The Glories of Sogdiana

by Albert E. Dien

The almond groves of Samarqand,
Bokhara, where red lilies blow.
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go.
Oscar Wilde*

Western Turkestan, the area of modern Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, was an important area in the history of the Silk Road. It was the area through which the Road passed, and the inhabitants were very much involved in the commercial activity which took place along its route. This area, known variously as Transoxiana (that is, across the Oxus, or the Amu Darya) or Eastern Iran (meaning really the eastern extension of Iranian culture) is a fascinating area, well worth exploring. It is an area where a number of cultures met, that of the Greco-Roman world, of Iran and India, and to some extent even China. It is a dry, semi-arid area, containing the fearsome Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum deserts, traversed by some rivers from which water could be diverted into agriculture, and thus support some cities with large populations, really an oasis culture. Trade and agriculture supplied the economic basis of what were important cultural centers. But at the same time, the area abutted on the steppes, and there was almost constant pressure from nomads to the north and east, across the Syr Dary, to move in with their herds and to raid, and if successful, to become the rulers of this rich land. It was in effect the early-comers fending off the late-comers, because the inhabitants of Transoxiana were an Iranian population who had themselves moved in from the steppes and who had settled down.

The area can be divided into three parts, Sogdiana, Ferghana and Khorezm. Sogdiana was made up of the Zaravshan and Kashka Dary‚ river valleys, Fergh‚na is along the upper Syr Dary‚ River, and Khorezm is in the delta region of the Amu Dary‚. The Achaemenid empire conquered the area in the 6th century BC, and the names of these areas are recorded in the list of Cyrus' conquests at Behistun. But then the Persians had to defend the area against the nomad peoples, and in fact, Cyrus was killed in 530 BC while fighting the Massagetae to the east of the Caspian. There followed periods of rule by the Seleucids, the Bactrian Greeks, the Parthians, the Kushans, and then a new nomadic group, the Hephthalites (or White Huns) fresh off the steppes, who helped put an end to the Kushan empire. Then came the Sasanians, whose rule lasted until their conquest by the Arabs in the 7th-8th centuries.

Fergh‚na was especially noted for its horses, and these early on attracted the attention of the Chinese who wanted to improve the breed they used for their cavalry. An envoy was sent to purchase the desired animals, but was not only turned down, but was killed. General Li Guangli was then sent in 104 BC with an army of 60,000 over the Pamirs to seek revenge and to bring back the Ferghana horses, known to the Chinese as "blood-sweating" or "heavenly" horses. Li besieged the city of Tashkent, but failed to take it and returned with the remnant of his army. Reaching the frontier of China, he asked for permission to proceed on to the capital. This was denied him, reinforcements were sent, and he was told not to come back without the horses. This gave him added determination, and the second expedition was successful, returning in 101 BC with 1000 horses. This marked the start of Chinese activity in the area west of the Pamirs, which was sporadic to be sure, but which did not end until the defeat of a Chinese army by a joint Turkish-Arab force in 732.

Sogdiana was more actively involved with the Silk Road. The names of its major cities, Samarkand and Bukh‚r‚, must call to mind the area and significance they had for the Silk Road. Even in the earliest period, before those cities were founded, the Sogdians were the major participants in the Silk Road caravans, their language became the lingua franca across Asia, their alphabet the source of later alphabets to the east, they carried with them such religions as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity. They were a strong presence in the markets of the capitals of China, and some letters of the early 4th century, found in a tower of the Great Wall, reveal that the various Sogdian colonies in Central Asia kept in touch with the "home office" in Samarkand.

The several Sogdian principalities, mostly small, were formed in antiquity, and some minted their own coinage. Many were at least nominally subject to Samarkand, but their situation would change with each new "super power" that exerted control over the area. For a time, for example the Turkish khagans on the steppes supported the Sogdian rulers, protected Sogdian trade, and employed Sogdians as officials and diplomats. The Chinese were also treated as overlords in the 7th century, but as distant ones, and Sogdiana suceeded in gaining its independence. During that 7th century there was rapid development of the capital at Samarkand, there was an expansion of trade, as evidenced by the abundance of coins, there was progress in silk weaving and handicrafts, and the Sogdian merchants not only thronged the Silk Road east to west, but also the "Fur" road, north to the Urals. The many silver and gilded vessels found through Central Asia and in China are now believed to have been manufactured in Sogdiana, not in Iran to the west.

With the coming of the Arabs in the later half of the 7th century, there were important changes. Iran had been conquered and there were raids across the Amu Darya, but in the early 8th century, the conquest of Transoxiana began in earnest. The governor-general of Khur‚s‚n, the great general Qutayba ben Muslim, in 706 to 712, took over, and the local rulers became the vassals of the Arabs. There were some local uprisings, the area suffered from the campaigns, some of the cities being abandoned or destroyed, and with the change in the caliphate dynasty, from the Umayyads to 'Abb‚sids, in 750, came large scale conversions to Islam.

We must not think that the Sogdians were simply passive subjects of the various powers which came to rule over them. During and between those periods of outside rule, a number of city-states had grown up, very decentralized, with an elite of knightly landowners lording it over large, irrigated estates, and rich merchants who were on a social par with the knights. Though some scholars have likened the social and political situation to that of feudalism, actually that is going too far. There was little stability in succession of rule, and it would seem that the community, or some segment of it, had a say in the selection of rulers. Bukhara, for example, had no ruler, and in the case of Pendzhikent, the city had its own income and own officials. Sogdian society thus displayed a highly developed economy but a weak state system, with little centralization. It was this lack of centralization that made the area so vulnerable to the attack of the Arabs.

Pendzhikent (= Five Cities) has been partly excavated by the Russian archaeologists. This city was on a bluff overlooking the Zarafshan River, some 65 kilometers southwest of Samarkand, on what had been the Silk Road. It had been founded in the 5th century, was used as the capital of the Hephthalites who conquered Sogdiana in 509, and was a thriving metropolis when it was destroyed by the Arabs in the early 8th century. Remnants lingered on until the 9th, when it was eclipsed by Samarkand and Bukh‚r‚, and abandoned to the desert. It was divided into two parts, the shahristan or citadel and the city proper. On the hill, there were the citadel, the palace of the ruler, several temples and the richer houses. The rest of the city contained houses of the landed aristocracy, the merchants and shops. A full third of the houses had superbly executed murals and wood carvings, indicating an extraordinary level of wealth. The houses were 2 to 3 stories and had many rooms, including principal halls, resembling the palace on a smaller scale. The large number of shops and craftmen's workshops along the major streets and in special bazaars were of course of smaller size, and were located in front of the larger houses, but without a doorway connecting the two parts. It would seem the shops were leased to the tradesmen. These tradesmen had smaller houses, still with two stories and several rooms, and perhaps a painting in a niche, to parallel the large murals in the richer homes.

Murals found in the temples and other houses aroused great interest when they were first reported. The murals include religious themes, such as one believed to depict the Sogdian burial rite, illustrating the death of the god Syavush, representing the dying year, and his rebirth in a background scene. Some mourners are shown cutting their faces, a Central Asian practice, also reported among the Turks. The genre scenes are important, illustrating national epics, including that of Sohrab and Rustam, a metaphor for the struggle between the Iranians and the Turkish nomads. One sees battles between knights, hunts on horseback, various holiday entertainments, processions and nobles sitting at banquets, holding their goblets in a delicate manner, a harpist which has been said to be the most beautiful painting in the world, and so forth. These refer to specific episodes or may simply represent the ideal of the good life of the wealthy Sogdian. The clothing is Persian, or Sasanian, but one also may note Indian and Hellenistic traces in the renderings. From these we can gain a glimpse of the elegant, prosperous and vibrant society which had developed here.

An important find was the castle of Mt. Mugh, some 200 kilometers east of modern Samarkand, in the upper Zarafshan valley, in the Mugh foothills. A vast number of documents were found, some on paper, others on wood and leather, which had been in the archives of the ruler of Pendzhikent, dating from 717 to 719. The languages include mostly Sogdian, but also Turkish, Chinese and Arabic, the latter being the correspondence with the Arab governor of the area. The prince lived in a castle which had been built as a fortress with thick outer walls and massive towers, all made of sun-baked mud bricks. The rooms were in the form of barrel-vaulted halls connected with each other by narrow corridors. Included in the finds were all sorts of coins, seals, silver and bronze vessels, fragments of cotton and silk, and a partial panel from a shield showing a warrior of a type that one finds later in Islamic Iran. In 722 the prince rebelled and was captured and killed. The castle was then abandoned, and became filled with sand.

Another city was Varaksha, in the Bukh‚r‚ oasis; it had been the capital of a fief in the area, abandoned in the 9th century. Here, too, one found high towers and walls, and a palace with many rooms. These were roofed with flat ceilings resting on columns, and opening onto a great central hall. The reception room had a buit-in bench (or sufa) around the walls, and carved stucco and murals for decoration. The paintings there and in other rooms are characterized by red backgrounds. One has hunters on elephants being attacked by tigers and griffins, One also finds a seated king surrounded by his courtiers. Other murals were found which depict that saga of Sohrab and Rustam.

Finally there is Afr‚si‚b, the ancient Samarkand, the site being on the outskirts of the modern city. In the mid and late 7th century, the two great powers in this area were the Western Turkish khanate, out on the steppes to the north, and Tang China, which was at its height of strength and glory. The Chinese sources describe Samarkand as being fertile and producing good horses, and dominant militarily. The people drank and Iiked to sing and dance in the streets! The king wore a felt hat decorated with gold and precious stones. The women coiled their hair and covered their heads with a black scarf to which were attached golden flowers. They were good at commerce, loved profit, and the young men at twenty would go out to other countries to seek their fortunes, and were to be found wherever there was a profit to be made. The king of Samarkand had married a Western Turkish woman (probably related to the khan) and they were counted as subjects of the Turks. To play both sides, envoys from Samarkand came to the Chinese court in 627 and again in 631, and the city was accepted as a vassal only after sending a lion to the emperor. Their tribute sent each year included yellow peaches and silver peaches (these are perhaps varieties of peaches). Obviously, Samarkand felt it was important to have powerful friends, especially one so far away that there was danger in recognizing it as sovereign. To fit Samarkand into the table of organization of the Chinese empire, sometime after 650 the kingdom was named the Kangju Governor-generalship, and the king, Varhum‚n, was made governor-general.

As at Pendzhikent, the buildings at Afr‚si‚b were decorated with murals. A special museum on the outskirts of Samarkand displays one of the more spectacular of these, much as it would have originally covered the walls of a large audience hall. The interpretation of the mural has been a subject of much debate. The Russian scholar Boris Marshak believes that the mural was meant to make the case for the legitimacy of the ruler Varkhum‚n. One sees depicted various religious ceremonies, envoys from various countries, including the Turks and the Chinese, paying their respects, and the manifestation of the three virtues of the Sogdians: riches, bravery and wisdom. Thus the mural gives us a sense of the political and social patterns of the Sogdians, and their conception of royal power with its legal basis. In the words of Prof. Marshak, "The murals of Afr‚si‚b are not only a monument of magnificent art but also the result of a social and political development where the stable tradition of the city-state limited the power of the local monarch and of his foreign sovereigns, obliging them both, as well as all the neighboring countries to respect the beliefs and the laws of Samarkand."


Aleksandr Belenitsky, Central Asia. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1968.
L.I. Al'baum, Zhivopis' Afrasiaba. Tashkent, 1975.
Guitty Azarpay, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Boris Marshak, "Le programme iconographique des peintures de la 'Salle des ambassadeurs' ŗ Afrasiab (Samarkand)," Arts Asiatiques 49 (1994), pp. 5-20.

This article is dedicated to Ann Britton, a great fan of all things Sogdian.

*Cited by Richard Frye, Bukhara: The Medieval Achievement (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), p. [2].

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