Today we have to discover again that in the past the ornament had not only a decorative function, but served as the universal graphic “language”, which differed from the script and was accessible to the wide circles of the population. Separate signs formed the elements of this “language”, symbolically expressing basic properties of micro and macro cosmos. Compositions of signs formed symbolical “text”, which “perusal” enlights knowledge of ancient culture, frequently being beyond the other scientific methods. The forgotten “language” of symbols has been preserved only in the centers of national crafts where the people still remember semantics of ornamental signs on carpets, suzane, stucco panels, etc. In history of Central Asia, there is no other ancient site, which could equalize with historical and cultural importance of Afrasiab – the ancient urban center having bimillenary culture and located within the territory of today’s Samarkand. Therefore, the discovery and “perusal” of the symbolical Afrasiab “texts” is extremely important task in the study of ancient culture. This article continues the semantic analysis of medieval ornaments of Central Asia, which started in the joint publications of the author, Bulatov M.S. and Tuichieva Y.G. (1). By example of the mausoleums of the Samanids in Bukhara and Ak Astana Baba in Surkhandarya, we showed that the architectural form and ornament carried out religious-sacral and magic functions along with decorative and aesthetic. We revealed the basic symbols and interpreted “texts” – cosmograms of the 9th-11th centuries. It seems interesting to compare these materials with the synchronous site of Afrasiab.
The regular excavations at Afrasiab revealed a plenty of the ornamented ceramics and architectural decor. Our attention was drawn by two groups of archeological finds – the ceramic dishes of the 9th-12th centuries with the well recognizable and rich ornament and covered with a colored engobe and a glaze and the collection found in the western sector of Afrasiab with participation of L.V. Vyatkin and M.E. Masson. They are supposed to be fragments of the decor of the Samanid palace, built in the 870s-880s (2, p. 143). The Afrasiab panels are entirely filled with vegetative patterns. The spires fill the space between geometrical patterns stretching upwards and sideward. The ornament on the panels, as in the case of ceramic dishes, reflects the idea of the “growth” of vegetative forms from a center (centric compositions: 3-parted, 4-parted, and 6-parted). They appear to declare the vitality and eternity of natural forces, which influence well-being of the people and the Earth. This ornament represents the original graphic “pray” addressed to the kind divine forces giving fertility. One of the Afrasiab panels was identified as Islamic mihrab (2, p. 51-53), i.e. the place, “near” which and “towards” which the Muslim direct their praying. Mihrab has the picture of “life tree” – the most ancient cultic sign, one more symbol of ever-young natural forces.
In the center of the panel are two three-petal flowers, applied on each other, which corresponds to the ancient “three-pointed” sign on fertility, a symbol of Anahita. The characteristic feature of this composition is that the spires are marked with “points” – seeds, sources of the growth. Two other panels have the hexagrams formed by two triangles (David’s star) forming a center of the composition. It is interesting that the same 6-parted vegetative composition, including the hexagram, was minted on the coins of Golden Horde (ill. 10), (7)).
The existence of three Islamic holy places on Afrasiab, which have arisen about the 10th-11th cc., again proves adherence of ancient Samarkand inhabitants to the cult of eternal vegetative and natural forces along with medieval Afrasiab symbolics. These are the necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda, connected with the cult of Kussam ibn Abbas, recognized as a “never-dying king”, the mosque of Hazret-Hyzr, connected with “kadamjoi” of the eternal wanderer, who drank water of immortality and the mazar and spring of saint Khodja Daniyar, who continues “to grow” in the tomb.
A few panels from the same hall bear “swastika” as a dominating sign (ill. 9-11). It is a famous symbol of the Sun and solar energy. Its first type is interpreted as a round (wheel-shaped) four-beam and three-beam whirling swastika, recognized as a symbol of circulation and celestial movement. Another type is interpreted as the traditional rectangular swastika, a symbol of the Sun as the source of light and fire (heat). In this case, geometrically regular “net” of swastikas fills the surface of the panel declaring the power and importance of universal solar energy.
The cells of “swastika” net are filled with vegetative symbols, confirming the unity and interrelation of two positive forces of Space (vegetative forces of the nature and cosmic energy of the Sun). The same idea is expressed on many Afrasiab dishes, where swastika-shaped sign forms the center of the ornamental composition. The exquisite patterns of twisted vegetative lines start from the center (ill. 2) (4, p. 127). That obviously specified the Sun as the source of the fertility and life. In Samarkand, even today it is possible to see the houses, whose facades bear the symbolical solar signs (solar rosettes) on the columns and doors, dated to the 18th-20th centuries.
The content of the symbolical Afrasiab “texts” corresponds with the major ideas of East-Iranian pre-Islamic religious tradition, which involved the area of pre-Islamic Sogd. The supreme deities were Mithra – the god of the Sun and Anahita – the goddess of the fertility. The ancient Turkic ideas of the divine pair appeared synonymous: the male deity of the Sky (Tengri) and the female deity of the Earth. The abstract Afrasiab symbolics as if de-anthropomorphized the cultic concepts. The essential ideas and their symbols were preserved, and their traditional carriers – “heathen” deities as if disappeared, what probably reflected monotheism of Islam recognizing “no God besides Allah”.
Hexagrams and 8-pointed stars on the Afrasiab panels became a new, not characteristic element, which most likely reflected achievements of Islamic applied arts. At that time the Near-Eastern semantic ideas were probably brought by the Ishmaelites or Jews migrating to Central Asia. The character of the hexagram indicates that this sign was connected with the sacral force of the fertility, correspondent with more archaic ideas of the female deity of the Earth, Anahita. In this case, the eight-pointed star is probably connected with the Sun. Since “8″ symbolizes the stability and balance, the 8-pointed star in the Afrasiab compositions could represent a symbol of the eternal Sun as the source of the universal energy. This presumption is proved by the fact that the big panel with the 8-pointed star occupies the central place in the second hall of the palace (ill. 9). In both cases, the 8-pointed stars are escribed in 9-petal flowers as if reminding the more ancient solar symbols in the form of camomiles.
Another feature of the Afrasiab ornaments both on stucco panels, and on ceramic dishes is the principle of “interlacing”. The major elements are interlaced so that appears inseparable one from another. That reflects the idea of universal integrity of macro cosmos: vegetation, the Sun and the Earth. In the ancient Indo-European tradition, the symbolics of “knots” was connected with Varuna – the god of the Moon and Water, the master of magic “ties” (5, p. 125 – 247). Most Afrasiab panels have a decorative wavy border – a recognized symbol of water.
The combinations of a circle and a square with a crosswise figure represent the two simplest patterns: The first – the Sun and vegetation and the second – the Earth and vegetation (ill. 13). The combination of these kind forces symbolically resisted to the hostile forces and provided prosperity. Almost identical compositions were characteristic for the ornaments of Russian art of the 10th-13th centuries (6). The exposition of Hermitage represents four-part square “plaited” sign on the knight armour of the 16th c. (Ill. 13). The sign obviousely played the protective function. The same principle formed a new sign – “plait of happiness”, a characteristic symbol on the coins of Golden Horde. The quadrangular composition on the Afrasiab panels is more complicated. Its rectangular “skeleton” symbolizes “ploughed” soil, the solar signs at the sides – the constant presence and movement of the Sun, and four-parted vegetative signs in the corners – four directions of growing (ill. 12) (3, p. 33-34, 36-37).
The existence of complex heathen sacral formulas in the palace of the Samanids corresponds to the notion of a king in the early Middle Ages as of the main figure in different magic rituals concerning particularly agricultural cult. We assume that this building probably served as a temple. Comparing the decor of the Afrasiab palace and the palace of Bukhar-Hudats in Varakhsha dated to the 760s-770s (7, p. 83-84), it is possible to reveal some common features. The last also contains agricultural cultic symbolics with vegetative elements and solar rosettes (7, p. 170, 181). Anyway, the semantic and geometrical complexity of the Afrasiab panels was the first evidence for the “explosive” birth of the new ornamental style. In the 11th-12th centuries this style reached the blossom in many other outstanding monuments” (3, p. 127). The cosmological “texts” hidden in the decor of the palace of the Samanids represent principally new philosophical and religious world vision, which developed with spreading of Islam, not having yet the rigid canons and adapting traditional heathen ideas.
The general ideology of these heathen ornaments is the formation of some sacral space of the signs, symbolizing the association of “kind”, winning forces of macro cosmos and introducing the ideas of universal protective forces. The folklore has preserved the belief that such sign space can be protective, i.e. capable to protect the person, his family and house from “the forces of evil”. The Afrasiab ceramic dishes except for heathen symbols bear inscriptions with Arabian kind wishes. They probably believed that the dish having both kind heathen symbols, and Muslim kind wishes could have the double protective force. The magic and protective properties of the geometrical and vegetative ornament had been preserved as essential features of Islamic art until the late Middle Ages. Later the general processes of de-sacralization of culture reduced their role only to a decorative effect.
The discovery of the common space of symbols on the territory Central Asia up to ancient Russia in the 10th-14th centuries seems important. That was reflected in the ornamental decor of architectural monuments, craft products and coins of the Samanids, Qarakhanids, Volga Bulgarians, Khorezm, pre-Mongolian Russia and Golden Horde. Earlier, we revealed the presence of mandala symbolics in the Samanid culture (1), which also existed in India, Tibet and China. Such generality of cultic symbolics puts forward a problem of its homogeny. Since the sacral signs have well developed geometry, it seems difficult to suppose the simultaneous and analogous development of signs in such geographically distant cultures.
We assume the preservation of rather huge Eurasian sacral-cultic unity providing the cultural assimilation and exchange. The Silk Road could be a channel of this exchange, which is proved by numerous Samanid coins found in Europe. It should be noted that the sale of fabrics and other ornamented products meant that the buyers recognized semantics of their ornaments.
Author: Alexey Arapov