Sogdian merchants

The Sogdians were the inhabitants of fertile valleys surrounded by deserts, the most important of which was the Zeravshan valley, in today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The French scholar Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: This Iranian-speaking people had a fifteen-centuries-long historical identity between the sixth century B.C. and the A.D. tenth century when it vanished in the Muslim, Persian-speaking world. Although the Sogdians constructed such famous towns as Samarkand and Bukhara, they are quite unknown. Only specialists on the Silk Road know that they were among the main go-betweens of the exchanges in the steppe, in Central Asia, and in China during the first millennium CE, and especially between the fifth and the eighth centuries CE. During this period, the inland silk road and the Sogdian trading network are almost synonymous. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

Albert E. Dien wrote in a Silk Road Foundation article: 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. [Source: Albert E. Dien, Silk Road Foundation =]

The area can be divided into three parts, Sogdiana, Ferghana and Khorezm. Sogdiana was made up of the Zaravshan and Kashka Daryâ river valleys, Ferghâna is along the upper Syr Daryâ River, and Khorezm is in the delta region of the Amu Daryâ. 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. =

Ferghâna 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. =

Early Sogdian Trade

Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: The contemporary Sogdian, Chinese, Arabic, Byzantine, and Armenian sources describe the Sogdians as the great traders of Inner Asia. They managed to sell their products - musk, slaves, silverware, silk and many other goods - to all the surrounding peoples. A Greek text describes their trading embassies to Byzantium, some caravaneers’ graffiti prove that they were in India, Turkish vocabulary is a testimony to their cultural and economic power in the Turkish steppe...But their main market was always China. The Chinese branch of their network is by far the best known, and in China the number of new discoveries on the Sogdians is quickly growing. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

According to the Encyclopedia Iranica: The people of Sogdiana were the main caravan merchants of Central Asia from the 5th to the 8th century. Little is known of the origins of Sogdian trade. The first mention of Sogdian merchants is found in the Shiji (Shih Chi), written around 100 B.C. and based on reports by the earliest Chinese envoys to Central Asia: Although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men all have deepset eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent (Sima Qian, in Shiji, chap. 123, p. 3174; tr. Watson, p. 245). [Source: Encyclopedia Iranica +++]

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Sogdian merchant
Archeology bears witness only to limited regional trade in Sogdiana (turquoise from Ferghana to Samarkand), contrasting with that of the neighboring regions (Chinese imports to Ferghana). The economy appears to have been very little based on money and, rather, to have been dominated by agricultural exchange. China of the Han period sent numerous embassies with a large number of rolls of silk and other products of the empire, in order to ingratiate itself with the nomadic aristocracies (Yuezhi, Wusun, Kangju) who dominated political life in Central Asia, so as to fight against its Xiongnu enemies. The Sogdians traded with the Chinese envoys on a small scale, while in Bactria and Gandhara merchants discovered how much they would be able to benefit by developing a market for Chinese silk in India, Iran, and the Hellenized Near East. The latter decided to re-export the silk brought by the embassies and even took the road to China, pretending to be ambassadors so as to buy the silk right at its source (Han shu 96 A, p. 3885; tr. Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 109). The Sogdians were to imitate them. In 29 and 11 B.C., ambassadors from Kangju, a nomad state centered on the middle reaches of the Syr Daria but at that time including Sogdiana, presented themselves at the Chinese court pronouncing the word commerce (Han shu, chap. 96 A, p. 3893; tr. Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 128). +++

The unification of southern Central Asia and northern India within the Kushan empire during the first and third centuries of our era further reinforced the importance and prosperity of the powerful merchants from Bactria and Taxila and led to the creation of the main economic center of the Middle East. Buddhist sources show that Sogdian merchants, who were not on the main roads situated farther to the south (Ptolemy, tr. Ronca, pp. 31-36, misplaces Samarkand) emigrated as far as India, benefiting from this prosperity (biography of the monk Kang seng hui [Seng-Houei], born in the early 3rd century, tr. Chavannes, 1909, pp. 199-200; Grenet, 1996). The Sogdians were then the pupils and apprentices of the Kushan merchants. Part of the commercial Sogdian vocabulary is of Bactrian origin (Sims-Williams, 1996, pp. 50-51). +++

The Sogdian commercial network grew sufficiently to ensure that in the early 3rd century, in Gansu, the representatives of Kushan and Sogdian merchants were placed on the same level and together participated in political negotiations (Sanguo zhi, chap. 4, p. 895). However, the main proof of Sogdian commercial expansion in the direction of China is provided by a set of letters, the Sogdian Ancient Letters (tr. Sims-Williams, 2001; Grenet, Sims-Williams, and de la Vaissière, 2001). Written in 313 in the Gansu corridor, these show the presence of Sogdian merchant communities in the main cities of the region, as well as in inner China. They also show that the merchants were organized within networks. The second letter, written in Gansu, is addressed to Samarkand. The descendants of the Kushan rivals are also mentioned in this text, since the Indian (?yntkwt) and Sogdian communities of Luoyang had been decimated by famine. It is hard to tell what became of the great trade during the following century, but in 439 the Sogdian merchants were the main foreign merchants in Gansu (Wei shu, chap. 102, p. 2270; Enoki, 1955, p. 44). From the same period, in the passes of the High Indus, are found more than 600 inscriptions by Sogdian caravaneers, against only about ten Bactrian inscriptions (Sims-Williams, 1989, 1992)—a fact which gives evidence of the replacement of Bactrian merchants by Sogdians. +++

Sogdiana and the Silk Road

The Sogdians were centered in what is now northern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan (Raspopova and Shishkina, 1999). From the fifth to the eighth centuries, the Sogdians were the main caravan merchants of the Silk Road which passed through the Sogdian cities of Samarqand (their capital) and Bukhara (Vaissiere, 2004). The Sogdians also established extensive colonies in what is now western China. Their influence was so extensive that Sogdian, an east-Iranian language, was the lingua franca of Central Asia during the seventh century (Dien). The region to the south of Sogdiana, Ustashana (also called Sorushna) was also populated by Sogdian speaking people (Negmatov, 1999). Its capital, Bunjikat, was near present day Istravshan in northwest Tajikistan (Bosworth, 2005). The dialect of Sogdian spoken in Ustrashana in the eighth century has been identified through lexical and phonological similarities as the language from which modern Yagnob has descended (See Below).[Source: Bahrom in History, October 15, 2007]

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8th century Sogdian silk
Albert E. Dien wrote in a Silk Road Foundation article: Sogdiana was more actively involved with the Silk Road. The names of its major cities, Samarkand and Bukhârâ, 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. [Source: Albert E. Dien, Silk Road Foundation =]

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 Khurâsân, 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 'Abbâsids, 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. =

Yaghnobi People: Descendants of the Sogdians?

Yanob was once the lingua franca of trade on the Silk Road. It is now only spoken by a small group of people: the Yaghnobi, who have inhabited the high mountain valley of Yaghnob in west-central Tajikistan. These people are regarded by some as the descendants of the Sogdians, who continued to thrive until the Arab conquests of Central Asia the A.D. eighth century. for centuries, have been identified as descendants of the ancient Sogdians.

After the Sogdians were defeated by Arab invaders at the battle of Mount Mugh in A.D. 722 many of them fled Arab domination to live in the high mountain valleys (Whitfeld, 2005). According to Belyakov (2003) the village of Pskon in the Yaghnob valley became a de facto capital for the Sogdian refugees. It appears that the Sogdian refugees remained fairly isolated from outside authority and influence, although significant numbers were subject to forced conversion to Islam. Eventually all of the Yaghnobi adopted Islam, but they also retained Zoroastrian beliefs which continue to be a part of their religious practice (Gunya, 2002). [Source: Bahrom in History, October 15, 2007]

Alp Arslan on the throne in Herat

In the 17th century a significant number of Yaghnobis migrated to the Varzob valley (Bielmeier, 2006) which is mainly populated by Tajiks and closer to the lowland population centers. A sizable Yaghnobi population remain there in half a dozen villages today. The Yaghnobis’ land came under control of the tsar in 1870, but Russian authority was mainly in name only. Aside from tax collection, from which the Yaghnobis were exempted in 1895, there was little control exercised by the Russians and the Yaghnobi remained isolated by the high mountains surrounding their homeland. The first scientific records of the Yaghnobi language were made in 1870 by the Russian scholar Alexander L. Kuhn and his Tajik companion and interpreter Mirza Mulla Abdurrakhman from Samarkand.

In the 1920, the Bolsheviks took control of Russian Turkestan, but because of the rugged terrain surrounding the Yaghnob valley they exercised no real control until 1930 when the first soviet was established in the village of Naumetkan in Yaghnob. In 1929, the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was created. The Yaghnob valley was in the territory of the Tajik SSR and is about sixty miles from Dushanbe which was designated the capital of the Tajik SSR. With the Soviet political apparatus developing at closer proximity to the Yaghnob valley, further attempts were made to sovietize the Yaghnobi, including the establishment of two largely unsuccessful collective farms in the 1930s (Gunya, 2002). In spite of the increasing Soviet control over the Tajik SSR, the Yaghnobi continued to remain relatively isolated and autonomous because of the absence of roads through the high passes into the Yaghnob valley.

During 1970 and 1971 the Soviet authorities forcibly deported the entire population of the Yaghnob valley to the cotton plantations in the area of Zafarbod on the northwest border between the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs. The deportation was both politically and economically motivated. The fact that the Yaghnobis’ remote location had allowed them to effectively resist Soviet authority, coupled with the pressing economic need for laborers in the cotton fields motivated the government to force the Yaghnobi people from their mountain homes at gunpoint and fly them by helicopter to grow cotton in irrigated desert land (Donovan, 2007). The population of the Yaghnob valley at that time numbered between three and four thousand. Due to the harsh desert climate with temperatures over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, inadequate housing, lack of sanitary drinking water, and exposure to tuberculosis, between 400 and 700 Yaghnobis died during their first year in Zafarabod (Loy, 2005). During the first few years some of the Yaghnobi fled back to the Yaghnob valley only to be deported again.

In 1990, the Dushanbe based Council of Ministers passed a resolution to reestablish all villages from which people had been deported. Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991. Since independence, the government of Tajikistan has promoted national awareness of the country’s Sogdian heritage as part of an effort to construct a new national identity. Although the Yaghnobi are now permitted to return to live in the Yaghnob valley, only about three hundred have done so since all of the homes had been destroyed and the valley is completely lacking any kind of infrastructure or economic base. About 6,500 Yaghnobis remain in Zafarabod, the largest Yaghnobi population center. In spite of the suffering and hardship they have experienced they have retained much of their culture and continue to speak Yaghnobi as their first language.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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