Sogdiana, also known as Sogdia, was an ancient Iranian civilization in Asia that existed from 6th century BC to 11th century AD.
It was located between Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At various times, places such as Samarkand, Panjikent, Shahrisabz, and Bukhara were included in Sogdiana.
Several different religions were practiced in Sogdiana, chiefly Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity. A gradual conversion to Islam began with the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana in the 8th century AD, and was virtually complete by the end of the Samanid Empire in 999. This coincided with the Sogdian language being largely supplanted by Persian and Turkic languages.
Sogdiana was located in Western Turkestan, a geographical region that also included Ferghana and Khorezm. Today, the area is divided between Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. In older texts, it is sometimes referred to as Transoxiana, which means across the river Oxus, the Latin name for the Amu Darya.
The Silk Road passed through Western Turkestan and the inhabitants were very much involved in commercial activities along this part of the route. It was an area where several cultures intermingled, including those of the Greco-Roman world, Iran and India. To a lesser extent, China also influence the region, through its connection to the Silk Road.
Large tracts of Wester Turkestan were unsuitable for agriculture, including the very arid deserts Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum, but there were also notable rivers which could be used for irrigation. Because of this, the economy wasn’t just based on trade – agriculture was also important.
To north and east of Western Turkestan, across the Syr Dary, lived nomadic tribes engaged in cattle herding, and their raids were a constant threat to the sedentary populations.
The region was a part of the Achaemid Empire (First Persian Empire) from the 6th century BC, but this didn’t stop the nomad peoples from doing raids. Even Cyrus of Persia himself was killed during a fight against the Massagetae in 530 BC.
After the Achaemid Empire followed various other overlords, such as the Seleucids, the Bactrian Greeks, the Parthians, the Kushans, the Hephthalites, the Sasanians, and finally the Arabs.
Sogdiana, Ferghana and Khorezm
As mentioned above, Western Turkestan consisted of three parts: Sogdiana, Ferghana and Khorezm.
- Sogdiana consisted of the river valleys of Zaravshan and Kashka Darya.
- Ferghana was the lands located along the upper Syr Darya River.
- Khorezm was the delta region of the Amu Darya.
The Silk Road was very important for Sogdiana, and its two major cities – Samarkand and Bukhara – were both located along this trading route.
Even before Samarkand and Bukhara turned into cities, the Sogdians were heavily involved in commercial activities along the Silk Road. The Sogdian language became somewhat of a lingua franca across the Silk Road even outside Sogdiana, and the Sogdian alphabet inspired alphabets created by cultures living to the east of Sogdiana. The Sogdians did not limit themselves to trading in Sogdia; many Sogdians traveled extensively along the Silk Road and some even formed colonies abroad. Sogdian merchants was not an uncommon sight at major markets in China.
Sogdian principalities and city states
In antiquity, several Sogdian principalities formed. Many were subject to Samarkand but still fairly autonomous, and some even minted their own coinage. Each time a new dominating force drew in, the principalities had to adapt to the new situation, managing the new power while striving to remain reasonable independent.
A number of city-states developed, and there was also knightly landowners that lorded over large irrigated agricultural lands. Rich merchants and rich landowners seems to have been on basically the same status level in this society.
Some historians have likened this to a feudal society, but that is actually quite a stretch for something so dynamic as Sogdiana. The succession of rule was not stable, and it community – or at least a certain part of the community – could influence who would become the new ruler.
Sogdiana had a highly developed economic life, but no strong and centralized state power. This lack of central authority is probably one of the reasons why Sogdiana found it difficult to resist the 7th and 8th century Arabian invasion.
The arrival of the Arabs and of the Muslim faith
Initially, the 7th century was marked by rapid developments in Samarkand and a quickly expanding trade sector. Progress was made in silk weaving and the production of other desirable handicrafts, including the making of silver vessels and gilded vessels. Samarkand had also tapped into the lucrative fur trade with the lands of the north. Instead of just benefiting from the East – West trade along he Silk Road, they were now purchasing and reselling valuable pelts obtained in places such as Russia.
Before the 7th century was over, however, Samarkand was attacked by the Arabs, and in the early 8th century the Arab conquest of Transoxiana was well on its way. In 706-712, General Outayba ben Muslim, who was already the governor-general of Khurasan, took over Sogdiana, and the local rulers became vassals of the Arabs. The various military campaigns caused destruction, Sogdian uprisings were met with violence, and some towns were destroyed or abandoned.
In 750, the caliphate dynasty changed from Umayyads to the Abbasids, and this resulted in large-scale conversions of Islam in Sogdiana.
Pendzhikent – a Sogdian city along the Silk Road
The old Sogdian Silk Road city Pendzhikent has been partly excavated by Russian archaeologists, which has helped us understand more about Sogdiana.
Pendzhikent developed on a bluff overlooking the Zarafshan River, circa 65 km southwest of Samarkand. Founded in the 5th century AD, it became a capital for the Hephthalites as they conquered Sogdiana in 509. Until it was destroyed by the Arab invasion of the early 8th century, it was a thriving trade hub and metropolis along the Silk Road. Some people still lived in Pendzhikent until the 9th century, when the city was finally abandoned to the desert.
The city Pendzhikent consisted of two main parts: the citadel (shahristan) area and the city proper.
The citadel was located on a hill, together with several temples, the palace of the ruler, and several large houses belonging to rich and powerful families.
The city proper was a mix of shops and workshops, houses where ordinary merchants and workers lived, and more expensive homes belonging to landed aristocracy. Circa one third of the houses featured very high-quality large murals and complex wood carvings. Many houses in the city proper were two or three stories high and included a major festive hall.
The shops and workshops were chiefly located along the major streets and in he bazaars. It was common to see a shop or workshop facing the street, and then a larger residential house behind it, but without any connecting door between the two. It is likely that the owner of the large house also owned the street-facing building, renting it out to tradesmen. The common tradesmen themselves had their dwellings on less desirable streets, but it was still two-story houses with multiple rooms. Large murals were not present in these common homes, but a painted niche was not an unusual thing to have.
As mentioned above, the archaeologist investigating Pendzhikent found a rich assortment of murials – many of them both large and of very high quality.
Murals were found in both residential buildings and temples, and some of them featured religious themes. One especially interesting one illustrates the death and rebirth of the god Syavush, with mourners shown cutting their faces, a practice that might have been a part of the Pendzhikent burial rites of that era. (It is a practice well known from other parts of Central Asia.)
Some murals depict national epics, such as the one about Sohrab and Rustam which is believed to be a metaphor for the power struggle between the Iranians and the Turkish nomads.
Examples of other activities seen on murals in Pendzhikent:
- A harpist playing
- Knights in battle
- Hunting from horseback
- Upper-class banquets
- Various holiday entertainments
The Castle of Mount Mugh
The Castle of Mount Mugh was built circa 200 km east of modern-day Samarkand, in the upper Zarafshan valley, in the foothills of Mount Mugh.
The castle, which was a fortress built from sun-dried mud bricks, featured thick outer walls and massive towers. The rooms were barrel-vaulted halls connected by narrow corridors.
This castle is not just interested in itself, but also because this is where a large number of ancient documents were found, dated to 717-719. Some are paper documents, while others are leather or even wood. Once they belonged to the archives of the ruler of Pendzhikent. Most of the documents are written in the Sogdian language, but some are in Turkish, Arabic or Chinese instead. The ones written in Arabic are correspondence from the Arab governor of the area.
Examples of other things preserved within the castle:
- Silver vessels
- Bronze vessels
- Silk fragments
- Cotton fragments
- A partial panel from a shield
The castle was abandoned in 722, because the prince who lived there rebelled and was killed. The abandoned castle gradually filled up with sand, and this is why so much of its content was preserved.
Afrasiyab – the ancient Samarkand
Afrasiyab is the oldest part of the ancient and medieval city of Samarkand, and was inhabited from circa 500 BC to 1220 AD. It was located on high ground, south of a river valley and north of a large fertile area that eventually became modern-day Samarkand.
Today, the place where Afrasiyab is a hilly grass mound found near the Bibi Khanaum Mosque in Samarkand. The Afrasiab Museum of Samarkand is located right next to the archaeological site. The archaeological site is roughly 220 hectares in size and the archaeological strata reaches 8-12 meters.
The first archaeological excavations here took place in the late 1800s, headed by Russian archaeologist and orientalist Nikolay Veselovsky. In the 1920s, an extensive excavation took place led by Professor Mikhail Masson who was a Samarkand native. The site was excavated again in the 1960s-1970s.
Afrasiyab in the 7th century AD
During the second half of the 7th century AD, Chinese Tang dynasty sources describe Samarkand as a place where the people are skilled merchants and care a lot about profits, and also like drink alcohol and sing and dance in the streets. Samarkand is located in a fertile area and excellent horses are produced here. The King of Samarkand wears a felt hat adorned with gold and precious stones, and the women of Samarkand coil their hear and covers it with a blacks scarf decorated with golden flowers. These Chinese sources also describes how young men raised in Samarkand will travel to other countries when they are roughly 20 years old to seek their fortune.
During this ear, the Samarkandians were subjects of the Turks, and the King of Samarkand was married to a Western Turkish woman (probably to form an alliance with the ruling khan). But the Samarkandians also wanted to be on the good side of the mighty Tang Dynasty in the East, and sent envoys to the Chines court in 627 and 631. Finally, they sent the Tang Emperor a lion and Samarkand was granted vassal status. Each year, they sent tributes to the Chinese court, including yellow peaches and silver peaches. At some point after 650, Samarkand became a governor-generalship of China and King Varhuman of Samarkand became its governor-general.
The excavations of Afrasiab showed that many buildings here were adorned with murals. Today, one of the most spectacular ones can be viewed in the local museum. It depicts several religious ceremonies, envoys visiting from foreign countries (including Turkish and Chinese envoys), and the manifestation of the three virtues of the Sogdians: riches, wisdom and bravery.
The name is derived from Qal’a-ye Afrasiab which means Castle of Afrasiab. This term has not been found in any written sources older than the late 1600s.
Afrasiab is the name of a mythical king that, according to legend, ruled the historical region Turan.
Scholars have suggested that the name Afrasiyab might actually be a distorted form of the Tajik word Parsiab, which means beyond the black river. That river would then be Siab, which flows to the north of the Afrasiyab site.