The time between the 4th and 8th centuries CE was the golden age of the Sogdians. Through their trading along the several of the Silk Roads, they became highly influential and their impact reached far and wide.
The Sogdians were an Iranian people whose homeland Sogdiana was comprised of oasis towns strategically located at the centre of several Silk Road routes in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the 5th century CE this part of the world was included in the greater Persian Empire, which was later conquered by Alexander the Great.
From their native Sogdiana, Sogdian immigrant communities were formed throughout Asia during the golden age, with a strong presence in China, south-eastern Asia, southern Asia, and the Central Asian steppe. At the same time, the Sogdiana homeland flourished.
The Sogdians were instrumental in the trade between China and other parts of Asia, and some of the objects passed through by Sogdians hand even ended up in northern Africa and Europe. The Sogdians connected disparate regions, cultures and empires, largely thanks to their own combination of flexibility, mobility and adaptability. More than simply transporting objects, the Sogdians became the transporters of arts, religious ideas, technologies, and aspirations that helped transform cultures far from the Sogdian homeland.
Despite this, we still know comparatively little about the Sogdians, as they were largely forgotten after the 8th century CE. It wasn´t until the late 19th century that scholars first began finding and recognizing Sogdian architecture, and it took even longer for other types of Sogdian artifacts to become widely known within archeological circles.
One of the reasons why the Sogdians were forgotten for a thousand years is probably that they typically served as middle-men, transmitters and facilitators rather than emperors, conquerors and religious leaders. They exerted a huge influence, but it was of a more subtle kind than that of the ancient Persian, Greek and Chinese empires.
It is also worth nothing that no modern-era nation-state has claimed the Sogdians as their ancestors and included them in their nation-state mythos. This in turn has made Sogdian findings less interesting to researchers and resource providers striving to construct national histories and illustrious nation-state backgrounds.
Today, we fortunately know a bit more about the mysterious and influential Sogdians, thanks to artifacts such as surviving architecture, wall paintings, and letters in Sogdian script. It is chiefly in the 21st century that Sogdian culture has caught the eye of mainstream research institutions, perhaps as a result of an increased interest in inter-cultural aspects of history.
No unified political or military power
The Sogdians exerted a huge influence despite not being a unified political entity. They had no unified military power, and their modus operandi was trading rather than conquering.
The political organization back in Sogdiana was a series of small principalities, and each one of these principalities had its own leader.
As the Sogdians formed merchant communities outside Sogdiana, they lived under various imperial and local powers, and there is also evidence of Sogdians practicing various religions rather than sticking to one unifying Sogdian belief system.
Even though there was no unified Sogdian army, the Sogdians knew well how to fortify their towns and protect trading parties, and they also engaged in military campaigns. One main and long-lasting threat was the nomads of the steppes.
Since the Sogdian traders were so important along certain stretches of the Silk Roads, the Sogdian language became a lingua franca of the trading network. We also know that many Sogdian traders were polyglots and that this benefited them both as traders and as paid translators.
Some of the early translations of Buddhist scriptures were made by Sogdians, and these translations helped spread the Buddhist religion eastward from China. Christianity and Manichaeism were also spread with the help of traveling and translating Sogdians. Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the Sasanian Empire during the 3rd century CE, based chiefly on Mesopotamian religious movements and Gnosticism. It acknowledged four prophets: Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Mani.
Trading – and more
As mentioned above, the Sogdians valued flexibility and adaptability, and they traded in a wide range of goods.
Here are just a few examples:
- Silk from China
- Precious stones from India
- Musk from Tibet
- Horses from the Ferghana Valley
- Pelts from the northern steppes
The Sogdians were not just traders; they were crafters and farmers as well, and the agricultural lands of Sogdiana benefited from a complex irrigation system. Sogdian artisans were especially renowned for making luxurious metalwork and textiles, objects which were sold across the Asian steppe and in China.
Sogdians also exported trends, including fashion and forms of entertainment, including certain types of festive food, music and dances.
Within the Chinese Tang empire, ladies of the court picked up the traditional dress of Sogdian men, which meant wearing kaftans and open-front jackets with long narrow sleeves, combined with tapered trousers and boots instead of shoes.
The Sogdian Whirl Dance first took root in Chinese court, but eventually trickled down to all levels of society.
It is also worth noting that many wine shops in Tang China were run by Sogdians.
Within Sogdiana, the dominating religion was Mazdaism (Zoroatrism), but there is also evidence of people practicing Hinduism (including Shaivism), Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Manichaeism.
Outside Sogdiana, it seems to have been common for Sogdians to absorb various religious and traditional practices from their neighbors and combining it with Mazdaism. Evidence suggest a high degree of syncretism, where Sogdians adopted and adapted deities from other cultures to serve their own devotional needs.
Collapse of the Sogdians´ central role for Silk Road trading
In the 7th and 8th century CE, Muslim armies moving eastward caused the collapse of the local Sogdian ruling families. Gradually, Sogdiana became Muslim and the territory came to be included in successive Muslim empires.
In China, the Sogdian-Turkic general An Lushan rebelled against the Chinese Tang emperor in the 750s, and this had a strong negative impact on the Sogdian communities that had been established within the Chinese empire. Being Sogdian became increasingly difficult, and many Sogdians assimilated into Chinese culture to avoid being seen as outsiders and enemies.