Music Making: Representations of Musicians and Instruments in Sogdian Art

Statuettes of Musicians

Statuettes of Musicians

Sogdians enjoyed a variety of entertainment including musicians, dancers, acrobats, and probably storytellers (Liu 2011, 60). Evidence of the importance of entertainment, especially of music and dance can be found in Sogdian art. Perhaps as early as the second century before the common era, Sogdians had been depicting musicians in their art. Terracotta figurines of musicians dating between the first or second century before the common era and the fourth century of the common era are among the earliest representations of musicians (Kidd 2003, 35). Across various forms of art, musicians are shown playing a variety of instruments, including flutes, drums, cymbals, and different types of lutes, or stringed instruments (Liu 2011, 60; Turnbill 1981, 197-199).

Ruler Enthroned

Ruler Enthroned from Panjikent Room 50 Sector XXIII

Some Sogdians decorated their homes with murals of religious imagery, scenes of daily Sogdian life, and epics and fables (Juliano and Lerner 2002, 231). Musicians and music can be found throughout these paintings. The murals at Panjikent are an excellent example of this. In an epic,when Rustam appears to be giving his daughter in marriage to the warrior who rescued her, there are musicians amongst the attendants in the king’s court (Marshak 2002, 116; Hermitage Amsterdam 2014, 184). In the Rustam Cycle of the Blue Hall, a female harpist performs a song of praise at celebration following a victory (Marshak 2002, 57). An orchestra of Chinese women are shown on a cornice in one of rooms (Azarpay 1981, 60). Musicians were used as a stylistic element as well. The graceful figure of a harpist in Room 1 of Sector VI is intended to hold the viewers’ attention with its curved outlines, contrasting the angular outlines of the battles scenes which follow it (Azarpay 1981, 169). Places of worship were also decorated. Some scholars have also noted that is rare for cultic paintings to lack music or dancing (Marshak and Raspopova 1994, 199). In Temple II, in the painting of a goddess, there is a musical instrument with bell attachments (Azarpay 1981, 71 and 140). Some of the rooms in which these paintings are located may have been used for theatrical or musical performances or for banquets which likely would include music (Azarpay 1981, 194). While musicians or music may not be the primary focus of these examples from the paintings at Panjikent, the prevalence of musicians and music is a testament to the importance of music to the Sogdians.

Stone bed, Anjia Tomb

An Qie's Tomb

Almost all of the decorations on Sogdian tomb furnishings include a banquet consisting of a platform with food and drink, attendants, musicians, and sometimes dancers (Cheng 2008, 104-105). Thus, the imagery of banquets with dancers and musicians have become to be expected to be found on Sogdian tombs in China (Lerner 2001, 154).Scholars have noted that larger surface area of the stone panels for funerary furniture, like those of Sogdian tombs in China, allowed for an increase of imagery with musicians and dancers found on Central Asian ossuaries (Cheng 2008, 97).  On Wirkak’s tomb, there are a several scenes with musicians. In one scene, Wirkak and his wife are under a pavilion for a grand reception with music and dance, possibly celebrating when Wirkak was promoted to sabao. In a second scene, musicians play at drinking party (Dien 2009, 45-46; Grenet 2007, 463-464). An Qie’s funeral bed shows the Sogdian swirl dance, which would have been accompanied by musicians, three times (Hansen 2015, 144-145). One of these instances is at a banquet with a Turkish chief. An Qie banqueting with a Turkish chief may also be evidence that merchants along the trade routes, many of whom were Sogdian, exchanged music and wine for protection while traveling (Liu, 63).

Tomb of Shi Jun (Wirkak) (b.484) and his wife

Wirkak's Tomb

In addition to banquets, some tombs seem to show musicians in a more religious or heavenly settings. The lintel above the doorway of An Qie’s tomb shows a musician among the clouds with a priest-bird (Hansen 2015, 145). Musicians and the half-man, half-bird priest figures are shown together on the outer panels of the south wall of Wirkak’s sarcophagus. Above a carved window-like grill are kneeling musicians, while below the grill are the priest-birds (Lerner 2001, 154). The most notable heavenly scene is a scene on Wirkak’s tomb where Wirkak and his wife appear to be entering paradise (Hansen 2015, 146). This paradise has been interpreted as the Zoroastrian paradise garô-dmâna, meaning “House of the Song of Praise,” due to the the winged musicians, winged and crowned horses, and the crowned human figures with streamers flying behind them (Grenet 2007, 468; Hansen 2015, 146). A group of musicians also leads the couple across the Chinwad bridge into paradise (Grenet 2007, 469-470). Scholars have observed that heavenly residents are often shown playing musical instruments while accompanying a deity (Marshak and Raspopova 1994, 199).

Camel with musicians

Camel with Musicians

Sogdian Dancer [Lerner]

Sogdian Dancer

As Sogdians settled in China, they became well-known for their music and dancing. By the Tang dynasty (618-907), Sogdians musicians and dancers were so popular that Chinese artisans created Tang dynasty tricolor figures depicting them. Sometimes the musicians or dancers are depicted riding a horse or a camel as shown in the “Camel with musicians” and the “Camel with a Musical Group on its Back” (Liu 2011, 60). Chinese sources record performers from Samarkand, Kish, and Chach entertaining the Tang court with music and dance (Rose 2010, 418). Some documents, such as The Biographies of Royal Favorites in the Bei Qi shu (History of Northern Qi) claim that foreign dancers and musicians were even given high status because of their skills (Cheng 2008, 98). There are also records of Sogdian cities offering musicians and dancers among their diplomatic gifts to the Tang court (de la Vaissère 2005, 138).

The prevalence of representations of musicians and music in Sogdian art in secular and religious scenes and the Sogdians’ reputation in China as musicians express the importance of music in Sogdian life at home and abroad.


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de la Vaissière, Étienne. 2005. Sogdian Traders: A History. Translated by James Ward. Leiden: Brill.

Music Making: Representations of Musicians and Instruments in Sogdian Art