Court art of Sogdian Samarqand in the 7th century AD

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Conclusion: proposal for an overall view

There can be no doubt that the paintings in room 23/1 must have been created as a complex symbolic composition. It seems important to see them not as merely isolated spots but as an integral set where the contents of each wall refers to the others. In other words, any interpretation of the paintings should deliver a coherent and overall attempt.

With our pages we have tried to do so. Obviously, many shortcomings must remain, because our primary sources, i.e. the paintings themselves and the written records, are only fragmentary.

Nevertheless, in the following we summarize our opinion:

The main intention of the painted program is to give a symbolic world picture and within this a visual legitimation of Samarqand's ruling king Varxuman, the patron of the murals. To produce these effects the Sogdian artists applied several methods. The main artistic one was to organize the pictorial program according to the four walls of the room, i.e. according to four cardinal points. Secondly they incorporated allusions to several historical events by means of reflecting them through both images and inscriptions.

On the western wall (being the main wall of the hall, opposite to the entrance in the eastern wall), king Varxuman was depicted as ruler of Samarqand and prime ruler of Sogd. His position is strongly underlined - or even guaranteed - by the depiction of the Western Turk Yabghu-Qaghan Shekui on the same wall. It must remain open whether the scene of action is Samarqand or the residence of the Western Turks, and it must remain open whether this is a reflection of a historical event or not. - Delegates from "all" nations of the east and the west come to pay homage to both rulers (and possibly to the gods of Samarqand, too).

reconstruction of western wall (M.Mode 2002)
Tentative reconstruction of western Wall

Among the delegates is the last Sasanian king of Iran, Yazdgard III. He appears as subordinate potentate among others, and his delegation does not move towards Varxuman's image but towards that of the Turkish ruler. This may reflect a true historical event as indicated by some allusions in Tabari's history. The delegation from Persia brings as gift of honour the outfit of an Iranian nobleman - an Iranian symbolic gesture well acceptable summary="(table formats the page)" for the steppe ruler, too.

Flanking this main wall, the murals from the northern and southern walls enhance the performance by adding reflections of major events from the reign of Varxhuman.

The northern wall concentrates on China with images of Taizong as an imperial hunter and of the (ficticious) journey of an imperial princess to the west. The princess was destined for the Turk Shekui, and we believe that their meeting was intended to take place in the presence of Varxuman or even at Samarqand. This state affair which never became reality served as a further symbol to mark the legitimacy of king Varxuman.

The southern wall depicts king Varxuman participating (and directing) a great funeral procession. It must have been be a ritual organized for a close relative to the king, and we are inclined to see in this relative the predecessor of Varxuman. There are indications from Chinese records as well as from Sogdian coinage that this predecessor was a ruler named Shishpir. The Tang shu localizes king Shishpir at the Sogdian principality of Kish. Probably he originated from that city and became only later the ruler of Samarqand. These suggestions may help us to clarify the symbolic southern localization of the ritual: Kish is situated to the south of Samarqand.

The mural program of the hall is completed by the eastern wall. We have tried to explain at least the right half of the paintings as a reflection of Turkish ancestral myths. By this means the eastern wall serves as perfect counterpart to the western one. On the latter the Western Turk ruler was present by his image, thus looking (from his supposed throne) towards the east. And again we have to cite from the Tang shu: "[The Qaghan] used to sit with his face towards the east".

Just as the northern wall the eastern one provides a certain symbolic enhancement of Varxuman's own legitimation as a ruling king of Samarqand: He was accepted not only by the Chinese but by the Turkish superpower, too. And the southern wall paintings complement  the prictorial program with a symbolic value of "dynastic legitimacy".

Thus, in our opinion we have to see in the Afrasiab paintings a perfect conception of royal propaganda.

It is quite clear that the entire constellation outlined here works only for a very restricted span of time. It fits best with the year AD 648 or probably one year later, and this is the dating we propose for the unique painted program of the Afrasiab hall.

Certainly the room once belonged to a palatial ensemble. It seems impossible to ascribe this hall with highly complex and state-bound pictorial program to some nobleman, even of king Varxuman's suite (this is what Maršak [2001] believes).

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