Masterpieces from Tajikistan

Boris I. Marshak (Head of the Central Asia and Caucasian Section, the State Hermitage Museum)

The Silk-Road Art in West Central Asia
The excellent works of art from the National Museum in Dushanbe lucidly show the highlights of the famous and ancient Scythian (Saka), Bactrian and Sogdian cultures because territory of modern Republic of Tajikistan includes parts of all historical regions of west Cental Asia: Sogdiana in the Zarafshan River valley, Ustrushana to the North-East of Sogdiana, Ferghana to the East of Ustrushana and Bactria (later Tokharistan) in the basin of the Amudarya River and its tributaries. These regions were inhabited by several various peoples: the Sogdians, the Bactrians and the Ferghanians, while Ustrushana was so deeply influenced by the Sogdian culture that each text found there had been written in Sogdian. The above-mentioned sedentary peoples lived in fertile valleys and oases divided by the dry areas where the nomads lived. Bactrian, Sogdian and the other local languages belong to the Eastern branch of the Iranian linguistic family whereas its Western branch includes Persian and Tajiki, now the state language of Tajikistan. Gradual linguistic change lasted from the late 8th to the 11th century. It did not combine with the change of population although some small groups of the Arabs and the Persians migrated to Central Asia after the Arab conquest in the 8th century. Thus the modern Tajiks are the true descendants of the Sogdians, the Bactrians and the Ferghanians.
The highly developed sedentary civilization closely connected with the lands as distant as modern Eastern Iran, Southern Turkmenistan and Southern Afghanistan is attested in the Zarafshan valley since the fourth-third millennium BCE when a huge settlement of traders, tillers and craftsmen flourished near a modern village Sarazm between Samarkand and Panjikent. It has been thoroughly excavated by Abdullo Isakov. Since so ancient period the intensive contacts with remote countries became characteristic of the local cultures.
In the first millennium BC the nomads of Central Asia were closely related to the Scythians. A magnificent example of their so-called animal style is a wild ram's head cast of bronze (cat. No. 211). It was found accidentally in North Tajikistan together with another similar head. Both must be mere small fragments of some great object blown up during the casting process. We can only speculate about that enormous object. For instance, there is an opinion that the heads belonged to a throne similar to the well-known thrones with the supports in the form of the figures of different animals. However all such thrones are datable much later than the Scythian period whereas the style of the heads is typical eastern Scythian (Saka). I think that the heads adorned the supports of a royal cauldron similar to those relatively small bronze Scythian (Saka) cauldrons from Kazakhstan upper parts of the three legs of which were in the form of very similar ram's heads 1). The size of the cauldron with so large and heavy details as the, two heads from Tajikistan must be several times larger than any known vessel of this period. However much later (about 1400 CE) in Central Asia was cast the huge bronze basin ordered by Timur, so-called "Timur's Cauldron", and according to Herodotus (5th century BCE) a king of the European Scythians had an enormous cauldron recast from the arrowheads, it being known that each of his warriors had brought one bronze arrowhead for it. The greatness of that royal vessel demonstrated how mighty was the king's army. Usually this account has been considered a legend but the Tajikistan ram's heads let us think that "the father of history" could have some information about a real very big cauldron. One can see the dramatic deformation of the ram's necks showing how powerful was the explosion severed the heads off. It was the explosion of gas evolved from the enormous mass of melted metal prepared for an object so large that it can be compared with the cauldron described by Herodotus.
In the 4th century BCE the Graeco-Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great after a long and hard war conquered Bactria and Sogdiana where he founded several Greek cities. After him the Greek rulers reigned in Bactria until mid-2nd century BCE, while in Sogdiana their power was not as durable. Boris Litvinsky and Igor Pichikian discovered the temple of the Oxus near the Amudarya River in Bactria. This discovery is one of the most impressive in the rich archaeology of Tajikistan. The temple was, built ca. 300 BCE or slightly later. Its architecture has Greek and Bactrian features. Its beautiful sculptures seem Greek, but they were made of unfired clay, the material typical of Central Asia and unknown in Greece. In the temple have been found a series of sculptural fragments showing a Greek king, local or Persian dignitaries and Greek gods.
Several nomadic peoples conquered the Greaco-Bactrian kingdom in the mid-2nd century BCE. Among these nomads was one named the Tokhars (Tocharians) that was of the Indo-European, but non-Iranian origin. Their role was so significant that Bactria even changed her name into Tokharistan though Bactrian still was the main language of Tokharistan up to the 9th century CE. The Graeco-Bactrian artistic traditions survived in the country interacting with those of the nomadic newcomers. A gold buckle from Saksanakhur in the southern Tajikistan (cat. No. 214) is a small masterpiece of this mixed Greaco-Nomadic style developed in the 1st century BCE-1st century CE. Its subject is the wild-boar hunt, a well-known nomadic theme, the anthropological type and the garments of the hunter are also nomadic while the figure of his horse is stylized in a nomadic manner as well as the image of the attacking wild boar. Nevertheless all completely nomadic art objects from the territories of modern Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and south Siberia are much more stylized than the miniature sculptural group of this Bactrian work of art. It's worth mentioning that the Greek influence is traceable in the realistic rendering of the hunter, his complex movement in the three-dimensional space and the frame ornament.
Later on in the second half of the 1st, the 2nd and the first half of the 3rd centuries CE Bactria was one of the most important parts of the Kushan Empire (the latter included also the lands to the South-East of the Hindu Kush Mountains and large areas in modern Pakistan and India). Regular coinage, geometrically planned cities and newly dug long channels for irrigation characterize the period of the Great Kushans (mainly 2nd century) in the Southern Tajikistan. Then Buddhism and the cult of Shiva from the Indian dominions of the Kushan kings penetrated into their Central Asian possessions. Although it was not the first encounter between the Eastern Iranian peoples and Buddhism the earliest Buddhist buildings excavated in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan belong to the Kushan period. In the 3rd century a new Sasanian dynasty united Iran and then conquered the western part of the Kushan Kingdom that they called Kushanshahr. The "Kushanshahs" who ruled there in the 4th century were the Viceroys and the members of the Sasanian dynasty. In the fifth century several nomadic tribes of local and northern origin played important role in the history of Kushanshahr fighting with each other and the Sasanians. Approximately in the 4th century the Buddhist temples of Tokharistan were mostly devastated, perhaps due to the Sasanian anti-Buddhist attitude. Meanwhile the Sasanian Kushanshahs did not reject the old cults of the individual gods. On their coins there are the divine figures similar to those on the Kushan ones. However their iconography was partly altered and they were interpreted as some local versions of the images of the Persian Zoroastrian gods and goddesses. From the 4th century on the artists of Central Asia frequently (though with some distortion) reproduced Sasanian crowns, royal garments and thrones. The coinage of the nomadic rulers of the late forth and fifth centuries deeply depended on the Sasanian and Kushano-Sasanian models.
In the second half of the 5th century the nomadic Hephthalites dwelling in the north-east Afghanistan twice defeated the Persian army and in 484 killed in battle Sasanian King of Kings Peroz. Later on Iran was their tributary until 560s. Soon the Hephthalites conquered whole Tokharistan, large parts of India, modern Xinjiang and (about 509) Sogdiana. The Hephthalite period was rather short and finished about 565. Then their dominions were divided between the Turkic Kaghans who came from the Northeast, the Sasanians and a coalition of the Indian kings. However in the history of art this brief term was very fruitful because then a new wave of Indian influence reached the northern dominions of the Hephthalite Empire and much enriched the artistic language of local painters and sculptors. If under the Kushans the Graeco-Indian Gandharan art usually played a role of a mediator between the Indian and Central Asian cultural worlds, under the Hephthalites the purely Indian Guptan stylistic and iconographic motifs also became popular in Central Asia. A gold pendant (cat. No. 215) from North Tajikistan is a brilliant example of the decorative art of 5-6 centuries. A late Roman cameo partly covered with golden foil formed one side of it. The other side shows an Indian motif: a human figure near a vase with a plant growing from it.
During the following Turkic period (the late 6th century and first half of the 7th century) Sogdiana and a slightly later Tokharistan were included into the Turkic Kaghanate. This enormous nomadic empire controlled the huge territory between Crimea and Manjuria. In fact, local principalities and city states were almost independent whereas the good relationships with the Turks helped the Sogdian merchants who had been the masters of the Silk Road at least from the first centuries CE in their caravan trade.
In the 6-8 centuries Sogdiana became the most important country along the west Central Asian part of Silk Road whereas Panjikent in the Zarafshan valley well known as a typical Sogdian city of 5-8 centuries CE. During 54 years, since 1947, about a half of this city has been excavated by the four generations of scholars (Alexander Jakubovsky, Mikhail Dyakonov, Alexander Belenitsky, Boris Marshak, Valentina Raspopova and others). Its palaces, temples and private houses have been decorated with wall paintings, wood-carvings and clay sculptures. Murals in the reception rooms of the houses of wealthy citizens of Panjikent were executed in accordance with a complex program. They included several scenes of worship of various local gods and many illustrations to the Sogdian epic legends and short stories as well as the Indian "Mahabharata" and "Panchatantra" or the Greek Aesop's "Fables". The main task for the Sogdian masters was a story-telling based on visual images, and drawing was their main artistic language. In addition to story-telling the wall paintings were also intended to decorate the buildings themselves. That could be the reason why the artists would apply even and intensive monochromatic (usually bright red or blue) backgrounds. The world of Sogdian painting consists of the two accented and independent parts: the unity of dynamic interacting figures and the background quite alien to them. The art of Panjikent has demonstrated many features borrowed from all the great civilizations along the Silk Road: Greco-Roman, Iranian, Indian and Chinese. The numerous and various ritual scenes of the Panjikent murals help us to understand the difference between the orthodox Zoroastrianism of Persia with its poor iconography and not so rigid local version of this religion.
In Sogdiana the Buddhists formed a small minority. On the contrary, in Tokharistan in the 6-8th centuries there were many Buddhists. Ajinatepa, the Buddhist monastery of the 7th-early 8th century, was excavated by Boris Litvinsky and Tamara Zeimal in the Vakhsh valley where was situated one of the Tokharistanian semi-independent dominions. Among fragmented mural paintings and clay sculptures revealed in this monastery there is a 12m-length statue of Buddha who lies in Nirvana. Now it is the most attractive exhibit of the National Museum in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. The elegant style of Ajinatepa resembles that of the almost contemporary murals and statues of Bamiyan recently so barbarously destroyed by the Taliban.
The rich art and culture of Ustrushana have been discovered by the expeditions directed by Numan Negmatov. Among several archaeological sites the most important is a ruler's palace excavated near a village named Shahristan. The modern name of the site is Qalca-i-Qahqaha (or in another, not so exact, transliteration Kalai-Kakhkakha). Murals were discovered in a corridor and two reception halls. Those in the coridor are very similar in style to the Panjikent paintings of the 7th-8th centuries. Among them there was a long frieze with the Roman "Story of Romulus and Remus". The style of the paintings of the "Small Hall" is not so Sogdian although their subject matter, the battle of the gods and the just against the demons and the sinners, has a very close parallel in Panjikent. Two fragments of this mural are included into the present exhibition in the Miho Museum (cat. Nos. 212, 213). The artist of the "Small Hall" did not totally reject the Sogdian tradition, but his manner of drawing had been formed under the Chinese influence that can be traced in the calligraphic virtuously draught lines possessing some self-dominating value. Changes in style, as ever, did not come simply as the mastery of something new, but also in the loss of some traditional values. In this hall the human figures and horses do not demonstrate such slenderness and power one can find in the best Panjikent mural cycles. The paintings of the "Small Hall" have been dated to the 8th-9th centuries, though the exact chronology has not been reliably established. One cannot exclude the first half of the 8th century because the close contact of the Ustrushanian painter with the Chinese art was much more possible before 750s when the relations between Central Asia and the Tang Empire were interrupted by the Civil war in China and the defeat of the Chinese army by the Arabs in 751.
The brilliant period of the 6th-the first decades of the 8th centuries was interrupted a little later in the same 8th century by the Arab conquest followed the islamization of the western Central Asia. Later on the art in Tajikistan became more and more decorative like that of the whole Islamic world. It's worth mentioning that Early Muslim art of the Arab Caliphate was fed not only by the Byzantine and Iranian but also the Sogdian and Tokharistanian cultural and artistic traditions.
1:For example, the cauldron from Kargaly (Artamonov M. I., Sokrovi'shcha Sakov. Amudar'inskii klad. Altaiskii Kurgany. Minussinskie bronzy. Sibirskoe Zoloto. Moscow. Iskusstvo, 1973, fig 73.
・Azarpay, Guitty. With contributions by A.M. Belenitski, B. I. Marshak, and Mark J. Dresden. Sogdian painting: the pictorial epic in Oriental art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981
・Chuo Ajia. Sekai. Bijutsu Daizensh, Toyo-hen, Tokyo, Shogakukan, 1999
・Litvinskii, B. A., Pichikian, I. R.. Ellinisticheskii khram Oksa v Baktrii (Iuzhnyi Tadzhikistan), Moskva: Izdatel,skaia firma "Vostochnaia lit-ra" RAN, 2000-v 〈1〉.
・Litvinskii, B. A., Zeimal T. I. Adzhina-Tepa. Arkhitektura. Zhivopis'. Skul'ptura. Moskva, "Iskusstvo", 1971.
・Negmatov, N. N. Zhivopis' Shakhristana. Problemy I suzdenia. Kul'turnoe nasledie Vostoka. Bromley Yu. V. (ed.), Moscow, Nauka, 1985, pp. 230-250.
・Oxus. Tesori dell'Asia Centrale. Exhibition Catalogue. Rome, 1993.
・Oxus. 2000 Jahre Kunst am Oxus-Fluss in Mittelasien. Neue Funde aus der Sowjetrepublik Tadschikistan. Eine Ausstellung in Zusammenarbeit mit der Akademie der Wissenschaften von Tadschikistan/UdSSR und der Ermitage in Leningrad. Museum Rietberg Zurich, 1989.

Related works
Ram's Head