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The Sogdians, Masters of the Silk Road

by Huw Thomas

The phrase "Silk Road" conjures up visions of exotic cities, colourful bazaars and camel trains carrying precious goods over mountain ranges and across waterless deserts. This indeed was the reality. The traveller to Tajikistan can follow sections of the Road (or roads) that were once the greatest commercial highway in the world, linking China with the Mediterranean.

The people who played the key role on the Silk Road at its height were the Sogdians, the ancestors of the Tajiks.

The Silk Road

The term "Silk Road" or Seidenstrasse was coined in 1877 by German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, great uncle of the Red Baron, the ace German fighter pilot in World War I. The Silk Road was not a single road - it was a vast network of land-based trade routes, and although silk was one of the main items of trade throughout, many other commodities were transported.

The trade was at its height from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It continued in a diminished form, mainly because of political instability on the route, until the fifteenth century.

Its origins are lost in the distant past, but evidence from burial mounds in Mongolia suggest there was already extensive contact between imperial China and the nomads of the northern steppes from the second millennium BC.

The Chinese had been concerned about the growing strength of the Xiongnu and other nomads, who controlled the grasslands in the curve of the Yellow River and parts of Central Asia. The Chinese strategy for countering the threat from the Xiongnu was a combination of bribery, strategic marriages and military action. To counter the military threat from the mounted nomads, the Chinese had first to take up horsemanship, and then they were hampered by the poor quality of the horses available to them.

In 138 BC, the Chinese Emperor Wudi dispatched an emissary, Zhang Qian in search of allies, particularly the Yuezhi, who controlled Bactria (present day northern Afghanistan). The Yuezhi were not interested, but Zhang Qian's discoveries were one of the factors which launched the greatest trade route in history. After many adventures he brought back the exciting news of the "heavenly horses" of the Ferghana valley - horses that galloped so fast they sweated blood. Emperor Wudi sent further missions to acquire some of these horses for breeding stock, and territories to the west were gradually opened up for trade.

Long before the start of the Silk Road there had been trade on both sides of the Pamirs, jade within China and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Egypt, but it was not until the second century BC that there is evidence of sustained long-distance trade crossing the Pamirs.

It was silk that gave its name to the great east-west trade. It had enormous significance and was traded as far as Rome. It was the Chinese who cultivated silk. Wild silk had been harvested in the Middle East and India, but not on a significant scale.

According to Chinese legend the creation of silk is credited to Xi Ling, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, but it is probable that silk was made as far back as 4000 BC. Chinese silk is produced by unravelling and joining the strands of the cocoons made by caterpillars of the moth Bombyx mori. The caterpillars feed on mulberry leaves and produce a gum called sericin. To prevent breaking the silk thread, the majority of chrysalises are stifled in steam. The cocoons are placed in hot water, which softens it, making it possible to reel it.

Rome's first introduction to silk was in 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae (modern-day Harran, on the boundary of modern Turkey and Syria) when the Roman army were resoundingly defeated by the Parthians. A possible factor in the defeat was the consternation caused in the Roman ranks by the unfurling of hundreds of silk banners - before that time generally unknown in Rome - by the Parthian troops. In spite of this first disastrous encounter with silk, it became a highly valued commodity in Greece and Rome. Chinese silk was the first significant commodity to be exported from east to west. In Greece and Rome it was associated with decadence. Grumpy old men like Seneca the Elder were particularly upset by the transparency of silk. "Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through this dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body" he bemoaned (The Elder Seneca, Declamation, translated by M. Winterbottom). Silk remained stubbornly popular.

The Chinese managed to keep the secret of silk production for many centuries, but eventually some silk worms were smuggled out, supposedly in the elaborate coiffure of a Chinese princess betrothed to a Khotanese king. In fact there was silk production in the kingdom of Khotan from the 4th century AD, possibly earlier.

Later it was developed in Sogdia, especially around Bukhara and then moved westwards following the Battle ofTalas in 751, when the Arabs defeated a Chinese army. Chinese silk weavers were sent to Damascus. Even so silk continued to be exported from China.

The Routes and the Trade

There were many variations to the Silk Road. The main route east was from the Chinese cities of Luoyang and Xi'an (Chang'an), to Lanzhou. The main routes then diverged, one running north and the other south of the Taklamakan Desert to Kashgar. From there one route went along the Ferghana valley to Osh and Khujand to Samarqand. Another went south to Tashkurgan and then to Balkh in northern Afghanistan. From these cities the main routes west were through northern Persia to Baghdad and the eastern Mediterranean or along a more northern route through modern Turkey to Byzantium. There were many variations, often depending on the political situation at the time.

Caravans headed west from China with silk, jade, porcelain, gunpowder, furs, paper, ceramics, dyes, spices and tea. The eastward flow carried wine, textiles, ivory, wool, gold, glass, gems, Baltic amber, Mediterranean coral, and even acrobats and entertainers for the Chinese court. From India came slaves, arena animals, sandalwood, palm oil, sugar, perfumes and precious stones.

Great cities such as Baghdad and Samarqand grew up as entrepots, where goods were traded in both directions. These cities were far bigger than any in Europe. All along the routes settled agricultural towns grew up, alongside the nomadic livestock rearing people, who sold horses and camels to the traders. To provide food, fodder, sleeping accommodation, caravanserai were built at intervals of one day's journey. It must not be assumed a caravan went the whole distance from China to the Mediterranean; goods were exchanged all along the routes.

The Sogdians

In the heyday of the Silk Road, from the second century BC until the end of the tenth century, the eastern trade was dominated by the Sogdians, ancestors of the modern Tajiks. Little was known about these remarkable people until the twentieth century, when a series of discoveries helped to throw light on their civilisation.

More and more is coming to light about the Sogdians. The three main sources about them are the Dunhuang Sogdian letters, and two discoveries in Tajikistan in the Zarafshan valley: the Dewashtich documents and the excavations at Penjikent.

Other sources are excavations at Afraysiab (near Samarqand), Chinese historical sources and discoveries of Sogdian funerary couches in the last two decades.

The Sogdians, an Aryan people, had settled in the lands between the Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Jaxartes (Syr Darya). Their capital was Maracanda (Samarqand), which is still a predominantly Tajik city in present day Uzbekistan. The name of the Sogdians is preserved in the name of the province in Tajikistan covering the Zarafshan valley - Sughd.

The Sogdians were formidable warriors, who could retreat to their mountain fortresses in time of war. The first written records about them are from the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great invaded their land. He suffered his first major defeat at their hands at Samarqand, and it took him two years of hard campaigning to subdue them.

The military power of the Sogdians did not recover, but they became merchants all over Central Asia and China. Their language became the language of trade along the Silk Road, and they were partly responsible for the movement of religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Buddhism eastwards along the Silk Road. Chinese stories of the Sogdians describe them as born to their trade, "at birth honey was put in their mouth and gum on their hands... they learned the trade from the age of five ... on the age of twelve they were sent to do business in a neighbouring state". (Nicholas Sims-Williams, The Sogdian Merchants in India and China . In Alfredo Cadonna et Lionello Lanciotti, eds., Cina e Iran da Alessandro Magno alia Dinastia Tang. Firenze: Olschki, 1996, 45-67.)

The Dunhuang Sogdian Letters

An important discovery that has led to more knowledge about the Sogdians was that by the British explorer Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943). He made eight major expeditions to Central Asia, investigating numerous ancient sites. The documents he discovered at Dunhuang Limes appear to have come from a postbag abandoned around AD 313-4, dated by mention of contemporary events in Luoyang. The letters were written by Sogdian merchants living in Dunhuang and other towns along the Silk Road to China, mainly about trading matters, such as commodities and weights. From these letters and other sources it appears that in the fourth century AD, the Sogdians had almost a monopoly of a triangular trade between India and Sogdiana, and India and China. Sogdian merchants settled in China, and became prominent in Chinese society.

The Sogdians organised the transport to China of grapevines and lucerne to feed the heavenly horses. They also carried the special mare's teat grapes from the oases of Kocho andTurfan, packed in lead containers. Luxury goods from the west included silverware from Persia which had an influence on Chinese silverwork, glass vessels and beads from Syria and Babylon, amber from the Baltic and purple woollen cloth from Rome. From China they brought silk, and used Chinese paper. In the 8th century they established paper manufacture in Samarqand, from where it spread to Europe.
Movement of Religions

The Sogdians did not just take goods to China. They were mainly responsible for the spread of their religion, Zoroastrianism, to China. Zoroaster or Zarathusra, lived in eastern Iran sometime between the 10th and 6th century BC and preached a religion incorporating older Iranian beliefs.

Zoroastrianism shared many ideas with Judaism - a belief in the Messiah, a resurrection, a last judgement and a heavenly paradise. The Supreme god of Zoroastrianism is the Ahura Mazda, the embodiment of light, life and truth. The incarnation of darkness, death and evil, Angra Mainyu, has always existed alongside him, and the two are engaged in a constant struggle. Although man was created by Ahura Mazda, he was given free will, and so can choose either good or evil: Zoroastrianism urges that man must resist evil in his thoughts, words and deeds, but that a saviour will come to the world and that good will triumph over evil. The symbol of Ahura Mazda is the eternal fire, and the Sogdians worshipped at fire altars in their temples, in which the fire was never allowed to die.

There were Zoroastrian temples in China, and much later in India where the successors of the Zoroastrians are the Parsees. In the Yagnob valley and in the Pamirs there are remnants of Zoroastrian practice and some shrines incorporate a few of their symbols. Recent archaeological reports report more finds identified as fire temples.

In the third century AD, Zoroastrianism was challenged by a prophet from Babylon called Mani, whose ideas offered a dualistic view of the universe, where good is balanced against evil and where esoteric interpretations lead to salvation through knowledge. Spirit was equated with light, matter with darkness, and good was seen as particles of light struggling to escape from the dark matter in which it was trapped. Mani declared himself a successor to Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus Christ. He spoke of an "Elect" group, who would lead the faith wearing white, adhering to a vegetarian diet and refraining from reproduction. The ordinary followers - the Hearers - had a less onerous life style. Mani was crucified in AD 276.

Manichaeism was brought to Sogdiana in Mani's lifetime by Mar Ammo, the "Disciple of the East". Samarqand was a Manichean centre, and from there spread east, with monasteries all the way to China. The religion was adopted by the Uighurs in western China and survived until the rise of the Mongols. It appears to have survived in other parts of China until the fourteenth century.

Dewashtich Letters

A second discovery that throws light on the Sogdians was the chance find in 1932 of a cache of documents on Mount Mugh in the Zarafshan valley. These letters throw light on Sogdian politics and the economy in the Zarafshan valley in the eighth century, just before a series of defeats by the Arabs.
Excavations at Penjikent, the "Pompeii of Central Asia"

A third discovery is still continuing. Russian and Tajik archaeologists started excavations of ancient Penjikent in 1946. About half of the site has been excavated, (see chapter on Zarafshan Valley). The city was besieged by the Arabs in AD 722, and much of the city was set on fire. As at Pompeii, a record was preserved at a moment in time. Walls caved in preserving fragments of frescoes, which have been painstakingly restored. The fire also preserved some partly burned wooden statues and altars that would otherwise have rotted away.

It is possible to see a few of the frescoes in Dushanbe at the Museum of National Antiquities and some more at the Rudaki Museum in Penjikent. However, the majority and the finest examples are in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

The frescoes help to illumine the legends and beliefs of the Sogdians, but also showed how they looked and dressed, and their way of life.

The frescoes show jousting and banqueting scenes. The Sogdians depicted themselves rather like modern Tajiks with Iranian type features, long thin faces, prominent noses and deep-set eyes. Nowadays most Tajik men sport moustaches, but the Sogdians had full-length beards. They wore a Phrygian hat, conical with the top turned forward; a knee-length jacket, with narrow trousers tucked into high leather boots, rather like the Kyrgyz wear today.

The 40 frescoes that have been discovered provide a rich repertory of legends, tales and myths of the Sogdians. Their art and literature included many motifs of Greek, Persian and Indian origin. Among the pictorial narrative cycles are three epics: a local version of the Indian Mahabharata, the Roman story of Romulus and Remus and the Iranian legend of Rustam. There are also many pictures of parables, fables, fairy tales and anecdotes: scenes from Aesop's Fables, the Panchatantra and the Sinbadnameh.

In Sogdiana, rulers were less despotic, the succession was not necessarily hereditary, and the noble and merchants held significant influence in the city. There appears to have been an element of social mobility and it was acceptable lot the middle-class to aspire not only to economic and social advancement, but also to imitate the tastes of the ruler in decorating their houses.

The houses had two or three storeys, some with reception rooms. Ii was customary that there would be a symbol of protection against evil in the porch, Inn otherwise there was much variety of subject matter in the paintings. In the reception areas there were normally paintings at three levels. On top were religious paintings, connected with the family cult, in the middle heroic tales of warriors at the bottom parables and the life of Everyman.
The priming coats were of gypsum, the sky blue background was painted in lapis lazuli, the outlines in soot black or dark ochre red pigment. The main colours are in ochre paints. The paintings were fixed to the walls with vegetable glue.

The heroic panels were often about the struggles of Rustam, the great Iranian hero and his horse Rakhsh, against the divs (demons). At the lowest level there were scenes from Aesop's Fables, such as the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg or other parables such as the tale of the Stupid Sandalwood Seller, and the monkey who removes a flea from a man's head with a hammer.

The picture that emerges of the Sogdians is of an outward looking people, influenced by other cultures, thousands of miles away. Also of a resourceful and adventurous people, who admired courage, and did not have too much respect for authority. They also enjoyed a hedonistic life style with fondness for drinking and food.