Who were the Sogdians?

30 11 2010

The Sogdians were an Iranian people located in the region that is presently known as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They are often considered “the main actors” on the Silk Route. Sogdiana was a term used to refer to all areas in which the language Sogdian was spoken. These areas were city states ruled by a feudal system of which the city Samarkand was arguably the most important. A nomadic people whose origins were traced back to China, the Hephthalites, took over rule of Sogdiana. During the middle of the 6th century the Turks in alliance with the Sassanians defeated the Hephthalites, gaining control of Sogdiana. Although each district in Sogdiana developed relatively independently, the Sogdians supported rulers of different origins during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries as long as they were able to keep the peace along the silk route. What we know about the Sogdians has been mainly learned through texts as well as artwork such as the murals in Panjikent.

The economy of Sogdiana was at first mainly agricultural, relying on artificial irrigation from rivers. With Byzantine and Sassanian to its west, the Russian steppes and Perm to the north, Bactria and India to the south, and China to the east, Sogdiana was in a prime location for trade. Sogdian merchants travelled to upper Indus river region and from the mid 6th century had direct trade relations with Constantinople. Trade in China was established by the early 4th century. Sogdian trade and in particular caravans, were protected under Turkic rule. Before the Turks, nomadic mercenaries protected Sogdian roads and caravans. Traders from other nations such as Persia, India, Syria, and Choresmia often attached themselves to the Sogdian caravans. It is not entirely clear whether Sogdians and Sassanians worked together or in competition with each other.

Sogdian language became “the lingua franca of the silk road”. Sogdians were also fluent in most of the other languages used along the Silk Route often acting as translators, and transmitting major deas and traditions.

Sogdians founded a string of settlements in cities along the Silk Route, particularly in Gaochang, Toyok, Hami, Khotan, Gansu, Changan, Luoyang, and Yuanzhou. They were ruled by their own headman and subject to their own laws as opposed to those of the local region. The Sogdians in China were influenced by local culture, evident through their adoption of in-ground burial, which is contrary to the usual Zoroastrian funeral practice. They in turn introduced a new artistic style and imagery into China.

Sogdians were predominantly Zoroastrian but did not practice it as a state organized religion and as such individual families and communities worshipped what could be considered “non-Zoroastrian divinities”. Sogdians as a whole practiced religious freedom and did contain small communities of Christians, Buddhists and followers of Mani.

The Sogdians though not entirely united politically, completely dominated trade along the Silk Route. Not only can they be considered responsible for many trade developments that occurred along the Silk Road, but also for the cross-cultural exchanges that occurred as can be seen through their culturally autonomous settlements in China as well as their work as translators.

-The Dusty Foot Philosopher

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4 responses

8 12 2010
Vic Swift

Sogdian material is available to view on the International Dunhuang Project website including two letters found in Dunhuang: Or.8212/92.1 and Or.8212/98.

25 03 2011
The Dusty Foot Philosopher

Thanks, that’s a very interesting and helpful resource!

27 11 2012
Plov—Uzbekistan’s legendary national dish | Anita's Feast

[…] Great commissioned the first batch of plov, or at the least, ate the dish after conquering of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (modern Samarkand). It is said that soldiers from Alexander’s army […]

30 11 2012
Samarkand :: Uzbekistan « Georgina Goodwin

[…] on the trade route between China and the Mediterranean (Silk Road). Founded circa 700 BC by the Sogdians, Samarkand has been one of the main centres of Sogdian civilization from its early days and at […]

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