The historical city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, ranked as a Unesco World Heritage Site, has always been a stunning crossroads of cultures. North-east of the Siob bazar, you will find a huge archeological site of 219 ha (541 acres) and a museum dedicated to the foundation of this legendary city, that used to be called Afrasiab.
A visit to the Afrasiab Museum will help you discover the history of one of the major stops of the Silk Road. Samarkand or Afrasiab, located at the crossway between China, India, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, was one of the most important international commercial centers.
Back in history
Founded in the 7th century B.C., Afrasiab was the main city of the Sogdiana, an ancient region on the Central Asian territory that stretched from the Amou Daria River to the Syr Daria River. This civilization lived its greatest years in the 5th to 8th century A.C.
Afrasiab was the territory of battles and conquests for many years. It was conquered by different empires, including by Alexander the Great in 329 B.C. The great leader renamed the city Marakanda. In the 8th century, it was conquered by the Arabs and in the 13th century, Samarkand was almost entirely destroyed by Genghis Khan during the Mongolian invasion.
Archeological searches started in 1873 constantly proved that Afrasiab was a major cultural, commercial, artistic and religious crossroads on the Silk Road. Excavations have brought to daylight many objects, but also palaces, citadels and religious prayer halls.
However, the Afrasiab Museum was only built after a discovery of 1965. While building the new Tashkent road, a bulldozer came upon a complex of incredible underground mural paintings (that, unfortunately, where partly destroyed).
Since then, these masterpieces now called the Ambassadors’ fresco decorate the walls of the main room of the museum, which was opened in 1970. They were recently restored.
Visiting the Afrasiab Museum
Located right next to the Afrasiab archeological site, this marble museum exhibits more than 20,000 objects on two floors.
In the first room, photos and maps provide information on the history of the excavations, started in the 19th century.
The rest of the exhibition is dedicated to the evolution of the city throughout the centuries. You’ll be able to discover old money, knives and swords from the Alexander the Great invasion, as well as Greco-Bactrian ceramics. Altars for the worship of fire, carved bones and other objects marked with solar symbolism are all witnesses of the Zoroastrianism religion, which was very popular in Sogdiana but has now vanished.
Jewelry, bone chess boards and other precious objects show the past wealth of Afrasiab during the pre-Islamic period, from the 5th to 8th centuries. The mural paintings are the best testimony of this civilization.
You’ll be able to observe these in a room that was specially designed to accommodate the paintings, to fit the same dimensions as the reception lounge of the Sogdiana king Varkhuman (650-660 A.C.) in which they were originally found. The paintings represent the king’s successes.
The Western wall, in front of the entrance, tells the story of the King’s reception of several ambassadors, according to a 16-line legend left on one of the guest’s white robe. The meticulous details and hair dress of the ambassadors show which regions they come from: the ones with the black hats holding fruit and silk come from China; the ones in hoods and wool sock come from mountain kingdoms; Koreans from the Koguryo kingdom have a double egret hat; and the Turks have braids. Rulers from Sogdiana are dressed in silk robes with animal motives, a sword and a knife hanging on their belt.
The two paintings on the Northern wall, at the right from the entrance, represent the Tang-era China, an important ally to King Varkhuman and for commerce on the Silk Road. One of the images shows the Chinese empress on a boat tour; the other shows the emperor hunting a leopard. In Sogdianan art, disproportional heights signified that the people on the partings were gods or kings.
There are several versions on what the painting on the Southern wall, at the left of the entrance, represents. It was interpreted as a wedding and as a cortege of ambassadors. Finally, experts said that the painting represents the summer solstice procession in the Zoroastrian rite, headed by the King Varkhuman, to the tombs. The image corresponds to the descriptions of the event found in antique Chinese writings, claiming that for the new year, Sogdianans walked to their ancestors’ tombs and proceeded to an animal sacrifice. On the mural painting, we can see that a gray horse and four gooses are about to be sacrificed.
These mural paintings are of great importance among the excavations found in Afrosiab. They show the greatness of the civilization and three of its main pillars: diplomatic influence, Chinese alliance and Zoroastrianism.
How to get there
The Afrasiab Museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located 15 minutes on foot from the bazar. You can also take a taxi or a marshrutka (mini bus).