Uncovered during the Panjikent Expedition in 1961, the murals found in room XVI/10 depict a group of Sogdian merchants enjoying the fruits of their commercial labor. The murals appear in the home of a wealthy merchant, in fact the largest private home uncovered in Panjikent, in a room housing a fire altar. This home is unique in that it holds two fire altar rooms; the mural depicting the merchant feast appears in the larger of the two, which may have been used as a gathering place for the owner’s extended family. The group of figures in this mural may have represented a form of group portrait for the owner’s family or business associates (Sims 2002, 121). We know from the excavation of this home that the owner possessed a small bazaar on his property, which held sixteen stalls for various types of vendors (Sims 2002, 121). He would have made some of his living as a landlord in this way, in addition to the income generated by trade along the silk routes (Marshak 2002, 14). This was a common arrangement among the homes of nobles at Panjikent, and allowed for the merchant class to flourish there from the fifth to early eighth centuries.
At the time of painting, this mural would have covered the entire room. However, only eight figures survive, depictions of a row of men seated cross-legged on a Turkish carpet. Each figure is depicted with a gold belt, a dagger, and a small purse on their belt, all of which identifies them as merchants. At this time in Sogdiana, aristocrats were depicted as wearing their swords at all times, even at banquets. It is the lack of swords that truly marks these figures as merchants rather than noblemen (Marshak 2002, 14). The clothing and objects depicted in this scene provide a detailed image of the lives of the Sogdian merchants living at Panjikent. Each figure is depicted in specific, individualized garments, lending further credence to the notion that these images were intended to portray specific individuals. Chinese, Persian, and Byzantine styles of fabric patterns are all present, indicating the wide reach of this particular group of merchants as well as the range of foreign materials that were available to this class of Panjikent merchants (Sims 2002, 121).
The feast mural dates to approximately 740 CE, which was during the height of artistic production in Panjikent. Most paintings that have been excavated date to the second half of the seventh to the first half of the eighth centuries, when Sogdiana was under the control of Tang China. Far fewer paintings date to the sixth century, when Sogdiana was under the control of the Hepthalites and the Turks (Kageyama 2007, 11). The mural of the merchant feast thus allows the viewer access to the high period of prosperity and artistic production in Panjikent. The rich garments and abundant feast make it clear that the merchant class in Panjikent was thriving at the time that this mural was painted. Moreover, the fact that the homeowner was able to commission such a piece shows us that he had the funds to do so, and that he was willing to expend resources in a conspicuous way for the enjoyment of his family and associates.
1. Kageyama, Etsuko. The Winged Crown and the Triple-crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their Relation to the Hepthalite Occupation of Central Asia. Journal of Inner Asian Art & Archaeology, Volume 2, 2007, Pp. 11-22.
2. Marshak, Boris. Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002).
3. “Merchants Feasting” Omeka entry, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/admin/items/show/268.
4. Sims, Elanor, et al. Peerless Images: Persian Painting and Its Sources. Yale University Press: 2002.
First half of the 8th century
Panjikent, Sogdiana, Site XVI-10
136 x 364cm
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Additional Research Metadata
This mural was on the southern wall of a room thought to have served the function of a domestic sanctuary or ‘chapel’ in a rich man’s dwelling. Although the function of such rooms at Panjikent is not entirely clear, scholars see them as being intended for personal, family, use, rather than as part of more official or public life. Alexander Belenitsky, leader of the expedition, suggested that feasting figures covered all the walls in the chapel. Only eight figures survive, including this fragment with ‘portraits’ of six men seated in a row, legs crossed in Turkish style, on a patterned carpet. They wear silk kaftans and have daggers, purses, narrow cases and small pieces of fabric suspended from their belts; they hold gold bowls and fans. Since there are some differences between the figures, these may be not abstract depictions but representations of specific individuals. The third figure from left is of slightly different proportions, notably in the width of his waist and shoulders, and his knees cross over those of his neighbours. Such a device may have been used to indicate superiority of age or social class. The figure furthest left, turned slightly towards his neighbour, wears a patterned kaftan with a red lining and holds a cup or rhyton with both hands. The gold vessels held by the banqueters reflect the forms and decoration of contemporary metalwork.
All the men wear rich attire: long open kaftans made from Chinese silk damask, the borders of coloured textiles with different patterns. In two instances the ornament is familiar to the viewer from a painting showing birds with necklaces in their beaks (e.g. cat.122). In colouring, this mural is unique: it is painted against a subdued red ground and every colour that appears in the costume of each individual is echoed elsewhere. The man in the red kaftan has a pink piece of fabric tied to his waist, which echoes the lining of the flap of his kaftan, while the blue of his dagger handle is repeated in the undershirt visible at the throat. Belenitsky identified the pieces of fabric attached to the belts as purses, which led to the suggestion that the figures are merchants. It seems more likely, however, that these are simple scarves, a small detail of male attire not found anywhere else in the murals at Panjikent. This gives cause for some thought regarding the identity of the seated men: scarves are worn on the belt by members of the Turkish nobility in the celebrated mural in the ceremonial hall at Afrasiab (Samarkand; second half of the 7th century), while a knotted scarf or handkerchief features in the attire of all the Tokharian donors in wall paintings at Kucha (late 6th to first half of the 7th century).
Nonetheless it is possible that the Panjikent scene shows Sogdian merchants, who perhaps borrowed elements of ‘foreign’ attire. Such a theory is supported by the gold plaques on the belts, described in written sources as an identifying feature of the merchants of Sogdiana. We do not know why these ‘merchants’ were painted on the walls of the domestic chapel: perhaps they were the male members of the family, or this may be a ‘corporate portrait’ of men linked by a common sphere of activity. During conservation in the Hermitage’s Workshop for the Restoration of Monumental Painting in the 1970s, specialists put the disparate fragments together to create a certain visual unity, whilst respecting the original manner of painting. Major losses were filled with fine hatching that creates a visual link between the ‘islands’ of surviving paint whilst making clear what is original and what reconstruction.
From the Panjikent Archaeological Expedition of 1961.
Belenitsky 1980, p. 111