Nice Buddha; nice set of wheels.

I hope you’ll agree this is a pretty evocative photo:


Thanks to Dilek Taş for finding it (and three other photos of Bamiyan) among the papers of Aurel Stein, the great archaeologist of Central Asia (in a box of photos sent to him in letters); and when she found it, bless her, for thinking of me.

Of course, the moment I clapped eyes on it I wanted to identify the car-owner and the date. The place was clear enough: Bamiyan, Afghanistan: in the background the larger, 55-metre Buddha, carved out of the sandstone cliff face, somehow set off so effectively by the stylish motor in the foreground.

I had a hunch the best evidence would be found inside that box of photos, but over the weekend I tried to get what I could from the photograph itself. First the car: from Bozi Mohacek, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of classic cars, I learned that this was a British make (he could tell from the position of the headlights), a Wolseley tourer of about 1926 (“Earlier possible, later by a tiny bit but unlikely. No tiebar on the lights”). Two of the other photos offered a little help, as well. One was a view from the top of the 55-metre Buddha, with the silhouettes of local people sitting on the Buddha’s head:


This offers a small clue in itself, since the head of this larger Buddha had been inaccessible for many centuries, and it was only with the construction of a path along the cliff face by the French archaeologist André Godard, in 1923, that it was possible to reach it. So another terminus post quem. Finally, in this photo in front of the smaller, 38-metre Buddha my first thought was that the European figure on the left, in the white shirt, was a woman:


Yesterday morning I finally got to look at the box of photos. There I found a slip of paper with a bare indication of the sources of the photographs Stein had collected. For these three photos, plus a fourth of the 38-metre Buddha, the provenance was a succinct “Amps, 1929”. The photos had come to Stein in a letter from Amps, in other words, but who on earth was Amps? A quick consultation of the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK told me no letters between Stein and Amps have survived, and none of my biographies of Aurel Stein mentioned an Amps either.

Like the world-class researcher I am, I resorted to Google: “Amps, Afghanistan.”

I got dogs, loads of them. It turns out that one Mary Amps was a very big noise indeed in Afghan Hound breeding, importing the animals from Afghanistan and running her highly successful “Ghazni kennels” at Penn near Wolverhampton. Most of the Afghan Hounds around today seem to be descended from hers. Go here, and you will start to discover the interesting world of Afghan Hounds, and find lots of articles by Mrs Amps advertising her kennels with picturesque detail of her collecting trips in Afghanistan. What had taken Mary Amps to Afghanistan in the first place was her husband’s attachment to the British Legation in Kabul, effectively the embassy. Major Leon Williamson Amps was an officer of the Royal Engineers, posted to Kabul through the 1920s, a particularly volatile period in Afghan history between the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 and the overthrow of the modernizing King Amanullah in 1929. I don’t at the moment know whether Leon or Mary were among those rescued in what is considered the first major airlift, the rescue in 1929 of foreigners from Kabul when it was in the grip of the revolt against Amanullah.

So we’ve identified the two Europeans in the photos, Major and Mrs Amps, travelling around Afghanistan to see the sites, but also presumably to scout out any promising looking canine bloodstock. I can’t spot any dogs in the photos, disappointingly. The pictures must date to somewhere between 1926 and the time of the letter to Aurel Stein (and the departure of all the British from Afghanistan), 1929. It all looks very jolly in these photos, but we shouldn’t be in any doubt how adventurous you had to be, as a foreigner, to travel around 1920s Afghanistan, and for that matter how uncomfortable a trip into the Hindu Kush would have been on 1920s suspension.

Mary Amps’ business thrived, as we know, and Major Amps rose to be Major-General, honoured for his work building the British Legation compound in Kabul. He died in 1989, at the respectable age of 97.

I’m pleased I’ve identified the owners of the Wolseley tourer, but Aurel Stein is where this started, and I think his reasons for preserving (perhaps even requesting) these images of Bamiyan are worth a final thought, too.

Aurel Stein travelled all over Central Asia, and in the process transformed our understanding of that space where India, China and the West encountered each other. But it’s true to say that what drove this irrepressibly energetic man more than anything else, as he himself candidly admitted, was the intense fascination he had felt since boyhood for the Greek colonisation of what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan during and after Alexander the Great’s campaigns. At the heart of this Greek “presence” in central Asia was Bactria, the territory around Balkh in northern Afghanistan where Stein expected that rich evidence would be found of the meeting of East and West, and the Buddhist cultures that emerged from it. As for Bamiyan, it was generally believed at the time, and Stein shared the belief, that the giant Buddhas and cave temples were also connected to this Greek moment in Afghan history. We now know that the Buddhas are much later than Stein and his contemporaries assumed, and not in any significant way Greek in inspiration, but for Stein Bamiyan was part and parcel of his Bactrian Eldorado, and it was one of the places he tried again and again to get official permission to visit.

But throughout his long and remarkable career, that one burning desire to visit Afghanistan was constantly denied to Stein. The Afghans were determined to “twist the lion’s tail,” make things as difficult as possible for the British, and given the history of relations between the two countries, it’s hard to blame them. In 1902, 1912 and 1919-22 Stein made concerted efforts to persuade the Afghan authorities to let him visit, but each time his request was refused. Finally, in 1943, permission for him to visit the country was granted, but the eighty-year-old Stein caught cold in the famous National Museum in Kabul, and died just a week after arriving. His grave is in the British Cemetery in Kabul.

Shortly before he died, Stein told a friend, “I have had a wonderful life, and it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan, which I have wanted to visit for sixty years.”

I just wonder about Aurel Stein’s thoughts, a decade earlier, as he pondered Major and Mrs Amps’ vivid photographs of a place he just could not seem to get to, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

12 responses to “Nice Buddha; nice set of wheels.”

  1. Steve Tillotson says :

    Hi Llewellyn- I just came across your webpages referencing Major and Mary Amps in Afghanistan (

    I am a researcher on Afghan Hound breed history (been doing this for 30 years now), and it’s always a great thrill to discover something new. I think you must have visited my site after googling the amps because some of the info you mention has never been published or known to our community before, and I only very recently published it and thats fine btw. I am about to publish some additional bio info on the Amps, just awaiting my friend in NZ to fill in some gaps for me

    I would like to ask if I can republish your article on my website (with full recognition for the source of course)? Similarly you may use infrom from my

    Thank you very much
    Steve Tillotson (London, then Swindon, now retired to California)
    Afghan Hound Times

  2. Steve Tillotson says :

    Llewelyn – your article mentions the rescue/airlift 1929. The Amps were NOT part of that, they returned to England in spring of 1925 and remained there after that. Major Amps had a business that took him regularly to Hong Kong, but the Amps did not return to Afghanistan after their return in England 1925

    afghan hound times

    • Steve Tillotson says :

      I am having a re-think on amps/afghanistan 1929. I have a picture of them as part of the Kabul Delegation which I thought was c 1919 so am trying to date that pix in case it ties in with your dates
      afghan hound times

  3. Steve Tillotson says :

    Llewellyn – sorry for so many posts, you might want to check this out it references King, Inayatullah with a photo too and might help with dates

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      I spent a lot of time on your site, yes, and I thought I’d linked to it! Apologies if not: I’ll do so. It has been a while now, but I did find reason to place Major Amps in Kabul after 1925, and not just the make of car they’re driving. If I get a moment I’ll chase that up. Do please use what you like.

      • Llewelyn Morgan says :

        Hi Steve. Yes, so here,, is Amps getting a gong in 1928 for building the new legation buildings in Kabul; and from a report in the Times, Dec 28, 1926, p.9 we learn that the new building was still under construction at the end of 1926 (because the legation has to move into it, still unfinished, when their old premises burn down!) So I think any indication that Amps and Mary had gone home in 1925 might have actually been (temporary) home leave, after which they came back. And surely Mary would have been keen to come back, because Afghanistan’s where she’s getting her breeding stock? That was my thinking, anyhow. There are, I believe, records of the legation available to consult which would settle the matter.

  4. Steve Tillotson says :

    Hi Llewelyn – many thanks for the above. We knew about the gong, there was some confusion about cbe/obe but we got that sorted now

    My NZ friend (Lyall Payne) is a very good bio researcher. I have a page on the amps posted but not yet announced coz Lyall is working on some additional info, the draft page is here –

    We’ll do some more research this end to see if we can ascertain if the Amps were part of the 1929 Airlift.

    I’ll pop back here from time to time and share any further info we uncover on the Amps/Afghanistan

    I have also done a lot of reading on Afghanistan (books from the late 1800’s) as I like to feel the “context” of where our hounds came from, so I am very interested in the country too and this is why finding your article/work above is so special. Thank you


  5. Steve Tillotson says :

    Hi Llewellyn – found an interesting link to some great photos (including the Buddhas) –

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