Rustam Epics 2 from Room 50
The Rustam Room has become one of the most recognizable surviving examples of Sogdian art. The Rustam Cycle was uncovered in the excavation of Panjikent, a Sogdian walled city which flourished from the fifth through the first half of the eighth century (Marshak 2002, 231). The Rustam Cycle appears in the midst of epics and fables from a wide variety of sources, all represented on the walls of Panjikent homes. The tales found in this collection of mural paintings cover a huge range, from the Greek Aesop’s Fables to the Indian Panchatantra (Marshak 2002, 231).
The Rustam story is of particular interest as it appears to have traveled far and wide throughout the various territories of Central Asia. The story is traceable to two points of origin: the Saka legends of nomadic Iranian peoples, and the Avestan legends that detailed the history of the kings of Iran (Marshak 2002, 34). In the late tenth century, long after the city of Panjikent had been abandoned due to Arab invaders in the eighth century, the Rustam Cycle was published as a part of the Shah-nahmeh, the Persian Book of Kings. That epic poem stands as a semi-historical account of the history of Iran, making the depiction of the Rustam Cycle particularly useful as we work to place Sogdians in the larger history of the region.
The Rustam epic murals serve as a manifestation of the worldview of Sogdian merchants in Panjikent. The city itself was small and carefully contained – the city walls surrounded the homes of only the ruler, the nobles, and the merchants (Whitfield 2001, 28). By virtue of living within these walls, the owners of these homes were designated as successful. The Sogdian city-states all developed with a level of autonomy, despite the fact that the whole of Sogdiana remained under foreign control. The story of Rustam is one of an epic hero fighting against a series of demons – it is similar in character to the Panchatantra and the Homeric epics of Greece. The inclusion of this story on the walls of a reception hall may reflect the owner’s sense of human mastery over his surroundings. In a society largely controlled by local elites as opposed to a centralized state apparatus, this belief in the power of the individual lines up well with the reality of the time.
Certain design elements of the Rustam Cycle point to the complex mixture of influences that were present in Sogdian art and literature. Take for example, the appearance of the head of Rustam in these murals. With a pointed skull and heavy chin, Rustam himself closely resembles the head that appears on Hepthalite coins in the fifth and sixth century (Marshak 2002, 37). We can also see subtle references to Zoroastrianism, such as the dog that appears in the scene as Rustam sets out to do battle. The dog may be a reference to the Zoroastrian funerary rite in which a dog viewed the corpse three times throughout the ritual. The dog is depicted chewing on a bone, which may also refer to the Zoroastrian tradition of allowing animals to pick clean the bones of the deceased before burial (Marshak 2002, 36). Taken as a whole, the Rustam cycle is a striking example of specifically Sogdian art, which allows the viewer to trace the various threads that make up the fabric of the Sogdian literary tradition.
Marshak, Boris. Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002).
Marshak, Boris, “The Sogdians in Their Homeland”, from Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China (New York: Abrams, 2002).
Whitfield, Susan. Life Along the Silk Road (Oakland, University of California Press, 2001).