They were dynamited and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, An envoy visiting the United States in the following weeks explained that they were destroyed to protest international aid exclusively reserved for statue maintenance while Afghanistan was experiencing famine, while the Afghan Foreign Minister claimed that the destruction was merely about carrying out Islamic religious iconoclasm.
International opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas, which in the following years was primarily viewed as an example of the extreme religious intolerance of the Taliban.
The murals show scenes of Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures.
"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," says team leader Yoko Taniguchi.
Behind those statues are caves decorated with paintings from the fifth to ninth centuries.
In many European history and art textbooks, oil painting is said to have started in the 15th century in Europe.
Synchrotron analysis of the paint layers reveals layers of natural resins, proteins, gums and in some cases a resinous, varnish-like layer, as well as the oil paint. It was not until the 13th century that oil was added to paints in Europe and oil paint was not widely used in Europe till the early 15th century.
Bamiyan was once a thriving Buddhist centre where monks lived in a series of caves carved into the cliffs by the two statues.
However, scientists from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo (Japan), the Centre of Research and Restoration of the French Museums-CNRS (France), the Getty Conservation Institute (United States) and the ESRF have recently identified drying oils in some samples studied from the Bamiyan caves.
Painted in the mid-seventh century, the murals show scenes with Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures.