Scholars typically study the history of Central Asia by analysing the region’s relationship with neighbouring empires. Part of this view of Central Asia stems from the available source materials, which largely consist of literary sources written by, first, Greek-Roman, then, Chinese, Arab, Persian, and, for the later period, by Russian imperial historians. These sources often cast the region as an ‘empty frontier’ beyond the imperial order or, in the most extreme cases, beyond civilization itself. These obvious limitations do not render these sources useless; we can and should continue to rely on these literary sources. However, we must read them critically and, where possible, we should read them alongside other types of available evidence. I argue that material culture, especially in the form of art and architecture, is uniquely suited to help us understand the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods of Central Asian history, precisely because it can be read against these more commonly utilised literary sources.

This seminar addresses these questions and is extracted from my PhD thesis entitled Architecture of the Medieval Eastern Frontier: The Monumental Façade in the Funerary Structures of Central Asia in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries.  The period from the Islamic conquest of Central Asia during the 7th and 8th Centuries through the subsequent process of Islamization of Central Asia in the tenth and eleventh centuries formed an important period of change in all aspects of society. It was during this period that Islam became the main feature of identity, a trend that continues in modern times.  This period of Islamification also saw the appearance of the monumental Islamic façade or pishtaq. The pishtaq, a rectangular frame around an arched entrance to the building, typically occupied the entire front of the building. It partially encased a domed structure and served as a monumental façade for the entire edifice.  The pishtaq was a local invention that emerged in the face of dynamic political and cultural change and would eventually come to define the architecture of the region for the rest of its history.

Because of its description in literary sources, historians of Islamic architecture continue to analyse Central Asia’s material culture through a Persian-centric lens.  Uncritical reading of Persian and other literary sources has led them to describe the pishtaq as a ‘spectacular feature of Iranian architecture’. In contrast to these earlier works, I argue that the pishtaq, which has been cast as a key characteristic of Islamic-Persian Architecture, actually has a Central Asian origin. This new type of façade spread quickly across the medieval Islamic world, foreshadowing the early Islamic ‘chartaq’-plan mausoleums.  Of course, the façade itself was not a new concept in ancient world architecture. But in Central Asia, a zone of exchange between nomadic and sedentary cultures, the face of the monumental façade changed in three important ways. First, it became freestanding. Second, it became an important symbol of Islamic architecture. Finally, it was now attached to domed mausoleums. 

As my research demonstrates, each of these innovations happened as the nomadic Turkic dynastic system of patronage grappled with the social and cultural imperative of developing a new Muslim identity.  To understand this process of making an Islamic façade, one needs to look back at the material culture of the region from ancient times to the early medieval period from a broad comparative vantage point. It is undeniable fact that the Greek-Bactrian, Sassanian, and Arab artistic and architectural traditions had lasting impact on Central Asian art forms.   While outside influences are important, local pre-Islamic religious beliefs and nomadic funerary traditions are a significant, if understudied, part of the story of the formation of Islamic architecture. In this seminar, I will provide a view of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic history of the region from the archaeological discipline and try to identify continuity and change in the architectural traditions of ancient and medieval Central Asia. Since the study of the region lacks appropriate theoretical and methodological approaches, scholars can develop them in order to properly ‘read’ artistic and archaeological evidence against textual sources. Incorporating new multi-disciplinary approaches will help us to understand the region on its own terms and, ultimately, allow us to change the narrative and more clearly identify the Central Asian contributions to the artistic and architectural traditions of the ancient and medieval world.