Buddha afghanistan
© Reuters / Ahmad Masood
Afghan boys play soccer in front of the remains of a 1,500-year-old Buddha statue which was destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, in the central province of Bamiyan, August 22, 2011
Fresh from their conquest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are welcoming intrepid tourists to the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues, ancient monuments that the militant group blew up two decades ago.

Hewn out of a rocky cliffside in central Afghanistan's Bamyan Valley around the sixth Century AD, the Bamiyan Buddhas stood more than 150 feet tall for 1,400 years, until the Taliban blew them to pieces with high explosives in 2001, shortly before the US invasion ended their brief reign over Afghanistan.

Now the Taliban are back in charge, and have thrown open the site to the public. According to an NBC News report this week, curious tourists can hand over the equivalent of $5 to Taliban guards at a ticket booth, and gaze at the empty holes where the Buddhas once stood.

One Afghan visitor told NBC that he didn't come to the site to mourn the loss of the statues, but to celebrate their destruction.

"I was young when these were destroyed, about seven years old, and since then it has been a dream to come and see what happened here," he said. "I'm happy it was destroyed. I'm here to see the ruins actually."

The order to destroy the statues was given in 2001 by Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar, despite ordering them preserved as a tourist attraction two years earlier. Omar then gave several conflicting statements on the destruction of the Buddhas, first arguing that he did so out of frustration that the West seemed more concerned about the fate of statues than about Afghan people, but then reportedly stating that "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols," and that they were blown up "in accordance with Islamic law."

UNESCO has called on the Taliban to preserve what remains of the Bamyan site and others like it around the country, stating in August that "it is crucial for the future of Afghanistan to safeguard and preserve these landmarks."

While the new Taliban government has presented itself to the world as more moderate than the Taliban of the 1990s, the future of the Bamiyan Buddhas as a tourist attraction is not yet certain.

The region's governor, former Guantanamo Bay inmate Abdullah Sarhad, told NBC that he is waiting for directions from the Taliban's upper echelons before making any changes to the site. However, he said that "we want to show the world there is peace and security in Afghanistan now."