Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum
Natalia Kozlova, Head of the Department of Oriental Art and Culture, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum, and Larissa Kulakova, Curator of the Department of Oriental Art and Culture, at the ceremony
At the exhibition Culture and Art of Central Asia. Ancient Times and the Early Middle Ages
The Feasting (fragment)
Pendjikent, the first half of the 8th century
Tankard with Ibexes
Soghdia, the 8th century
12 February 2010, following a long break, the State Hermitage opened the updated permanent exhibition Culture and Art of Central Asia. Ancient Times and the Early Middle Ages. It occupies eleven halls on the first floor of the Winter Palace (N 38, 39, 45-54) and presents monuments of art and culture of Central Asia of the pre-Islamic period. A large group of exhibits is displayed for the first time.
The exhibition is arranged according to the chronological and geographical principle. The first hall displays the art of the Saka, ancient nomads of Central Asia, as well as of Hellenistic states - Arsacid dynasty of Parthia and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. The big Semirechye altar, a bronze table on four legs with animal figures on a side round perimeter, belongs to the Saka culture. Here one can see Parthian rhytons, horn-shaped wine vessels made of ivory, which were found in Old Nisa, Turkmenistan. Coins of Greco-Bactrian kings impress with their delicate lines and the elegancy of the engraver’s work.
The next hall exhibits items belonging to late antiquity of Central Asia: from the 2nd century BC till the 5th century AD. During that time Buddhism was spreading in its southern provinces, and the findings from the Kata-tepa Buddhist monastery in Old Termiz demonstrate an intricate mixture of Indian, Antique and Iranian cultures. The crown of the hall, in the literal and figurative sense of the word, is the frieze found in Ayrtam. It is placed above the showcases approximately at the same height as it once might have been placed in the vestibule of the Buddhist monastery. Female half-figures playing musical instruments and bringing gifts are emerging from behind acanthus foliage.
The culture of Khorezm, an agricultural province on the Amu Darya river delta, and nomadic Kenkol burial ground (northern Kirgizia) are represented by fragments of sculpture and paintings of a palace in Toprak Kala, the capital of Khorezm in the first centuries AD. The earliest known parts of a wooden saddle were found in Kenkol burial ground; the wooden saddle was an invention that changed the life of nomads and military art of the people of Eurasia.
Two halls are dedicated to the culture of Sogdiana, a province along the Zerafshan and Kashkadarya rivers in the middle of Central Asia, in the 5th - 8th centuries AD. Most of the exhibited objects come from Pendjikent, a city at the East end of the country, which has been studied by the archaeologists of the State Hermitage for more than sixty seasons. The first hall presents ossuaries, ceramic vessels for keeping human skeletal remains that were often designed in the form of architectural constructions, terracotta ware, small plastic art items as well as a series of religious paintings - images of gods and goddesses, a scene of mystery play with lamentation. Underneath them there is a clay relief from Pendjikent temple depicting sea world - fish, dolphins and tritons. The next hall demonstrates examples of Soghdian ceramic ware, bronze items and paintings that include a depiction of a feast in the honour of the end of the grain harvest.
At the exhibition one can see the most monumental examples of Soghdian art: wooden columns, friezes and ceilings burnt when Pendjikent was captured by the Arabs in 722; they carry depictions of figures of caryatids, battle scenes and vegetable motifs. One of the paintings comes from a Soghdian city Varakhsha in Bukhara oasis. Repeating scenes of a struggle of a hero on an elephant against cat predators and dragons are depicted against red background. The painting of the so-called Blue Hall of Pendjikent, which is probably the longest painting work exhibited in the Hermitage, is divided into four sections. The top section portrays gods, the second - battle scenes, allegedly from a heroic epic. The third section refers to the epic of Rustam, the most honoured hero of the Iranians. He defeats Avlad, another character of Iranian epic Shahnameh, and fights with a dragon. In the lower tier of the paintings it is possible to see tales and fables of the Soghdians, which had a lot in common with the Indian Panchatantra tales; some of them are familiar to us in Ivan Krylov’s rendering.
Everyday culture of the Soghdians is illustrated by coins, intaglios and stamps, decorations, games. The central showcase exhibits Soghdian and Khorezmian silverware. Many themes chiseled in silver coincide with the paintings represented on the walls of the hall.
Starting from the 7th century, the leading role in political and military life of Central Asia was played by the Turkic peoples, a group of nomad peoples coming from the Altai. Stone sculptures depicting deceased heroes, a stone with an epitaph and silver vessels of the nomads are among the items presented here. The culture of the Turkic peoples was under a great influence of the Soghdians, who were trading in the steppe; the walls of the hall carry Pendjikent paintings depicting feats of a woman warrior.
The next two halls are devoted to Devashtich, a prince of Pendjikent, who laid a claim to the throne of Soghdia and developed his own strategy amid the entangled cobwebs of politics of Soghdia at the beginning of the 8th century at the time when the Chinese laid claims to this country. We are obliged to the finding of medieval manuscripts from Abgar, a fortress on the present Mugh Mountain, for most of the information about his rule. The mountain climate has preserved the remains, and excavations have also been conducted on the Mugh Mountain; the excavations in 1930s revealed the peculiarity of the Soghdia culture. The exhibition displays the objects found on the Mugh Mountain - silk and cotton fabrics, household and military items such as painted shield and sheath covered with parchment which has preserved parts of a letter by an Arab commander. The walls carry the paintings of Devashtich’s Palace in Pendjikent, one of which probably illustrates the seizure of Samarkand by the Arabs.
A special place is occupied by sculpture and painting from the Buddhist Monastery of Ajina Tepe, which functioned in the 7th - 8th centuries in north-eastern Bactria (the South of present-day Tajikistan). In the centre of the hall there is a stupa, a pyramid-shaped religious structure, which was supposed to contain Buddhist relics.
The final section of the exhibition contains wall paintings from the town of Kakhkakh (present-day Shakhristan in northern Tajikistan, medieval Bunjikat, the capital of Ustrushan) which date back to the 8th - 9th centuries and signify the last manifestation of artistic culture of Central Asia before the coming of Islam. One of the paintings depicting two infants suckling a she-wolf ascends to a Roman prototype of the Capitoline she-wolf, others follow Soghdian canons; however, they surprise with delicate lines and unexpected colour solutions.
All the displayed exhibits can be divided into two groups: accidental findings acquired before 1917 at antique markets, and objects that came to the Hermitage from archeological excavations and were restored in the museum’s laboratories.
The exhibition has been prepared by the sectors of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Crimea of the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage.