Dressing the Hero in the Sogdian Pictorial Epic

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the Rustam Cycle from Reception Hall VI:41 Panjikent displayed in the Central Asia galleries of the State Hermitage Museum [image credit: author’s own photograph]
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detail of the northwest corner of the Rustam Cycle [image credit: author’s own photograph]

This paper is an article project that I began for the 5th Eurasian Archaeology Conference, “Myths of the Mountains, Gods of the Grasslands” held at Cornell University, October 26-28, 2017.

Dressing the Hero in the Sogdian Pictorial Epic

In 1956-1957 Aleksandr Belenitskii’s team from the State Hermitage Museum uncovered multi-register wall paintings from an early eighth-century CE reception hall at Panjikent. A year later Belenitskii interpreted the meter-high eye-level second register painting as a narrative of Rustam’s fight against the divs. A more or less contemporary Sogdian text fragment describes Rustam preparing for battle against divs, but nevertheless varies from the well-known Shahnama penned three centuries later by Ferdowsi.

Since this discovery, the Rustam Cycle painting has become one of the most widely published examples of Sogdian art. Some discussions focus on connecting the episodes represented with literary passages; some analyze the formulae used by Sogdian artists to pictorially render narrative; while others explore specific iconographical elements. In this paper I would like to investigate another aspect of this painting: Rustam’s dress. Rustam’s iconic leopard furs are usually mentioned in passing; however, no study has addressed how the artist fashioned this fur into a wearable garment. Rustam wears the fur as an over-the-head calf-length tunic trimmed with pearl roundel fabric. In addition to the distinctive leopard fur, the construction of the garment itself is remarkable within the greater corpus of dress represented in Sogdian paintings. Unlike warriors in surplice-neckline robes, or banqueters and donors in polychrome kaftans, Rustam wears a garment type shared almost exclusively with other protagonists represented in epics. I hope to show to what extent dress might have been used to differentiate types of characters in Sogdian painted epics, and what significance these dress choices might have had on viewers reading these images.