Line drawing of a fragmentary semi-circular decorative tableau with human and animal figures

Tympan above the entrance to the throne hall of the palace in Shahristan; second half of the 8th century; Museum of Antiquities of Dushanbe; tracing by E. Bouklaeva, D. Zhulina.

CANCELLED: Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sogdian Culture: Its Prelude, Blossom and Afterlife

Lecture 2: Stories on Walls: The Heyday of Sogdian Narrative Monumental Art

Pavel Lurje

State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Note: This event has been CANCELLED. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Sogdians, an eastern Iranian people who lived in the central part of modern Uzbekistan and neighboring areas of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in the Late Antique and early Medieval periods (4th to 10th centuries CE), produced a culture that made a deep impact on the history of Eurasia. In the last decades, the study of the Sogdians has developed greatly in many countries, and the recent launch of a Sogdian digital exhibition at the Freer|Sackler Gallery marks a new phase of interest in the Sogdians. Archaeological remains and excavated documents tell us the multifaceted story of a society of landlords, merchants, craftsmen, and brave knights—and also of women and their rights and opinions. This is also a story that lacks imperial ambition, but shows religious pluralism in vibrant cities and the life in diasporas, most famously documented in the inclusion of Sogdian merchants in Chinese society, thus contradicting the common opinion of xenophobia of the Celestial Empire. The Sogdians produced outstanding work of visual art, combining intricate ornamental decorations with the rich narrative of epics, tales, and fables. Dr. Lurje's lectures will highlight crucial elements of Sogdian culture, putting together the jigsaw puzzle of archaeological, artistic, textual, and linguistic sources, and introducing discoveries of recent fieldwork activities at Panjakent, where Dr. Lurje has worked for the last 25 years.

The best-known examples of Sogdian mural art are narrative depictions of epos and folklore. Boris Marshak's book Legends, Tales and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana, based on a series of lectures in New York, remains the main documentation of these unusual artistic pieces. The painstaking work of restorers at the State Hermitage Museum has elucidated many more examples of this kind. This lecture will focus on several examples that have only recently come to light in order to show the variety of subjects depicted on the walls of the city of Panjakent. Special attention will be given to an elaborate narrative wooden lunette from Shahristan, which was recently documented in full and studied by Dr. Lurje and Michael Shenkar, who have suggested that the scenes on it depict the deeds of heroes and the legendary Iranian king Key Kawus. Theoretical issues also arise from studying this material: What were the ultimate literary sources for narrative scenes in wall paintings and woodcarvings? Are they to be found in works of 'belles-lettres' or rather in the rich and mutable cosmos of migratory motives of tales and fables? And what were the artistic models and the visual inspiration for these narrative scenes? Did the artists draw from illustrative scrolls and miniatures or from stone reliefs of neighboring cultures?

Pavel Lurje is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Section of Central Asia, Caucasus and Crimea in the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Already as a student in the Department of History of the Middle East and Iranian Philology at Saint Petersburg State University, he began working on the long-term archaeological project in Panjakent and later also on projects in Bukhara and Semirechie (Kyrgyzstan). He received his PhD in 2004 from the Saint Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies, where his dissertation focused on "Historico-Linguistic Analysis of Sogdian Toponymy." After his PhD, Dr. Lurje was a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Iranian Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, where he worked on a long-term research project focused on Sogdian onomastics. Since taking up his position at the State Hermitage Museum in 2009, his primary research projects have involved archaeological fieldwork at Panjakent and curating the Chorasmian collections of the museum.

Registration is required at Please note that separate registration is required for each of the four lectures in this series.

The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

Admission to lecture closes 10 minutes after scheduled start time.

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