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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 8th-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. Contemporary Sogdian text fragments describe Rustam preparing for battle against divs, but they nevertheless vary 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 render narrative pictorially; while others explore specific iconographical elements. In this essay, I investigate another aspect of this painting: Rustam's dress. Scholars usually mention Rustam's iconic leopard furs; 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 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. In this essay, I illustrate how artists appear to have utilized dress to differentiate between types of characters in Sogdian painted epics, and what significance these dress choices might have had on viewers reading these images.

Project History & Presentation Venue

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. I have since then returned to the essay & prepared it for presentation at the conference, "Sogdian Studies Along the Silk Road," which was to be held at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China in May 2020 but was cancelled due to Covid-19.