TWC'S Odyssey
Tan Wee Cheng's Travels in the Central Asian Republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan


TEXT: Copyright (c) 1996 Encyclopaedia Britannica
PICTURES: Copyright (c) 1998 Tan Wee-Cheng

Sogdiana Art

      Sogdiana, with its capital of Afrasiab, was already noted for the sophistication and number of its towns when
Alexander the Great conquered it in 328 BC and opened it up to Greek soldiers and administrators, and eventually to Roman
traders. The Sogdians resented being governed by Alexander's successors, the Greek kings of the Seleucid dynasty. It is
difficult to establish their relationship with their Seleucid suzerains and still more so with the later Kushans, but there is ample
evidence to show that neither group of conquerors hindered the rise in both Sogdiana and Chorasmia of a local feudal nobility
and class of rich farmers.

A considerable amount of secular and religious pottery  sculpture dating from the early Christian era to the Arab invasion
of the 8th century has been found at Afrasiab. The more interesting examples consist of statuettes of clothed women, some of
them representing  Zoroastrian deities such as Anahita. They have foreshortened bodies and large heads with a withdrawn
expression on their faces and wear tiaras, hats, or hoods sewn to their cloaks. When the cloaks are sleeveless, they are worn
over straight, long-sleeved robes instead of draped garments. All the figures hold a piece of fruit, a symbol of fertility. Statuettes
of the 3rd-4th centuries from the fortified town of Tali Barsu, to the south of Samarkand, depict Syavush, the god of annual
death and spring rebirth, as a musician. Statuettes of women flutists, riders, animals, and the Iranian semihuman-semianimal
demigod Shah Gopat have also been discovered there. In the 7th and 8th centuries, sculpture, whether in clay or alabaster, was
highly developed at Pendzhikent, a site some 40 miles (60 kilometres) east of Samarkand, where Indian influence was often

The earliest of Turkistan's  mural  paintings have been found in its eastern section. Those at Niy date from the 2nd
century AD, those at Miran from the 3rd. The inspiration for both stemmed from Rome, whereas Buddhism provided the
impulses for the slightly later murals at Bamian and Kizil. In the eastern zone the paintings were designed as backgrounds for
sculpture, and, as in western Turkistan, they were executed in tempera. Some very high quality murals recently discovered in
western Turkistan are dated slightly later. The oldest ones, which are extremely fragmentary, are from the Varakhsha, a princely
residence to the northeast of Bukhara, now lying in the desert; they date from the 3rd to the 4th century AD. Murals discovered
at the beginning of the 20th century at Samarkand, which are almost contemporary with those at Varakhsha, have been lost.
The importance of these murals is wholly eclipsed by the slightly later works discovered recently in Sogdiana, such as the
7th-century works at Varakhsha. Some of the rooms in the main apartments of the Varakhsha Palace (which consisted of
several detached buildings) are decorated with high-relief alabaster stucco panels and carved woodwork, as well as with
paintings. Benches are inserted into the walls of one room, the area above them divided into two registers, or horizontal rows,
both painted red. In the upper register was a procession of animals, little of which survives, and, in the lower, splendidly attired
hunters seated on elephants pursued spirited leopards and creatures of the griffin family.

Some 200 miles (300 kilometres) east of Samarkand, in a once fertile, now desert tract of land, the ruins of the great feudal
castle of Mug survive. Among the objects excavated there was part of a wooden shield with the painted figure of a rider (State
Hermitage Museum), which foreshadows a type commonly found in Islamic Persian book illumination. Mounted on a splendidly
caparisoned horse, he wears a tunic of local cut and is equipped with a long sword, two daggers, two bows, and a quiver full of
arrows. He is wasp-waisted in the manner of figures depicted in murals of Varakhsha and Pendzhikent.

At Pendzhikent, a site close to Mug, and some 40 miles (60 kilometres) east of Samarkand, Sogdian architecture can be seen
to advantage. The desert-engulfed city contained several large  temples built of rectangular adobe bricks and blocks of
beaten clay. The bricks were used for vaults and domes, while the flat sections of the roofs were made of rafters supported by
wooden pillars or piers, some of which had been set in stone bases. Many of the more important  houses were
two-storied. A square room measuring 26 by 26 feet (eight metres by eight metres) had served as a temple sanctuary.
Although, in a series of rooms connected to it, some fragmentary religious paintings survived, the paintings in another temple are
better preserved. They depict the death, the Sogdian burial rite, and the rebirth of a youthful Syavush. More than 50 figures of
this vast composition survive, some representing Sogdian noblemen, some a group of Turks. A number of the Sogdians are
seated cross-legged in the Oriental manner and hold gold and silver vessels of Sasanian shape in three fingers of one hand. The
men's single, close-fitting Sogdian tunics resemble garments depicted in paintings of the Buddhist temples of Bamian and
eastern Turkistan, notably at Kizil and Kuca. The style and, in some cases, the subject matter of these Sogdian scenes must
have influenced the illuminators of such Islamic Persian works as the Shah-nameh. Another set of murals is unusual in that it
was executed in high relief and then coloured. It shows human beings, sea monsters, and fish, with the waves of the sea
rendered in lower relief than the figures. Yet another mural depicts a feast against a black background: a king and several
priests sit cross-legged under a canopy; a woman harpist, some musicians and dice players, and a procession of elephants
complete the scene. By placing light figures against dark or vivid backgrounds, Sogdian artists evolved a distinct form of

A study of the religious paintings shows that Central Asian Zoroastrianism retained elements from the earlier indigenous cult of
the Sun and Moon. Some of the scenes in the secular works are linked by their subject matter (but not their style) to a small
group of older Siberian gold and bronze B-shaped buckles and to the Siberian and Ordos plaques that are thought to illustrate
local epics. Other secular scenes give full expression to Sogdian interest in the splendour of contemporary court life and
prowess in hunting and warfare. The love of overall decoration and of animal motifs is as prevalent as in nomadic art. Details
incorporated in Sogdian paintings proclaim the eclecticism of the society they depict and for which they were created.
Sasanian influence from Persia is seen in crowns trimmed with ribbons, veils, and bells; in the styling and trimming of hair and
beards; and in many of their vessel shapes. The helmets worn by the warriors in the Pendzhikent libation scene resemble those
depicted in the murals of eastern Turkistan. The clothes follow local fashions, and certain horse trappings display disks the
shapes of which recall nomadic types.

Sogdian  textiles are known to have been in great demand among their neighbours. Sasanian motifs must have reached
Sogdian weavers by way of imports from Persia, indirectly routed through Parthia, and also from Zoroastrians seeking
protection in Sogdiana from Persian persecution. These motifs often figure both on surviving textiles and on those recorded in
the paintings. The murals at Varakhsha, for example, include motifs taken from textiles, and a 5th-century mural from Balalyk
Tepe displays the head of a tusked, boarlike animal set in a roundel that is almost identical to that on a Sasanian fabric found at
Astana in eastern Turkistan.

Between the 5th and 7th centuries, the Sogdians made dried-brick caskets shaped like rectangular rooms to contain ossuaries,
or urns for the bones of the dead. The sides and lids of the ossuaries were decorated. The ornamentation on an ossuary from
Bia Naiman (State Hermitage Museum) has so many points in common with the decorations on a series of silver vessels that
were, until recently, assigned to Bactria that the latter have come to be accepted as Sogdian. Several ewers have niches
containing nude women rendered in a markedly Indian style, thereby recalling many a carved ivory plaque from Bagram. Very
similar niches adorn the Bia Naiman ossuary, but these contain crowned figures. In both cases the niches owe their form to
Western influence, but those on the ossuary are formed of columns surmounted by capitals upholding pearl-studded arches,
while on the ewers the Central Asian rosette replaces the capitals and the pearls.

Sculpture, both in relief and in the round, was widely produced in Sogdiana. Much of the earlier work takes the form of panels
or friezes made of alabaster, stucco, and wood. Rosettes, roundels, disks, and vegetation provide the chief motifs. Audience
chambers and large reception rooms often contained statues in the round. Even the statues attached to the wall had the
appearance of being worked in the round. The earliest wooden  caryatids, or columns in human form, are found at
Pendzhikent. The caryatids in the form of women have their hair elaborately dressed, and, although nude at the waist, they wear
boleros, as well as close-fitting, heavily trimmed skirts and splendid necklaces of Indian appearance. Once again, these figures
recall those on Bagram's ivory plaques and Buddhist statuettes of the 1st to 5th centuries.

Archaeologists from Hermitage, St Petersburg, at work at Bunjikath. Looking down on Penjikent from the Bunjikath archaeological site.  Nearby is an airfield with scheduled flights to Dushanbe. Ruins of Bunjikath - Temples & Palaces - but what's left are mere dust and mud...
Ancient Sogdian wall frescoe: The men in this frescoe resembles officials of Tang Dynasty, China, which was the contemporary of Bunjikath. Traders & officials: More ancient Sogdian frescoes Scenes of conflict: The Sogdian Confederacy was finally wiped out by the invading Arabs.  The previously hegemonous Chinese were chased out of the region after the Battle of Talas in Kyrgyzstan.

Sogdian Language & Middle Persian

     Middle Persian is known in three forms, not entirely homogeneous--inscriptional Middle Persian,  Pahlavi (often
more precisely called Book Pahlavi), and Manichaean Middle Persian. Middle Persian belongs to the period 300 BC to AD
950 and was, like Old Persian, the language of southwestern Iran. In the northeast and northwest the language spoken was
     Parthian, which is known from inscriptions and from Manichaean texts. There are no significant linguistic differences in the
Parthian of these two sources. Most Parthian belongs to the first three centuries AD.

Middle Persian and Parthian were doubtlessly similar enough to be mutually intelligible, but they differ so greatly from the
eastern group of Middle Iranian languages that these must have appeared to be almost foreign languages. The languages of the
eastern group, moreover, cannot have been themselves mutually intelligible. The main known languages of this group are
Khwarezmian (Chorasmian), Sogdian, and  Saka. Less well-known are Old  Ossetic (Scytho-Sarmatian) and
Bactrian, but from what is known it would seem likely that these languages were equally distinctive. There was probably more
than one dialect of each of the languages of the eastern group, although there is certainty only in the case of Saka, for which at
least two dialects are clearly attested. The main Saka dialect is known as Khotanese, but a small amount of material survives in
a closely related dialect called Tumshuq, formerly known as Maralbashi.

A few words are known in all of these eastern Iranian languages from as early as the 2nd to the 4th century AD, but substantial
evidence begins for Sogdian in the 4th century, for Saka probably no earlier than the 7th century (though that for Tumshuq may
be a few centuries older), and for Khwarezmian not until the 12th century and later. The principal evidence for Bactrian belongs
to the 2nd century. To the same period belong the Scytho-Sarmatian names of the earliest inscriptions.

All the eastern Iranian languages of the Middle Iranian period were spoken in Central Asia, with the exception of the language
of the Scytho-Sarmatian inscriptions from what is now Ukraine, north of the Black Sea. More precisely, Bactrian was spoken
in northern Afghanistan and in the adjacent parts of Central Asia. Khwarezmian was the language of Khwarezm, a historic
region in present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan but formerly of greater extent. Scholars believe that Sogdian was probably
spoken over most of Central Asia, especially in eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and western Kyrgyzstan. There were also
colonies of Sogdians in various cities along the trade routes to China; in fact, most Sogdian material comes from outside
Sogdiana. The Saka dialects, Khotanese and Tumshuq, were spoken in Chinese Turkistan, modern Sinkiang; Tumshuq is the
name of a small village in the extreme west of Sinkiang. Khotanese was spoken in Khotan near the modern city of Khotan
(Chinese Ho-t'ien [Hotan]) on the southern route across the Takla Makan Desert and within about 100 miles (160 kilometres)
to the north and to the east of Khotan, where manuscripts have been found, mainly at the sites of former shrines and

The oldest surviving  Sogdian documents are the so-called Ancient Letters found in a watchtower on the Chinese Great
Wall, west of Tun-huang, and dated at the beginning of the 4th century AD. Most of the religious literature written in Sogdian
dates from the 9th and 10th centuries. The Manichaean, Buddhist, and Christian Sogdian texts come mainly from small
communities of  Sogdians in the T'u-lu-p'an (Turfan) oasis and in Tun-huang. From Sogdiana itself there is only a small
collection of documents from Mt. Mugh in the Zarafshan region, mainly the business correspondence of a minor Sogdian king,
Dewashtich, from the time of the Arab conquest about 700.

The relationship of the various forms of Sogdian to one another has not yet been sufficiently investigated, so that it is not clear
whether different dialects are represented by the extant material or whether the differences can be accounted for by reference
to other relevant factors, such as differences of script, period, subject, style, or social milieu. The importance of social milieu
can be seen by comparing the elegant Manichaean literature directed to the court with the more vulgar language of the Christian
literature directed to the lower classes.

Heart of the Silk Road 
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