Fables and Epics in the Panjikent Murals

The city of Panjikent provides us with several excellent examples of Sogdian literary art, as many of the private homes of this walled city were decorated with extensive mural paintings, depicting deities, heroic epics, and fables. The content of these works of art explores all aspects of the life world of the Sogdians who lived here: their relationship with the divine, their aspirations to wealth and status, and the joys and pains of everyday life.

In order to better understand the role these murals played in Sogdian culture, we must consider the character of the homeowners who paid for the commission of these murals. Unlike the powerful empires that surrounded Sogdiana, the Sogdian city-states did not have a strong centralized government exerting power over every detail of their society. As travelers and traders, Sogdians picked up various elements of other cultures, including languages, religion, technology, and literature, which fused together to create what we understand now as Sogdian culture (Marshak 2002, 232). The murals at Panjikent reflect this cultural mixing, which was such a prominent feature of Sogdian society. Figures from Arab, Indian, and Greek traditions made their way into these mural rooms.

Merchants Feasting

Mural depicting Merchant Feast, 8th Century

The Panjikent murals are also a reflection of the internal lives of the Sogdian merchants and nobles living in the city. The lack of a centralized power led to a high level of autonomy for local rulers, who saw themselves as active public figures whose will determined the course of human events (Marshak 2002, 22). We can see the focus on individuals in the Merchants Feasting mural, uncovered in the excavation of a private home at Panjikent. Each figure in this piece is dressed in a unique style, unlike the repeated forms used in the heroic or holy stories.

A sense of place would have been particularly strong at Panjikent, where only the ruler, the nobles, and the wealthy merchant class were allowed to have homes inside the city walls (Whitfield 2001, 28). The virtue of wealth therefore placed Sogdian merchants physically alongside the nobility, blurring the lines between those with noble lineage and those who had built their wealth through trade. The depiction of heroic epics can be seen as aspirational in this case – the paintings on the walls represented the way in which upper class Sogdians viewed their place in the world.

Blue Hall - Rustam Cycle

Example of three tiered artistic construction from Blue Hall at Panjikent, 8th Century

Battle with Amazons  (eastern and western parts)

Third Tier Illustration: Aesop's Fable of the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs. From the Hall of Amazons at Panjikent, 740 CE.

It is important to note that these literary murals were not only visual, but were designed to be performed in front of an audience. The painter worked with a ‘reciter’, who would read the literary texts while the audience followed along on the wall mural. The painter would be working from a scroll, and would keep the pictorial narrative as close to the pace of the text as possible. With this in mind, we can understand why these murals are so foreground focused, as the narrator would be dealing with one character at a time, much in the way that a play is written (Marshak 2002, 38). The physical layout of the murals placed the audience for this recital seated at eye level with the lowest tier of the art in these rooms: paintings which depicted the wisdom of the common people, in tales such as Aesop’s fables.

We can see three separate aspects of the Sogdians’ worldview in the spatial arrangement most common in these murals: the divine, the heroic, and the mundane. Moving in bands from the top to the bottom, the first grade would reflect the religious beliefs and traditions of the specific family living in the house: a depiction of the figures of the family cult. The second grade of murals, smaller and situated below the first grade, depicted the life of noble warriors, and connected the home’s owner with the heroic literary tradition. The third grade, smaller yet and located at the bottom of the spatial arrangement, depicted scenes of everyday life (Marshak 2002, 18).  This arrangement communicates the hierarchy of moral considerations. 

Notably, this arrangement of subject matter leaves out any representations of local rulers. The model of valor in this arrangement is that of the literary hero, not of any factual king or prince of the time. There are multiple surviving paintings depicting the Rustam Saga – a hero who later appears in the Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh). This reinforces the idea that Sogdians were not under the control of a powerful local state – the nobility and merchant class had much more relative power due to the weakness of local monarchs (Marshak 2002, 21). This results in what is a unique characteristic of Sogdian art: the goal is the glory of the home’s owner and his family, not the glory of God, king, or country. 

Goddess on a Lion

The Goddess Nana depicted seated on a lion. Panjikent, 8th Century.

Enveloped within this notion of glorifying the merchant clcass is the display of cultural aspects gathered from other parts of the known world.  One wood carving in Panjikent depicts the goddess Nana, central to Sogdian iconography, seated on a lion, in the decorative ceiling of the reception room. While this painting is focused on a deity important to the Sogdians in Panjikent, Nana is often posed so as to invoke Sasanian royal imagery, and she is also often depicted with four arms, an image borrowed from Hindu iconography (Lerner 2002, 225).  The Sogdians were not only tolerant of a variety of religious beliefs, but also readily incorporated and adapted foreign belief systems for their own use.

Recent research has drawn connections between the figures used in the Panjikent murals and the Sasanian monumental reliefs, in that we see the use of specific images from the reliefs in the murals at Panjikent.  The rigid set of models established by the Sasanian court seem to have been put to use by the artists of Sogdiana, particularly in the depiction of tales of heroism. In particular, the scene of Rustam’s triumphant return after slaying a dragon recall the postures, characters, and attitude of the Sasanian rock reliefs found in what is today Iran (Ciafaloni 2011, 113).

The murals at Panjikent should be read as a message from the owners of these homes to their visitors. The stylistic program places the family cult at the top of the moral hierarchy, followed by heroes and then by the everyday, captured in the simple lessons contained in Aesop’s fables. While these everyday human concerns are placed at the bottom of the physical hierarchy, the visitor is also aware that the iconographic program that was selected for its ability to depict the glory of the possibilities of man.

Fables and Epics in the Panjikent Murals