Cultural Selection: Illustrations of Literary Exchange along the Silk Roads
The Silk Roads facilitated the exchange of various literary traditions around the world as stories spread via monks, scholars, pilgrims, travellers, diplomats and traders moving across these vast routes. The translation of different literary works by scholars living and working at various crossroads of the Silk Roads further aided the diffusion of different works of literature. As written material is often fragile and easily damaged, archaeological material can be used to further understanding of the literary exchanges that took place along the Silk Roads where they may be gaps in the written record. Murals uncovered in the ruins of the ancient Sogdian city of Panjakent, located in modern Tajikistan, depict illustrations of some well-known fables and stories originating in other parts of the world. These murals illustrate interconnections between the literary traditions of Greece and the Iranian Plateau, the Iranian Plateau and the Indian Subcontinent, and China and the Indian Subcontinent, in the early Middle Ages (from around the 6th to the 8th century CE).
At the site in Panjakent, archaeologists have uncovered murals painted between the 6th and early 8th century CE that depict illustrations of around 42 different literary works. Although the majority of these stories are Sogdian in origin, some murals clearly illustrate works of literature whose origins lie in other regions along the Silk Roads. Furthermore, the murals show a clear borrowing of stylistic influences from other regions with elements from China, the Indian Subcontinent and the Roman and Hellenistic worlds visible. Some of the literary works illustrated on the walls include Aesop’s Fables and the Indian Panchatantra.
Aesop’s Fables are a large collection of stories featuring animals with human qualities credited to the Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop who lived sometime between 620 and 564 BCE. The fables originally belonged to the oral tradition and were not collected and recorded until long after his death. One of Aesop’s Fables clearly illustrated on the murals at Panjakent is the story of the ‘Goose that laid the Golden Eggs’ an allegory that warns against the short-sighted destruction of valuable resources motivated by greed.
A similar collection of interrelated animal fables, also based on an oral tradition, known as the ‘Panchatantra’ was compiled in the Indian subcontinent around 200 BCE. One of its earliest known translations was completed by the Persian physician Borzuya (Burzoe) who translated the stories into Middle Persian. His version was later translated into Arabic by the scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa. Over time different tales from this collection, which cover a broad variety of themes, began to appear all over the world sometimes with local and linguistic variants. The stories of the Panchatantra have been retold in over 200 different versions and have been translated into at least 50 languages originating outside of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Panjakent murals feature several illustrations of stories from the Panchatantra that may have been inspired by illustrated versions of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s text. One story depicted on the murals is the ‘Lion and the Hare’ a fable in which a hare tricks a lion into believing his reflection in the bottom of a well is his enemy.
Further excavations of these murals has revealed much about the different literary connections brought about by Silk Roads exchanges in Central Asia. Overall, the layout of the central hall at the archaeological site in Panjakent is unique, and its mural decorations reveal that the Sogdians at this time were familiar with an array of literary traditions, including those of Greece, and the Indian Subcontinent, reflecting the extent of Silk Roads exchanges.
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