Experiencing Use and Space

Ampoule of Saint Mina

Ampulla of St. Menas

Because the Sogdians are so distant in time and space from our twenty-first century reality, and the New York and DC centers that are producing this content, using personal narratives a) speaks to the actual experiences of individuals living at the time of the Sogdians and b) gives another dimension to the geographies concerned. Instead of moving in a straight line from city to city, as we are now accustomed to thinking about travel, narratives provide a sense of a journey marked not in hours to arrival but in obstacles to be surmounted. While ancient maps have been at times geo-referenced to modern ones — that is, twisted to fit today’s more exacting standards of distance and geographical borders — how can we as modern viewers adjust our perspective to see a worldview closer to one that individuals may have experienced at the time? Direct textual evidence from Sogdiana is sparse. But first-person and third-person narratives can come from object sources as well, given that each extant artifact was created by one or more people and used by one or more people.

Narratives may also help with the problems of time and scale that confront scholars of Sogdian material. How can we express how much smaller and yet larger (population vs. difficulty of travel), and how much more and less interconnected in very different ways the world was at the time? Keeping in mind that there is a very disparate group of source material, how can we acknowledge source bias but also the validity of those same biases as lived experience? 

The exact details of how a specific object was used, and its individual owner, are often lost to the vagaries of time. However, it is possible to reconstruct the possible paths of an object, and to set forth a likely scenario for its creation and use, keeping in mind physical and practical considerations.

Xuanzang, Sun Wukong and a horse before Bodhisattva Guanyin

Xuanzang Painting

One source for personal experience and narrative is pilgrimage objects and texts. The story of Xuanzang, who traveled west from China to find Buddhist texts and relics, provides anecdotal descriptions of several Central Asian locales in the seventh century. His travels are depicted in various media, including wall paintings from Cave 3 in Yulin, Anxi, halfway between China and Sogdiana. While Xuanzang’s account is focused on his series of religious experiences and is not necessarily “factual” in its day-to-day activities, it provides a snapshot of the challenges a pilgrim could experience when traveling through seventh-century Central Asia, including being assaulted by a bandit with a knife and being caught in a wind storm while aboard a boat.

Westerner on a Camel

Westerner on a Camel

pilgrim flask from the shrine of St. Menas in Egypt provides another kind of pilgrimage account. The individual owner(s) and specific origins of the flask are now unknown, and are unlikely to come to light. However, the presence of very similar artifacts throughout the Near East and Egypt, including many at the site of Abu Mena itself, corroborates the story told through the specific iconographies depicted on the object. St. Menas was a Roman soldier who was a traveler himself, and was buried at the oasis at what is now called Abu Mena when the camel bearing his body would move no further, interpreted as the will of God indicating his burial place. This specific flask has come to this exhibit in another such series of events: the flask was carried by either a merchant or pilgrim to Samarkand, where it was either sold or treasured as a symbol of a pious pilgrim’s journey. Ultimately, the object served multiple purposes. It presumably carried oil or water on its first journey from the shrine; it traveled to Samarkand, fulfilling its duty as an emblem of the patron saint of travelers and camels; and it was rediscovered in Samarkand before 1917, to become part of the collection of the State Academy of the History of Material Culture and, later, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The travels of many objects were not limited to ancient times: such objects were excavated or looted, and then collected, in large numbers in the early twentieth century.

Reception Hall Reconstruction, Penjikent

Reconstruction of Reception Hall, Penjikent

Wooden ceiling at Panjakent.

Reconstruction of Wooden Ceiling, Penjikent

Pugachenkova suggests that the specific depictions of priestly devotions on the Mulla-Kurgan ossuary indicate that the object was meant for the remains of an important priest who had performed those same devotions in life (Pugachenkova 1994, 235-236). Ossuaries are by their nature individual objects, intended to hold the remains of a person. However, their molded and stamped terracotta forms are inherently reproducible, and many of the same motifs, even the same designs, were reused for many ossuaries. The fire altar and similar devotions appear in other media as well, like this mural from Penjikent. The series of deity figures on the Ishtikhan ossuary, while not depicting specific actions that continue in Zoroastrian practice today like those on the Mulla-Kurgan ossuary, inhabit a continuum of iconographies that spans multiple media and forms part of the lived experience of those in seventh century Sogdiana.

What would an individual’s experience of the built environment be in Sogdiana? Boris Marshak has provided several possible reconstructions of interior spaces, such as this line drawing of a residential reception hall, pictured below alongside extant Sogdian architectural decoration (Marshak 2002, 16, fig. 10). The Kartikeyawinged lion, goddess on a lion, and lion roundel panels from the Penjikent dome belonged to a larger program, as seen in another Marshak reconstruction below (Hermitage 2014, 92). Such environments have almost invariably been dismantled or destroyed since the seventh and eighth centuries. More evidence exists for the ornamentation and decoration of these spaces than for their construction: but these pieces of ornamentation, such as these wooden panels from a dome of just such a reception hall or these murals from the northern chapel at Temple II, carry their own tales of lived experience. The panels were preserved accidentally from the destruction in 722 when Penjikent fell out of Sogdian control, and now tell a story of both the wealth of their original owner and the conflict that changed the geopolitics of Sogdiana in the eighth and later centuries. The murals were not destroyed but rather covered over, illustrating shifting priorities of ornamentation and indeed priorities of worship following the same conquest of 722.

The physical negotiations of use and space discussed above directly relate to the incorporation of varied iconographies and influences in Sogdian art and practice. The destruction of 722 is a different kind of the syncretism to be discussed below, at once illustrating the range of decoration found in the abovementioned buildings while delineating the start of a new era.

Experiencing Use and Space