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Clad in a safari suit, sun hat, hiking boots and leather gloves, Zemaryalai Tarzi leads the way from his tent to a rectangular pit in the Bamiyan Valley of northern Afghanistan. Crenulated sandstone cliffs, honeycombed with man-made grottoes, loom above us. Two giant cavities about a half-mile apart in the rock face mark the sites where two huge sixth-century statues of the Buddha, destroyed a decade ago by the Taliban, stood for 1, years. At the base of the cliff lies the inner sanctum of a site Tarzi calls the Royal Monastery, an elaborate complex erected during the third century that contains corridors, esplanades and chambers where sacred objects were stored. Rulers of the Buddhist kingdom—whose religion had taken root across the region along the Silk Road—made annual pilgrimages here to offer donations to the monks in return for their blessings. Then, in the eighth century, Islam came to the valley, and Buddhism began to wane.

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