The land that makes up what is today Uzbekistan was a crucial part of what 19th-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen described as the ‘Silk Road’. Of course, there was not just one single trade route connecting Europe and East Asia, nor was silk the only thing being traded. Various movements came to transform the culture of ancient Uzbekistan, as explored in a new exhibition in the Musée du Louvre, The Splendours of Uzbekistan’s Oases. The migrations of Saka, Sarmatian, Kangju, and Yuezhi nomadic populations, and invasions of the Huns (in the 3rd-5th centuries) and of Turkic peoples (6th century), all shaped the societies of the cities that developed around oases in the vast desert plains, while merchants brought prosperity – both cultural and economic. Hellenism had a profound impact in Bactria after the conquest by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, but there were also Iranian, Indian, and Chinese influences mixing with indigenous cultures. Zoroastrianism was the most-widespread religion, but co-existed with others, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Manichaeism. This diversity was reflected in the art of the court, with sculptures and paintings depicting people from different regions, and in the co-existence of different sanctuaries at certain sites.
Caravan routes began to flourish from the 2nd century BC and the oasis city-states (generally made up of a capital that lends its name to the oasis, with other urban and rural settlements nearby) served as important trading hubs. Remains of monuments from these oasis cities provide glimpses of the lavish decoration and the broader cultural framework their elites lived in. One such site is Khalchayan, in the valley of Surkhan Darya, a tributary of the Amu Darya (or Oxus) river. It was occupied from the Hellenistic period, and grew in prominence from the 2nd century BC, when Yuezhi nomads migrated from Gansu, north-western China, to the region of Bactria (northern Afghanistan, and southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). One branch of the Yuezhi would establish the Kushan Empire, which endured between c.AD 50 and 230, and at its peak encompassed Bactria and northern India.At Khalchayan, excavations in 1959-1963 uncovered the remains of a large building thought to be an audience hall or palace, decorated with paintings and beautiful, painted clay sculptures, important monuments of what Yannick Lintz, co-curator of the exhibition, describes as ‘a sort of golden age for art with the idea of Hellenism in Central Asia.’ Almost life-size, these sculptures present us with individual portraits of the Kushan royals and warriors, executed with great realism in the 1st century AD. Clay, unfired, was modelled around a wooden body according to a technique that was practised in Greece but widely used across Gandhara (a region encompassing parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) and Central Asia. An enthroned Kushan king was at the centre of one composition, and above him and his queen were images of the Greek goddesses Athena and Nike and hero Heracles – a way of illustrating his might among the Hellenised population of Bactria. Elsewhere, the enthroned king is flanked by warriors (among them the crown prince) of different ages, standing proud and tall with their armour – an arrangement similarly proclaiming the glory of the ruler.
For the exhibition at the Louvre, around 100 objects have been restored by French and Uzbek specialists, among them some of the sculptures from Khalchayan, which were discovered in many fragments and later reassembled. As part of the work, as Lintz related, restorers found out that some fragments were previously assigned to the wrong sculptures, so they have been able to create new visions of these works.
Other magnificent sculpture comes from Dalverzin Tepe, also in the Surkhan Darya valley in Bactria, close to the modern city of Termez. A fortified Graeco-Bactrian settlement of the 3rd-2nd century BC, Dalverzin Tepe grew as the Kushan Empire developed in the mid-1st century AD, reaching its zenith at the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century. The site was home to a temple devoted to an as-yet-unidentified Bactrian deity, as well as Buddhist sanctuaries that have yielded beautiful examples of sculptures, including Bodhisattvas and the graceful head of a Kushan prince wearing a towering crown. Dalverzin Tepe was, as co-curator Rocco Rante said, ‘one of the most-important centres of Buddhism’ in the area.
A remarkable find comes from another of the city’s buildings, known as the House of the Wealthy City Dweller and thought to have been associated with a temple also found at the site. Beneath the floor of one of the rooms, in 1972, archaeologists made the spectacular discovery of a large gold hoard placed in a pot and buried, likely by someone connected to religious activity at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. ‘It was probably hidden during war, with the hope that they would find it after the incursion,’ said Rante.
‘It is an event to have the gold treasure from Dalverzin Tepe,’ Lintz commented. ‘From its discovery until now, this treasure has been in the national bank in Tashkent, so no one could see it – even our Uzbek colleagues.’
The jewellery in the hoard – including bracelets of different types, earrings (three, each from a different pair), a breastplate with a carnelian intaglio depicting the head of Heracles, a necklace with braided threads of gold and ends adorned with precious stones – is of varying quality and comes from different parts of the Kushan Empire. There are ingots in the hoard, some carrying inscriptions in Sogdian, an ancient Iranian langauge, naming Mithras, a god who presided over contracts. It is thought to be the treasury of a temple or of the members of the community, rather than the private riches of a warrior or of a family.
Until the 4th century, it was the merchants of the regions of Bactria and Gandhara, both part of the Kushan Empire, that dominated trade. From the 5th century, the region of Sogdiana – which had long ago been an Achaemenid province – stepped into the role as the main trading hub, after incursions by the Huns, who conquered Sogdiana easily but caused much destruction in the more-resistant Bactria. In murals and in figurines, Sogdian merchants are often depicted well-dressed in silk kaftans and characteristic pointed caps, and on camels. Goods they traded reached as far as Japan and Siberia. They travelled light, only with essentials – for example for eating and drinking, such as a rare copper-and-silver folding implement that combines a fork and spoon (a predecessor to the spork), discovered at Paykend during the Louvre’s excavations in the Bukhara oasis, led by Rante since 2009.
The ancient city of Afrasiab, on the edge of modern-day Samarkand, was a thriving centre of Sogdian culture. Construction of a new road in the 1960s unearthed fragments of murals at the site, full of figures on a blue background. They covered all four walls of the reception hall of a building that was not a royal palace but was an aristocratic house, perhaps the family home of the ruler or even of an important figure at court, who – judging by the content of the paintings – sought to praise the king.
Part of the south wall has now travelled to Paris for the exhibition. The entirety of this wall was filled by a procession of courtiers heading towards a building, with the figure of the king on horseback looming large. The king in question is Varkhuman, who ruled in the mid-7th century and is named in an inscription in the Sogdian language painted on the western wall. He is joined by his wives, two Zoroastrian priests with a horse and four geese destined for sacrifice, and two camel-riding dignitaries with clubs to stun the animals. These are probably the religious events of the sixth day of the New Year festival when, as recorded in Chinese chronicles, the king and courtiers head to the tomb of the ruler’s parents to make a sacrificial offering.
Opposite, visitors to the original room would have found themselves transported far from Afrasiab and to the Chinese court. One of the two scenes on the northern wall shows a pleasure boat carrying women, one of whom is depicted slightly taller than the others, surrounded by musicians. She is thought to be Empress Wu Zetian, who, after the death of her husband Gaozong, the third emperor of the Tang Dynasty, would assume the throne. Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683) dominates the other scene, the hunt of wild cats.
This pairing of walls illustrates the art of diplomacy. As Frantz Grenet of the Collège de France explains in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the Sogdian king is shown honouring his ancestors, something that would have earned the esteem of the Chinese emperor, while the Chinese courtiers are depicted enjoying music and the hunt, which would have appealed to the Sogdian king. It is an illustration of a sort of mutual courtesy suiting the alliance made between the two rulers. After the Tang Dynasty conquered the Western Turkic Khaganate, Gaozong made Varkhuman governor of this Sogdian state in AD 658, according to a Tang chronicle.
The subject of the western wall gives the room the name by which it is known, the Hall of the Ambassadors. Similar to the reliefs of the Apadana palace at Persepolis, in which Darius I received delegates from across the Achaemenid Empire, we see a procession of ambassadors bringing tributes – presumably to King Varkhuman, though the centre of the upper part of the mural, the focus of the procession, has not survived. There are representatives from Sogdian principalities, from the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, and from Tibet (who bring yak skins and a snow leopard). A Chinese delegation brings silks including silk cocoons (though the Chinese viewed silk as a reward for a subject’s loyalty rather than tribute). There are Turks, too, some of them guards and some high-ranking officials in Sogdian dress. It is an expression of worldly power and influence, and political manoeuvring, made shortly before the Arab conquest of the early 8th century.
A fascinating set of Sogdian paintings reflecting a different relationship to political powers during a time of great transition come from the site of Varakhsha in the Bukhara oasis. It seems that by the 5th century AD Varakhsha was already a well-fortified city, which made it a suitable choice for a place of residence for the Bukhar Khudat dynasty, whose seat of power was in Bukhara. After the Muslim conquest of Bukhara in AD 709, Varakhsha became their main residence.
A palace at the site was renovated in the early 8th century by Tokespadhe (709-739), who, after the conquest, had been made hereditary king by Qutayba, the general of the Ummayad armies. Though it is presumed he would have converted to Islam to qualify him for this political role, the murals of the palace’s so-called Blue Hall show him carrying out a fire ritual in front of the towering figure of a god of war, known as Vashaghn in Sogdian, the patron deity of the Bukhar Khudats.
Another painted room, known as the Red Hall, features a series of repeated elephant-riding figures fighting a range of creatures, including leopards, tigers, and dragons. It is a unique subject in Central Asian art. The elephant-rider is depicted in Indian-style clothing, including a turban, but, as Rante points out, the image of the king hunting or fighting an animal was a frequent subject in Iranian royal art, such as on Sasanian silver plates. Scholars have suggested the figure on the elephant is the Hindu deity Indra (equated with the Adhvagh, the Sogdian iteration of the Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda), the Bodhisattva Samantabhardra, or even a coded depiction of the king fighting evil.
After the death of Qutayba, Tokespadhe’s allegiances seemingly shift and he (together with other Sogdian royals) appeals to the Chinese emperor in 718 and again after 722. He was killed in Samarkand, and his bones removed and brought back to Bukhara. According to Zoroastrian customs, after excarnation the bones of the deceased would be gathered and placed in an often ornate ossuary. ‘There was a tolerance during this early period of Islamic occupation towards people newly converted or not yet converted’, said Rante. ‘That policy continued for about one or one-and-a-half centuries.’ The Louvre’s excavations in the Bukhara oasis have uncovered further evidence of the co-existence of religions around this time, in the form of vessels with bones (from Zoroastrian treatment of the dead) found in an Islamic-period cemetery.
Like Varakhsha, Kafir-Kala was a royal residence outside the capital, this time for the kings of Samarkand. The art there again points to the rich culture and material wealth of these kings. One staggering find is a carved wooden door from the 6th century AD. Though burnt, the figures on the door’s panels can been made out: there is the king, musicians, all the court, and the great Sogdian and Bactrian goddess of water Nana (associated with the Babylonian Ishtar and the Iranian Anahita), all rendered in fine detail.
‘These masterpieces coming from royal palaces show us the importance of those oases during the beginning of the Arab conquest’, Lintz remarked. ‘It’s really one of the summits of art in this transition between late antiquity and the beginning of Islam.’
The economic and cultural exchanges that defined the region’s wealth made it an attractive target and negotiations – such as with the king of Bukhara – were an important part of the conquest. Local rulers negotiated with the Arab conquerors and agreed to convert to Islam to keep hold of power. Over the following century, Arabic culture and language grew in prominence in the region.
The powerful Abbasid Caliphate, which succeeded the Umayyad Caliphate, was looking to expand their empire east and west. The Battle of Talas between Tang and Abbasid forces in 751 marked the end of their eastern conquest. The Abbasids would not continue to their goal of China. Yet, technical expertise from Chinese culture still permeated and mingled with the new Islamic religion of Uzbekistan. Lintz said, ‘We know from sources that there were individual Chinese prisoners, in Samarkand for example, and those Chinese prisoners taught people how to make paper.’ One extraordinary document represents the results of this transfer of knowledge: the 8th- century Qur’an of Katta Langar, one of the oldest Qur’anic manuscripts, written not on parchment but on paper.
Other innovations made their mark on the culture of the Sogdian and Bactrian oases – the artful Arabic inscription in combination with Asian imagery, new types of luxury ceramics, and inlaid metalware, a technology originating from Herat in Afghanistan. Further changes were yet to come, notably in 1220-1223, when the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan invaded, and in 1370, when Timur, seeking to reunite Genghis’ empire, made Samarkand his sparkling new capital, building beautifully tiled mosques and a mausoleum next to ancient Afrasiab and ushering in another new wave of lavish court art.
The Splendours of Uzbekistan’s Oases runs at the Musée du Louvre in Paris until 6 March 2023. Visit www.louvre.fr to find out more about the exhibition. A catalogue (in French) edited by Yannick Lintz and Rocco Rante has been published: Splendeurs des oasis d’Ouzbékistan (El Viso/musée du Louvre éditions; €39).