History, Jalal-Abad, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Osh, Silk Road, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Sogdians

The Sogdians  were the principal merchants along the Silk Road . Not only did the they transfer goods they also facilitated cross-cultural exchanges, especially with the Chinese and the Turks.

The descendants of the Sogdians, known as Yagnobis, live in a remote valley in Tajikistan  and to this day speak a language similar to ancient Sogdian.

Sogdiana

Sogdiana  or Sogdia was an ancient Iranian civilization that at different times included territory located in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan such as:   Samarkand,   Bukhara,  KhujandPanjikent and Shahrisabz.  Sogdiana was also a province of the Achaemenid Empire (See my blog post), (550–330 BC), also called the First Persian Empire led by same Cyrus the Great and Darius who famously battled the Greeks.

Sogdiana was eighteenth in the list on the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great . In the Avesta, Sogdiana is listed as the second best land that the supreme deity Ahura Mazda had created   It comes second, after Airyanem Vaejah, “homeland of the Aryans“, in the Zoroastrian (See my post) book of Vendidad, indicating the importance of this region from ancient times.  Sogdiana was first conquered by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

Sogdiana-300BCE
Sogdiana, c. 300 BC, then under the Seleucid Empire, a diadochi successor state to the empire created by Alexander the Great

The region would then be annexed by the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great in 328 BC. The region would continue to change hands under the Seleucid Empire, Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Kushan Empire, Hephthalite Empire, and Sasanian Empire.

The Sogdian states, although never politically united, were centered on the main city of Samarkand. Sogdiana lay north of Bactria, east of Khwarezm, and southeast of Kangju between the Oxus (today’s Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (today’s Syr Darya), embracing the fertile valley of the Zeravshan River (ancient Polytimetus).

Sogdian territory corresponds to the modern provinces of Samarkand and Bokhara in modern Uzbekistan as well as the Sughd province of modern Tajikistan. During the High Middle Ages, Sogdian cities included sites stretching towards Issyk Kul  including the archeological site of Suyab.

Samarkand was its capital and main city; however most of Sogdiana’s cities developed independently and were ruled by local princes until the fifth and sixth centuries when the Hephthalites and the Turks conquered Sogdiana

Sogdians also lived in Imperial China and rose to special prominence in the military and government of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD).  By the eighth century  the Sogidans living in China were full subjects of the empire, submitting to the same obligations and endowed with the same rights as the Chinese inhabitants of the region.”  They were being assimilated into the Chinese way of life, gave their children chinese names and  the state recognized them and treated them as Chinese with the same rights as native Chinese people.

Sogdian merchants and diplomats traveled as far west as the Byzantine Empire. They played an important part as middlemen in the trade route of the Silk Road.

Much of the Sogdiana’s  religious pluralism was lost when Samarkand was conquered by the Arab General Qutayba ibn Muslim in 712. (See my post Muslim Conquest of Central Asia) Still it remained a wealthy city, with a thriving and diverse market culture, and was eventually conquered by the Mongols, under whose control the Silk Road flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some of Samarkand’s mixed heritage is obvious even today. People in Samarkand and throughout Central Asia still celebrate Nauruz, the traditional Zoroastrian festival of spring.

An Lushan’s Rebellion

When Samarkand was conquered by Arab forces in the early eighth century, things changed dramatically for Sogdians. The city’s new leaders offered tax breaks to anyone who converted to Islam, and made it very difficult for people who refused this deal. Zoroastrian Sogdians fled the city along with anyone who didn’t like the new Arab regime, and many wound up in the bustling Sogdian neighborhoods of Chinese cities like Chang’an, capital of the Tang Dynasty.

The famous military leader An Lushan was a child of one of these waves of immigrants. Born to Sogdian parents, he grew up in China, became an outstanding military leader and close personal friend of Emperor Xuanzong in Chang’an, and eventually started one of the deadliest wars in history in 755. After raising his own army, sacking several Chinese cities, and killing millions, An Lushan declared himself emperor of a region and dynasty he dubbed Yan. By all accounts, he ruled rather mercilessly for a few years before Yan fell in 763.

An Lushan's Rebellion

The emperor was only able to win back the Yan region from An Lushan’s forces with help from the Uighurs, a nomadic group who had formed a massive empire, outlined in red below, in the eighth century.

Below the Uighur empire you can see the Tang Dynasty Chinese Empire. After the Uighurs defeated An Lushan’s troops, the soldiers were allowed to sack the city of Chang’an as a prize for their efforts. This ignominious end to An Lushan’s reign also basically marked the end of the Sogdians as an ethnic group.

In many western Chinese cities today, there remain Islamic groups whose distant ancestors may have been Sogdian. But their Sogdian cultural history was erased completely in the wake of An Lushan’s rebellion.

An Lushan's Rebellion Map

Sogdians on the Silk Road

Sogdian Letters

In the early twentieth century, an Indiana Jones-ish archaeologist named Aurel Stein was exploring some of the more remote stretches on the trade routes in Western China. Outside Dunhuang, he found a mailbag of eight extremely well-preserved letters. They were written in Sogdian — a language that nobody in the modern world had ever seen before — and addressed to Samarkand.  It turned out Sogdian was the lingua franca of its day;

The ancient Sogdian letters tell us a lot about the Sogdians and their trade network. The Sogdian  letters were found by Aurel Stein in 1907 fifty-five miles west of Dunhuang. It has been estimated that the letters were written in 313-314. The letters were written by Sogdian merchants in the Hexi Corridor   Thes ancient letters show what types of products were traded along the Silk Road, and what the Sogidan merchants had possession

The Hexi (or Gansu) Corridor ran  northwest from the bank of the Yellow River, to the Tarim Basin and Central Asia for traders and the military. The corridor is a string of oases along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. To the south is the high and desolate Tibetan Plateau and to the north, the Gobi Desert and the grasslands of Outer Mongolia. At the west end the route splits in three, going either north of the Tian Shan or south on either side of the Tarim Basin. At the east end are mountains around Lanzhou before one reaches the Wei River valley and China proper.

The ancient Sogdian letters are one of the only documents that prove the Sogidian trading network from Gansu to Samarkand and illustrate what the merchants traded.  Even though silk was not mentioned in the letters it was a major item traded by the Sogdian merchants.

Sogdian LettersLetter 1

destined for Loulan

Letter 2

Written in Gansu and destined for Samarkind The second letter illustrates that the Sogdian trading network was international. Gansu is located in China and the letter was destined for Samarkan dwhich was in Sogdiana. Therefore Letter II stresses the large amount of territory covered by the Sogdians merchants. The letters also illustrate that the Sogdians traded on a much smaller scale

mentions linen clothing, woollen cloth, and musk

Letter 3

destined for Loulan

Letter 4

Vaissiere describes letters IV and V as “relations on a daily basis” and “an example…which must have been the everyday share of smaller-scale Sogdian merchants.”

Mentions gold moving from west to east and wine moving from east to west

Letter 5

Mentions Pepper moving from east to west and Silver moving from east to west

The letter pictured above  is a poignant rant sent by an impoverished Sogdian woman, Miwnay, to her mother (pictured above) and to the husband who had abandoned her in Dunhuang’s Sogdian neighborhood. She had no money, and told her mother she’d been reduced to begging. Nobody would help her other than the “temple priest” (who was likely Zoroastrian). She cursed her husband, saying she’d rather be married to a dog or a pig.

What these letters capture, other than the fact that relationship drama is as old as civilization, is the extent to which Sogdian ethnic neighborhoods had a significant history already in Chinese cities. Miwnay was part of an established Sogdian community in Dunhuang, though her home city was all the way across the Taklamakan Desert.

Sogdians weren’t successful because they were raised on honey. They created far-flung trade networks, settled in unfamiliar cities, and adapted to local customs. Many intermarried with the locals. One Sogdian home found in the city of Chang’an — often considered the Chinese gateway to the Silk Road — boasted a mixture of Chinese and Zoroastrian art, along with a Chinese grave carved with images of Zoroastrian fire rituals. The Sogdian capital Samarkand was a city whose reach extended far beyond its walls.

 

Sogdian Culture

The Sogdians were divided into four classes, nobility, merchants, workers, and slaves and relied on agriculture and commercial activities

Bactrian Zoroastrian
painted clay and alabaster head of a Zoroastrian priest wearing a distinctive Bactrian-style headdress, Takhti-Sangin, Tajikistan, 3rd–2nd century BC

Language

Sogdian, an Eastern Iranian language, is no longer a spoken language, but its direct descendant, Yaghnobi, is still spoken by the Yaghnobis of Tajikistan. It was widely spoken in Central Asia as a lingua franca and even served as one of the Turkic Khaganate’s court languages for writing documents.  The  Sogdian language declined with the conversion of the region to Islam and was largely supplanted by Persian and Turkic languages by 1000.

The Sogdian merchants dominated the Silk Road so much so that their language, Sogdiana, became the language of the Silk Road. Since the Sogdians were in constant contact with different cultures some characteristics of their culture and the culture of the other people intertwined and influenced each other.
The Sogdian influence in China was still present in the seventh and eighth centuries especially in the capital cities such as Luoyang, and Chang’an. Aristocratic women in China wore clothes that reflected a western style of dress (Vaissiere 138). A western influence was also found in funerary art. In the tombs of aristocrats there were statues of western singers, dancers, or musicians. Even at Chinese official ceremonies music from Samarkand was played along with Chinese music (Vaissiere 139). Therefore not only did the Sogdians deliver goods to various regions in Asia they also transferred cultural elements with them as well.

Religion

While the primary religion of the Sogdians was Zoroastrianism  and earlier   Manichaeism   from Persia, Sogdians traders  helped spread Buddhism from India, Bactria and Nestorian Christianity from West Asia, into China.

Sodgians didn’t just trade goods with their neighbors; they traded ideas. As religious studies scholar Richard Foltz points out in his book Religions of the Silk Road, Sogdians were likely responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and, later, Islam throughout the Central Asian and Chinese communities to the east. They brought Buddhist texts from India to China, and Manichean ideas from Iran to a group known as the Uighurs in northern central Asia.

The Sogdians are said to have translated Buddhist Sutras into Chinese. While travelling as merchants along northwest  India, Bactria, or Xinjiang on their way to Chinathe Sogdian merchants were attracted to Buddhism so much so that they converted. Some even became monks and helped further the spread of Buddhism .

Many Sogdians decided to settle in regions across Asia such as China. While we can not fully examine the degree in which the Sogidians were assimilated into Chinese society, there are examples of Sogdians adopting Chinese cultural practices. For example the Sogidans living in China adopted some Chinese funerary practices. The Sogdians being Zoroastrians did not bury their dead, however the Sogdian immigrants living in China did practice underground burials.The Chinese Sogdians also incorporated the custom of burying objects such as mingqi and ceramic vessels

The gradual conversion to Islam among the Sogdians and their descendants began with the Muslim Conquest of Transoxiana (See my post) in the 8th century.  The Sogdian conversion to Islam was virtually complete by the end of the Samanid Empire in 999.

 Similarily the Turkish people were also influenced by the Sogdians. The Turks invaded Sogdiana in 560, which enabled both cultures to mix. The Sogdians had control of commerce in the Turk Empire; they dominated the Silk Road trade in East Turkestanin the seventh and eighth centuries.

Documents from Turfan support this view. A record of “scale fees”, which are taxes based on the weight of an item, from Gaochang Kingdom in Turfan illustrates that the Sogdians were the dominant merchants. The record illustrates that eighty-two percent of all merchants involved were Sogdian (

Another document from Turfan illustrating the dominance of the Sogdians in mercantile activity in East Turkestan had to do with travelling permits. The travel permits state the names of the merchants. From the eight surviving permits fifty-percent of the leaders of a particular travelling group were Sogdian

This constant contact had an impact on the East Turkestan culture. One of the most important contributions the Sogdians gave to the Turk Empire was writing. At one point the Sogdian alphabet was used in Turk and Uighur Empires to write Turkic texts. The earliest texts from the Turk Empire were written in Sogdian.

The Sogdians also brought Buddhism to the Turk Empire. Buddhism in the Turk Empire was influenced by the Sogdians and the Chinese. Their presence and domination of the trade in the Turk Empire allowed the Sogdians to influence the language, religion  and world view of the Turks.

Where to See Sogdiana

 

In the wake of An Lushan’s rebellion, the emperor outlawed Sogdian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Christianity and even Buddhism (the Buddhism ban was fairly quickly lifted). Surviving Sogdians changed their names to hide their ethnic background, but were still regularly persecuted. Many fled from Chinese cities in the region near Chang’an, and still others were pushed out by new laws that made it difficult for “foreigners” to live in Chinese cities — even if these foreigners were Sogdians whose families had been in China for generations.

Over time, the Sogdian culture that once controlled Samarkand died out completely. There is a small ethnic group in eastern Iran where people speak a language called Yaghnobi that’s related to Sogdian. But the once-influential people who ruled trade on the Silk Road are now barely known. We have only a few examples of their writing and art, and know of Sogdians mostly through accounts like the one from the Tang Dynasty history that explains how their children are raised to be greedy.

Panjakent

Panjakent  is a city in the Sughd province of Tajikistan on the Zeravshan River, with a population of 33,000 (2000 census). It was once an ancient town in Sogdiana. The ruins of the old town are on the outskirts of the modern city.

Though little remains of the pre-Islamic city of Samarkand, archaeologists have recently excavated a nearby city called Panjikent, in Tajikistan, which dates back to the fifth century. It was abandoned a few decades after the Arabs took Samarkand and the surrounding regions in the early eighth century, and thus gives us a good look at what a Sogdian city would have looked like earlier in its history.

One home in particular, which likely belonged to a very wealthy family, has wall paintings which give us a fascinating glimpse of how Sogdians viewed the world. It portrays the local rulers, surrounded by merchants and other people from all over the world, including China and Korea.

This scene of noblemen at a libation, from the north wall of a room at Panjakent, is presented against a Pompeian red background. The head-dresses resemble in shape that worn by the Sorçuk warrior (Ill. 171). The painting shows great regard for composition and mastery of the sinuous line. Seventh century

Samarkind (See my web page)

From the sixth through the eighth centuries, Samarkand’s religions and cultures were as diverse as the people who had claimed the city as their own. Zoroastrian and Manichean traditions mingled with Buddhism, mystical Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and local religions whose deities had been worshipped in Mesopotamia for millennia. Sogdians seemed to deal with multiculturalism by adding more gods to their roster of icons to worship, rather than outlawing outsider beliefs the way other cities did.

Much of the city’s religious pluralism was lost when it was conquered by the Arab General Qutayba ibn Muslim in 712. Still it remained a wealthy city, with a thriving and diverse market culture, and was eventually conquered by the Mongols, under whose control the Silk Road flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some of Samarkand’s mixed heritage is obvious even today. People in Samarkand and throughout Central Asia still celebrate Nauruz, the traditional Zoroastrian festival of spring.

Nauruz celebration when Zoroastrianism
While there is no much pre Islamic art to see in Samarkand today, this fresco of Nauruz celebration when Zoroastrianism was found  by archaeologists under the city

Learn More

Sogdia – Wikiwand

The Lost Empire that Ruled the Silk Road by Annalee Newitz  April 16, 2014 Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9. She’s also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

Sogdians – Paul’s Travel Blog – travel experiences, photos, ideas, and tips

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