In antiquity Samarkand was the capital of the Persian province of Sogdiana. Its language, culture, and “Zoroastrian” religion closely approximated those of the Persians. Following its conquest by Alexander, its strategic position and fertile soil made Sogdiana a coveted prize for Late Antique invaders of Central Asia. Around 660 CE — at the dawn of Arab invasion — local king Varkhuman promoted the execution of a unique painted program in one of his private rooms. Each wall was dedicated to a specific population: the north wall, the Chinese; the west, the Sogdians themselves; the east, the Indians and possibly the Turks. The south wall is probably the continuation of the scene on the west wall. In Chinese written sources, some support for this concept of the “division of the world” can be found. Accidentally discovered during Soviet times, the room was named “Hall of the Ambassadors” due to the representations of different peoples. However, many aspects of its painted program remain obscure. This study offers new ideas for better identifications of the rituals celebrated by the people on the different walls during precise moments of the year.
About the Author:
Matteo Compareti (PhD 2005) is adjunct assistant professor in Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California-Berkeley.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Afrasiab painting, also called the Ambassadors' Painting, is a rare example of Sogdianart. It was discovered in 1965 when the local authorities decided the construction of a road in the middle of Afrāsiāb mound, the old site of pre-MongolSamarkand. It is now preserved in a special museum on the Afrāsiāb mound.
The painting dates back to the middle of the 7th century CE. On the four walls of the room of a private house, three or four different countries neighbouring Central Asia are depicted. On the northern wall China (a Chinese festival, with the Empress on a boat, and the Emperor hunting), on the Southern Wall Samarkand (i.e.; the Iranian world: a religious funerary procession in honor of the ancestors during the Nowruz festival), on the eastern wall India (as the land of the astrologers and of the pygmies, but the painting is much destroyed there).
The topic on the main wall, the western wall facing the entrance is debated between specialists. Turkish soldiers are escorting ambassadors coming from various countries of the world (Korea, China, Iranian principalities etc.). There are three main hypotheses. The leading expert on Sogdian painting, the excavator of Panjikent, B. Marshak points out that Sogdian painting, gods are always depicted on the top of the main wall. However, as the Turks are guiding the embassies but are not themselves ambassadors, it has been suggested also that the Turkish Qaghan, then lord of inner and central Asia, might be depicted there. A Chinese text is indeed saying that the idea of the "Four Lords of the World", here China, India, Iran and Turks, is depicted on the walls of palaces near Samarkand precisely during this period, and this would perfectly fit the four walls of this room. The last hypothesis makes use of an inscription mentioning the king of Samarkand to propose the idea that the ambassadors are presenting their gifts to him.
In early 2014, France declared that it would finance the restoration of the Afrasiab painting.
The Great Procession - La Grande Procession Description from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afrasiab-ii-wall-paintings-2 :"The wall painting shows four geese and, more remarkably, an un-mounted horse, accompanied by men wearing the padām, the traditional face mask of Mazdean priests, and two men with sacrificial maces, sitting atop a camel. This scene could be interpreted as a parade of priests and sacrificial animals, which is, moreover, followed by a larger horse with a large rider."
Chinese Boat Le bateau Chinois Description from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afrasiab-ii-wall-paintings-2 : "On a pond crowded with aquatic creatures, musicians and singers sit in a boat with a prow shaped like a bird’s head. A lady, larger than her attendants, is feeding the fish, while a composite winged monster is recognizable beneath the boat. One man is leading two horses to water, and another man, half-naked and carrying a stick, is wading into it. Mode supports the interpretation that this scene is a reference to the negotiation of a marriage alliance. The local king or his overlord is trying to marry a Chinese princess, and the larger lady in the boat is on her way to Samarqand, even though Chinese ladies customarily traveled in carts.".
Envoys- Envoyés des principautés voisines portant des rouleaux de soie et des colliers- Western wall drawing Description from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afrasiab-ii-wall-paintings-2 : The western wall is the main wall, and faces the entrance. It shows several groups of ambassadors bearing gifts — Chinese (with plain silk), Iranians (with necklaces and embroidered silk), men from the mountains (with yak tails), as well as Koreans (without gifts and with feathers on their headgear) — between groups of Turkish soldiers, seated or guiding the embassies. The procession is directed toward a central figure, now lost, at the top of the wall.
the ruined site of ancient and medieval Samarqand in the northern part of the modern town.
i. The Archeological Site
Afrāsīāb is the ruined site of ancient and medieval Samarqand in the northern part of the modern town. The term Qaḷʿa-ye Afrāsīāb appears in written sources only from the end of the 17th century. The name is popularly connected with that of the epic king of Tūrān, Afrāsīāb, but scholars see in it a distortion of Tajik Parsīāb (Sogdian Paršvāb), “Above the black river,” i.e., the Sīāhāb or Sīāb, which bounds the site on the north. The area of Afrāsīāb covers 219 hectares, and the thickness of the archeological strata reaches 8-12 m. The ruined site has the shape of an irregular triangle, bounded on the east by the irrigation canal Āb-e Mašhad, and on the west by the deep Aṭčapar ravine, which in ancient times played the part of a moat. Inside these limits Afrāsīāb appears as a hillocky waste with several depressions sunk over what had been town squares and reservoirs. In the northern part rises the citadel (90 by 90 m) with a ramp along its eastern facade. The ruined site is surrounded by earth banks, remnants of fortress walls belonging to four successive ages.
Archeological excavations carried on in Afrāsīāb since the end of the 19th century, and very actively in the 1960-70s, have supplied sequences of the site’s material and artistic culture and so have established the basic chronology of its history. The settling of the territory of Afrāsīāb began in the 7th-6th centuries B.C. It was already a city occupying almost the entire area of the present site and surrounded by a powerful fortress wall of rectangular, unbaked bricks on an adobe platform. The supply of water was ensured by a canal and open reservoirs (discovered in the eastern and northern parts of Afrāsīāb). The archeological complex of that time is represented by wheel-turned pottery vessels of cylindrical or conical-cylinder shape with a slanting base, grain crushers, and leaf-shaped (and for the 5th-4th centuries B.C., three-bladed) bronze arrowheads. The city at the end of this period is identified with Marakanda, mentioned in connection with Alexander’s expedition into Soḡd in 329-327 B.C. by Arrian and Quintus Curtius.
The archeological strata of the 4th-1st centuries B.C. have been traced in various zones of Afrāsīāb. In the northern and western parts of the ruined site fortress walls have been uncovered built of square unbaked brick with internal passages, loopholes, and a lower projecting shelf. Dwellings have been excavated. Specific for this archeological complex are high quality wheel-turned ceramics (thin, polished, red angāb goblets, cups, vases, and dishes) showing the influence of the Hellenistic tradition. One of the goblets bears the Greek name Nikis, while among the terracottas there are heads of the helmeted Athena and Arethusia type. Characteristic finds are bronze, three-bladed arrow-heads, ornaments, and gem seals. Coins of Antiochus Soter and of the Greco-Bactrian kings Eutidemus and Eucratides witness to trade relations.
Contrary to the opinion held by some researchers that during the Kushan period (1st century B.C.—first centuries A.D.) the city was passing through a period of decline, a number of scholars regard it as having flourished, a view confirmed by excavations of recent years. These have uncovered monumental residential and religious buildings and workshops, in particular the quarter of ceramicists and metalworkers. During that period the leaden aqueduct Jūy-e Arzīz was conducted from Darḡom. A special defense wall was built around Afrāsīāb in a large district of Samarqand. The archeological complex contains ceramic vessels of high quality, on arrowheads, stone projectiles, bone styluses, intaglio gems, a treasure of silver obols bearing the figure of a bowman (which enjoyed a long circulation), glass vessels and ornaments, blue paste Egyptian objects for cult use. Among modeled artifacts are numerous statuettes of goddesses of aristocratic or popular type, musicians playing lutes and horizontal and vertical flutes, horses, and other figures.
In the 4th-5th centuries A.D., a time of crisis in the slave-holding society and the beginning of the shaping of feudalism, the inhabited area of Afrāsīāb shrank. The fortress walls encircled only part of the territory of the town, and burials took place in the ancient wall. The quality of the pottery sharply deteriorates; the shape of the vessels alters, and many are hand modeled. Horrific figures predominate in terracottas. In the 6th-7th centuries Samarqand was the capital of Soḡd ruled by the local Eḵšīd dynasty. The town on the site of Afrāsīāb is surrounded by a double wall with moats having four gates—of Bokhara, China, Kaš and Nowbahār. In the eastern part of Afrāsīāb were situated metalworkers’ and potters’ workshops with two-storied kilns. The residential quarter of the aristocracy and the palace complex of the Eḵšīds with reception halls, surrounding passages, and out-buildings have been explored in the center of the site. The main hall of the palace was ornamented with monumental wall paintings. There are scenes of a solemn procession, the bringing of gifts in visitations to the ruler of Samarqand Varhuman by envoys from various countries, including Čaḡānīān (indicated by a Sogdian inscription). Apparently to this period belong the wooden sculptures of animals preparing for combat which were set up in the town square; they are recorded by Ebn Ḥawqal in the 4th-10th century. Terracottas attain exceptional variety; there are statuettes of Sogdian and Turk horsemen, youths and young girls in royal headdress with symbolic ornaments, demonic creatures, and a Sogdian paladin accoutered and armed. Remains of bones, preserved according to Zoroastrian custom, were frequently placed in ossuaries with modeled ornamentation; particularly expressive are small, Orphean-type, sorrowing heads.
In the year 93/712 Samarqand was conquered by the Arabs. The walls of Afrāsīāb were partly destroyed by them after a rising of the inhabitants, and the main Sogdian temple was converted into a mosque. The town was largely depopulated, and Arab cemeteries appeared in the waste spaces. The situation changes in the 3rd-4th/9th-10th centuries, when Samarqand became part of the Samanid possessions. This period is marked by prosperity, and Afrāsīāb then became known as the šahrestān of Samarqand. The entire area was again surrounded by a wall with four gates (of Bokhara, the East, Nowbahārān, and Iron). In the northern part arose the citadel (kohandez) with its two gates, the palace of the ruler, and the prison. A water supply was ensured by the ancient leaden aqueduct, which distributed through three main branches. From the south and west of Afrāsīāb a trade and craft suburb grew up, surrounded (together with gardens and estates) by its own wall, Dīvār-e Qīāmat. In several parts of the ruined site inhabited quarters of the time have been uncovered, showing streets, stone pavements, water conduits, and sewers. Oriental geographers of the 4th/10th century mention in Samarqand (at Afrāsīāb) a Friday mosque, the palace of the Samanids, castles, and caravansaries. The excavation of the palace, with its vast audience hall, large dwelling house with an ayvān, and square, domed reception room, brought to light rich decoration—stucco carved into stylized plant and geometrical designs. A potters’ quarter covering an area of 4,000 square meters has been explored. It contained some fifteen ceramicists’ households yielding highly artistic glazed pottery.
In the middle of the 5th/11th century under the Qarakhanid Tamḡač Khan Ebrāhīm (r. 444-60/1052-68) and at the beginning of the 7th/13th under the Ḵᵛārazmšāh Sultan Moḥammad (r. 596-617/1200-28), attempts were made to transform Afrāsīāb into a new administrative center. Building activity increased in the 5th-6th/11th-12th centuries, but mainly outside the limits of Afrāsīāb in the inhabited šahr-e bīrūn, while Afrāsīāb remained on the whole an enclosed administrative and defensive center. A cathedral mosque was enlarged and to a great extent rebuilt. In the 6th/12th century there developed the cult of Šāh-e Zenda (“the Living King”) around the spurious tomb of Qoṯam b. ʿAbbās; a mausoleum was built over it, and several other buildings (partly preserved) were erected: a madrasa, a minaret, and an ayvān with some carved wooden details. The palace of the Qarakhanid rulers was constructed at Afrāsīāb, as well as the mausoleum of the Qarakhanid Ebrāhīm b. Ḥasan, which is faced with tiles of carved terracotta.
In Moḥarram, 617/March, 1220 Samarqand was seized by the army of Čingiz Khan and destroyed. After that event life in Afrāsīāb never recovered, and the town became a ruined site. In the 9th/15th century Afrāsīāb is mentioned under the name of Bālā Ḥeṣār as a “fortress of former days.” Some of the poor lived in cave dwellings on its sheer loess slopes, while the building of the Šāh-e Zenda complex still proceeded on the southern slope of the weather-beaten medieval wall. Under Tīmūr and Uluḡ Beg there arose along a paved path and steps a group of mausoleums, memorial mosques, and domed passages (čārṭāqs) brightly faced with glazed tiles. Up to the 20th century a cemetery spread out over the waste area around Šāh-e Zenda. Among the few later erections at Afrāsīāb are the madrasa and summer mosque of Šāh-e Zenda, the tomb of Ḵᵛāǰa Dānīāl in the northern area of the ruins, and the mosque of Ḥażrat-e Ḵeżr (second half of the 19th century, rebuilt in 1919 by the architect ʿAbd-al-Qāder b. Bāqī Samarqandī). Since 1923 the ruins of Afrāsīāb have been under state protection, and in 1966 the site was declared a state archeological reserve. The Afrāsīāb Museum was founded there, housing the material of many years’ archeological research.
S. S. Tashkhozhaev, Khudozhestvennaya polivnaya keramika Samarkanda IX-nachalo XIII v., Tashkent, 1967.
A. I. Terenozhkin, “Voprosy istorii ob arkheologicheskoĭ periodizatsii drevnego Samarkanda,” VDI, 1947, no. 4, pp. 127-35.
Idem, “Voprosy periodizatsii i khronologii drevneĭshego Samarkanda,” Sovetskaya arkheologiya, 1972, no. 3, pp. 90-99.
V. L. Vyatkin, Afrasiab—gorodishche drevnego Samarkanda, Samarkand and Tahskent, 1927.
(G. A. Pugachenkova and È. V. Rtveladze)
(G. A. Pugachenkova and Ī. V. Rtveladze)
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 28, 2011
This article is available in print. Vol. I, Fasc. 6, pp. 576-578
Cite this entry:
G. A. Pugachenkova and Ī. V. Rtveladze, “Afrasiab i. The Archeological Site,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/6, pp. 576-578; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afrasiab-the-ruined-site (accessed on 14 March 2014).