The Rustam Cycle
Contrary to what one might expect, the impressive set of wall paintings known as the “Rustam Cycle” was not located in the hall of a royal palace, but in a house of average size in Panjikent,The City of Panjikent and Sogdian Town-Planning Learn more about Panjikent and Sogdian town-planning a small town sixty kilometers east of Samarkand . This painting cycle stands out among other excavated examples for its exceptionally well-preserved (and now, well-restored) murals, which can be dated to about 740. It is also, ironically, the last of the magnificent cycles to be painted at Panjikent; Fig. 1. The city’s ruler, Devastich, was killed in 722 and the city itself subjected to punitive Arab incursions. Despite this artwork and other evidence of Panjikenters resuming their way of life, the city was finally abandoned after the 770s.
Discovered in 1956–57 by archaeologist Boris J. Stavisky, the Rustam Cycle is the most famous painted hall of Panjikent. Named after its main figure, Rustam, a major hero in the great Iranian epic the Shahnameh [“Book of Kings”], it is typical of narrative cycles found at Panjikent as well as other Sogdian cities, such as Afrasiab and Varakhsha . Episodes are organized into different registers, each running horizontally along the length of the walls. Here, the two main registers contain the stories of Rustam’s exploits and are set between a lower tier, depicting scenes from fables and moral tales, and an upper tier, illustrating a religious subject, perhaps related to a family cult; Fig. 2-8.
The artist(s) of the Rustam Cycle chose to omit extraneous details like landscape elements, instead focusing entirely on the drama between figures and the action animating each scene. The color contrasts are bolder in the upper tiers devoted to the epics than in the lower register. The figures are depicted vividly in warm yellows, browns, and reds against a cool ultramarine background to attract the viewer’s attention and connect critical moments of the story. Two fragments of the Rustam story written in Sogdian have survived: one kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the other in the British Library; Fig. 9. Dated to the 9th century, they predate by 200 years the first complete version of the Shahnameh written in Persian by the poet Firdowsi.
by Julie Bellemare and Judith A. Lerner
Guitty Azarpay, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1981), 95.
Nicholas Sims-Williams, “Sogdian Fragments in the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, nos. 1–2 (June/July 1976): 43–82.
Boris I. Marshak and Vladimir A. Livshits, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002), 39.
Adapted from Nicholas Sims-Williams, “Sogdian Fragments in the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, nos. 1–2 (June/July 1976): 57–58.