Court art of Sogdian Samarqand in the 7th century AD

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Western wall

The western wall paintings: elements of interpretation

The western wall is the most important one in room 23/1 due to its position opposite the entrance. This feature seems to be common in Sogdian architectural layouts both of private main halls and palace throne rooms.

Many parts of the western wall paintings are seriously damaged. Nevertheless there remained images of at least 49 persons. Immediately above the sufa runs a continuous ornamental register. Above this the scenic depictions are obviously arranged in several levels. These levels are not indicated by border-lines or ornamental strips but only by the arrangement of persons and accessories. Further indications of an organized composition may be seen in a modularized scheme of the paintings.

Below we will discuss some main questions concerning contents and date of the paintings. Selected sections of the wall deserve more detailed studies. These are given on seperate pages.


The main inscription on the paintings of the western wall mentions a Samarqand ruler Varxuman who is also known from Chinese imperial histories:

       "A l'époque yong-hoei (650-655), Kao-ti (=l'empereur Kao-tsong) fit de ce territoire le Gouvernement de K'ang-kiu et donna le titre de gouverneur au roi de ce pays, Fou-hou-man." [Tang shu, transl. Chavannes]

The Chinese source proves Varxuman for the years 650-655 AD but without an indication how long his reign was and without an actual date of his accession to the throne. Varxuman may have been king from the late forties to the seventies of the 7th century AD. Most experts agree in this and consequently the paintings in Varxuman's palace are dated to the second half of the 7th century.

In my opinion the paintings themselves give some hints on a much more precise dating.

Most important is the presence of state symbols on the western wall. On the very right end of this wall we recognize a rather complicated system of poles: one central pole, and to the left and to the right of this a set of each five poles. The entire lattice is connected by one horizontal pole. From the central and longer pole two banners hang down. Drums and drum sticks are fastened to the bottom of the staffs. The system as a whole can easily be recognized as a set of "banners and drums", well known as symbols of military and state leadership among the peoples of the steppes. [Read and see more about this...]

Concerning this well defined device, B. I. Maršak [1994] noticed the following: "La scène est complétée par des gardes armés de lances et d'autres pièces d'équipement militaire..." [p. 8]

According to Maršak's intentions, such a weak statement is of course plausible. Nevertheless, we have to interpret here in more detail: There can be no doubt that the representation of 5 + 1 + 5 banners must be the supreme state symbol of the Western Turks, more precisely, that of their leader. Two groups of each five tribes formed the confederation of the On Oq, those ten tribes we know to have been the Western Turks: the five Dulu tribes and the five Nushibi tribes. They all were united under the rulership of a Yabghu-Qaghan who must have had his symbol with the remaining eleventh pole of our device.

The poles on the western wall symbolize this and only this constellation in a precise manner. Therefore, the device must be the Yabghu-Qaghan's own symbol of rulership, not merely a banner of some tribe or even a simple decorative element. A further note should be taken into consideration: No one would have been allowed to usurp such a high ranking and magic emblem, and finally there is no reason for such an usurpation (at least from the Sogdian side!).

The arguments I repeated here have some sonsequences, and I insist on my 1993 results: "The depiction of the device of the Western Turk confederation and its ruling Yabghu-Qaghan (...) on the paintings can be explained only for a period before 657 AD. In this year the empire of the Western Turks collapsed; a Chinese-Uighur army captured the last Qaghan Helu in Ustrûšana and brought him to China." [Mode 1993, p. 32, translated]

This is the decisive point. Every attempt to date the paintings into the sixties of the 7th century - or even later - must be rejected. This is also true for a recent suggestion by S. Yacenko with a date at about AD 661 [Yacenko 1995].


Among the the persons depicted on the western wall many are definitely non-Sogdians. Besides types of East Asian provenience a great number of others mark Turks. Their Turkish attribution is beyond doubt as we have good comparative materials among the great mass of ancient Turkish stone sculptures, the so called balbals. Now, from the Western Turk state symbol (cp. above) on the same wall consequently follows that the Turkish people belong to the very same confederation, i.e they are Western Turks.

In the scenic panorama one can recognize several groups each consisting of three Turks. In each group one person wears a red coloured caftan, the next is white and the last is yellow. Certainly, the different colours mark special functions or ranks but we cannot explain them in detail. These exactly defined groups of Western Turk officials act as guides leading rows of representatives from different countries. [More on the guides or group captains...]

Keeping this in mind we are now faced with one of the key arguments of B. I. Maršak [1994]. In his opinion, all delegations on the western wall move (upwards) to meet and honour a central divine image (now lost) in the upper part of the paintings. The great question with this is: Why should Western Turks act as ceremonial managers of such an important Sogdian state ritual? We have only one answer to this question: Of course Sogdian ritual officials should have lead this procession! But they are absent. Therefore the sense of the scene must be a different one: Western Turk officials lead delegations to honour the Western Turk ruler. The Yabghu-Qaghan himself must have been depicted somewhere in the upper part of the wall, but his image is lost. In this connection we have to mention a special study by Etsuko Kageyama on "Chinese way of depicting foreign delegates in the paintings of Afrasiab" [1998]. The author comes to the conclusion that the Turks from the western wall may be seen as chakars, serving as bodyguards for the Sogdian kings. The proposal of Kageyama is very interesting but of course our reply must remain simply the same as to that of Maršak. Why Turks should act as intimate religious (!) officials in a Sogdian (capital-bound!) ritual? And what about the many remaining Turks from the second register of the paintings? Are they crowds of Turkish bodyguards squatting and drinking in front of a Sogdian divine image? And what does the Western Turk state-symbol should mean in a context like this?


The set of poles we have mentioned as a symbol of Turkish rulership is not the only one of its kind in our paintings. In the southern half of the same western wall, at some higher level, there appears a second symbolic device. It is smaller than the first one and consists of nine poles. Although we have no secure ground it seems very tempting to see in this second set a symbol of rulership, too. The number of nine poles (i.e., standards or banners) immediately recalls the historical situation of Sogd: Chinese sources prove this land as a confederation of city-states - eight states and a ninth as supreme one: Samarqand. Eight plus one makes nine and therefore the second gear must symbolize the rulership of Sogd, i. e. the ruler Varxuman of Samarqand himself. [More on this set of banners...]

Following these interpretations we can draw some conclusions. The paintings on the western wall must have depicted two important persons, a Western Turk ruler and the ruler of Samarqand. We can obviously await their images to have been there, because the highly official state symbols require a physical presence of their owners. Unfortunately the upper parts of the murals are destroyed - and with them the images of the two rulers. [Read more on these supposed images...]

Considering the Turkish group captains leading all delegations, they seem to have served both the Turk and the Sogdian ruler. On the other hand they certainly belonged to a single system of court officials (not merely bodyguards), as is indicated by their uniform coloured caftans. We are inclined to assume that the scene of action is the Turkish court rather than that of Varxuman, i.e., the latter is the guest of the Turk. But the Turkish court may have stayed temporarily at Samarqand, too. Does this point to a (symbolic) supremacy of the Turkish ruler? Of course, there are several other possibilities. Sogdians have created the paintings for Sogdian eyes, and so they may simply symbolize (the desire for) close relations and intimate friendship to a Turkish ruler.

The coexistence of a Turkish Qaghan and the ruler of Samarqand in one and the same pictorial scene calls for explanation: Who was this Turkish souvereign? What about the historical context that makes such a coexistence at least possible?

Final answers are difficult to find. But the following proposal could meet our interpretations very well: Before the final collapse of the Western Turk empire in 657 there were two major leaders of this confederation on stage. From around 641 the Yabghu Shekui, a China-friendly and China-made person, ruled from around 641 AD. He was killed in 651 by Shaboluo Qaghan who succeeded on the throne, acted as a fierce enemy of China and finally lost his power and the whole Qaghanate to the Chinese.

On the western wall of the Afrasiab paintings a great row of Chinese tribute bearers is marching towards the rulers. They may be interpreted as a sign of existing relations between the Western Turks court and the "Son of heaven". In connection with the historical situation in the middle of the 7th century we should conclude that only the China-friendly Yabghu Shekui can be the Turkish ruler who sat side by side with Samarqand's Varxuman. Accepting this - the Afrasiab murals could have been created only sometime between the late forties and the year 651 (death of Yabghu Shekui).

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