Head of the Sector of Central Asia, Caucasus and Crimea, Senior Research Fellow of the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum, head of the Panjikent Expedition.
Dr. Lurje is a graduate of St. Petersburg State University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, specializing in the History of Iran and Afghanistan. In the same year, he was admitted to a doctoral course at the St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. Since 1994, he has regularly taken part in archaeological and ethnographical expeditions to Central Asia (Panjikent, Paikend, Ak-Beshim, Hisorak, Krasnaja Rechka) and he spent 8 months in Iran between 1999-2000. His dissertation, entitled “Historico-linguistical analysis of Sogdian Toponymy” [Историко-лингвистический анализ согдийской топонимии], supervised by Dr. Vladimir A. Livshits, was defended in June 2004.
From 2009, he has been working at the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum.
Major research interests: Iranian linguistics, Middle Iranian languages, onomastics, Central Asian antiquities, historical geography and toponymy, language, history, archaeology, culture, arts of Sogdiana and neighboring lands.
Panjikent is a Sogdian city, the ruins of which are located in the southern periphery of the present-day city of Panjakent (in western Tajikistan).
You have spent the last decade studying Panjikent. Could you tell us about this project? How have you organized your work with the Hermitage and Tajik archaeologists in this research?
I first came to Panjikent in 1994 as a student. It turned out to be a long-lasting affair, although there were many gaps in-between. Since 2010, I have been leading archaeological excavations from the Russian side, in collaboration with my colleague in Tajikistan, Sharofuddin Kurbanov.
The first Sogdian-Tajik archaeological expedition was formed shortly after the war, in 1946, under the leadership of Alexander Yakubovsky. It was a large project that deployed several teams at a time, where each group was in charge of excavation, exploration, and documentation of archaeological and architectural monuments. It was decided earlier on that the ancient settlement of Panjikent located on the outskirts of a modern city – on the southern bank of Zeravshan river, 60 km east of Samarqand (now on the territory of Uzbekistan) – would be the main target of stationary excavations. In the pre-war archaeological excavations in Central Asia, from 1932-33, one of the most striking discoveries included a large volume of documents found in the ruins of a small castle on Mount Mug, east of Panjikent. As the documents were deciphered, it became clear that one of the main characters was Devashtich (executed in 722 A.D.), who was called “the ruler of Panj (Panjikent).” Eager to make further progress in this important discovery in the post-war period, archaeologists hoped to see documents in Sogdian and other languages that would shed light on the history of the Arab conquest. But they were up for a disappointment – in contrast to the climate of Mount Mug, which was conducive for organic materials to remain intact, the climate of Panjikent irrevocably destroyed such objects. Only clay bullae with holes for laces served as evidence that documents similar to those found in the pre-war period existed here too.
The excavations in Panjikent would have been curtailed, if it was not for the discovery of the mural paintings of Sogd in 1948, followed by findings of carved wood and clay sculptures.
The State Hermitage Museum established a special laboratory for the restoration of mural paintings that primarily focuses on important discoveries in Panjikent, particularly those that are fragile and require special handling. Ever since those discoveries, almost three quarters of a century ago, archaeologists have carried out explorations of Panjikent annually, continuing excavations even during the civil war in Tajikistan. As a result, we unearth new paintings and sculptures practically every year. At its height, the expedition was very large – it involved over 60 specialists in addition to local employees, who even had lunch in several shifts. According to an agreement with the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, all the findings were shared between the Hermitage and the local museums. The murals and carved wood had to go through restoration work at the Hermitage, even if they were to be exhibited in Panjikent or Dushanbe.
The situation changed in the 1990s. Now, all the archaeological findings remain in Tajikistan, and we can only bring along diaries, photographs, work plans, and, very rarely, some samples for analysis. We have managed to set up a field laboratory in Panjikent, and as a result, the best samples of murals and paintings are able to arrive in the Panjikent Museum already restored and ready for exhibitions.
The current expedition heavily relies on local Tajik and particularly Panjikent-based specialists. They lead half of the ongoing excavations and rely on high school and college students in their excavation work. They are driven by their intrinsic interest more so than by income (our pay is quite modest); they are interested in broadening their worldview, learning the history of their motherland, and also practicing their Russian (a skill that is in demand in present-day Tajikistan). Working for the expedition has turned into a traditional occupation for locals. Some families trace their lineage of archaeologists from the current generation back to the generation of their grandfathers. Most of the active archaeologists in Tajikistan originate from Panjikent, and we employ postgraduate students. There is a need to train specialists in other areas of archaeology, such as architecture, drawing of objects, epigraphy, numismatics, and restoration work in particular.
Could you tell us a little more about the history of the city of Panjikent? What was it like before and after the Arabs got there?
Panjikent city emerged in the 5th century A.D. during the epoch of the Sogdian culture. Urban life in Sogdia already existed under Achaemenids and Greeks, but it declined at the turn of the new era. In the 4th century, Sogdians had actively traded in China and India, which contributed to the urbanization process. The main city of Panjikent emerged in the 5th century and reached 12.5 hectares at its height in the 6th century. However, our most recent excavations have shown evidence that the fortified settlement on the a nearby hill, which we call a Citadel, had already been built several centuries earlier.
The city life revolved around two temples that were built next to each other, with shrines in the Western part. In the course of the city’s existence, the temples were expanded to include new structures – pylons, chapels, aivans and new decorations. The two look alike temples have been a mystery for researchers for a number of years. In the last couple of years, we have not reached a conclusive answer
, and have only complicated our task – we found evidence of a third temple located to the north of the main two temples, smaller in size but similar in structure. It is likely that it continued to function even after the Muslim conquest in 722.
Our evidence shows that décor elements such as murals and carved wood started appearing outside of the realm of temples and palaces and in the homes of well-off city dwellers in the 6th and 7th centuries. It is this particular feature – mural paintings in private houses created using lower-cost methods of painting and wood carving – that makes Panjikent akin to Pompeii. The murals portray Sogdian merchants and landowners. The center of a reception hall shows murals with an image of god or a pair of gods. These deities represented the Sogdian religion, a peculiar version of Zoroastrianism with borrowed elements from the Mesopotamian, Greek, and Indian religions. Other walls tended to be decorated with scenes of feasts, hunting, festivals, battles, narrative plots and overlapping carvings that were also figurative.
Starting in the second half of the 7th century, Panjikent turns into a kingdom of its own, minting its own coin. We know of three rulers of Panjikent: Chamukyan, who ruled at the end of the 7th century; Chegin Chor Bilge, who ruled in the beginning of the 8thcentury; and Devashtich, who ruled until 722 A.D. They did not form dynasties, and the second ruler had a Turkic name. Devashtich was one of the main players in the intricate intrigues of Central Asia in the 8th century. At the time, local kings, but also the Turgesh kagan, the Chinese, the Muslim squads (who also competed between themselves), and fugitive supporters of the Sasanids fought for power in Sogdia. Devashtich was very active in these power games. He corresponded with other actors, subjugated to his power the territories southeast of Samarkand as well as the upper reaches of Zeravshan valley. At one point, he proclaimed himself the king of Sogd and converted to Islam (at least nominally). Conversion to Islam did not save him, however. The amir of Samarkand, his archenemy, conquers Panjikent, setting fire and destroying half of the city in 722 A.D. Devashtich fled to the mountains, where Muslims captured and later executed him. Part of the Devashtich archive remained in the mountains, in the castle on Mount Mug.
Panjikent was on decline during 720-730s AD. This may explain the lack of coins found in the settlement that date back to this period. The last heyday of Panjikent happened after 738, likely connected to the resettlement of people from Samarkand. At this time, none of the temples except for the third smaller one functioned, and the palace on the Citadel was repurposed into a garrison of Arabs and their clients. Many houses were restored and rebuilt, to now include mural paintings in receptions halls. Some of the most striking murals appear in this period, including the “Blue Hall” depicting the cycle of Rustam’s conquests. Rustam is a protagonist of an Iranian epic.
There was a rapid transition in the culture of the city after the 750s AD – new murals were not commissioned, and old ones were sometimes deliberately damaged; most of the houses stood abandoned, and the ceramic complex went through changes. Most of the coins followed the Muslim pattern. The city continued to exist in its old location until 770, but the last dwellers left shortly after. It was primarily this peaceful resettlement of city dwellers to a new location that led to the desolation of the city. The old Panjikent was not very comfortable for living – most of the houses were two to three-stories tall and had narrow windows; the absence of running water, sanitary conditions and vegetation made it difficult to live. Such conditions did not correspond to the lifestyle of the new generation of city residents, who increasingly adopted Islam. In the new location, in the lower bank of Zeravshan, where the old Panjikent dwellers moved, there was plenty of water. People lived in separate estates with a central courtyard, typically complete with greenery and a source of water. Starting in 2015, the Panjikent expedition has been exploring the life of the eastern part of the modern Panjikent city in the 9th-12th centuries. We have discovered brick structures, a large amount of glazed ceramics and other finds that indicate a fairly high standard of living. Currently, one of the main goals of the expedition is to understand the nature of changes in the material culture that occurred with the advent of Islam, and to explore the linkage between the new material culture, political events, migrations, and changes in local languages.
The Hermitage museum has mural paintings of ancient Panjikent. What is remarkable about them? What were some of the most noteworthy finds in this season?
Yes, the Hermitage stores, studies, restores, and, most importantly, exhibits the mural paintings from Panjikent. Museums of Dushanbe and Panjikent have wonderful collections of murals as well. On the first floor of the Winter Palace we have six rooms, all dedicated to Panjikent. In addition, we are preparing to open access to the Staraya Derevnya fund depository. The distinctiveness of the Sogdian murals can be seen through the murals of the Varakhsha palace (near Bukhara), Afrasiab in Samarkand, and the palace of Kalai Kakhkakh in Ustrushan. The castles in Balalyk-tepe and Tavka in Bactria are similar in their style as well. But it was only in Panjikent that murals could be found in ordinary dwellers’ houses. This is commissioned art, as we would call it now, by the upper middle class and completed in an elegant style, using intricate lines and bright colors. Recently, we had to select a fragment of the Blue Hall in good condition, to create copies for visually impaired visitors. We wanted to take the scene with Rustam and the dragon and turn it into a typhlocopy, a separate relief piece. But it did not work. Although the scene is depicted with the flow of the painting from left to right, it could not be divided into rectangular segments – one part of the scene creeps into another part.
We discover new murals practically every year. In the past, 2016 was one of the most fruitful – we found a burnt carved tree with an image of Buddha (a rarity for Sogd), a very beautiful seal print that illustrates a snake fight, and finally a very early (5th or 6thcentury) mural painting with a worship scene. In 2018, the main find was the so-called “third temple” with stone bases of columns. In 2019, the main find was an ostracon with an inscription in Syriac writing. This last find indicated that the presence of Christians. In general, we continue excavations not only for the sake of mural paintings, but also because of the possibility of finding massive archaeological materials such as ceramics, coins, construction objects, or objects of armament and décor. They are as informative as murals, but they also require other methods of analysis.
What modern research methods are used in studying archaeological finds?
“The Paenjikent school” has gained its reputation as the gold standard among archaeologists who specialize on mud-brick monuments of Central Asia. Excavations of Panjikent have been carried out for more than 70 years, and various research methods have been put to use over this period. Particularly, under the leadership of Boris Ilych Marshak, archaeologists tried out many pioneering methods. The methods include close attention to microstratigraphy, when layers of a few centimeters of thickness are separated and special archaeological measurement techniques are used; also there are also methods for fixing and sorting ceramic finds and much more. Panjikent excavations cover large territories – hundreds of square meters every year. An important feature of the Panjikent excavation is the optimal ratio of excavation volume to the accuracy of fixation.
When it comes to pioneering methods, our mural restoration school deserves special attention too. At the initial phases of the excavation, Pavel Kostrov invented the method of fixing, removing, and installing murals with mineral paints on plaster. This method proved well-fitting in the restoration work of other murals, for example, the Pskov frescoes. The key chemical ingredient in the method is polybutyl methacrylate, a polymer reversible glue that penetrates a painting, allowing researchers to remove the painting from the wall and remove the glue without trace later. A completely different method is used to remove carved wood – it is filled with paraffin and removed as a monolith. Both methods have only slightly changed in detail over the past decades.
Currently, we have several collaborative projects with specialists from various natural science fields. A laboratory in Bologna is working with DNA samples from the Panjikent necropolis. Colleagues from the Max Planck Institute in Bonn are planning to come and analyze botanical residues using a flotation method. In Hisorak, our second monument, located in the upper reaches of Zeravshan, at an altitude of 2240 meters, we have planned a number of studies: GPR scanning of the layer (GPR will show the stone foundations of buildings), analysis of the soil composition of the cultural layer, the composition of ceramics, etc. We are especially hoping for dendrochronology – we have found around thirty wooden logs in Hisorak, and the organic matter is preserved there very well.
Could you talk about how the excavations of Panjikent provide resources for the studies of medieval history of Central Asia?
Again, it maybe immodest but it is commonly recognized that Panjikent is a model monument of early medieval Central Asian archaeology. Indeed, there is no other monument in Central Asia (or anywhere east of Mesopotamia) that was excavated in synchronous layers and where the excavation work would cover as large of as an area. The research volume in Panjikent came second only to Novgorod, in the Soviet Union. Here again, Panjikent lucked out – Afrasiab, the site of pre-Mongol Samarkand, was 15 times larger than Panjikent and excavations have shown that city dwellers were better-off. It was not excavated as intensely however, due to several reasons. First, Samarkand went through Islamization and Afrasiab flourished only through 1220, at which time it was destroyed by Genghis Khan. It was soon revived in its new location. Consequently, when archaeologists come to Afrasiab, they must first go through layers of the 12th and 13th centuries, then the 11th century, then 10th and the 9th, and all these layers must be carefully fixed. Only then, can they reach the layer of the Sogdian period. Due to this, excavations in Afrasiab that target the 6th-8th century structures have been irregular and somewhat random, although there were some brilliant finds. In contrast, in Panjikent, traces of the 8th century are right there as you start digging.
Panjikent excavations have led to a large volume of research. Since such a large area was covered, archaeologists were able to uncover entire neighborhoods, street networks, and lines of defensive structures, and and they were also able to unearth the temples and the palace completely. The volume of publications is also crucial. There is a large volume of monographs that detail information about excavation materials, early layers of Panjikent, numismatics, temples, fortifications, the Citadel and precipitation sewage system; there are also editions on metal, glass, epigraphy and home ownership. Boris Marshak has published monographs with annual reports on Panjikent beginning in 1998, and after his death in 2006 we were able to continue the publications. The annual report for 2019 for example, came out as the 23rd edition of the “Materials of the Panjikent Archaeological Expedition.” Now, we have the analytical index for the published volumes in preparation. Archaeologists tend to compare most of the other excavated monuments to Panjikent, since it is the most studied monument of Sogdian archaeology.
China is considered to have strongly influenced the Central Asian culture, but it seems that this influence went both ways. The Sogdians also left a huge trace in Chinese culture, didn’t they?
Yes, they certainly did. Central Asia and China had close ties over the stretch of several periods. It is well-known that the embassy of Zhang Qian, in the 2nd century B.C. paved the way to the West, subsequently leading to the establishment of the Great Silk Road. This resulted in ties between Han China and Central Asia, particularly with Ferghana, the birthplace of “heavenly horses.” Chinese wushu coins and imitations of them are often found in Ferghana, further testifying to this connection. After the fall of the Han Empire, China witnessed the succession of Northern and Southern Dynasties, and it was at this time that merchants from the west – from Sogdiana – began to appear in northern and western China. The Sogdian “Old Letters”, found near Dunhuang, date back to the beginning of the 4th century. These are astonishingly rich sources on the history of that time, on political events, trade and kinship relations.
The so-called Sino-Sogdian sarcophagi and funerary beds, the burial structures of rich Sogdians in China, richly decorated, often with epitaphs, combining Central Asian and Chinese elements, belong to the 6th century. The Sogdian school of silverware production was highly valued in China and was actively imitated by Han Chinese masters. According to Chinese sources, western Hu merchants also played an important role in the Celestial Empire’s economy – they ran guest houses, retail stores, pawnshops, brothels, taverns, and traveling circuses. In the terracotta plastic used in funerals in China there are very frequent images of Western merchants – shaggy, bearded, with long noses and round eyes, depicted as apes in robes and boots. The figurines are often represented riding camels with valuable luggage, playing lutes, dancing their drunken dances.
The Tang era, from the 7th century onward, is China’s new heyday, and connections with nearby and distant neighbors are renewed. According to the Chinese sources, East Turkestan firmly enters the orbit of China, and the states of Central Asia are considered to be vassals of China. It is hard to say how much they perceived themselves as vassals. In any case, the King Warhuman – Fohumen, a vassal of Gaozong, commissioned a mural for the Hall of Ambassadors in Afrasiab that depicted the Chinese Emperor on a hunting trip, and the Chinese Empress on a boat trip. There are other images of Chinese people in Panjikent, found among other places, in the recently restored part of the Blue Hall. One expedition had also retrieved a fragment of a Chinese bronze mirror with the depiction of “immortals” in the city of Sanjar Shah, 12km from Panjikent. There are also finds of pieces of Chinese silk, varnish, and paper in Sogdia.
Chinese influence significantly manifests itself in numismatics. The coins of Samarkand, Panjikent and a number of other Sogdian settlements follow the Chinese model. These are cast (not minted!) bronze roundels with a square hole in the center. The coins do not have any image except for tamga signs, and they bare the name of the ruler and/or his region. They are drastically different from minted coins that typically have portraits of the ruler and other images (sometimes heavily degenerated), and are more often made out of silver than bronze, which are typical for the earlier Sogdia.
In 755, General An Lushan, a half-Sogdian, half-Turk serving in the Chinese Army, raised a rebellion and declared himself emperor. A few years later, the Tang Imperial House of Li, with the help of the Uighurs, was able to regain the throne. Since then various foreigners, including Sogdians, fell out of favor in China, the temples of foreign gods were closed, and merchants were persecuted. The Late Tang era began, which lasted another two centuries, but did not reach the splendor of the Great Tang, perhaps the most benevolent dynasty in the history of China for foreigners.
 After Yakubovsky, the leadership of the expedition was taken by Dyakonov M.M, subsequently passed on to Belenitsky A.M., and then to Marshak B.I.
 There is evidence that some Panjikent dwellers converted to Christianity and Buddhism. Some may have been Manichaeans, but these were inward-looking minority groups.
 The scenes depicted on murals do not always correspond to the storyline of Shahname by Firdousi, a poem written almost 200 years after the creation of the murals. The mural has more in common with the fragment of Rustam’s deeds in the Sogdian fragment discovered in Dunhuang and also probably dated the 8th century.
 At this time, there was the rise of Mukanna, which was based on heterodox Islam and local beliefs and its subsequent suppression.
 Chinese instrument Pipa, adopted from the Central Asian Barbad.
All photos by Pavel Lurje