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The art of Central Asia is critically important to world historians because it provides evidence of the extraordinary synthesis of cultural influences that so typify the history of the region. This blending of Mediterranean, Iranian, Indian, Chinese, steppe nomadic, and local techniques and motifs that occurred at the “crossroads of Eurasia” resulted in the emergence of several major syncretistic schools of art.
Central Asian art needs to be clearly distinguished from the other artistic traditions of Inner Eurasia. Geographically, the term denotes the arts of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, Nepal, Xinjiang Province in northwestern China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, whereas Inner Eurasia also includes Mongolia, the Gobi, and central Siberia. It is culturally and stylistically different from Islamic, Indian, Chinese, and Russian arts, although these styles have all been practiced within the region. Historically, Central Asian art dates from prehistoric times to the present, with the ancient Silk Roads era being the most significant. Media have included sculpture and engraving in a variety of stone and stucco, as well as wall paintings, coin engravings, and textiles.
In the oasis towns of Central Asia, artists from a variety of cultures worked together to produce both sacred and secular art, which was then transported along the trade routes to profoundly influence the subsequent art of East Asia in particular. This essay offers a brief survey of Central Asian art in a chronological framework.
The history of Central Asia from the late Neolithic period (c. 6000–3000 BCE) until quite recently has been characterized by the interaction between sedentary agrarian and nomadic pastoralist communities. The original inhabitants of the region lived in small semi-sedentary settlements. More substantial colonization followed as a direct result of the migration of Indo-European- and Indo-Iranian-speaking pastoralists into the region in three waves from approximately 4000 BCE. An important urban civilization emerged in the valleys of the Amu Dar’ya and Zeravshan rivers late in the third millennium BCE, originally known as the Bactrian-Margiana archaeological complex (BMAC), but “Oxus Civilization” is the term now more commonly used. Oxus Civilization oasis sites were probably agricultural communities developed to facilitate trade and exchange between the indigenous sedentary agriculturists and the neighboring steppe-nomadic pastoralists, evidence of the early emergence of a tradition of cultural exchange.
Artifacts discovered in Oxus Civilization sites—particularly battle-axes with cross-guards, mirrors, pins, bracelets, and rings—demonstrate high levels of craftsmanship and the borrowing of styles. Oxus Civilization potters used the wheel from as early as the third millennium BCE and decorated their works with geometric designs or stylized renderings of large animals and goats. The iconography of seals, cylinders, and metal ornaments is clearly of steppe-nomadic tradition—which includes both realistic and fantastic animal images (particularly horses), mythical raptor-headed creatures, hunting and riding images, and some abstract symbol—while later artifacts are more Iranian in appearance, featuring human figures in full-frontal or profile poses, often sacrificing before a small fire altar. The Oxus Civilization declined late in the second millennium, although soon after 1000 BCE there is evidence of renewed urbanization and the construction of extensive irrigation systems. These settlements were extensively fortified, providing evidence of increased levels of conflict during what is known as the Scythian era (c. 1000–200 BCE).
The militarized Scythian tribes, who were active in Central Asia from the seventh century BCE, were responsible for the production of superbly decorative objects, particularly jewelry and trappings on horses, tents, and wagons. Scythic representations of real or imagined beasts were worked into a wide range of materials, including wood, leather, bone, applique felt, bronze, iron, silver, gold, and electrum. Outstanding examples are gold belt buckles, often with turquoise inlay, and 30-centimeter-long gold stags with their legs tucked under them, which may have been used as central ornaments on shields. The 1979 discovery at Tillya Tepe in Afghanistan of six royal graves replete with magnificent gold and lapis lazuli jewelry and weapons demonstrates the extraordinary artistic achievements of (probably) Scythian craftsmanship. The easternmost outpost of Scythian culture was the Ili River valley (in present-day southeastern Kazakhstan and northwestern Xinjiang Province, China), where they may have influenced the artistic tastes of the Xiongnu tribal confederation. A range of personal ornaments discovered at the major Xiongnu site of Noin-Ula depict fantastic animals with raptor-headed appendages, similar to those created by steppe-nomadic peoples from further west.
An important sedentary civilization also emerged in the Indus Valley during the third millennium BCE. The excavation of large cities such as Mohenjo Daro and Harappa provides evidence of a tightly organized, architecturally sophisticated urban society with straight streets intersecting at right angles, sophisticated drainage systems, and high standards of pottery production. Venus fertility figurines have been found at various sites, demonstrating extensive levels of cultural exchange with the civilizations of southwestern Asia. Stamps and seals from the Indus civilization depict naturalistic animals, but also horned humans, unicorns, and other large figures that might be gods, indicating possible steppe-nomadic influence upon artists.
Further north in the Indus Valley some 35,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions have been discovered, and others are known in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The oldest carvings, which are pecked or chiseled into the surface of boulders scattered on the riverbanks and terraces, are prehistoric, mostly depicting animals, hunting scenes, and demon-like creatures. The petroglyphs continued to be cut until the early modern era and provide evidence of the changing religious practices of travelers (notably of Buddhism and Islam) along this branch of the Silk Roads. They depict an astonishing array of stupas (burial mounds and reliquaries) with the Buddha in various poses, and bodhisattva figures; later petroglyphs feature Indian and Iranian iconography, including some Zoroastrian and later Islamic symbols.
Achaemenids and Greeks
The relative isolation of small, fortified city-states in Central Asia made them vulnerable to attacks from the armies of major agrarian civilizations to the west. By the mid-sixth century BCE the Achaemenids (an Iranian dynasty that held power from the seventh century BCE through 330 BCE) had incorporated Bactria (ancient Afghanistan) and Sogdia (ancient Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) into their empire. These regions were thus exposed to the artistic traditions and belief systems of Iran until the arrival of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) in 329 BCE. This long period of incorporation into the durable and tightly organized Persian Empire helped establish the region as part of a Eurasia-wide cultural exchange network. Central Asia was exposed to Zoroastrian iconography, and small votive figurines produced by potters in Bactria and Sogdia were designed to be used in fire-worshipping ceremonies. The Achaemenids also introduced the first coins into Central Asia, establishing a tradition that would culminate under the Greco-Bactrians in arguably the finest example of the coin engravers’ art known in the ancient world.
Alexander campaigned in Bactria and Sogdia for two years, establishing a number of cities, including Alexandria-Kapisu (Begram in Afghanistan), which the Kushans later made their summer capital. Alexander’s campaign reinforced the process begun by the Achaemenids and further linked Central Asia to the civilizations of southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean. Greek populations flooded into the region during the subsequent Seleucid (Macedonian Greek) era (312–64 BCE), founding a string of Greek towns such as Ay Khanum on the southern banks of the Amu Dar’ya, complete with classical Greek temples and theaters. The Seleucids also issued tetradrachms that are masterpieces in the Greek tradition of coinage, with superb portraits of kings on the reverse that are sometimes realistic enough to reveal symptoms of disease, such as goiter.
Around 250 BCE Diodotus, the Seleucid satrap of Bactria, revolted and declared Bactria an independent state. During the subsequent Greco-Bactrian era a series of kings expanded their realms into Sogdia and Fergana to the north, Parthia to the west, and Kabul and the Indus Valley to the south. Soon after 190 BCE, Demetrius extended Greek interests into northern India, forging a link between the Hellenistic and Indian cultures that was strengthened under his successors Eucratides and Menander.
As well as establishing a link between Hellenic and Indian culture, the most significant artistic legacy of the Greco-Bactrians is their superb coinage, which was issued in silver and bronze. The royal portraits are masterpieces of coin engraving; facial features are so realistically and individually realized as to surpass even the Seleucids. Euthydemus is depicted with a thick neck, full cheeks and chin, and a determined mouth; Eucratides wears a helmet with bull’s horns above his naked torso; Demetrius wears an elephant scalp headdress and formidable expression; and Antimachus has unique facial features reflecting his mixed Greek and Sogdian blood. The coins strongly influenced the subsequent issues of the Kushans, under whom Central Asian art reached the heights of syncretistic achievement.
The Kushans: Gandharan and Mathuran Art
The invasion of Bactria by the Yuezhi confederation in 130 BCE ushered in a period often described as the Golden Age of ancient Central Asia. By around 45 CE the Yuezhi had transformed themselves into the imperial Kushans, and for much of the subsequent two centuries the stability of their regime facilitated astonishing levels of trans-Eurasian cultural exchange along the various Silk Roads, which linked the Mediterranean, Parthian, Indian, Chinese, and steppe-nomadic worlds into a single world system for the first time in history. Central Asian art was transformed by this interaction, and although a number of distinctive Kushan styles are known, the most significant are those that emerged at Gandhara and Mathura.
Gandhara (located near Peshawar in Pakistan) had been incorporated into the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, and the art that evolved there owed much to Mediterranean, Indian, and local traditions. Gandharan sculpture (along with Kushan coinage) has long been associated with the earliest depictions of the Buddha, who had previously been represented only by symbols such as footprints or an umbrella. In an attempt to express for the first time the idea of his divinity in human form, Gandharan sculptors (who worked in hard, gray schist) turned to statues of Greek and Roman gods. The earliest Buddhas feature drapery that hangs in loose folds but still outlines the form and movement of the body beneath. Many are similar to the contemporary statues of deified Roman emperors, and the head recalls the Greek god Apollo. Also remarkable in Gandharan art are flat sculptures worked on slabs of schist (often used as stair-riser reliefs) depicting both religious and secular scenes. These pieces abound in details from everyday life—comfortable beds, food and wine, dancers and musicians, and realistic portraiture—and their extraordinary mixture of Indian symbolism, Romano- Hellenistic architectural details, and steppe-nomadic costumes are a quintessential example of Central Asian artistic synthesis.
In later phases (Gandharan art continued until the sixth century CE) the remarkable blending of local, Eastern, and Western styles continues to be found in Buddhas and bodhisattvas that combine Greek symmetry with Indian sensual spirituality and serenity. In turn, these syncretistic images went on to profoundly influence later East Asian images of the Buddha, particularly the Chinese. So stylistically unmistakable is the sculpture of Gandhara that early-twentieth-century archaeologists were able to map the spread of Kushano-Gandharan influences to the eastern edge of the Tarim Basin, based primarily on the continuing Greek and Roman stylistic influences observed in Buddhist sculpture they had unearthed.
Mathuran artists (based on the Jamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges) worked mainly in white-spotted red sandstone and were clearly influenced by the Gandharan synthesis. Whether standing or seated, the Buddha is depicted with broad shoulders and a large chest, and with legs apart and feet firmly planted, conveying a sense of power and energy. Mathuran secular art is notable for its sensual depictions of women and also for a superb series of portraits of the Kushan kings. Particularly impressive is a low-relief (unfortunately headless) sculpture of Kanishka (reigned c. 129–152 CE) in which he is depicted with sword and mace, and with his feet planted in a masterful manner. The king wears nomadic dress, and although the work was undertaken in Mathura (the Kushan winter capital), the style and concept seem to stem more from a Scythic-Parthian tradition than an Indian one. However, the arts of both Gandhara and Mathura did contribute profoundly to the formation of the classic style of Indian art, which reached its maturity during the three-century-long Guptan period.
First Millennium of the Common Era
Following the death of the Kushan ruler Vasudeva around 228, the Kushans were rapidly replaced in Central Asia by the Iranian Sasanians, who later established strong trade contacts with Tang-dynasty China (the Tang were in power from 618 to 907) that ensured the continuation of the tradition of artistic synthesis. Tang art—including flasks and pottery figurines—was clearly influenced by Central Asian and Western prototypes brought to China by pilgrims and traders. Mahayana Buddhism was by now firmly entrenched in Central Asia, and much of the art created during the first millennium CE was produced in monasteries across the Tarim Basin. Many of the more portable pieces were pillaged by European archaeologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and now reside in institutions all over the globe. Notable are the superb wall frescoes produced around 500 to 800 at Kizil, which demonstrate Sasanian, Indian, and Chinese influences; Buddhist wall paintings from Kuqa (from around 900 to 1000) in west central Xinjiang and Uygur frescoes from Bezeklik and Sorcuk (both displaying Sogdian, Persian, and Indian influences); and the astonishing library of illustrated scrolls discovered by the archaeologist Aurel Stein in the Monastery of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang in north central China. Included among the latter was the oldest block-printed book so far known, a copy of the Diamond Sutra dating from approximately 860 CE. Cultural and stylistic influences continued to move in both directions. The sculpture and painting produced in monasteries in Turpan in Xinjiang, for example, influenced the subsequent Buddhist art of Tibet, while the funeral art of the Uygurs deeply affected Mongolian painting. Many superb examples of Manichaean art are also known throughout Central Asia, documenting the spread of the “religion of light” eastward from the Sasanian realm as far as the Tang capital of Xi’an.
Not all the art of Central Asia was so easily transportable. In the high Bamiyan valley in northern Afghanistan, at a crossroads of two Silk Roads routes, a large monastic complex was responsible for the carving of monumental figures of the Buddha. Until just prior to its destruction in 2001 by the Taliban regime, the tallest of the colossal statues (52.5 meters) was the single largest Buddha known in the world. The Bamiyan Buddhas were massive reliefs set deep in the side of a cliff, inspired by the Indian rock-cut architecture of Ajanta in south central India. They were completed in a naturalistic, post-Gandharan style strongly influenced by both Parthian and local traditions, and in turn inspired the carving of another group of colossal Buddhas at Yungang in the Chinese province of Shanxi (northeastern China), completed late in the fifth century.
Outside of the scope of this brief outline is a consideration of the splendid cultural legacy of Islam that has been such a dominant influence upon Central Asian art from late in the first millennium CE until today. The textile arts of the region also deserve an essay to themselves, particularly as the great trade routes were named after silk. Textiles are of paramount importance to world historians because of the role they have played as mediums of exchange and as indicators of social position, ethnicity, and religion. Textiles were used as currency, to pay taxes, and as symbols of imperial patronage, and yet the fragile nature of the medium has meant that only a fraction of those produced have survived. One of the largest collections of ancient Central Asian textiles so far discovered are those associated with the desiccated mummies found at sites all over Xinjiang, analysis of which has been tentatively used to suggest a historical connection between the Tarim Basin mummies and the Bronze Age migration of Indo-European-speaking migrants into the region.
The richness of color, pattern, and texture that so distinguishes the region’s textiles is a product of the intense transfer and blending of ideas, motifs, techniques, and materials between nomadic and sedentary peoples, a tradition that continues in the twenty-first century. In the contemporary nations of post-Soviet Central Asia, weavers, potters, ceramic masters, jewelers, and painters from both sedentary and seminomadic traditions continue to practice their art. But the Soviet policy of forcing artists and craftspeople to work in collective factories and prohibiting the production of individual work had a devastating effect on many of the traditional arts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In some cases, archaeologists of the era also destroyed later layers of artistic artifacts in the process of excavating older periods. As a result, the few masters who remain in the region today carry a precious living legacy of tradition and technique.
Since the Central Asian republics gained independence in the 1990s, nongovernmental organizations such as UNESCO have played an important role in the renaissance of traditional arts and crafts through grants to artists and assistance in the international marketing of their works. One result of this well-intentioned strategy has been that many artists now concentrate on producing commercial works for foreign buyers as they adjust to market realities, and the creative process, particularly in terms of original modern art, has suffered. Of course, Central Asia has always been a region characterized by the tensions between local ethnic traditions on the one hand and a diverse range of foreign influences on the other, as a result of its geographical location as a hub for trans- Eurasian cultural exchange. It remains to be seen how Central Asian artists of the twenty-first century will balance the seemingly opposing forces of tradition and foreign influence, although it has been this very dynamic that for over five thousand years has resulted in the production of some of the most profoundly influential art in world history.
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