World History 1 194 - 12.3.1 Sogdiana and Silk Road Trade

East of the Sasanian Empire and west of Tang China, in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, lay the region of Sogdiana, a territory whose documented history stretches back to the fifth century BCE. Inhabited primarily by nomadic groups, Sogdiana was subject to the rule of a succession of empires and kingdoms throughout antiquity, from the Achaemenid Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Hellenistic successor kingdoms to the Kushan Empire. As a result, the region became a cultural melting pot. Indeed, under first the Seleucids and then the breakaway kingdoms of the Bactrian and Sogdian rulers, Greek learning flourished in Sogdiana, prompting later Islamic rulers to recruit scholars from the area. The Kushan Empire in central Asia was key to stabilizing the heartland that connected the eastern and western ends of the Silk Roads. After Kushan’s fall in 375 CE, the Sogdians came to control an array of vital oasis towns, including Bukhara and Samarkand (both in modern-day Uzbekistan), from which they dominated regional trade for hundreds of years.

Although Sogdiana was never unified into a single polity and was almost always ruled by larger states, its long exposure to so many different cultures produced a multilingual population of merchants and skilled craftspeople. The Sogdians were able to use these traits to dominate their portion of the Silk Roads from their city-states such as Panjikent (in Tajikistan). So effective was their control that Sogdiana became the richest country in central Asia. Archaeological excavations of the palace complex at Panjikent have revealed large and elaborate buildings with interiors bearing frescoes of armored cavalry engaged in combat, clearly showing the influence on Sogdian culture of the warrior aristocracy of the Sasanids (Figure 12.25).

An image of a wall painting is shown. The top and bottom borders are a single row of gold circles. In the image, a gold figure in a long robe and no facial features is seen atop a red horse with no features. He has a sheathed sword at this belt and he holds the reins in his left hand. Behind him is a figure with long black hair, an intricate gold headdress, jewelry, and no facial features. The figure stands behind a gold object and a blue sky shows behind all of them. Obscure objects are seen in the top left of the image.
Figure 12.25 This Sogdian fresco (wall painting) of the sixth or seventh century CE depicts a warrior on horseback. It was discovered on a wall of the palace complex at Panjikent in what is today Tajikistan. (credit: “Panjikent mural (6th-7th century CE)” by “Pendjikent”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Visit this Smithsonian site to learn more about Sogdiana and the Sogdian people, including their religious and cultural diversity, the skills of their craftspeople, and their place in the history of the Silk Roads.

Sogdiana reached the peak of its wealth and influence between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. Concentrated in a patchwork of oasis towns and city-states among larger kingdoms, the Sogdians traded frequently with Romans to the west and with nomadic peoples of the steppes and the Chinese to the east. Sogdian communities that exchanged leather and animal products for Chinese silk and manufactured goods were also found in thriving Chinese river ports like Dunhuang and Chang’an.

The Sogdians were also keen agents of cultural transmission throughout this period. As early as the fourth century, for example, Sogdian merchants and traders helped spread Buddhism beyond the borders of South Asia. By the sixth century, Sogdians had followed the Silk Roads into Europe, bringing Nestorianism, the branch of Christianity from Asia Minor and Syria that believed Jesus had two separate natures. Sogdians also brought Manichaeism, a dualistic philosophy of good versus evil that emerged in the Sasanid Empire and blended Persian Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Manichaeism was the chief competitor of Catholic Christianity in Late Antiquity until the arrival of Islam.

Sogdian traders also established alliances with some of the peoples they encountered in the west, including groups of nomadic Turks who adopted not only Manicheanism but also Sogdian, which was the language of the Silk Roads until the seventh century when it was replaced by Persian. By the eighth century, however, parts of Sogdiana including Samarkand were ruled by the expanding Islamic caliphate, which saw the potential in monopolizing the central Asian corridor of the Silk Roads. The diffusion of Muslim culture into Sogdiana prompted many Sogdian merchants and traders to convert, seeing benefits that included reliable contracts among believers to safeguard goods moving along the Silk Roads. By the middle of the century, the revolutionary Abbasid caliphs who overthrew their Umayyad predecessors had extended their Muslim empire all the way to Tang China, against whose forces they engaged in the Battle of Talas River in 751. For all its significance in ending Abbasid expansion eastward, the battle is also noteworthy in the story of Sogdiana for one unexpected reason: the response of the rebellious Tang general An Lushan.

Although An’s biological parentage is shrouded in mystery, the record suggests he was adopted by a Turkic-speaking mother and a Sogdian father and swiftly rose to prominence in the Tang army as an interpreter in the military markets along the Silk Roads. His aggressive nature endeared him to no one, but by the 730s, An had come to the attention of Emperor Xuanzong and ingratiated himself into court politics. He and the emperor became fast friends, but An’s fears about his future should the emperor die led him to rebel against the Tang state following its defeat at Talas River. An Lushan’s rebellion decided the fate of the Tang presence in central Asia, for it prompted the Tang to withdraw from the region. The story of An reminds us yet again of the interconnected nature of the premodern world.

By the end of the eighth century, much of Sogdiana was ruled by the Abbasid Caliphate, and Sogdian communities abroad gradually assimilated, as in China, for example. Still, Arab, Byzantine, Chinese, and Armenian sources refer to Sogdians as the “great traders of Inner Asia,” while caravanners’ graffiti in India and the presence of Sogdian loanwords in the Turkish vocabulary testify to the intensity and durability of their commercial interactions long after their absorption into the Islamic world.

The dual Muslim/Chinese control of the Silk Roads that began in the eighth century was shaken by the coming of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Chinggis Khan’s second son Chagatai and his descendants controlled central Asia as the Chagatai Khanate from the mid-thirteenth century onward, until the Turkic warlord Timur (Tamerlane) took over in 1363 and made his capital at Samarkand, the old Sogdian center of the Silk Roads.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax