“When they give birth to a son, they put honey on his mouth and place glue in his palms so that when he grows up, he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hand as if they were glued there … They are good at trading, love profit, and go abroad at the age of twenty. They are everywhere profit is to be found.”
New Book of Tang, Official chronicle of Tang, 1060
The above statement was a kind of back-handed compliment to the commercial prowess of the Sogdians and reflective of the prevalent view in the Chinese society in those days. Who were the Sogdians? They were never militarily organised to be called an ’empire’ but they maintained an empire of commercial centres with their centre at Samarkand, a meeting place of several important trade routes. They lacked a central authority but comprised of many city states which were often in competition with each other. The cities minted their own coins which were circulated within Sogdiana. The Sassanian currency and Silk bales were used for international transactions. They were also able administrators and advisors especially to nomadic people and played a key role in establishment of a state.
Geographically, Sogdiana was located between Amu Darya and Syr Darya, in present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At various times, places such as Samarkand, Panjikent, Shahrisabz, and Bukhara were included in Sogdiana. The Sogdian written and spoken language was commonly used on the trade routes. In fact, in early 20th century, an archaeologist named Aurel Stein discovered a bag of eight well preserved letters in the Sogdian language which provided many insights about the life in those times. One, it was clear that the Sogdians lived and travelled to unfamiliar cities, adapted local customs and intermingled with the local people. There were Sogdians living in Dunhuang and Chang’an.
In the late 4th and early 5th century, Sogdian trade really took off. One major reason for it was that by end of 5th century, they possessed their own Sericulture and could export their own silk robes to the West and to the East. The Transcontinental trade in luxury goods now shifted to the land route and the Sogdians took full advantage of their favourable geographic location. Chinese Tax registers from 610-20 document the dominance of the Sogdians in trade and the fact that they exchanged Gold, Silver, Brass, Medicinal plants, Saffron, Amber, Perfume, Musk and slaves against Silk which they sold.
Sogdian society was multi-cultural and diverse, practising Zoroastrian and Manichean traditions mingled with Buddhism, mystical Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and local deities. Many Sogdians were wealthy merchants who decorated their homes with elaborate murals depicting stories from very diverse cultures, war scenes and pictures of Gods and Goddesses. There are episodes from the Greek fables of Aesop, stories of the Iranian hero Rustam as well as the Indian Panchatantra and Mahabharata. What is very striking in these paintings are the deities representing Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In Panjikent, Tajikistan excavations have revealed elaborate murals and wall paintings. In one of these, the Sogdian Wind God Weshparkar is represented as the Hindu God Shiva.
There may be more to discover about the Sogdians but there is ample evidence that they dominated the trade on the Silk Route for many centuries. In fact, there are communities in Western China today who may very well be descendants of the Sogdians.
- The History of Central Asia-The Age of the Silk Roads, Volume Two, Christoph Baumer, I.B Tauris, 2014
- Central Asia in World History, Peter B. Golden, Oxford University Press, 2011