Detail of a Sogdian mural depicting members of the Chaghanian mission to the royal court at Samarkand
First discovered in 1913, and later completely excavated in the 1960s, the room of murals at Afrasiab provides some insight into the diplomatic relationships of Varkhuman, ruler of Samarkand during the 650s (Whitfield 2001, 110.). Sogdian inscriptions written directly on the mural identify the emissaries as coming from Chaghanian, Shash, and elsewhere (Azarpay 1981, 200). On an adjacent wall, Varkhuman receives ambassadors from China and Korea, as well as a group of mountain-dwellers, all bearing gifts for the Sogdian leader (Tucker 2015, 104). The murals, dating to approximately 660 CE, are known collectively as the Hall of Ambassadors (Room 1). The south wall depicts a procession of emissaries, led by a female figure on a white elephant. The inscription alongside this figure suggest that she is making the journey to Samkarkand in order to be Varkhuman’s bride. She is followed by her entourage, mounted on camels and horses, bearing gifts. These gifts include two pairs of white birds, which have been interpreted variously as geese or swans (Tucker 2015, 104). The size of the entourage and the nature of the gifts suggest either a wedding or a pilgrimage to an ancestral shrine as the reason for the visit (Afrosiab Museum, 2016).
Varkhuman himself is depicted not on a throne, but rather approaching the incoming envoy. This points to the fact that rather than acting as a passive monarch, receiving gifts and visitors, the ruler of Samarkand was expected to behave diplomatically, to flatter and welcome foreign dignitaries (Marshak 2002, 235). This particular set of expectations would align with the operations of the Sogdian state apparatus, which was concerned largely with maintaining the viability and profitability of the trade routes that sustained the income of Sogdian merchants. The murals appear not in a palace, but in a private home, providing further evidence of the blurred lines between the aristocracy and the monarchy (Iranica Online, 2016).
While only the ambassadors from Chaghanian and Shash are identified by inscriptions included in the murals themselves, the identities of the other figures can be derived from analysis of their garments and physical representations. The Chinese ambassadors are identified by their gifts of silk and traditional Chinese clothing. The portrayal of the Korean envoys, however, seems to be based on a formula borrowed from Chinese iconography, rather than drawn from life (Iranica Online, 2016). This further complicates the question of the nature of these paintings, in that they may be a conglomeration of various events, or may not be depicting any particular historical event at all. Whatever the origin of these murals may have been, it is clear that the intent is to honor Varkhuman, and to depict him as a pious ruler and a skilled statesman. The murals show us that Samarkand was a locus of power within the empires of Central Asia, even as it was flanked by far more powerful states on all sides.
1. Afrosiab Wall Painting Museum website. http://contents.nahf.or.kr/goguryeo/afrosiab/english.html
2. Afrasiab Wall Paintings II, Encyclopedia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afrasiab-ii-wall-paintings-2.
3. Azarpay,Guity. Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. University of California Press, 1981. Archive.org
4. Marshak, Boris, “The Sogdians in Their Homeland”, from Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China (New York: Abrams, 2002).
5. Tucker, Jonathan. The Silk Road – Central Asia: A Travel Companion.
6. Whitfield, Susan. Life Along the Silk Road (Oakland, University of California Press, 2001).
mid 7th century
South wall of Room 1, Institute of Archaeology, Samarkand
Additional Research Metadata
Azarpay, Sogdian Painting, pl 21