Persian Carpets and Russian Icons - Central Asian Art
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Central Asian Art

Tillya Tepe Crown
Tillya Tepe gold crown
Afghanistan, ca. 100 BC-100 AD

Because the people of Central Asia started out as nomads, riding their horses and camels and herding cattle, they began by making art that they could carry with them. The earliest Central Asian art we know about is wool carpets. Indo-European people in Central Asia were knotting wool carpets by about 2000 BC.

wool tapestry of greek soldier
Sampul Tapestry, probably made
in Afghanistan by Greeks,
found in Urumqi (ca. 300 BC)

People carried these carpets in their wagons and could lay them out quickly on yurt floors and walls when they stopped to camp. By 100 BC, Central Asian traders were selling these wool carpets east to China and west to Mesopotamia along the Silk Road.

Central Asian artists also made small pieces of jewelry, belt buckles, and horse harness. We know some of these pieces as Scythian art. All along the most northern trade routes, these pieces share a common style. For instance, many pieces of jewelry from this time, from Korea to Poland, have dangly bits of gold hanging off them.


Bamiyan Buddhas (Afghanistan, ca. 500 AD, now destroyed by the Taliban)

By about 500 AD, though, thanks to the Silk Road, there were cities in Central Asia. In and around these cities, artists created large sculptures, carvings, and paintings. The spread of Buddhism to Central Asia in the 600s AD brought Buddhist art forms from India as well.

In the western part of Central Asia, about the same time, many people converted to Christianity, and artists there began to create Christian art, merging Central Asian styles with those of Byzantium. The most important of these forms was the religious icon.

Yin Yang plate
(Khurasan, 1100s or 1200s AD - Louvre Museum).

By 1100, the Mongol empire, extending from Russia to India and China, allowed artists to travel freely all across Asia and many new ideas emerged. Artists in Central Asia began to use the new art material, paper, to paint beautiful miniatures. They merged eastern and western styles, as in this plate, which uses Arabic calligraphy to write "In the beginning the taste of science is bitter, but it is sweeter than honey in the end." At the center of the plate, the tiny dot is a Chinese yin/yang sign, and the whole plate imitates Chinese porcelain.

Learn by doing: knotting a carpet
More about Central Asian music

Bibliography and further reading about Central Asian art:

More about Central Asian music
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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