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Sogdiana, c. 300 BC.
Languages Sogdian language
Religions Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism
Capitals Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Kesh
Area Between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya

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Sogdians, depicted on a Chinese Sogdian sarcophagus of the Northern Qi era.

Sogdiana (/ˌsɔːɡdiˈænə, ˌsɒɡ-/) or Sogdia (/ˈsɔːɡdiə, ˈsɒɡ-/; Old Persian: Suguda-;Chinese: 粟特 sùtè;) was the ancient civilization of an Iranian people and a province of the Achaemenid Empire, eighteenth in the list on the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great (i. 16). Sogdiana is "listed" as the second of the "good lands and countries" that Ahura Mazda created. This region is listed second after Airyanem Vaejah, "homeland of the Aryans", in the Zoroastrian book of Vendidad, indicating the importance of this region from ancient times.[1] Sogdiana, at different times, included territory located in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Panjikent and Shahrisabz).

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 (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya), embracing the fertile valley of the Zeravshan (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 such as that at the archeological site of Suyab.


Oswald Szemerényi devotes a thorough discussion to the etymologies of ancient ethnic words for the Scythians in his work "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian – Skudra – Sogdian – Saka". In it, the names of Herodotus and the names of his title, except Saka, as well as many other words for "Scythian," such as Assyrian Aškuz and Greek Skuthēs, descend from *skeud-, an ancient Indo-European root meaning "propel, shoot" (cf. English shoot).[2] *skud- is the zero-grade; that is, a variant in which the -e- is not present. The restored Scythian name is *Skuda (archer), which among the Pontic or Royal Scythians became *Skula, in which the d has been regularly replaced by an l. According to Szemerényi, Sogdiana was named from the Skuda form. Starting from the names of the province given in Old Persian inscriptions, Sugda and Suguda, and the knowledge derived from Middle Sogdian that Old Persian -gd- applied to Sogdian was pronounced as voiced fricatives, -γδ-, Szemerényi arrives at *Suγδa as an Old Sogdian endonym.[3] Applying sound changes apparent in other Sogdian words and inherent in Indo-European he traces the development of *Suγδa from Skuda, "archer," as follows: Skuda > *Sukuda by anaptyxis > *Sukuδa > *Sukδa (syncope) > *Suγδa (assimilation).[4]


Gold coin of Diodotus c. 250 BC.

Persian Period

Cyrus the Great conquered Sogdiana in his campaigns and it remained under Persian control probably until the beginning of Artaxerxes II' reign in 404 BC. The enemies and rebels of the Persian Empire took advantage of the weak Artaxerxes II and many were able to gain independence, most notable of these independent nations was Egypt. So it was likely this time that Persia lost most of its Central Asian domains. But unlike Egypt which was to be added back into the Persian Empire, Sogdiana remained independent up until the rise of Alexander the Great and his empire.

Hellenistic period

A now independent and warlike Sogdiana[5] formed a border region insulating the Achaemenid Persians from the nomadic Scythians to the north and east.[6] The Sogdian Rock or Rock of Ariamazes, a fortress in Sogdiana, was captured in 327 BC by the forces of Alexander the Great; after an extended campaign putting down Sogdian resistance and founding military outposts manned by his Macedonian veterans, Alexander united Sogdiana with Bactria into one satrapy. The military power of the Sogdians never recovered. Subsequently Sogdiana formed part of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, founded in 248 BC by Diodotus, for about a century. Euthydemus I seems to have held the Sogdian territory, and his coins were later copied locally. Eucratides apparently recovered sovereignty of Sogdia temporarily. Finally the area was occupied by nomads when the Scythians and Yuezhis overran it around 150 BC.

Battle of Sogdiana

Barbaric copy of a coin of Euthydemus I, from the region of Sogdiana. The legend on the reverse is in Aramaic script.

In 36 BC

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...[a] Han expedition into central Asia, west of the Jaxartes River, apparently encountered and defeated a contingent of Roman legionaries. The Romans may have been the enslaved remnants of Crassus' army, defeated by the Parthians and forced to fight on their eastern frontier. Sogdiana (modern Bukhara), east of the Oxus River, on the Polytimetus River, was apparently the most easterly penetration ever made by Roman forces in Asia. The margin of Chinese victory appears to have been their crossbows, whose bolts and darts seem easily to have penetrated Roman shields and armour.[7]

This interpretation has been disputed.[8]

Sogdians along the Silk Road

Most merchants did not travel the entire Silk Road but would trade goods through middlemen based in oasis towns such as Khotan or Dunhuang. The Sogdians, however, established a trading network across the 1500 miles from Sogdiana to China. In fact, the Sogdians turned their energies to trade so thoroughly that the Saka of the Kingdom of Khotan called all merchants suli, "Sogdian", whatever their culture or ethnicity.[9] Sogdian contacts with China were initiated by the embassy of the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian during the reign of Emperor Wu in the former Han dynasty, 141–87 BC. He wrote a report of his visit to the Western Regions in Central Asia and named an area of Sogdiana, "Kangju".

Following Zhang Qian's embassy and report, commercial Chinese relations with Central Asia and Sogdiana flourished,[10] as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BC: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out."[11]

Sogdians played a major role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia along the Silk Roads as late as the 10th century; their language became a lingua franca of trade, and in the 7th century the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang noted with approval that little boys were taught to read and write at the age of five, though their skill was turned to trade, disappointing the scholarly Xuanzang. Xuanzang also recorded the Sogdians working in other capacities, as farmers, carpetweavers, glassmakers, and woodcarvers.[12]

Central Asian role

Sogdian coin, 6th century. British Museum.
Chinese-influenced Sogdian coin, Kelpin, 8th century. British Museum.

Subsequent to their domination by Alexander, the Sogdians from the city of Marakanda (Samarkand) became dominant as traveling merchants, occupying a key position along the ancient Silk Road. Their language became the common language of the Silk Route and they played a role in the cultural movements of philosophies and religion, such as Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism into the east as well as the movement of items of trade. A Chinese history of the Tang dynasty, the Xin Tang-shu, describes Sogdians in general as good at business. They were described by the Chinese as born merchants, learning their commercial skills at an early age. It appears from sources, such as documents found by Sir Aurel Stein and others, that by the 4th century they may have monopolized trade between India and China. Furthermore, in 568 AD a Turko-Sogdian delegation travelled to the Roman emperor in Constantinople to obtain permission to trade and in the following years commercial activity between the states flourished.[13] Put simply, they dominated trade along the Silk Route from the 2nd century BC until the 10th century.[9]

Suyab and Talas were the main Sogdian centers in the north that dominated the caravan routes of Central Asia.[when?][citation needed] Their commercial interests were protected by the resurgent military power of the Göktürks, whose empire has been described as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians".[14][15][16] Sogdian trade, with some interruptions, continued into the 9th century. In the 10th century Sogdiana was incorporated into the Uighur Empire, which until 840 encompassed northern Central Asia. This khaganate obtained from China enormous deliveries of silk in exchange for horses. Also at this time caravans of Sogdians traveling to Upper Mongolia are mentioned in Chinese sources.[citation needed]

During the 5th and 6th century many Sogdians took up residence in the Hexi corridor where they retained autonomy in terms of governance and had a designated official administrator known as a sabao, which suggests their importance to the socioeconomic structure of China. The Sogdian influence on trade in China is also made apparent by a Chinese document which lists taxes paid on caravan trade in the Turpan region and shows that twenty-nine out of the thirty-five commercial transactions involved Sogdian merchants, and in thirteen of those cases both the buyer and the seller were Sogdian.[17] Trade goods brought to China included grapes, alfalfa, and Sassanian silverware, as well as glass containers, Mediterranean coral, brass Buddhist images, Roman wool cloth, and Baltic amber. These were exchanged for Chinese paper, copper, and silk.[9]

The An Lushan rebellion was supported by many Sogdians, and in its aftermath many of them were slain or changed their names to escape their Sogdian heritage, meaning little is known about the Sogdian presence in North China since that time.[18]

Religious beliefs

Sogdiana played an important role in the religious and cultural development of central Asia.[further explanation needed][citation needed] The Sogdians' main religion was Zoroastrianism. We know this due to some examples of material evidence. For instance, the discovery of murals depicting votaries making offers before fire-holders and ossuaries from Samarquand, Panjikent and Er-Kurgan held the bones of the dead in accordance with Zoroastrian ritual.

However, the Sogdians epitomized the religious plurality found along the trade routes. The largest body of Sogdian texts are Buddhist, and Sogdians were among the principal translators of Buddhist sutras into Chinese. However, Buddhism did not take root in Sogdiana itself. Additionally, the Bulayiq monastery to the north of Turpan contained Sogdian Christian texts and there are numerous Manichaean texts in Sogdiana from nearby Qocho.[19]

Muslim geographers of the 10th century draw upon Sogdian records dating to 750–840. After the end of the Uighur Empire, Sogdian trade underwent a crisis. What followed from Muslim Central Asia was the Samanids, who resumed trade on the northwestern road leading to the Khazars and the Urals and the northeastern one toward the nearby Turkic tribes.[15]

Commerce and sex trade

Turpan under Tang dynasty rule was a center of major commercial activity between Chinese and Sogdian merchants. There were many inns in Turpan. Some provided sex workers with an opportunity to service the Silk Road merchants, since the official histories report that there were markets in women at Kucha and Khotan.[20] The Sogdian-language contract buried at the Astana graveyard demonstrates that at least one Chinese man bought a Sogdian girl in 639 AD. One of the archaeologists who excavated the Astana site, Wu Zhen, contends that, although many households along the Silk Road bought individual slaves, as we can see in the earlier documents from Niya, the Turpan documents point to a massive escalation in the volume of the slave trade.[21]

The few documented pairings of Chinese male owners with Sogdian girls raise the question how often Sogdian and Chinese families intermarried. The historical record is largely silent on this topic, but Rong Xinjiang has found 21 recorded marriages in the 7th century in which one partner was Sogdian and in 18 cases the spouse is also Sogdian. The only exceptions are very high ranking Sogdian officials who married Chinese wives.[22] He concludes that most Sogdian men took Sogdian wives, and we may surmise that the pairings between Chinese men and Sogdian women were usually between a male master and a female slave.

Several commercial interactions were recorded. In 673 a company commander (Duizheng) bought a camel for fourteen bolts of silk from Kang Wupoyan,[23] a non-resident merchant from Samarkand (Kangzhou).[24] In 731 a Sogdian merchant sold an eleven-year-old girl to a resident of Chang’an, Tang Rong, for forty bolts of silk.[25] Five men served as guarantors, vouching that she was not a free person who been enslaved.[26] (The Tang Code banned the enslavement of commoners.)

Language and culture

Sogdians donors to the Buddha (fresco, with detail), Bezeklik, eastern Tarim Basin, China, 8th century.

The 6th century is thought to be the peak of the Sogdian culture, judging by its highly developed artistic tradition. By this point, the Sogdians were entrenched in their role as the central Asian traveling and trading merchants, transferring goods, culture and religion.[27]

Apart from the Puranic cults mentioned above, five Hindu gods were known to have been worshipped in Sogdiana, namely Brahma, Indra, Mahadeva (Shiva), Narayana and Vaishravana, who had the Sogdiana names of Zravan, Adabad and Veshparkar respectively. The four-armed goddess riding the lion may be Durga. Portable fire altars associated with Mahadeva-Veshparkar, Brahma-Zravan and Indra-Abdab found in an 8th-century mural at Panjakent also deserves special mention.[28]

The Sogdians were noted for their tolerance of different religious beliefs. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion among Sogdians and remained so until after the Islamic conquest, when they gradually converted to Islam, as is shown by Richard Bulliet's "conversion curve".[29] The Sogdian religious texts found in China and dating to the Northern Dynasties, Sui, and Tang mostly are Buddhist (translated from Chinese sources), Manichaean and of Nestorian Christianity, with only a small minority of Zoroastrian texts.[30] But tombs of Sogdian merchants in China dated to the last third of the 6th century show predominantly Zoroastrian motifs or Zoroastrian-Manichaean syncretism, while archaeological remains from Sogdiana appear fairly Iranian and conservatively Zoroastrian.[30]

The Sogdians spoke an Eastern Iranian language called Sogdian, closely related to Bactrian, another major language of the southern part of Central Asia in ancient times. Sogdian was written in a variety of scripts, all of them derived from the Aramaic alphabet.

Even in the Middle Ages, the valley of the Zarafshan around Samarkand retained the Sogdian name, Samarkand. Arabic geographers reckoned it as one of the four fairest districts in the world. The Yaghnobis living in the Sughd province of Tajikistan still speak a dialect of the Sogdian language.[31]

Detail of a copy of the Ambassadors' Painting from Afrasiyab.

The great majority of the Sogdian people assimilated with other local groups such as the Bactrians, Chorasmians, and in particular with Persians and came to speak Persian, and in 819 AD founded the Samanid Empire in the region. They are among the ancestors of the modern Tajiks. Numerous Sogdian words can be found in modern Tajik language.

The Afrasiab painting of the 7th century in Samarkand is a rare surviving example of Sogdian art.

Early medieval Sogdian costumes can be divided in two periods: Hephtalitic (5th and 6th centuries) and Turkic (7th and early 8th centuries). The latter did not become common immediately after the political dominance of the Gökturks but only in c. 620 when, especially following Western Turkic Khagan Ton-jazbgu's reforms, Sogd was Turkized and the local nobility was officially included in the Khaganate's administration.[32]

For both sexes clothes were tight-fitted, and narrow waists and wrists were appreciated. The silhouettes for grown men and young girls emphasized wide shoulders and narrowed to the waist; the silhouettes for female aristocrates were more complicated. The Sogdian clothing underwent a thorough process of Islamization in the ensuing centuries, with few of the original elements remaining. In their stead, turbans, kaftans and sleeved coats became more common.[32]

Notable Sogdians

Silk road figure head, probably Sogdian. Musée Cernuschi, Paris.
  • An Lushan was a military leader of Sogdian (from his father's side) and Tūjué origin during the Tang dynasty in China. He rose to prominence by fighting (and losing) frontier wars between 741 and 755. Later, he precipitated the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion, which lasted from 755 to 763, which led to the decline of the Tang dynasty.[citation needed]

See also



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  2. Szemerényi 1980, pp. 45–46.
  3. Szemerényi 1980, pp. 26–36.
  4. Szemerényi 1980, p. 39.
  5. Independent Sogdiana: Lane Fox (1973, 1986:533) notes Quintus Curtius, vi.3.9: with no satrap to rule them, they were under the command of Bessus at Gaugamela, according to Arrian, iii.8.3.
  6. "The province of Sogdia was to Asia what Macedonia was to Greece: a buffer between a brittle civilization and the restless barbarians beyond, whether the Scyths of Alexander's day and later or the White Huns, Turks and Mongols who eventually poured south to wreck the thin veneer of Iranian society" (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (1973) 1986:301).
  7. R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History from 3500 B.C. to the Present, Fourth Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 133, apparently relying on Homer H. Dubs, "A Roman City in Ancient China", in Greece and Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Oct. 1957), pp. 139–148
  8. Schuyler V. Cammann, review of Homer H. Dubs, A Roman City in Ancient China in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (May 1962), pp. 380–382. See also reply by Dubs in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1 (November 1962), pp. 135–136.
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  10. C. Michael Hogan, Silk Road, North China, The Megalithic Portal, ed. Andy Burnham
  11. Shiji, trans. Burton Watson
  12. Wood 2002:66
  13. J. Rose, 'The Sogdians: Prime Movers between Boundaries', Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3, (2010), p. 412
  14. Wink, André. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-391-04173-8.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. Stark, Sören. Die Alttürkenzeit in Mittel- und Zentralasien. Archäologische und historische Studien (Nomaden und Sesshafte, vol. 6). Reichert, 2008 ISBN 3-89500-532-0.
  17. J. Rose, 'The Sogdians: Prime Movers between Boundaries', Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3, (2010), p. 416
  18. J. Rose, 'The Sogdians: Prime Movers between Boundaries', Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3, (2010), p. 417
  19. J. Rose, 'The Sogdians: Prime Movers between Boundaries', Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010), pp. 416–7
  20. Xin Tangshu 221a:6230. In addition, Susan Whitfield offers a fictionalized account of a Kuchean courtesan’s experiences in the 9th century without providing any sources, although she has clearly drawn on the description of the prostitutes’ quarter in Chang’an in Beilizhi; Whitfield, 1999, pp. 138–154.
  21. Wu Zhen 2000 (p. 154 is a Chinese-language rendering based on Yoshida’s Japanese translation of the Sogdian contract of 639).
  22. Rong Xinjiang, 2001, pp. 132–135. Of the twenty-one epitaphs, twelve are from Quan Tangwen buyi (Supplement to the complete writings of the Tang), five from Tangdai muzhi huibian (Collected epitaphs of the Tang), three were excavated at Guyuan, Ningxia, and one is from another site.
  23. Yan is a common ending for Sogdian first names meaning ‘for the benefit of’ a certain deity. For other examples, see Cai Hongsheng, 1998, p. 40.
  24. Ikeda contract 29.
  25. Ikeda contract 31. Yoshida Yutaka and Arakawa Masaharu saw this document, which was clearly a copy of the original with space left for the places where the seals appeared.
  26. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  27. Luce Boulnois, Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants, 2005, Odyssey Books, pp. 239–241 ISBN 962-217-721-2
  28. India and Central Asia: classical to contemporary periods By J. N. Roy, Braja Bihārī Kumāra, Astha Bharati (Organization) Published by Astha Bharati Page 8
  29. Tobin 113–115
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  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainLua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • Calum MacLeod, Bradley Mayhew Uzbekistan: Golden Road to Samarkand
  • Archaeological Researches in Uzbekistan. 2001. Tashkent. The edition is based on results of German-French-Uzbek co-expeditions in 2001 in Uzbekistan
  • Etienne de la Vaissière, Sogdian Traders: A History, Leiden: Brill, 2005. ISBN 90-04-14252-5
  • Babadjan Ghafurov, "Tajiks", published in USSR, Russia, Tajikistan
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External links

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