Central Asian art

Central Asian art
A Greco-Bactrian statuette from Ai-Khanoum (2nd century BC), and funerary statue from Kosh-Agach (8th-10th century AD).

Central Asian art is visual art created in Central Asia, in areas corresponding to modern Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of modern Mongolia, China and Russia.[3][4] The art of ancient and medieval Central Asia reflects the rich history of this vast area, home to a huge variety of peoples, religions and ways of life. The artistic remains of the region show a remarkable combinations of influences that exemplify the multicultural nature of Central Asian society. The Silk Road transmission of art, Scythian art, Greco-Buddhist art, Serindian art and more recently Persianate culture, are all part of this complicated history.

From the late second millennium BC until very recently, the grasslands of Central Asia – stretching from the Caspian Sea to central China and from southern Russia to northern India – have been home to migrating herders who practised mixed economies on the margins of sedentary societies. The prehistoric 'animal style' art of these pastoral nomads not only demonstrates their zoomorphic mythologies and shamanic traditions but also their fluidity in incorporating the symbols of sedentary society into their own artworks.

Central Asia has always been a crossroads of cultural exchange, the hub of the so-called Silk Road – that complex system of trade routes stretching from China to the Mediterranean. Already in the Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennium BC), growing settlements formed part of an extensive network of trade linking Central Asia to the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt.[5]

The arts of recent centuries are mainly influenced by Islamic art, but the varied earlier cultures were influenced by the art of China, Persia and Greece, as well as the Animal style that developed among the nomadic peoples of the steppes.[6]

Early nomadic cultures (3500-2500 BC)

The Afanasevo culture resulted from the eastward migration of the Yamnaya culture, originally based in the Pontic steppe north of the Caucasus Mountains.[8] The Afanasevo culture (c. 3500–2500 BC) displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Central Asian steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000–900 BC).

Tarim mummies

The oldest of the Tarim mummies, bodies preserved by the desert conditions, date from 2000 BC and were found on the eastern edge of the Tarim basin. They seem to be Caucasoid types with light-colored hair.[9] A genetic study of remains from the oldest layer of the Xiaohe Cemetery found that the maternal lineages were a mixture of east and west Eurasian types, while all the paternal lineages were of west Eurasian type.[10] It is unknown whether they are connected with the frescoes painted at Tocharian sites more than two millennia later, which also depict light eyes and hair color.

The mummies were found with plaid-woven tapestries that are notably similar to the weaving pattern of the "tartan" style of the Hallstatt culture of central Europe, associated with Celts; the wool used in the tapestries was found to come from sheep with European ancestry.[11]

Later, groups of nomadic pastoralists moved from the steppe into the grasslands to the north and northeast of the Tarim. They were the ancestors of peoples later known to Chinese authors as the Wusun and Yuezhi.[12] It is thought that at least some of them spoke Iranian languages,[12] but a minority of scholars suggest that the Yuezhi were Tocharian speakers.[13][14]

Bronze Age

The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC, also known as the "Oxus civilization") is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age archaeological culture of Central Asia, dated to c. 2200–1700 BC, located in present-day eastern Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, centred on the upper Amu Darya (known to the ancient Greeks as the Oxus River), an area covering ancient Bactria. Its sites were discovered and named by the Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1976). Bactria was the Greek name for Old Persian Bāxtriš (from native *Bāxçiš)[15] (named for its capital Bactra, modern Balkh), in what is now northern Afghanistan, and Margiana was the Greek name for the Persian satrapy of Margu, the capital of which was Merv, in today's Turkmenistan.

Fertility goddesses, named "Bactrian princesses", made from limestone, chlorite and clay reflect agrarian Bronze Age society, while the extensive corpus of metal objects point to a sophisticated tradition of metalworking.[16] Wearing large stylised dresses, as well as headdresses that merge with the hair, "Bactrian princesses" embody the ranking goddess, character of the central Asian mythology that plays a regulatory role, pacifying the untamed forces.[citation needed]

Scythian cultures

Pazyrik culture (6th-3rd century BC)

Horseman, Pazyryk felt artifact, c. 300 BC.

The Pazyryk culture is a Scythian[17] nomadic Iron Age archaeological culture (of Iranian origin; c. 6th to 3rd centuries BC) identified by excavated artifacts and mummified humans found in the Siberian permafrost, in the Altay Mountains, Kazakhstan and nearby Mongolia. The mummies are buried in long barrows (or kurgans) similar to the tomb mounds of Scythian culture in Ukraine. The type site are the Pazyryk burials of the Ukok Plateau.[18] Many artifacts and human remains have been found at this location, including the Siberian Ice Princess, indicating a flourishing culture at this location that benefited from the many trade routes and caravans of merchants passing through the area.[19] The Pazyryk are considered to have had a war-like life.[20]

Other kurgan cemeteries associated with the culture include those of Bashadar, Tuekta, Ulandryk, Polosmak and Berel. There are so far no known sites of settlements associated with the burials, suggesting a purely nomadic lifestyle.

The remarkable textiles recovered from the Pazyryk burials include the oldest woollen knotted-pile carpet known, the oldest embroidered Chinese silk, and two pieces of woven Persian fabric (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). Red and ochre predominate in the carpet, the main design of which is of riders, stags, and griffins. Many of the Pazyryk felt hangings, saddlecloths, and cushions were covered with elaborate designs executed in appliqué feltwork, dyed furs, and embroidery. Of exceptional interest are those with animal and human figural compositions, the most notable of which are the repeat design of an investiture scene on a felt hanging and that of a semihuman, semibird creature on another (both in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). Clothing, whether of felt, leather, or fur, was also lavishly ornamented.

Horse reins either had animal designs cut out on them or were studded with wooden ones covered in gold foil. Their tail sheaths were ornamented, as were their headpieces and breastpieces. Some horses were provided with leather or felt masks made to resemble animals, with stag antlers or rams' horns often incorporated in them. Many of the trappings took the form of iron, bronze, and gilt wood animal motifs either applied or suspended from them; and bits had animal-shaped terminal ornaments. Altai-Sayan animals frequently display muscles delineated with dot and comma markings, a formal convention that may have derived from appliqué needlework. Such markings are sometimes included in Assyrian, Achaemenian, and even Urartian animal representations of the ancient Middle East. Roundels containing a dot serve the same purpose on the stag and other animal renderings executed by contemporary Śaka metalworkers. Animal processions of the Assyro-Achaemenian type also appealed to many Central Asian tribesmen and are featured in their arts.

Certain geometric designs and sun symbols, such as the circle and rosette, recur at Pazyryk but are completely outnumbered by animal motifs. The stag and its relatives figure as prominently as in Altai-Sayan. Combat scenes between carnivores and herbivores are exceedingly numerous in Pazyryk work; the Pazyryk beasts are locked in such bitter fights that the victim's hindquarters become inverted.[21]

Art of the steppes

Tribes of Europoid type appear to have been active in Mongolia and Southern Siberia from ancient times. They were in contact with China and were often described for their foreign features.[23]


A cataphract-style parade armour of a Saka royal, also known as "The Golden Warrior", from the Issyk kurgan, a historical burial site near ex-capital city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. c. 400–200 BC.[30]

The art of the Saka was of a similar styles as other Iranian peoples of the steppes, which is referred to collectively as Scythian art. In 2001, the discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial-barrow illustrated Scythian animal-style gold that lacks the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed down the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.

Ancient influences from Central Asia became identifiable in China following contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic western and northwestern border territories from the 8th century BC. The Chinese adopted the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (descriptions of animals locked in combat), particularly the rectangular belt-plaques made of gold or bronze, and created their own versions in jade and steatite.[31][page needed]

Following their expulsion by the Yuezhi, some Saka may also have migrated to the area of Yunnan in southern China. Saka warriors could also have served as mercenaries for the various kingdoms of ancient China. Excavations of the prehistoric art of the Dian civilisation of Yunnan have revealed hunting scenes of Caucasoid horsemen in Central Asian clothing.[32]

Saka influences have been identified as far as Korea and Japan. Various Korean artifacts, such as the royal crowns of the kingdom of Silla, are said to be of "Scythian" design.[33] Similar crowns, brought through contacts with the continent, can also be found in Kofun era Japan.[34]

Achaemenid period

Persian soldiers (left) fighting against Scythians. Cylinder seal impression.[35]

Margiana and Bactria belonged to the Medes for a time, and were then annexed to the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus the Great in sixth century BC, forming the twelfth satrapy of Persia.[36][37]

Under Persian rule, many Greeks were deported to Bactria, so that their communities and language became common in the area. During the reign of Darius I, the inhabitants of the Greek city of Barca, in Cyrenaica, were deported to Bactria for refusing to surrender assassins.[38] In addition, Xerxes also settled the "Branchidae" in Bactria; they were the descendants of Greek priests who had once lived near Didyma (western Asia Minor) and betrayed the temple to him.[39] Herodotus also records a Persian commander threatening to enslave daughters of the revolting Ionians and send them to Bactria.[40] Persia subsequently conscripted Greek men from these settlements in Bactria into their military, as did Alexander later.[41]

Hellenistic and Greco-Bactrian art (265-145 BC)

The Greco-Bactrians ruled the southern part of Central Asia from the 3rd to the 2nd century BC, with their capital at Ai-Khanoum.[42][43][44]

The main known remains from this period are the ruins and artifacts of their city of Ai-Khanoum, a Greco-Bactrian city founded circa 280 BC which continued to flourish during the first 55 years of the Indo-Greek period until its destruction by nomadic invaders in 145 BC, and their coinage, which is often bilingual, combining Greek with the Indian Brahmi script or Kharoshthi.[45] Apart from Ai-Khanoum, Indo-Greek ruins have been positively identified in few cities such as Barikot or Taxila, with generally much fewer known artistic remains.[43][46]

Architecture in Bactria

Corinthian capital, found at Ai-Khanoum in the citadel by the troops of Commander Massoud, 2nd century BC.

Numerous artefacts and structures were found, particularly in Ai-Khanoum, pointing to a high Hellenistic culture, combined with Eastern influences, starting from the 280-250 BC period.[47][48][49] Overall, Aï-Khanoum was an extremely important Greek city (1.5 sq kilometer), characteristic of the Seleucid Empire and then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, remaining one of the major cities at the time when the Greek kings started to occupy parts of India, from 200 to 145 BC. It seems the city was destroyed, never to be rebuilt, about the time of the death of king Eucratides around 145 BC.[49]

Archaeological missions unearthed various structures, some of them perfectly Hellenistic, some other integrating elements of Persian architecture, including a citadel, a Classical theater, a huge palace in Greco-Bactrian architecture, somehow reminiscent of formal Persian palatial architecture, a gymnasium (100 × 100m), one of the largest of Antiquity, various temples, a mosaic representing the Macedonian sun, acanthus leaves and various animals (crabs, dolphins etc...), numerous remains of Classical Corinthian columns.[49] Many artifacts are dated to the 2nd century BC, which corresponds to the early Indo-Greek period.


Stucco face found in the administrative palace. Ai-Khanoum, 2nd century BC

Various sculptural fragments were also found at Ai-Khanoum, in a rather conventional, classical style, rather impervious to the Hellenizing innovations occurring at the same time in the Mediterranean world. Of special notice, a huge foot fragment in excellent Hellenistic style was recovered, which is estimated to have belonged to a 5-6 meter tall statue (which had to be seated to fit within the height of the columns supporting the Temple). Since the sandal of the foot fragment bears the symbolic depiction of Zeus' thunderbolt, the statue is thought to have been a smaller version of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.[50][51]

Due to the lack of proper stones for sculptural work in the area of Ai-Khanoum, unbaked clay and stucco modeled on a wooden frame were often used, a technique which would become widespread in Central Asia and the East, especially in Buddhist art. In some cases, only the hands and feet would be made in marble.

In India, only a few Hellenistic sculptural remains have been found, mainly small items in the excavations of Sirkap.


Plate depicting Cybele pulled by lions, a votive sacrifice and the Sun God. Ai-Khanoum, 2nd century BC.

A variety of artefacts of Hellenistic style, often with Persian influence, were also excavated at Ai-Khanoum, such as a round medallion plate describing the goddess Cybele on a chariot, in front of a fire altar, and under a depiction of Helios, a fully preserved bronze statue of Herakles, various golden serpentine arm jewellery and earrings, a toilet tray representing a seated Aphrodite, a mold representing a bearded and diademed middle-aged man. Various artefacts of daily life are also clearly Hellenistic: sundials, ink wells, tableware. An almost life-sized dark green glass phallus with a small owl on the back side and other treasures are said to have been discovered at Ai-Khanoum, possibly along with a stone with an inscription, which was not recovered. The artefacts have now been returned to the Kabul Museum after several years in Switzerland by Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, Director of the Swiss Afghanistan Institute.[52]

Yuezhi and Kushan art

Some traces remain of the presence of the Kushans in the areas of Bactria and Sogdiana. Archaeological structures are known in Takht-I-Sangin, Surkh Kotal (a monumental temple), and in the palace of Khalchayan. Various sculptures and friezes are known, representing horse-riding archers, and, significantly, men with artificially deformed skulls, such as the Kushan prince of Khalchayan (a practice well attested in nomadic Central Asia).[53]

Khalchayan (1st century BC)

Kushan art at Khalchayan
(1st century BC)

The art of Khalchayan of the end of the 2nd–1st century BC is probably one of the first known manifestations of Kushan art.[59] It is ultimately derived from Hellenistic art, and possibly from the art of the cities of Ai-Khanoum and Nysa.[59] At Khalchayan, rows of in-the-round terracotta statues showed Kushan princes in dignified attitudes, while some of the sculptural scenes are thought to depict the Kushans fighting against the Sakas.[60] The Yuezis are shown with a majestic demeanour, whereas the Sakas are typically represented with side-wiskers, displaying expressive and sometimes grotesque features.[60]

According to Benjamin Rowland, the styles and ethnic type visible in Kalchayan already anticipate the characteristics of the later Art of Gandhara and may even have been at the origin of its development.[59] Rowland particularly draws attention to the similarity of the ethnic types represented at Khalchayan and in the art of Gandhara, and also in the style of portraiture itself.[59] For example, Rowland find a great proximity between the famous head of a Yuezhi prince from Khalchayan, and the head of Gandharan Bodhisattvas, giving the example of the Gandharan head of a Bodhisattva in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[59] The similarity of the Gandhara Bodhisattva with the portrait of the Kushan ruler Heraios is also striking.[59] According to Rowland the Bactrian art of Khalchayan thus survived for several centuries through its influence in the art of Gandhara, thanks to the patronage of the Kushans.[59]

Bactria (1st–3rd century AD)

The Kushans apparently favoured royal portraiture, as can be seen in their coins and their dynastic sculptures.[61] A monumental sculpture of King Kanishka I has been found in Mathura in northern India, which is characterized by its frontality and martial stance, as he holds firmly his sword and a mace.[61] His heavy coat and riding boots are typically nomadic Central Asian, and are way too heavy for the warm climate of India.[61] His coat is decorated by hundreds of pearls, which probably symbolize his wealth.[61] His grandiose regnal title is inscribed in the Brahmi script: "The Great King, King of Kings, Son of God, Kanishka".[62][61]

As the Kushans progressively adapted to life in India, their dress progressively became lighter, and representation less frontal and more natural, although they retained characteristic elements of their nomadic dress, such as the trousers and boots, the heavy tunics, and heavy belts.

Kushano-Sasanian art (3rd–4th century AD)

The Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom (also called "Kushanshas" KΟÞANΟ ÞAΟ Koshano Shao in Bactrian[68]) is a historiographic term used by modern scholars[69] to refer to a branch of the Sasanian Persians who established their rule in Bactria and in northwestern Indian subcontinent (present day Pakistan) during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD at the expense of the declining Kushans. They captured the provinces of Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara from the Kushans in 225 AD.[70] The Kushano-Sassanids traded goods such as silverware and textiles depicting the Sassanid emperors engaged in hunting or administering justice. The example of Sassanid art was influential on Kushan art, and this influence remained active for several centuries in northwest South Asia.


The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe between the 4th and 6th century AD. The nomadic nature of Hun society means that they have left very little in the archaeological record.[75] Archaeological finds have produced a large number of cauldrons that have since the work of Paul Reinecke in 1896 been identified as having been produced by the Huns.[76] Although typically described as "bronze cauldrons", the cauldrons are often made of copper, which is generally of poor quality.[77] Maenchen-Helfen lists 19 known finds of Hunnish cauldrons from all over Central and Eastern Europe and Western Siberia.[78] They come in various shapes, and are sometimes found together with vessels of various other origins.[79]

Both ancient sources and archaeological finds from graves confirm that the Huns wore elaborately decorated golden or gold-plated diadems.[80] Maenchen-Helfen lists a total of six known Hunnish diadems.[81] Hunnic women seem to have worn necklaces and bracelets of mostly imported beads of various materials as well.[82] The later common early medieval practice of decorating jewelry and weapons with gemstones appears to have originated with the Huns.[83] They are also known to have made small mirrors of an originally Chinese type, which often appear to have been intentionally broken when placed into a grave.[84]

Archaeological finds indicate that the Huns wore gold plaques as ornaments on their clothing, as well as imported glass beads.[85] Ammianus reports that they wore clothes made of linen or the furs of marmots and leggings of goatskin.[86]


Portrait of Kidara, king of the Kidarites, circa 350–386. The coinage of the Kidarites imitated Sasanian imperial coinage, with the exception that they displayed clean-shaven faces, instead of the beards of the Sasanians, a feature relating them to Altaic rather than Iranian lineage.[87][88]

The Kidarites, or "Kidara Huns",[89] were a dynasty that ruled Bactria and adjoining parts of Central Asia and South Asia in the 4th and 5th centuries. The Kidarites belonged to a complex of peoples known collectively in India as the Huna, and in Europe as the Chionites (from the Iranian names Xwn/Xyon), and may even be considered as identical to the Chionites.[90] The 5th century Byzantine historian Priscus called them Kidarites Huns, or "Huns who are Kidarites".[91][92] The Huna/ Xionite tribes are often linked, albeit controversially, to the Huns who invaded Eastern Europe during a similar period. They are entirely different from the Hephthalites, who replaced them about a century later.[92]

Hepthalite art (4th-6th century AD)

Murals from Dilberjin Tepe, thought to represent early Hephthalites.[93][94][95][96] The ruler wears a radiate crown which is comparable to the crown of the king on the "Yabghu of the Hephthalites" seal.[97]

The Hephthalites (Bactrian: ηβοδαλο, romanized: Ebodalo),[98] sometimes called the "White Huns",[99][100] were a people who lived in Central Asia during the 5th to 8th centuries. They existed as an Empire, the "Imperial Hephthalites", and were militarily important from 450 AD, when they defeated the Kidarites, to 560 AD, date of their defeat to combined First Turkic Khaganate and Sasanian Empire forces.[101][102]

The Hepthalites appears in several mural paintings in the area of Tokharistan, especially in banquet scenes at Balalyk tepe and as donors to the Buddha in the ceiling painting of the 35 meter Buddha at the Buddhas of Bamiyan.[103] Several of the figures in these paintings have a characteristic appearance, with belted jackets with a unique lapel of their tunic being folded on the right side, a style which became popular under the Hephthalites,[104] the cropped hair, the hair accessories, their distinctive physionomy and their round beardless faces.[105][106] The figures at Bamiyan must represent the donors and potentates who supported the building of the monumental giant Buddha.[105] These remarkable paintings participate "to the artistic tradition of the Hephthalite ruling classes of Tukharistan".[103][107]

The paintings related to the Hephthalites have often been grouped under the appellation of "Tokharistan school of art",[108] or the "Hephthalite stage in the History of Central Asia Art".[109] The paintings of Tavka Kurgan, of very high quality, also belong to this school of art, and are closely related to other paintings of the Tokharistan school such as Balalyk tepe, in the depiction of clothes, and especially in the treatment of the faces.[110]

This "Hephthalite period" in art, with the caftans with a triangular collar folded on the right, the particular cropped hairstyle, the crowns with crescents, have been found in many of the areas historically occupied and ruled by the Hephthalites, in Sogdia, Bamiyan (modern Afghanistan), or in Kucha in the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China). This points to a "political and cultural unification of Central Asia" with similar artistic styles and iconography, under the rule of the Hephthalites.[111]

Buddhist art of Bamiyan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan (shown before 2001), were carbon-dated to 544–595 AD and 591–644 AD respectively.[117][118]

The Buddhist art of Bamiyan covers a period from the early centuries of the Common Era, culminating with the building of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the 6th-century AD.[119] monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, 130 kilometres (81 mi) northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft). Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddhas has determined that the smaller 38 m (125 ft) "Eastern Buddha" was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 m (180 ft) "Western Buddha" was built around 618 AD.[113][118]

The statues represented a later evolution of the classic blended style of Gandhara art.[120] The statues consisted of the male Salsal ("light shines through the universe") and the (smaller) female Shamama ("Queen Mother"), as they were called by the locals.[121] The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which wore away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands, and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller one was painted multiple colors.[122] The lower parts of the statues' arms were constructed from the same mud-straw mix supported on wooden armatures. It is believed that the upper parts of their faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. The rows of holes that can be seen in photographs held wooden pegs that stabilized the outer stucco.

The Buddhas are surrounded by numerous caves and surfaces decorated with paintings.[123] It is thought that the period of florescence was from the 6th to 8th century AD, until the onset of Islamic invasions.[123] These works of art are considered as an artistic synthesis of Buddhist art and Gupta art from India, with influences from the Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, as well as the country of Tokharistan.[123]

Tarim Basin

The Buddhist Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves (Cave 123) at the Kizil Caves near Kucha, built c. 430–530 AD

From the 3rd century AD, the Tarim Basin became a centre for the development of Buddhist art, and a major relay for the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism. Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese by Kuchean monks, the most famous of whom was Kumārajīva (344–412/5).[127][128]

Indian and Central Asian influences

Numerous Buddhist caves cover the northern side of the Tarim Basin, such as the Kizil Caves consisting in over 236 such temples. Their murals date from the 3rd to the 8th century.[129] The caves of Kizil are the earlier of their type in China, and their model was later adopted in the construction of Buddhist caves further east.[130] Other famous sites nearby are the Kizilgaha caves, the Kumtura Caves, Subashi Temple or the Simsim caves.[131][132]

In the Kizil Caves appear portraits of Royal families, composed of the King, Queen and young Prince. They are accompanied by monks, and men in caftan.[133] According to Historian of Art Benjamin Rowland, these portraits show "that the Tocharians were European rather than Mongol in appearance, with light complexions, blue eyes, and blond or reddish hair, and the costumes of the knights and their ladies have haunting suggestions of the chivalric age of the West".[134]

Interaction with Chinese art

The influence of Chinese art started to appear in the eastern part of the Tarim Basin, as Buddhist art was spreading eastward. These Chinese characteristics appear in the art of the Bezeklik Caves or the Dunhuang Caves.

Sogdian art

The Afrasiab paintings of the 6th to 7th centuries in Samarkand, Uzbekistan offer a rare surviving example of Sogdian art. The paintings, showing scenes of daily life and events such as the arrival of foreign ambassadors, are located within the ruins of aristocratic homes. It is unclear if any of these palatial residences served as the official palace of the rulers of Samarkand.[138] The oldest surviving Sogdian monumental wall murals date to the 5th century and are the Penjikent murals, Tajikistan.[139] In addition to revealing aspects of their social and political lives, Sogdian art has also been instrumental in aiding historians' understanding of their religious beliefs. For instance, it is clear that Buddhist Sogdians incorporated some of their own Iranian deities into their version of the Buddhist Pantheon. At Zhetysu, Sogdian gilded bronze plaques on a Buddhist temple show a pairing of a male and female deity with outstretched hands holding a miniature camel, a common non-Buddhist image similarly found in the paintings of Samarkand and Panjakent.[140]

Central Asian art in ancient China

Many objects suggesting exchanges with Central Asia have been found, especially in Northern Wei tombs. Left: Model of a Silk Road camel driver, Northern Wei period. Right: a Kushano-Sasanian plate with hunting scene, from the Northern Wei tomb of Feng Hetu (封和突, a Xianbei military official, 438–501) in Xiaozhan village, Datong. Shanxi Museum.[148][149]

From the 4th to the 6th centuries AD, the Northern dynasties (389–589 AD) of China, ruled by the nomadic Xianbei, engaged in trade with Central Asia, often through the intermediary of Sogdian traders. Northern Wei art came under influence of Indian and Central Asian traditions through the mean of these trade routes. This included the influence of Buddhism, which flourished under the Northern Dynasties.[150] Numerous Central Asian works of art, especially decorated silverware and jewelry, have been found in the tombs of the Northern Wei, the Northern Qi or the Northern Zhou.[151][152][153]

Turkic art

The Turks overran the Hephthalite Empire and became the main power in Central Asia from the time of the First Turkic Khaganate and the Western Turks, circa 560 to 742 AD. Their art was essentially nomadic.

Islamic Golden Age in Central Asia

The Muslim conquest of Transoxiana was the 7th and 8th century conquests, by Umayyad and Abbasid Arabs, of Transoxiana, the land between the Oxus (Amu Darya) and Jaxartes (Syr Darya) rivers, a part of Central Asia that today includes all or parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. This started a period of prosperity, from the 8th to the 14th century, known as the Islamic Golden Age, which also affected the arts of Central Asia.


Artistic florescence occurred especially during the period of the Samanid Empire (819–999 AD). The empire was centred in Khorasan and Transoxiana; at its greatest extent encompassing modern-day Afghanistan, large parts of Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, parts of Kazakhstan and Pakistan.


The Ghaznavid dynasty was a Persianate[165] Muslim dynasty of Turkic mamluk origin,[166][a][167] at their greatest extent ruling large parts of Iran, Afghanistan, much of Transoxiana and the northwest Indian subcontinent from 977 to 1186.[168]


The Seljuk Empire (1037–1194 AD) was a high medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire, originating from the Qiniq branch of Oghuz Turks. At its greatest extent, the Seljuk Empire controlled a vast area stretching from western Anatolia and the Levant to the Hindu Kush in the east, and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf in the south.

Mongol invasion

The Mongols under Genghis Khan invaded Central Asia in the early 13th century. The unified Mongol Empire was succeeded by the Chagatai Khanate,[172] a Mongol and later Turkicized khanate.[173][174] that comprised the lands ruled by Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan and his descendants and successors. At its height in the late 13th century, the khanate extended from the Amu Darya south of the Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains in the border of modern-day Mongolia and China, roughly corresponding to the defunct Qara Khitai Empire.[175] Initially the rulers of the Chagatai Khanate recognized the supremacy of the Great Khan,[176] but by the reign of Kublai Khan, Ghiyas-ud-din Baraq no longer obeyed the emperor's orders.

Timurid Renaissance

During the mid-14th century, the Chagatais lost Transoxania to the Timurids circa 1370. After the Mongol invasions, a new period of prosperity thus started, the Timurid Renaissance. After conquering a city, the Timurids commonly spared the lives of the local artisans and deported them to the Timurid capital of Samarkand. After the Timurids conquered Persia in the early 15th century, many Persian artistic traits became interwoven with existing Mongol art. Timur made Samarkand one of the centers of Islamic art and remained a subject of interest to Ibn Khaldun.[177] In the mid 15th century the empire moved its capital to Herat, which became a focal point for Timurid art. As with Samarkand, Persian artisans and intellectuals soon established Herat as a center for arts and culture. Soon, many of the Timurids adopted Persian culture as their own.[178]

Khanate of Bukhara and Khanate of Khiva

The Khanate of Bukhara was a state centered on Uzbekistan from the second quarter of the 16th century to the late 18th century. Bukhara became the capital of the short-lived Shaybanid empire during the reign of Ubaydallah Khan (1533–1540). The khanate reached its greatest extent and influence under its penultimate Shaybanid ruler, the scholarly Abdullah Khan II (r. 1557–1598). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Khanate was ruled by the Janid Dynasty (Astrakhanids or Toqay Timurids). They were the last Genghisid descendants to rule Bukhara.

Russian Turkestan (1867–1917)

Kazakh in a fur hat (1867-1868), Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904).

Central Asia fell largely under the control of Russia in the 19th century, following the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Russian Turkestan (1867–1917) was the western part of Turkestan within the Russian Empire's Central Asian territories, and was administered as a Krai or Governor-Generalship. It comprised the oasis region to the south of the Kazakh Steppe, but not the protectorates of the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva. As a consequence of Russian colonization, European fine arts – painting, sculpture and graphics – have developed in Central Asia.

Soviet Central Asia (1918–1991)

Soviet Central Asia refers to the section of Central Asia formerly controlled by the Soviet Union, as well as the time period of Soviet administration (1918–1991). Central Asian SSRs declared independence in 1991. In terms of area, it is nearly synonymous with Russian Turkestan, the name for the region during the Russian Empire. The first years of the Soviet regime saw the appearance of modernism, which took inspiration from the Russian avant-garde movement. Until the 1980s, Central Asian arts had developed along with general tendencies of Soviet arts.

Contemporary period

Uzbekistan, Bukhara, Spices and silk festival

In the 90s, arts of the region underwent some significant changes. Institutionally speaking, some fields of arts were regulated by the birth of the art market, some stayed as representatives of official views, while many were sponsored by international organizations. The years of 1990–2000 were times for the establishment of contemporary arts. In the region, many important international exhibitions are taking place, Central Asian art is represented in European and American museums, and the Central Asian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been organized since 2005.


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  114. ^ The radiate crown is comparable to the crown of the king on the "Yabghu of the Hephthalites" seal. See: Lerner, Judith A.; Sims-Williams, Nicholas (2011). Seals, sealings and tokens from Bactria to Gandhara : 4th to 8th century CE. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-3700168973.
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  1. ^ The Ghaznavids were a dynasty of Turkic slave-soldiers...[166]

External links

  • Along the ancient silk routes: Central Asian art from the West Berlin State Museums, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF)
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