Samarkand is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Located at the heart of the Silk Road, Samarkand thrived as a center of international trade.
One of the important remains was discovered in 1965 in Afrosiab, northeast of Samarkand and proved a historical fact that the city was the center of the ancient trade route. The murals at Afrosiab palace are presumed to date back to the middle of the 7th century during the Sogdian era. Discovered in the heart of the old palace site, the wall paintings attracted huge attention from worldwide academia by depicting the prosperity of the Sogdian era.
Although the Afrosiab palace became a ruin, the mural paintings show the ruler of Samarkand Varkhuman receiving envoys from various countries, proving that Samarkand filled an important position on the international stage.
The ancient palace was found out to have about 30 rooms during the excavation. According to Chinese records, it was highly likely to be a two-storied building. It would be a large-sized structure one could see from a far distance. The hall located in the center of the palace is a square room of 11 square meters, and the hall’s walls are decorated with colorful murals.
What were these paintings about, and why were they painted? Although some parts of the murals were destroyed over the past 1,300 years, they still tell us a lot. On the principal West wall mural, an inscription remains on an ambassador’s robe written in Sogdian.
When King Varkhuman Unash came to him [the ambassador] opened his mouth [and said thus]: "I am Pukarzate, the dapirpat(chancellor) of Chaganian. I arrived here from Turantash, the lord of Chaganian, to Samarkand, to the king, and with respect [to] the king [now] I am [here]. And with regard to me do not have any misgivings: About the gods of Samarkand, as well as about the writing of Samarkand I am keenly aware, and I also have not done any harm to the king. Let you be quite fortunate!" And King Varkhuman Unash took leave [of him]. And [then] the dapirpat (chancellor) of Chach opened his mouth.
From the inscription we can assume that the West wall mural depicts delegates from various countries received by King Varkhuman. Let’s take a look at delegates from left. The left group is assumed to include Chaganians, a main speaker of the inscription, dignitaries from Chach, Tang’s delegates bearing gifts of cocoons and silk, envoys from mountains like Tibet and two Koreans holding hands under sleeves on the right.
According to ancient Korean murals and various records, ancient Koreans wore feather-decorated hats. They observed a custom of holding hands under sleeves. Chinese records indicate that attires of the Three Kingdoms of Korea were almost similar. Given that ring-pommel swords were discovered in the entire Korean Peninsula, two figures on the western wall seem to describe the unique appearance of ancient Koreans. If they were ancient Koreans, why did they go all the way to Samarkand, about 1,000 kilometers away from their country? We cannot get a right answer to this question here. But it would be definitely related to the complicated international situation in the 7th century when the Three Kingdoms in the Korean Peninsula fought against or sought an alliance with the Tang Dynasty.
Around the group of the delegates, Turks are seated or standing. On both sides of the mural are shields and flagpoles, which is interpreted to show characteristics of nomadic tribes. On top of this, we can get a glimpse of Turk’s influence over the region.
Looking from the West wall mural to left, a procession painted by brilliant colors is filled with the South wall. A guarded structure and a few people are at the lead. Moving toward the lead, the procession is approached by a rider on a decorated elephant. Three figures on horseback follow right behind the elephant. Two men on camelback move forward, and each man holds a club that appears to be used for a ritual. Behind them figures wearing face-masks lead two pairs of geese and an unmanned horse.
At the rear of the procession, an outsized image of a lower half of a figure is assumed to be King Varkhuman on horseback. The King was followed by his equestrian troops.
This procession is assumed as one to pay respects to ancestors’ tombs or a wedding ceremony. What is clear about the South wall mural is that religious elements on the South wall coincide with characteristics of the Zoroastrian religion.
The North wall mural is filled with a painting with a theme of the Tang Dynasty. In a boat on the left side sit a lady assumed to be the empress of the Tang Dynasty, in the center, about 10 attendants and boatmen. Under the boat, imaginary creatures, ducks, a feeding mother bird and baby birds and lotuses.To the right of the empress’ boat are guards sitting in a boat, water buffaloes and cattle drovers. On land is a vigorous hunting scene in which a hunt man on horseback is piercing a wild beast with his spear and another hunt man on horseback is about to shoot a arrow at another beast.
Like the South wall mural, here again, a figure in the center is depicted as an oversized image. Scholars mostly regard him as the Chinese emperor. It is not obvious why the entire northern wall was devoted to the depiction of the Tang Dynasty. Clearly, however, this region maintained a fairly friendly relationship with the Chinese dynasty. This is in line with a record that King Varkhuman received a title from the Tang in the mid-7th century.
Lastly, let’s look into the East wall near the entrance. On the left, we can recognize a man in a chair reaching out his hand toward a round object, another man kneeling down in front of him and a man on horseback. As on the right are seen naked children, a person holding the tail of a water buffalo, fish and ducks, this is assumed to depict the aquatic or swamp scene.
This scene could be interpreted by some scholars as a paradise of India or the Zoroastrian religion.
So far, we have examined the Afrosiab murals on the four walls.
Because most part was irremediably destroyed, we could not get a complete answer to the descriptive narrative of the wall paintings. However, we could get a glimpse of not only political and diplomatic relations in the Samarkand regions of the 7th century but also religions, rituals, lifestyles and arts through the exquisite descriptions and paintings of brilliant colors. In addition, we confirmed the boundary of ancient Koreans which we could not identify so far.
Although the Sogdian era came to an end due to the attacks of the Arabs, the prosperity and internationality of Samarkand seen on the murals still remain today.