Buildings Interiors Intended for Entertainment in Residential Quarters of Early Medieval Cities of Central Asia

Issue #2 • 1378

Dodo Nozilov,

Already in antiquity theatrical festivities were quite common in Central Asia. This is evidenced by numerous archaeological finds of statuette and wall relief fragments depicting performances. These include large fragments of a sculptural frieze band encircling the main hall of the Khalchayan Palace at the top. However, it is not clear still whether a professional “theatre on stage” existed in Bactria (1). A frieze detail preserved in the chamber No. 42 (VI/42) in Penjikent depicts a scene with four female singers and musicians giving a secular performance, which suggests the presence of special rooms for entertainment here. Yet, despite the significant number of the discovered figurines of female dancers, musicians and singers, as well as fragments of their images in murals, information about the architecture of buildings and structures of that period in Central Asia remains sketchy: it is limited to an indication of a function of selected building chambers as that of theatrical entertainment.
In the1970s R. L. Sadokov noted that the inner wall planes of the ruins people call kaptar-khana in a rural area of Khorezm were completely covered by small, shallow arched recesses cut as a honeycomb, suggesting they could serve as a musical-acoustic device (2). Obviously, the presence of the recesses cannot credibly determine the function of these chambers as entertainment. According to Salim Rakhimov from Kashgar, in order to improve acoustics, in the chambers intended for receiving guests in Kashgar, regardless of the numerous wall niches, ceramic jars with an opening facing the centre of the room were immured in the corners and wall sides. Similar means to improve acoustics have also been found in the interiors of old mosques in the mountain villages of Nurata (3).
Central Asian residential compounds layout in early Middle Ages gives an idea about the structure of different kinds of sufa – projected platforms running along the inner perimeter of the walls. Sufa ended only at the doorway. Often, at the wall opposite the entrance the sufa widened, creating a place of prestige – a “stage” that could probably have a ritual, as well as housekeeping, function. For instance, a room with a stage was found at the site IX in Penjikent (4), notably with a hearth place at the edge of the stage (5). Some rooms had a stage-platform with a large protrusion and an entry step in the middle. Similar stages also existed in the halls of palaces and Zoroastrian temples. In palaces they served to accommodate the seat of kings and lords, and in temples – for the ateshkad. Most probably, in palaces these platforms could not be used as a place for musicians to perform on festival days for a number of reasons. First, a ruler or a feudal lord would not defer his honourable place to singers, dancers and musicians whose job was to entertain him; obviously, during the performance the ruler was supposed to sit where he traditionally belonged. Secondly, musicians could either be part of the court or visiting, and treated as servants.
A Chinese chronicle reports on female dancers moved to China as gifts. For instance, the Sui-Shu chronicle dating to the reign of Emperor Yan Di (605-616) reports that the Chinese emperor’s envoys brought ten female dancers as a gift from the Central Asian realm of Shi (Shash) (6). It is quite possible that some of the dancers could also play musical instruments, as they were supposed to delight foreign aristocrats with their skill, dancing to the familiar music of their land. Music of Central Asia stroke deep roots in the Chinese musical art. Whereas in the VII century it was to them “an unusual music with exotic flavour and style”, in the VIII century “the pseudo-exotic gave way to the truly outlandish, and Chinese popular music of that time began to resemble the music of Central Asian state-cities” (7). The above does not exclude the presence of chambers in palaces and homes designed specifically for entertaining performances. Thus, Chinese historical writings mention the love of Central Asian people for music and dance (8).
Entertainment room is different from the reception hall ceremonial chamber in the homes of rulers and aristocracy in its dimensions and the presence of platforms that occupy more than half of the floor space. Such is the room No. 13 in a house excavated in 1953 in Penjikent (9). A. M. Belenitskiy notes that this compound is not a public building but a residence. He believes that the sufa-stage was intended for some kind of theatrical acts (5). In the room No. 13 they found over 100 dice, including those with little iron rods and pip-dots on the faces, which gave V. L. Voronina a reason to identify the premises as a kind of a gambling house where the pictures of playing scenes were quite appropriate (4). The southern part of the rectangular room (11.25 x 7.25 m) is taken by a raised stage-like structure. Sufa platforms run along the eastern wall, including the stage side. Walls feature paintings of two scenes with unrelated thematic content. The first one shows a group of three musicians playing a lute, a panpipe, and a harp. The other depicts a row of riders in close formation, heading right.
On the walls of the Toprakkala palace one can find surviving fragments showing three female musicians. It should be noted that the Penjikent scene with three male musicians constitutes a visually compact composition. According to R. L. Sadokov, in the Middle Eastern music of Antiquity and later period there were either exclusively female or male instrumental bands. The existence of mixed bands is unknown to scholars, neither from the Penjikent, nor from the Toprakkala scenes (2).
Among melodies played at the Tang Court (China) there was a piece attributed to the so-called “old” kogak music – the name is translated by L. Pichikyan as “Sogdians drinking wine”. The piece consisted of two parts and included a pantomime dance imitating intoxication. The instrumental band included a lute, a cither, and a mouth harmonica (10). This episode is shown in a picture performed on the surface of an ancient ceramic jar. Apparently, Chinese artists had a good knowledge about the composition of Sogdian musical bands, as evidenced by strong traditions of musical regularity carried on from ancient times in the culture of the Central Asian peoples.
Given the room’s large dimensions and the presence of a wide stage in it, as well as of the mural depicting musicians, A. M. Belenitskiy rightly assumes that the room was intended for theatrical action of some sort, music or dance performances, or rather everything together (9). The platform up to one meter wide, occupying the south-eastern part of the stage, apparently served to accommodate musicians. Dances and theatrical performances took place on the stage. Spectators took the northern, lower half of the room. As one can see, the layout, i.e. the positioning of the stage and platforms, defines the room’s function as a public entertainment.
Also quite interesting is the central chambers interior in the estate “a” near Ayaz-Qala II (VII-VIII cc.) in Khorezm (11), where the central part of the building is taken by a large hall with two side rooms and a long corridor on the east side. The northern wall with a sufa running along is shared by all three rooms. The wall is interrupted by a loggia in the shape of a niche or a terrace, its open side facing the larger room. As a result, in the middle of the hall two chambers appear, with their open sides facing one another. The interior of the hall acquires depth and dimension, creating a sensation typical for the public building interiors. In particular, the compositional layout of the central chamber with a deep niche resembles the layout of the hall No. 5 with a loggia in the palace of the ancient Penjikent rulers (12, p. 81). On the functional purpose of the estate E. E. Nerazik wrote: “A huge hall with a large aivan terrace in the centre of the built part of the estate; brick paving on the floor; the unusual appearance of the enfilade rooms and chambers with fireplace – everything distinguishes the estate “a” from the others, allowing a speculation on its alternative purpose until the excavation is complete” (11). The premises layout is probably more suitable for theatrical shows and other performances. Musicians could probably be accommodated by the central part of the wall with the sufa, while the audience took their places in the hall.
The Kafyrkala site offers an interesting interior of a room 17 metres long and 7 metres wide. Its sufa platforms 1.1 m wide and 40 cm high widen at the end walls (11). An end wall of a room opposite the entrance has a recess in the middle in the shape of a large, 4 x 2 m niche flanked by ornamental columns at the corners. The presence of the deep niche reminds of the Penjikent palaces. The platform, however, does not have a stage-like protrusion. On the contrary, the end wall recesses in the middle in the manner of a stage in modern entertainment facilities or a shahnishin in Bukhara homes. Another remarkable feature is a pillar base made of rammed clay in the shape of four locked hemispheres, each 40 cm in diameter (13). According to V. S. Solovyov, wooden pillars, apparently, the bearing ones, were positioned along the longitudinal axis of the hall (13). The shape of the pillar base resembles four-finned poles in the square hall of Old Nisa. The pillar shaft was probably made of brick. Since the roof gravity could make the wooden pillar force in its adobe base, the base lost its structural function to become a purely ornamental element. As for the function, there are reasons to believe that this large hall uncovered in the city area is a ceremonial chamber (mihmanhana) in a residential house, which served to receive guests and celebrate festive occasions (12, 13). The hall, apparently, was a public place similar to alouhana, or was used for different show performances and belonged to the local community. Utility and residential rooms might have been owned by the serviceman responsible for taking care of the hall, as suggested by the fact that the hall is disproportionately large (17 x 7 m) compared to the other rooms in the building, and is entered from the street, which clearly indicates its communal use. Rhythmic arrangement of columns along the longitudinal axis of the hall enhances the expressive dimensional composition of the interior. Low, wide platforms running along all four of its walls soften the spatial proportion of its width that is relatively small to its depth. This, in turn, lends spaciousness to the interior.
Thus, the music art in Central Asia was sufficiently advanced already in ancient times, as evidenced by wall paintings and relief images of musical performance scenes, the finds of terracotta figurines of musicians, female dancers and singers, as well as the presence of stage-like raised platforms in the rooms, apparently intended specifically for musical and entertainment performances. It follows that in the residential quarters of early medieval towns people built special structures with large chambers equipped with a stage for music and theatre performances and sufa platforms installed along the indoor perimeter of the walls to accommodate the audience. Apart from that, spacious rooms with platforms in the homes of aristocracy could also be used for musical performances in the days of leisure, with family and close relatives attending, and possibly for performing religious practices and ceremonial rites accompanied by dancing, music and singing.
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1. Sughd. Penjikent. Site VI. The building plan by A. M. Belenitskiy. Reconstruction of interior of room No.13 by D. A. Nozilov.
2. Bactria. Kafyr-Kala. Residential building plan by B. A. Litvinskiy and V. S. Solovyov. Reconstruction of interior by D. A. Nozilov.
3. Khorezm. Plan of the estate “a” near Ayaz-Kala II by E. E. Nerazik. Reconstruction of interior by D. A. Nozilov.

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