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Sogdiana, c. 300 BC, then under the Seleucid Empire, a diadochi successor state to the empire created by Alexander the Great
|Religions||Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity|
|Capitals||Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Kesh|
|Area||Between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya|
|Existed||6th century BC to 11th century AD|
Part of a series on the
|History of Tajikistan|
Sogdia (/, /; Old Persian: Suguda-, صُتْ, Middle Persian: sugd, New Persian: سُغْد, soghd) or Sogdiana (/, /) was the ancient Indo-European civilization of an Iranian people that at different times included territory located in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan such as: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khujand, Panjikent and Shahrisabz. Sogdiana was also a province of the Achaemenid Empire, eighteenth in the list on the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great (i. 16). In the Avesta, Sogdiana is listed as the second best land that the supreme deity Ahura Mazda had created. It comes second, after Airyanem Vaejah, "homeland of the Aryans", in the Zoroastrian book of Vendidad, indicating the importance of this region from ancient times. Sogdiana was conquered by the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great in 328 BC and later formed part of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and Sasanian Empire.
The Sogdian states, although never politically united, were centred on the main city of Samarkand. Sogdiana lay north of Bactria, east of Khwarezm, and southeast of Kangju between the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya), embracing the fertile valley of the Zeravshan (ancient Polytimetus). Sogdian territory corresponds to the modern provinces of Samarkand and Bokhara in modern Uzbekistan as well as the Sughd province of modern Tajikistan. During the High Middle Ages, Sogdian cities included sites stretching towards Issyk Kul such as that at the archeological site of Suyab. Sogdian, an Eastern Iranian language, is no longer a spoken language, but its direct descendant, Yaghnobi, is still spoken by the Yaghnobis of Tajikistan. It was widely spoken in Central Asia as a lingua franca and even served as one of the Turkic Khaganate's court languages for writing documents.
Sogdians also lived in Imperial China and rose to special prominence in the military and government of the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). Sogdian merchants and diplomats traveled as far west as the Byzantine Empire. They played an important part as middlemen in the trade route of the Silk Road. While originally following the faiths of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism from Persia, Buddhism from India, and Nestorian Christianity from West Asia, the gradual conversion to Islam among the Sogdians and their descendants began with the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana in the 8th century. The Sogdian conversion to Islam was virtually complete by the end of the Samanid Empire in 999, coinciding with the decline of the Sogdian language, as it was largely supplanted by Persian as well as Turkic languages.
Oswald Szemerényi devotes a thorough discussion to the etymologies of ancient ethnic words for the Scythians in his work Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: Scythian – Skudra – Sogdian – Saka. In it, the names provided by the Greek historian Herodotus and the names of his title, except Saka, as well as many other words for "Scythian," such as Assyrian Aškuz and Greek Skuthēs, descend from *skeud-, an ancient Indo-European root meaning "propel, shoot" (cf. English shoot). *skud- is the zero-grade; that is, a variant in which the -e- is not present. The restored Scythian name is *Skuda (archer), which among the Pontic or Royal Scythians became *Skula, in which the d has been regularly replaced by an l. According to Szemerényi, Sogdiana (Old Persian: Suguda-, صُتْ; Persian: سغد Soġd; Tajik: Суғд, سغد Suġd; Chinese: 粟特 Mandarin sùtè; Ancient Greek: Σογδιανή) was named from the Skuda form. Starting from the names of the province given in Old Persian inscriptions, Sugda and Suguda, and the knowledge derived from Middle Sogdian that Old Persian -gd- applied to Sogdian was pronounced as voiced fricatives, -γδ-, Szemerényi arrives at *Suγδa as an Old Sogdian endonym. Applying sound changes apparent in other Sogdian words and inherent in Indo-European he traces the development of *Suγδa from Skuda, "archer," as follows: Skuda > *Sukuda by anaptyxis > *Sukuδa > *Sukδa (syncope) > *Suγδa (assimilation).
Centuries before the conquest of Sogdiana by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, Sogdiana possessed a Bronze Age urban culture that was gradually displaced by the Indo-European migrations of the Iron Age. This large-scale migration included Eastern Iranian speaking peoples such as the Sogdians. The original Bronze Age towns appear in the archaeological record beginning with the settlement at Sarazm, Tajikistan, spanning as far back as the 4th millennium BC and then at Kök Tepe, near modern-day Bulungur, Uzbekistan, from at least the 15th century BC.
Achaemenid ruler Cyrus the Great conquered Sogdiana while campaigning in Central Asia in 546–539 BC, a fact mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories. Darius I introduced the Aramaic writing system and coin currency to Central Asia, in addition to incorporating Sogdians into his standing army as regular soldiers and cavalrymen. A contingent of Sogdian soldiers fought in the main army of Xerxes I during his ultimately failed invasion of Greece in 480 BC. A Persian inscription from Susa claims that the palace there was adorned with lapis lazuli and carnelian originating from Sogdiana.
Given the absence of any named satraps (i.e. Achaemenid provincial governors) for Sogdiana in historical records, modern scholarship has concluded that Sogdiana was governed from the satrapy of nearby Bactria. The satraps were often relatives of the ruling Persian kings, especially sons who were not designated as the heir apparent. Sogdiana likely remained under Persian control until roughly 400 BC, during the reign of Artaxerxes II. Rebellious states of the Persian Empire took advantage of the weak Artaxerxes II, and some, such as Egypt, were able to regain their independence. Persia's massive loss of Central Asian territory is widely attributed to the ruler's lack of control. However, unlike Egypt, which was quickly recaptured by the Persian Empire, Sogdiana remained independent until it was conquered by Alexander the Great. When the latter invaded the Persian Empire, Pharasmanes, an already independent king of Khwarezm, allied with the Macedonians and sent troops to Alexander in 329 BC for his war against the Scythians of the Black Sea region (even though this anticipated campaign never materialized).
During the Achaemenid period (550–330 BC), the Sogdians lived as a nomadic people much like the neighboring Yuezhi, who spoke Bactrian, an Indo-Iranian language closely related to Sogdian, and were already engaging in overland trade. Some of them had also gradually settled the land to engage in agriculture. Similar to how the Yuezhi offered tributary gifts of jade to the emperors of China, the Sogdians are recorded in Persian records as submitting precious gifts of lapis lazuli and carnelian to Darius I, the Persian king of kings. Although the Sogdians were at times independent and living outside the boundaries of large empires, they never formed a great empire of their own like the Yuezhi, who established the Kushan Empire (30–375 AD) of Central and South Asia.
A now independent and warlike Sogdiana, led at first by Bessus, the Achaemenid satrap of Bactria and claimant to the throne after assassinating Darius III in his flight from the Macedonian Greek army, formed a border region insulating the Achaemenid Persians from the nomadic Scythians to the north and east. The Sogdian Rock or Rock of Ariamazes, a fortress in Sogdiana, was captured in 327 BC by the forces of Alexander the Great, the basileus of Macedonian Greece and conqueror of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Oxyartes, a Sogdian nobleman of Bactria, had hoped to keep his daughter Roxana safe at the fortress of the Sogdian Rock, yet after its fall Roxana was soon wed to Alexander as one of his several wives. Roxana, a Sogdian whose name Roshanak means "little star", was the mother of Alexander IV of Macedon, who inherited his late father's throne in 323 BC (although the empire was soon divided in the Wars of the Diadochi).
After an extended campaign putting down Sogdian resistance and founding military outposts manned by his Macedonian veterans, Alexander united Sogdiana with Bactria into one satrapy. The Sogdian nobleman and warlord Spitamenes (370–328 BC), allied with Scythian tribes, led an uprising against Alexander's forces. This revolt was put down by Alexander and his generals Amyntas, Craterus, and Coenus, with the aid of native Bactrian and Sogdian troops. With the Scythian and Sogdian rebels defeated, Spitamenes was allegedly betrayed by his own wife and beheaded. Pursuant with his own marriage to Roxana, Alexander encouraged his men to marry Sogdian women in order to discourage further revolt. This included Apama, daughter of the rebel Spitamenes, who wed Seleucus I Nicator and bore him a son and future heir to the Seleucid throne. According to the Roman historian Appian, Seleucus I named three new Hellenistic cities in Asia after her (see Apamea).
The military power of the Sogdians never recovered. Subsequently, Sogdiana formed part of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, a breakaway state from the Seleucid Empire founded in 248 BC by Diodotus I, for roughly a century. Euthydemus I, a former satrap of Sogdiana, seems to have held the Sogdian territory as a rival claimant to the Greco-Bactrian throne; his coins were later copied locally and bore Aramaic inscriptions. The Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides I may have recovered sovereignty of Sogdia temporarily. Finally the area was occupied by nomads when the Scythians and Yuezhis overran it around 145 BC. From then until about 40 BC the Yuezhi tepidly minted coins imitating and still bearing the images of the Greco-Bactrian kings Eucratides I and Heliocles I, yet soon afterwards they began minting unique coins bearing the faces of their own rulers as a prelude to asserting themselves as a world power under the Kushan Empire.
The American historian Homer H. Dubs offered the suggestion that a lost legion from the Roman army of Crassus that fought at Carrhae encountered and even fought a Chinese army of the Han Dynasty in the region:
... [In 36 BC a] Han expedition into central Asia, west of the Jaxartes River, apparently encountered and defeated a contingent of Roman legionaries. The Romans may have been the enslaved remnants of Crassus' army, defeated by the Parthians and forced to fight on their eastern frontier. Sogdiana (modern Bukhara), east of the Oxus River, on the Polytimetus River, was apparently the most easterly penetration ever made by Roman forces in Asia. The margin of Chinese victory appears to have been their crossbows, whose bolts and darts seem easily to have penetrated Roman shields and armour.
Most merchants did not travel the entire Silk Road but would trade goods through middlemen based in oasis towns such as Khotan or Dunhuang. The Sogdians, however, established a trading network across the 1500 miles from Sogdiana to China. In fact, the Sogdians turned their energies to trade so thoroughly that the Saka of the Kingdom of Khotan called all merchants suli, "Sogdian", whatever their culture or ethnicity. Sogdian contacts with China were initiated by the embassy of the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC) of the former Han dynasty. Zhang wrote a report of his visit to the Western Regions in Central Asia and named the area of Sogdiana as "Kangju".
Following Zhang Qian's embassy and report, commercial Chinese relations with Central Asia and Sogdiana flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BC. In his Shiji published in 94 BC, Chinese historian Sima Qian remarked that "the largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members ... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." In terms of the silk trade, the Sogdians also served as the primary middlemen between the Chinese Han Empire and the Parthian Empire of the Middle East and West Asia. Sogdians played a major role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia along the Silk Roads as late as the 10th century, their language serving as a lingua franca for Asian trade as far back as the 4th century.
Subsequent to their domination by Alexander the Great, the Sogdians from the city of Marakanda (Samarkand) became dominant as traveling merchants, occupying a key position along the ancient Silk Road. They played an active role in the spread of faiths such as Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism along the Silk Road. The Chinese Sui Shu (Book of Sui) describes Sogdians as "skilled merchants" who attracted many foreign traders to their land to engage in commerce. They were described by the Chinese as born merchants, learning their commercial skills at an early age. It appears from sources, such as documents found by Sir Aurel Stein and others, that by the 4th century they may have monopolized trade between India and China. A letter written by Sogdian merchants dated 313 AD and found in the ruins of a watchtower in Gansu was intended to be sent to merchants in Samarkand, warning them that after Liu Cong of Han Zhao sacked Luoyang and the Jin emperor fled the capital, there was no worthwhile business there for Indian and Sogdian merchants. Furthermore, in 568 AD a Turko-Sogdian delegation travelled to the Roman emperor in Constantinople to obtain permission to trade and in the following years commercial activity between the states flourished. Put simply, the Sogdians dominated trade along the Silk Road from the 2nd century BC until the 10th century.
Suyab and Talas in modern-day Kyrgyzstan were the main Sogdian centers in the north that dominated the caravan routes of the 6th to 8th centuries. Their commercial interests were protected by the resurgent military power of the Göktürks, whose empire was built on the political power of the Ashina clan and economic clout of the Sogdians. Sogdian trade, with some interruptions, continued into the 9th century. In the 10th century Sogdiana was incorporated into the Uighur Empire, which until 840 encompassed northern Central Asia. This khaganate obtained enormous deliveries of silk from Tang China in exchange for horses, in turn relying on the Sogdians to sell much of this silk further west. Peter B. Golden writes that the Uyghurs not only adopted the writing system and religious faiths of the Sogdians, such as Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Christianity, but also looked to the Sogdians as "mentors" while gradually replacing them in their roles as Silk Road traders and purveyors of culture. Muslim geographers of the 10th century drew upon Sogdian records dating to 750–840. After the end of the Uyghur Empire, Sogdian trade underwent a crisis. Following the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana in the 8th century, the Samanids resumed trade on the northwestern road leading to the Khazars and the Urals and the northeastern one toward the nearby Turkic tribes.
During the 5th and 6th century many Sogdians took up residence in the Hexi Corridor where they retained autonomy in terms of governance and had a designated official administrator known as a sabao, which suggests their importance to the socioeconomic structure of China. The Sogdian influence on trade in China is also made apparent by a Chinese document which lists taxes paid on caravan trade in the Turpan region and shows that twenty-nine out of the thirty-five commercial transactions involved Sogdian merchants, and in thirteen of those cases both the buyer and the seller were Sogdian. Trade goods brought to China included grapes, alfalfa, and Sassanian silverware, as well as glass containers, Mediterranean coral, brass Buddhist images, Roman wool cloth, and Baltic amber. These were exchanged for Chinese paper, copper, and silk. In the 7th century the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang noted with approval that Sogdian boys were taught to read and write at the age of five, though their skill was turned to trade, disappointing the scholarly Xuanzang. He also recorded the Sogdians working in other capacities such as farmers, carpetweavers, glassmakers, and woodcarvers.
Historical knowledge about Sogdia is somewhat hazy during the period of the Parthian Empire (247 BC - 224 AD) in Persia. The subsequent Sasanian Empire of Persia conquered and incorporated Sogdia as a satrapy in 260, an inscription dating to the reign of Shapur I noting that its limits formed the northeastern Sasanian borderlands with the Kushan Empire. However, by the 5th century the region was captured by the rival Hephthalite Empire.
Shortly after the smuggling of silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire from China by Nestorian Christian monks, the 6th-century Byzantine historian Menander Protector writes of how the Sogdians attempted to establish a direct trade of Chinese silk with the Byzantine Empire. After forming an alliance with the Sasanian ruler Khosrow I to defeat the Hephthalite Empire, Istämi, the Göktürk ruler of the Turkic Khaganate, was approached by Sogdian merchants requesting permission to seek an audience with the Sassanid king of kings for the privilege of traveling through Persian territories in order to trade with the Byzantines. Istämi refused the first request, but when he sanctioned the second one and had the Sogdian embassy sent to the Sassanid king, the latter had the members of the embassy poisoned. Maniah, a Sogdian diplomat, convinced Istämi to send an embassy directly to Byzantium's capital Constantinople, which arrived in 568 and offered not only silk as a gift to Byzantine ruler Justin II, but also proposed an alliance against Sassanid Persia. Justin II agreed and sent an embassy to the Turkic Khaganate, ensuring the direct silk trade desired by the Sogdians.
It appears, however, that direct trade with the Sogdians remained limited in light of the small amount of Roman and Byzantine coins found in Central Asian and Chinese archaeological sites belonging to this era. Although Roman embassies apparently reached Han China from 166 AD onwards, and the ancient Romans imported Han Chinese silk while the Han-dynasty Chinese imported Roman glasswares as discovered in their tombs, Valerie Hansen (2012) wrote that no Roman coins from the Roman Republic (507–27 BC) or the Principate (27 BC - 330 AD) era of the Roman Empire have been found in China. However, Warwick Ball (2016) upends this notion by pointing to a hoard of sixteen Roman coins found at Xi'an, China (formerly Chang'an), dated to the reigns of various emperors from Tiberius (14–37 AD) to Aurelian (270–275 AD). The earliest gold solidus coins from the Eastern Roman Empire found in China date to the reign of Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) and altogether only forty-eight of them have been found (compared to thirteen-hundred silver coins) in Xinjiang and the rest of China. The use of silver coins in Turfan persisted long after the Tang campaign against Karakhoja and Chinese conquest of 640, with a gradual adoption of Chinese bronze coinage over the course of the 7th century. The fact that these Eastern Roman coins were almost always found with Sasanian Persian silver coins and Eastern Roman gold coins were used more as ceremonial objects like talismans confirms the pre-eminent importance of Greater Iran in Chinese Silk Road commerce of Central Asia compared to Eastern Rome.
Aside from the Sogdians of Central Asia who acted as middlemen in the Silk Road trade, other Sogdians settled down in China for generations. Although many Sogdians had fled Luoyang following the collapse of the Jin Dynasty's control over northern China in 311 AD, some Sogdians continued living in Gansu. Sogdian families living in Gansu created funerary epitaphs explaining the history of their illustrious houses. For instance, a sabao (萨保, from Sanskrit sarthavaha, meaning caravan leader) from Anxi (wester Sogdiana or Parthia) who lived in Jiuquan during the Northern Wei (386 - 535 AD), was the ancestor of An Tugen, a man who rose from a common merchant to become a top ranking minister of state for the Northern Qi (550 - 577 AD). Valerie Hansen asserts that around this time and extending into the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), the Sogdians "became the most influential of the non-Chinese groups resident in China," settling throughout Chinese territory, marrying Chinese women, purchasing land, with newcomers living there permanently instead of returning to their homelands in Sogdiana. They were concentrated in large numbers around Luoyang and Chang'an, but also Xiangyang in Hubei, building Zoroastrian temples to service their communities once they reached the threshold of roughly 100 households. From the Northern Qi to Tang periods, the leaders of these communities, the sabao, were incorporated into the official hierarchy of state officials. Their burial practices blended both Chinese forms such as carved funerary beds with Zoroastrian sensibilities in mind, such as separating the body from both the earth and water.
In addition to being merchants, monks, and government officials, Sogdians also served as soldiers in the Tang military. An Lushan, whose father was Sogdian and mother a Gokturk, rose to the position of a military governor (jiedushi) in the northeast before leading the An Lushan Rebellion (755 - 763 AD), which split the loyalties of the Sogdians in China. The An Lushan rebellion was supported by many Sogdians, and in its aftermath many of them were slain or changed their names to escape their Sogdian heritage, so that little is known about the Sogdian presence in North China since that time. Sogdians continued as active traders in China following the defeat of the rebellion, but many of them were compelled to hide their ethnic identity. A prominent case was An Chongzhang, Minister of War, and Duke of Liang who, in 756, asked Emperor Suzong of Tang to allow him to change his name to Li Baoyu because of his shame in sharing the same surname with the rebel leader. This change of surnames was enacted retroactively for all of his family members, so that his ancestors would also be bestowed the surname Li.
During the Tang and subsequent Five Dynasties and Song Dynasty, a large community of Sogdians also existed in the multicultural entrepôt of Dunhuang, Gansu, a major center of Buddhist learning and home to the Buddhist Mogao Caves. Although Dunhuang and the Hexi Corridor were captured by the Tibetan Empire after the An Lushan Rebellion, in 848 the ethnic Han Chinese general Zhang Yichao (799–872) managed to wrestle control of the region from the Tibetans during their civil war, establishing the Guiyi Circuit under Emperor Xuānzong of Tang (r. 846–859). Although the region occasionally fell under the rule of different states, it retained its multilingual nature as evidenced by an abundance of manuscripts (religious and secular) in Chinese and Tibetan, but also Sogdian, Khotanese (another Eastern Iranian language native to the region), Uyghur, and Sanskrit.
From the Chinese surnames listed in the Tang-era Dunhuang manuscript Pelliot chinois 3319V (containing the following text: 石定信右全石丑子石定奴福延福全保昌張丑子李千子李定信), the names of the Nine Zhaowu Clans (or the "nine jeweled surnames" 昭武九姓), the prominent ethnic Sogdian families of China, have been deduced. Of these the most common Sogdian surname throughout China was Shi (石, generally given to those from Chach, modern Tashkent), whereas the surnames Shi (史, from Kesh, modern Shahrisabz), An (安, from Bukhara), Mi (米, from Panjakent), Kang (康, from Samarkand), Cao (曹, from Kabudhan, north of the Zeravshan River), and He (何, from Kushaniyah) appear frequently in Dunhuang manuscripts and registers. The influence of Sinicized and multilingual Sogdians during this Guiyijun (歸義軍) period (c. 850 - c. 1000 AD) of Dunhuang is evident in a large number of manuscripts written in Chinese characters from left to right instead of vertically, mirroring the direction of how the Sogdian alphabet is read. Sogdians of Dunhuang also commonly formed and joined lay associations among their local communities, convening at Sogdian-owned taverns in scheduled meetings mentioned in their epistolary letters. Sogdians living in Turfan under the Tang dynasty and Gaochang Kingdom engaged in a variety of occupations that included: farming, military service, painting, leather crafting and selling products such as iron goods. The Sogdians had been migrating to Turfan since the 4th century, yet the pace of migration began to climb steadily with the Muslim conquest of Persia and Fall of the Sasanian Empire in 651, followed by the Islamic conquest of Samarkand in 712.
Qutayba ibn Muslim (669–716), Governor of Greater Khorasan under the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), initiated the Muslim conquest of Sogdia during the early 8th century, with the local ruler of Balkh offering him aid as an Umayyad ally. However, when his successor Al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah governed Khorosan (717–719), many native Sogdians, who had converted to Islam, began to revolt when they were no longer exempt from paying the tax on non-Muslims, the jizya, because of a new law stating that proof of circumcision and literacy in the Quran was necessary for new converts. With the aid of Turkic peoples, the Sogdians were able to expel the Umayyad Arab garrison from Samarkand and Umayyad attempts to restore power there were rebuffed until the arrival of Sa'id ibn Amr al-Harashi (fl. 720–735). The Sogdian ruler (i.e. ikhshid) of Samarkand, Gurak, who had previously overthrown the pro-Umayyad Sogdian ruler Tarkhun in 710, decided that resistance against al-Harashi's large Arab force was pointless and thereafter persuaded his followers to declare allegiance to the Umayyad governor. Divashtich (r. 706–722), the Sogdian ruler of Panjakent, led his forces to the Zarafshan Range (near modern Zarafshan, Tajikistan), whereas the Sogdians following Karzanj, the ruler of Pai (modern Kattakurgan, Uzbekistan), fled to the Principality of Farghana, where their ruler at-Tar (or Alutar) promised them safety and refuge from the Umayyads. However, at-Tar secretly informed al-Harashi of the Sogdians hiding in Khujand, who were then slaughtered by al-Harashi's forces after their arrival.
The Umayyads fell in 750 to the Abbasid Caliphate, which quickly asserted itself in Central Asia after winning the Battle of Talas (along the Talas River in modern Talas Oblast, Kyrgyzstan) in 751 against the Chinese Tang Dynasty. This conflict incidentally introduced Chinese papermaking to the Islamic world. The cultural consequences and political ramifications of this battle meant the retreat of the Chinese empire from Central Asia. It also allowed for the rise of the Samanid Empire (819–999), a Persian state centered at Bukhara (in what is now modern Uzbekistan) that nominally observed the Abbasids as their overlords, yet retained a great deal of autonomy and upheld the mercantile legacy of the Sogdians. Yet the Sogdian language gradually declined in favor of the Persian language of the Samanids (the ancestor to the modern Tajik language), the spoken language of renowned poets and intellectuals of the age such as Ferdowsi (940–1020). So too did the original religions of the Sogdians decline; Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity disappeared in the region by the end of the Samanid period. The Samanids were also responsible for converting the surrounding Turkic peoples to Islam, which presaged the conquest of their empire in 999 by an Islamic Turkic power, the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840–1212).
During the early 13th century Khwarezmia was invaded by the early Mongol Empire and its ruler Genghis Khan destroyed the once vibrant cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. However, in 1370 the latter saw a revival as the capital of the Timurid Empire. The Turko-Mongol ruler Timur forcefully brought artisans and intellectuals from across Asia to Samarkand, transforming it not only into a trade hub but also one of the most important cities of the Islamic world.
The 6th century is thought to be the peak of Sogdian culture, judging by its highly developed artistic tradition. By this point, the Sogdians were entrenched in their role as the central Asian traveling and trading merchants, transferring goods, culture and religion. During the Middle Ages, the valley of the Zarafshan around Samarkand retained its Sogdian name, Samarkand. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, medieval Arab geographers considered it one of the four fairest regions of the world. Where the Sogdians moved in considerable numbers, their language made a considerable impact. For instance, during China's Han dynasty, the native name of the Tarim Basin city-state of Loulan was "Kroraina," possibly from Greek due to nearby Hellenistic influence. However, centuries later in 664 AD the Tang Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang labelled it as "Nafupo" (納縛溥), which according to Dr. Hisao Matsuda is a transliteration of the Sogdian word Navapa meaning "new water."
The Afrasiab paintings of the 6th to 7th centuries in Samarkand, Uzbekistan offer a rare surviving example of Sogdian art. The paintings, showing scenes of daily life and events such as the arrival of foreign ambassadors, are located within the ruins of aristocratic homes. It is unclear if any of these palatial residences served as the official palace of the rulers of Samarkand. The oldest surviving Sogdian monumental wall murals date to the 5th century and are located at Panjakent, Tajikistan. In addition to revealing aspects of their social and political lives, Sogdian art has also been instrumental in aiding historians' understanding of their religious beliefs. For instance, it is clear that Buddhist Sogdians incorporated some of their own Persian deities into their version of the Buddhist Pantheon. At Zhetysu, Sogdian gilded bronze plaques on a Buddhist temple show a pairing of a male and female deity with outstretched hands holding a miniature camel, a common non-Buddhist image similarly found in the paintings of Samarkand and Panjakent.
The Sogdians spoke an Eastern Iranian language called Sogdian, closely related to Bactrian, Khwarazmian, and the Khotanese language Saka, widely spoken Eastern Iranian languages of Central Asia in ancient times. Sogdian was also prominent in the oasis city-state of Turfan in the Tarim Basin region of Northwest China (in modern Xinjiang). Judging by the Sogdian Bugut inscription of Mongolia written c. 581, the Sogdian language was also an official language of the Turkic Khaganate established by the Gokturks.
Sogdian was written largely in three scripts: the Sogdian alphabet, the Syriac alphabet, and the Manichaean alphabet, each derived from the Aramaic alphabet, which had been widely used in both the Achaemenid and Parthian empires of ancient Persia. The Sogdian alphabet formed the basis of the Old Uyghur alphabet of the 8th century, which in turn was used to create the Mongolian script of the early Mongol Empire during the 13th century.
The Yaghnobi people living in the Sughd province of Tajikistan still speak a dialect of the Sogdian language. Yaghnobi is largely a continuation of the medieval Sogdian dialect from the Osrushana region of the western Fergana Valley. The great majority of the Sogdian people assimilated with other local groups such as the Bactrians, Chorasmians, and in particular with Persians and came to speak Persian. In 819 the Persians founded the Samanid Empire in the region. They are among the ancestors of the modern Tajiks. Numerous Sogdian cognates can be found in the modern Tajik language, although the latter is a Western Iranian language.
Early medieval Sogdian costumes can be divided in two periods: Hephtalitic (5th and 6th centuries) and Turkic (7th and early 8th centuries). The latter did not become common immediately after the political dominance of the Gökturks but only in c. 620 when, especially following Western Turkic Khagan Ton-jazbgu's reforms, Sogd was Turkized and the local nobility was officially included in the Khaganate's administration.
For both sexes clothes were tight-fitted, and narrow waists and wrists were appreciated. The silhouettes for grown men and young girls emphasized wide shoulders and narrowed to the waist; the silhouettes for female aristocrats were more complicated. The Sogdian clothing underwent a thorough process of Islamization in the ensuing centuries, with few of the original elements remaining. In their stead, turbans, kaftans, and sleeved coats became more common.
The Sogdians practiced a variety of religious faiths. However, Zoroastrianism was most likely their main religion as demonstrated by material evidence. For instance, the discovery of murals depicting votaries making offers before fire-holders and ossuaries from Samarkand, Panjakent and Er-Kurgan held the bones of the dead in accordance with Zoroastrian ritual. At Turfan, Sogdian burials shared similar features with traditional Chinese practices, yet they still retained essential Zoroastrian rituals, such as allowing the bodies to be picked clean by scavengers before burying the bones in ossuaries. They also sacrificed animals to Zoroastrian deities, including the supreme deity Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism remained the dominant religion among Sogdians until after the Islamic conquest, when they gradually converted to Islam, as is shown by Richard Bulliet's "conversion curve".
The Sogdian religious texts found in China and dating to the Northern Dynasties, Sui, and Tang are mostly Buddhist (translated from Chinese sources), Manichaean and Nestorian Christian, with only a small minority of Zoroastrian texts. But tombs of Sogdian merchants in China dated to the last third of the 6th century show predominantly Zoroastrian motifs or Zoroastrian-Manichaean syncretism, while archaeological remains from Sogdiana appear fairly Iranian and conservatively Zoroastrian.
However, the Sogdians epitomized the religious plurality found along the trade routes. The largest body of Sogdian texts are Buddhist, and Sogdians were among the principal translators of Buddhist sutras into Chinese. However, Buddhism did not take root in Sogdiana itself. Additionally, the Bulayiq monastery to the north of Turpan contained Sogdian Christian texts and there are numerous Manichaean texts in Sogdiana from nearby Qocho. The reconversion of Sogdians from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism coincided with the adoption of Zoroastrianism by the Sassanid Empire of Persia. From the 4th century onwards, Sogdian Buddhist pilgrims left behind evidence of their travels along the steep cliffs of the Indus River and Hunza Valley. It was here that they carved images of the Buddha and holy stupas in addition to their full names, in hopes that the Buddha would grant them his protection.
The Sogdians also practiced the faith of Mani, Manichaeism, a faith that they spread to the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Khaganate (744–840 AD) developed close ties to Tang China once they aided the Tang in suppressing the rebellion of An Lushan and his Göktürk successor Shi Siming, establishing an annual trade relationship of one million bolts of Chinese silk for one hundred thousand horses. The Uyghurs relied on Sogdian merchants to sell much of this silk further west along the Silk Road, a symbiotic relationship that led many Uyghurs to adopt Manichaeism from the Sogdians. However, evidence of Manichaean liturgical and canonical texts of Sogdian origin remains fragmentary and sparse compared to their corpus of Buddhist writings. The Uyghurs were also followers of Buddhism. For instance, they can be seen wearing silk robes in the praṇidhi scenes of the Uyghur Bezeklik Buddhist murals of Xinjiang, China, particularly Scene 6 from Temple 9 showing Sogdian donors to the Buddha.
In addition to Puranic cults, there were five Hindu deities known to have been worshipped in Sogdiana. These were Brahma, Indra, Mahadeva (Shiva), Narayana, and Vaishravana; the gods Brahma, Indra, and Shiva were known by their Sogdian names Zravan, Adbad and Veshparkar, respectively. Durga, a mother goddess in Shaktism, may be represented in Sogdian art as a four-armed goddess riding atop a lion. As seen in an 8th-century mural from Panjakent, portable fire altars can be "associated" with Mahadeva-Veshparkar, Brahma-Zravan, and Indra-Abdab, according to Braja Bihārī Kumar.
When visiting Yuan-era Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, China during the late 13th century, the Venetian explorer and merchant Marco Polo noted that a large number of Christian churches had been built there. His claim is confirmed by a Chinese text of the 14th century explaining how a Sogdian named Mar-Sargis from Samarkand founded six Nestorian Christian churches there in addition to one in Hangzhou during the second half of the 13th century. Nestorian Christianity had existed in China earlier during the Tang Dynasty when a Persian monk named Alopen came to Chang'an in 653 to proselytize, as described in a dual Chinese and Syriac language inscription from Chang'an (modern Xi'an) dated to the year 781. Within the Syriac inscription is a list of priests and monks, one of whom is named Gabriel, the archdeacon of "Xumdan" and "Sarag", the Sogdian names for the Chinese capital cities Chang'an and Luoyang, respectively. In regards to textual material, the earliest Christian gospel texts translated (in fragments) from Syriac into Sogdian coincide with the reign of the Sasanian Persian monarch Yazdegerd II (r. 438–457) and were translated from the Peshitta, the standard version of the Bible in Syriac Christianity.
Slavery existed in China since ancient times, although during the Han dynasty the proportion of slaves to the overall population was roughly 1%, far lower than the estimate for the contemporary Greco-Roman world (estimated at about 15% of the entire population). During the Tang period slaves were not allowed to marry a commoner's daughter, were not allowed to have sexual relations with any female member of their master's family, and although fornication with female slaves was forbidden in the Tang code of law it was widely practiced. Manumission was also permitted when a slave woman gave birth to her master's son, which allowed for her elevation to the legal status of a commoner, yet she could only live as a concubine and not as the wife of her former master.
Sogdian and Chinese merchants regularly traded in slaves in and around Turpan during the Tang dynasty. In 639 a female Sogdian slave was sold to a Chinese man as recorded in an Astana cemetery legal document written in Sogdian. Khotan and Kucha were places where women were commonly sold, with ample evidence of the slave trade in Turfan thanks to contemporary textual sources that have survived. In Tang poetry Sogdian girls also frequently appear as serving maids in the taverns and inns of the capital Chang'an.
Sogdian slave girls and their Chinese male owners made up the majority of Sogdian female-Chinese male pairings, while free Sogdian women were the most common spouse of Sogdian men. A smaller number of Chinese women were paired with elite Sogdian men. Sogdian man-and-woman pairings made up eighteen out of twenty-one marriages according to existing documents.
A document dated 731 AD reveals that precisely forty bolts of silk were paid to a certain Mi Lushan, a slave dealing Sogdian, by a Chinese man named Tang Rong (唐榮) of Chang'an, for the purchase of an eleven-year-old girl. A person from Xizhou, a Tokharistani (i.e. Bactrian), and three Sogdians verified the sale of the girl.
In 1916 the French Sinologist and historian Paul Pelliot used Tang Chinese manuscripts excavated from Dunhuang, Gansu to identify an ancient Sogdian colony south of Lop Nur in Xinjiang (Northwest China), which he argued was the base for the spread of Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity in China. In 1926 Japanese scholar Kuwabara compiled evidence for Sogdians in Chinese historical sources and by 1933 Chinese historian Xiang Da published his Tang Chang'an and Central Asian Culture detailing the Sogdian influence on Chinese social religious life in the Tang-era Chinese capital city. The Canadian Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank published an article in 1952 demonstrating the presence of a Sogdian colony founded in Six Hu Prefectures of the Ordos Loop during the Chinese Tang period, composed of Sogdians and Turkic peoples who migrated from the Mongolian steppe. The Japanese historian Ikeda On wrote an article in 1965 outlining the history of the Sogdians inhabiting Dunhuang from the beginning of the 7th century, analyzing lists of their Sinicized names and the role of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism in their religious life. Yoshida Yutaka and Kageyama Etsuko, Japanese ethnographers and linguists of the Sogdian language, were able to reconstruct Sogdian names from forty-five different Chinese transliterations, noting that these were common in Turfan whereas Sogdians living closer to the center of Chinese civilization for generations adopted traditional Chinese names.
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