along ethnic lines, recreating the divisions that led to civil war and the rise of the Taliban.
Aghar, the educator in Kabul, is one of the founders of the Hizb-i-Wahdat, the main Hazara political party, and said that though it is healthy for Hazaras to be reasserting their identity after years of repression, they should be careful not to let ethnic chauvinism obstruct Afghanistan's progress toward democracy.
"I'm glad to see Hazaras getting involved in the elections, but I'm upset at the reasons behind it," he said. "We have suffered a lot, but we do not need another government based on ethnic politics. We need a government based on cooperation among all ethnic groups."