Merchant with Donkey and Camel

The color scheme that remains on this wall painting contains browns, creams, greens, and reddish oranges. These colors are strikingly similar to the typical creams, ambers, and greens found in Tang dynasty Sancai glazed pottery. This is likely due to the fact that pigments and glazes used some of the same raw materials.

This mural depicting a Merchant with camel and donkey is a perfect example of a Sogdian caravan traveling along the Silk Road. Common pack animals, horses, camels, and donkeys, are integral members of merchant caravans. Animals carried goods to and fro along the Silk Road and were highly sought after trade products. In fact, many communities made a living from breeding animals that were healthy and strong enough to travel the rough terrains of deserts and mountains. (Beckwirth)

This fragment depicts the animals in resting poses, suggesting of the many stops along their journey. Accompanying the pack animals is a merchant, with a thick beard and long hair, wearing what seems to be a Sogdian hat. Facial hair may seem like a minor detail, but it was used as a visual sign and ethnic indicator. Long beards and hair on Westerners can be seen on this camel figurine.  In contrast, shorter hair and bears like on this Head of Demons Battling a Rider and Central Asian on Horseback depict Central Asian figures.

This mural was originally painted on the wall of the Buddhist cave site of Bezeklik near Turfan. Bezeklik is located in a canyon northeast of ancient city of Karakhoja (also known as Gaochang and Khocho) and 50 km east of present-day Turfan. The caves in this area were heavily decorated with murals and statues, including this one. Other murals depicted Buddhist subjects and histories. Head of a Bodhisattva and this Nirvana Scene are two well preserved examples of Buddhist murals from the Bezeklik Caves. When viewed together you can get a fuller sense of how bright and animated the cave site would have been while it was in use. The juxtaposition of religious and everyday scenes suggest that trade along the Silk Road was just as important to the Sogdians and their neighbors, as worshipping deities.  

One of the earliest archaeologists focusing on excavating the Bezeklik caves was Dmitri Klementz in 1898. Once in the caves, Klementz noted none of the sculptures survived and many of the murals were defaced; faces were gouged out and others were smeared with mud. (Neville, 97) This could perhaps be the reason why the face of this merchant is missing. There was significant sand and collapsed earth in the caves making the mural excavations slow and spread out over many expeditions by multiple archaeologists. Murals that were covered by sand were preserved far better than exposed walls. During Sergei Oldenburg’s expedition in 1909-10 he removed this fragmented wall painting. The fragmentation of this mural tells us as much about its history, than if its face was still intact. The possible defacement and erosion of this mural over time, speaks to its complicated history situated between China, the West, and the Huns to the North.



Beckwith, Christopher I. “The Impact of the Horse and Silk Trade on the Economies of T’ang China and the Uighur Empire.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 34 No. 3 (1991): 183-198. Accessed May 1, 2016. doi:10.2307/3632244. (SF)

Bijl, Arnoud and Birgit Boelens. Expedition Silk Road Journey to the West: Treasures from the Hermitage. Amsterdam: Museumshop Hermitage Amsterdam, 2014. (SF)

Whitfield, Susan. “A Place of Safekeeping? The Vicissitudes of the Bezeklik Murals.” In Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road, edited by Neville Agnew, 95-106. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010.  (SF)



11th century




fresco secco wall painting


111 x 52 cm


Wall painting


The State Hermitage Museum

Additional Research Metadata


From the first Russian Turkestan Expedition of Sergei Oldenberg 1909-10. Cave of a Thousand Buddhas



“Merchant with Donkey and Camel,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed August 9, 2020,