Syncretism

The Sogdian world is known for its multiplicity of traditions, religious and otherwise. The variations in temple construction and religious practice throughout the nearby regions, as well as in everyday and elite iconographies, illustrate the many influences felt and expressed throughout Sogdiana (and by Sogdians outside of Sogdiana). Religions may be easier to delineate from contemporary (or later) canonized texts, but the cross-cultural exchanges continued in everyday contexts as well. How were concepts, iconographies, and technologies put to new uses? Were the divisions between religious traditions less or more concrete?

The Roman concept of “spolia” forms an apt lens with which to examine syncretism in Sogdiana. As early neighbors, and perhaps trading partners, the Sogdians borrowed much from the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. While not physical conquerors of extensive territory, the Sogdians’ seeming mercantile dominance must have had consequences for the culture inside Sogdiana itself. As new goods and peoples came along the trade routes, were they purposefully brought back as symbols of power? How did these new ideas and iconographies affect or become incorporated into the expressions of hierarchy as seen in material culture?

Religion formed a large part of personal and collective identities in the medieval world. While the lack of many personal narratives and texts precludes direct analysis of Sogdian ideas about religion, the iconographies and commodities that were both exchanged and employed throughout Sogdiana can illustrate the interrelationships between different religious and cultural traditions.

Kartikeya Panel from the Wooden Dome in Panjikent

Drawing of Kartikeya Panel, Penjikent

One such example of syncretism through an object is the series of wooden panels from a residential building in Panjikent (Site XXIII-57, 7th century CE, Inv. SA-16230 and SA-16231). The carved wooden blocks formed part of a two-tiered dome ceiling. Two of the best preserved examples illustrate a lion and hero, and a deity with a peacock. While the aesthetic style of the carving is Sogdian, the pose of the deity is Indian, and there is no extant contemporary parallel for the composition in which a rampant winged lion faces a hero, who grasps the lion’s mane and stabs the animal with his sword (Hermitage 2014, 199, cat. 130). Larisa Kulakova traces this composition back to Achaemenid precursors from the sixth to fourth centuries BCE, such as this ornament currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

The “deity with a peacock” panel provides a more contemporary composition. Boris Marshak drew a connection between this Sogdian object — physically integrated into a residential building in Panjikent — and the Indian god of war known as Kartikeya or Murugan, who was at times depicted as a warrior seated on or above a peacock, as in this North Indian sculpture from the eighth century.

In geographies and use and space as well, the large stretches of time over which this project spans may be obstacles to a deeper understanding of any one specific place and time. Hopefully, this can be overcome with an interconnected series of points, grounded by objects and personal narratives. Particularly with syncretism, thinking diachronically may actually help in providing further specificity, as long as we acknowledge the temptation to oversimplify by finding overarching trends, which can be counterbalanced with the realities of physical remains and voices in personal narratives.

Pilgrimage objects, from the multiple religions that coexisted in Sogdiana and among Sogdiana’s trading partners, showcase the iconographies that were identified strongly with particular religions and religious sites. One such pilgrimage object, a flask from the shrine of St. Menas in Egypt, conveys a sense of place through its symbols. It serves as a marker of how such iconographies could travel over distances: while it was carried from Egypt to Sogdiana as a religious object, it also carried its form, material, and artistic style, exposing possibly unfamiliar viewers in Panjikent to a new set of cultural ideas.

The flask also makes use of a motif that is familiar to those who study Central Asian art: the pearl roundel. Traditionally thought to be a Sasanian motif, recent research by Judith Lerner suggests that it may have been of Sogdian origin, widely imitated in Byzantium and China. In the context of this flask, the motif likely was borrowed from Coptic textiles.

This silver dish depicting scenes from the Book of Joshua illustrates another take on syncretism. While the subject matter has been identified within a specifically Christian biblical context, the iconographies are not unique to Christian art. The sun and the moon at the top of the dish, held in place by the power of God, served as symbols of divine power in many, if not all, ancient and medieval religions. Those familiar with the Book of Joshua would have recognized the reference. But those familiar with other iconographies would have seen similar cues of divine power, even without the specifically Christian (or Jewish, as the Book of Joshua is also part of the Nevi’im, or second part of the Hebrew Bible) textual reference. This mural from Penjikent illustrates a goddess holding the sun and moon in her hands, a direct visual link to the same iconography of divine power seen in the Jericho dish.

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

Tomb of Shi Jun and His Wife

 Such reuse and reinterpretation of iconographies is not limited to art found within Sogdiana. China, in particular, remains a rich source for information about the Sogdians due to their trade connections and longstanding Sogdian outpost communities (see Grenet 2007). Merchants such as Shi Jun (also known as Wirkak, 484-579), who was the leader of a Sogdian community in China in the sixth century, would have carried out a fluid exchange of goods, ideas, and religions. This holds true in both life and death: the goods traded by Shi Jun likely would have borne mixed iconographies such as the objects mentioned above, but it is the tomb of Shi Jun and his wife that has become a physical marker of the cross-influences of Sogdians in China. The scenes depict a caravan and some Zoroastrian rituals, but they are depicted on an underground tomb, contrary to the Zoroastrian practice of exposing the dead for later burial in ossuaries.

Each Sogdian object — and each non-Sogdian object that came to interact with Sogdian peoples — carries its own syncretic ideas. Whether a pilgrim flask from Egypt, wooden panel with Indian influence from Penjikent, or ossuary from Ishtikhan, these objects help define the fluid and wide-ranging boundaries of Sogdian art and culture, though perhaps it is more apt to say there were no boundaries. Instead, new ideas and influences came and went freely, and were reinterpreted in ways foreign to their original creators, just as religions and deities found new links and identities.

Syncretism