Location – Sughd region, Panjakent district, Panjakent. 255km north of Dushanbe, 68km from Samarqand, upstream on the Zarafshon River, 1.5km south-east of present-day- Panjakent, above the left-bank flood-plains of Zarafshon River, on a low hilly ridge. The local population know the site of the ancient settlement as “Kaynar”, based on the name of a nearby spring.
Transportation – hitchhike or taxi from anywhere in Panjakent.
Ancient Panjakent is located near present-day Panjakent and represents a unique early Middle Ages monument. In the 5-8th centuries it was the easternmost town of Sogdiana – the ancient country of the Sughdi (Sogdians), who spoke an East-Iranian language and were ancestors of the Tajiks. In the first quarter of the 8th century it was the centre of a principality, the last ruler of which, Divashtich, struggled with the prince of Sogdiana for power over Samarqand – the capital of Sogdiana.
Sogdian settlements were located almost everywhere along the Silk Road – from the borders of the Byzantium empire all the way to China. In the 6-8th centuries, the Sogdians were the centre point in the trade between China and Europe, and between the hunter tribes of the North Urals and nationals of the great Iranian and Byzantine Empires. Sogdian mercenaries served in the armies of foreign princes. They were in a position to see the whole of the ancient world, and though they were familiar with civilization they never created their own powerful state. Their country represented a conglomerate of small town-states, and Panjakent was the last of these on the way from Samarqand to the Kuhistonmountains. The ruler of the town and the surrounding area was in a good position because neither caravans nor individual packanimals coming down from or returning to the mountains en route to Samarqand could bypass Panjakent.
Panjakent is mentioned many times since the Arab conquest of Central Asia in Arabic-speaking historians’ documents. Heading from the town to the mountains, Panjakent is connected with the name “Divashtich” where a decisive battle was fought with the Arabs near Mugh Hill castle. The Panjakentis were defeated and Divashtich was captured and later crucified on a tomb. The town outlived its last ruler for a short time. Composed of a fortified citadel (kuhandiz), the town itself (Shahriston) is surrounded by fortifications with numerous towers, suburban settlements rabad)
and a large cemetery with small separate crypts (naus), which contained small clay urns with the remains of the deceased. After the loss of Divashtich, Panjakent ceased to exist and its population left. The Arabs introduced Islam and during the 8-10th centuries Islam and the Farsi-Dari (Tajik) language spread throughout all of Sogdiana.
The ruins of ancient Panjakent drew attention as early as the 19th century, but not until 1946 was an archaeological dig started here and so far it has only covered about half of the ancient settlement. The citadel, with the palace of Divashtich standing separately on the hill, two temples with spacious courtyards in the centre, eight main streets and ten lanes, shops, workshops, bazaars, fortress walls, multi-roomed two- and even three-storied buildings were excavated. There is a stark contrast between the strength of the buildings and their modest construction material – mud bricks made from unbaked clay. Prosperous house-owners decorated their houses with wall paintings and wooden sculptures. Outstanding works of art found in ancient Panjakent today decorate the showrooms of many museums, particularly the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Paintings make up a substantial portion of the works of art found in ancient Panjakent. Walls in Panjakent, on both temples and secular buildings, were covered with colourful wall paintings. It is remarkable that despite more than 1,300 years of being in ruins, fragments of paintings on walls made out of mud bricks have been preserved. Panjakent paints were mainly made from glue paints with mineral dyes. Vegetable dyes (indigo and red) were used occasionally. Over the years, more than fifty premises whose walls had once been decorated with numerous paintings were uncovered. Ancient Panjakent painters painted a variety of subjects: religious, epic, folklore and other genres. There are personifications of heavenly bodies (the sun, moon, and planets), ancestral cults (funeral rites), water elements (worship of the River Zarafshon), and the Hindu divinity (Shiva). A number of subjects of the epic paintings are connected to heroes from the renowned poems of Firdausi’s Shohnoma (Book of Kings). These are Siyovush, Rustam, his horse Rakhsh, Rustam’s son Suhrob, and female warriors. Subjects depicted include battles, feasts, hunting, sporting duels, playing of musical instruments, backgammon, dances, and harvest distribution.
In pre-Islamic times wood carving, like wall paintings, was a widespread form of art and demonstrated remarkable levels of artistic talent. Wood itself does not last long in humid loessial soil conditions so, interestingly, the carved wood monuments of Ancient Panjakent owe their preservation to fires. Remains of carved wood have been found in premises where they were charred by flames but did not have time to burn completely and then were covered by collapsed roofing. Panjakent’s carved wood appears in two artistic forms — ornamental and figured.
Few of the remnants of clay sculptures found in Panjakent compared to the number of wall-painting and carved-wood finds. Clay sculptures formed a part of temple buildings and were religious in nature. Many inscriptions in Sogdian language have been found in Panjakent since the language was native to the town. They have been preserved on broken pottery, stones, and walls. Coins found in Panjakent are of great interest. Most of them were produced in Samarqand, from where the supreme rulers, the Sogdianikhshids, governed all of Sogdiana. Besides royal coins, other coins of smaller Sogdian regions were found and among them were those of the rulers of Panjakent. On one side of coins emblems of the Panjakent ruling house were depicted.
On the other side there was a Sogdian inscription in fine characters – a key in which the title and name of the ruler making the coins was usually displayed.
Numerous finds in ancient Panjakent clearly show that the Sogdians were familiar with achievements of the great civilizations of their time: in their art can be found Byzantine, Iranian, and Indian influences. At the same time, Sogdian art had its own unique style. Almost nothing was known about the literature, folklore, rites and customs of the Sogdians before the excavations in Panjakent started, and these are all reflected in Sogdian painting.