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Sogdian Archaeology


By: Boris Il’ich Marshak *



Sogdiana (or Sogd) is a region in Central Asia that was populated by Sogdians, people speaking and writing in an Eastern Iranian language. According to Greek and Roman authors, Sogdiana included territories between two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. Khoresm, which occupied the Amu Darya delta, was not part of Sogdiana. Later Sogdiana, beginning at least in the first and second centuries CE, occupied a smaller territory. Thus its southern border was no longer along the Amu Darya but along the Zeravshan mountain range. Ferghana and Ustrushana, situated between Chach (the Tashkent oasis), Ferghana and Sogdiana, did not belong to Sogdiana, although the inhabitants of Ustrushana wrote and, perhaps, spoke the Sogdian language. Big Tokharistan, a successor of Bactria, was located south of the Zeravshan mountain range. It is not clear, however, whether the Sogdians populated all the lands which Greek and Roman authors attribute to Sogdiana. It is possible that these authors referred to administrative boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire, ignoring population distribution in the area. According to archaeological convention, any monument located in the lower Zeravshan and Kashkadarya River valleys (but not to the south or north-east of this territory) is defined as Sogdian.


I should note, however, that prior to the first and second centuries CE, in archaeological terms, there is no difference between Sogdian culture and cultures to the south of the Zeravshan mountain range. This said, in the present article, following the established convention, Sogdiana denotes the region including the Zeravshan and Kashkadarya River basins. Clearly, the archaeology of Sogdiana is dated no earlier than the first millennium BCE, when Sogdians emerged on the historical stage. However, for a more complete picture we need to note the monuments of earlier periods.


Sogdia and its neighbours

The most ancient archaeological findings on the territory of Sogdiana date to the Middle Paleolithic period. There are a few Upper Paleolithic settlements (in Samarkand, for example) as well; at the same time, nothing from the Neolithic period has yet been found. Sarasm, situated between Samarkand and Panjikent, is an Eneolithic monument dated to the fourth and third millennia BCE. Abdullo Isakov and his students, as well as Roland Besenval and Bertille Lyonnet, studied this monument which consists of several settlements that occupy hundreds of hectares. Sarasm pottery combines characteristics of northern Iranian (Tepe Hissar), southern Turkmen (Geoksur), southern Afghan (Mundigak), Khoresm (Keltiminar), and even southern Siberian (Afanasiev) cultures. There are, perhaps, local types as well. Bezanval attributes such “multiculturalism” of Sarasm to the resettlement of people from different lands to this area, attracted there by the mineral resources of the upper reaches of the Zeravshan River.

The Bronze Age is not well studied. However, we are aware of the Zamanbaba culture in the lower Zeravshan Valley. Dated to the early Bronze period, this culture is close to the Afanasiev culture in Siberia. Also, a burial cave was discovered in Zardcha-Khalifa, a location near Panjikent, dated the beginning of the second millenium BCE. This cave is attributed to the second phase of the Sappali culture, a variant of the Bactrian-Margiana culture. The Andronov steppe culture penetrates the Zeravshan basin somewhat later, in the first half of the second millennium BCE, as evidenced in the Muminabad tomb in Samarkand region and the Dashti Kozy tomb to the east of Panjikent. These unrelated monuments do not help, however, to explain the origins of the Sogdians.

Urban development in Sogdiana began sometime in the early first millennium BCE, i.e., in the early Iron Age, when a new culture emerged in Samarkand and Kashkadarya, Sogdiana [Isamiddinov]. Some characteristic features of this culture are more archaic than those included in the Bactrian-Margiana cultural circle or even those of the more ancient culture of Sarasm. For example, so-called semi-huts appeared in place of houses made of unbaked brick and consisting of several rooms. Plain pottery, sometimes decorated with simple painting, replaced dishware found in sedentary settlements which was produced with the use of a potter’s wheel. This pottery is different from the Andronov type. At the same time, the emergence of Iranian-speaking tribes in the first millennium BCE, including the ancestors of historical Sogdians in the regions where the latter lived, is often associated (although empirically unsupported) with the arrival of Andronov tribes.

If, indeed, these tribes that populated the steppe during the late Bronze Age invaded Sogdiana, they must have lost their older pottery tradition by the time of the invasion. The fact is that, about the same time, in the beginning of the first millennium BCE, nomadic pastoralism had developed in the steppe, the original area of the Andronov culture, replacing the old herding-agricultural type of economy. Nomadic pastoralists, as ethnographic research has shown, do not make pottery. Most likely, it was the invasion of the nomads that reduced to practically nothing the achievements of the Bactrian-Margiana culture, although it did not eliminate old traditions completely. Some invaders settled on deserted and fertile lands and took up agriculture. Mountain people, always in need of additional land, participated in this process as well. Pottery has always been a typical product among them, right down to modern times [Peshchereva].

  The ruins of Panjkent

In the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, settlements with semi-huts were replaced by large cities, among them Kok-tepe (with an area of 100 hectares; the name is the modern one) and Samarkand (220 hectares; the ancient town was Afrasiab). The study of these sites by the Uzbek-French expedition demonstrates that the process of erecting city walls in Samarkand and Kok-tepe and shrines in Kok-tepe included large-scale works [Rapin, Isamiddinov and Khasanov]. According to Isamiddinov’s reasonable hypothesis, irrigation canals in Samarkandian Sogdiana, the length of which was more than 100 km, were built at about the same time as the cities. With some changes, these canals survived until the present. Three important factors facilitated this socio-economic transformation: rapid population growth on fertile land, military organization of a newly established state ruled by those who not long before were nomads, and the advanced cultural traditions of the Bactrian-Margiana culture, which still survived to some degree.

A new stage in cultural development in Sogdiana began in the seventh and the sixth centuries BCE. Its characteristics were found in Bactria, Margiana, northern Parthia, and, somewhat later, in Khoresm as well. These characteristics (for example, cylinder cone-shaped pottery made with the use of the potter’s wheel and the production of large, rectangular, unbaked brick) did not spread beyond the territories in the northeast of Sogdiana. It has been argued that these lands were included in the same state in the seventh and the sixth centuries. However, it is not clear yet what was this state’s major political and administrative center. Even before this period, a new large urban center, the remnants of which are now called Er-kurgan, emerged in southern Sogdiana. In 1950, Aleksei I. Terenozhkin developed relative and absolute systems of chronology of Sogdian pottery and other specimens that were dated between the sixth century BCE and the end of the eighth century CE. Cultural change (as much as it can be assessed by archaeologists) did not occur immediately after Bactria, Sogdiana, and Khoresm were conquered by Cyrus the Great and became part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the second half of the sixth century BCE. New elements (in particular, open forms of pottery - cups and bowls, characteristic of Iranian culture) spread only in the fourth century BCE during the late Achaemenid and the early Hellenic periods. During the Hellenic period, semi-huts were built along with unbaked brick constructions. The Kurgancha settlement in southern Sogdiana, which was excavated by M. Khasanov, dated the fourth and the third centuries BCE, is characteristic of this trend.

  Ossuaries on display in the Samakand
Museum of History, Art, and Ethnography

Neither Persian influence during the Achaemenid period nor Greek influence in the Hellenic epoch had an immediate impact on the Sogdian culture. Greek forms in the Afrasiab pottery, including “fish plates” and kraters appeared in the third century BCE during the rule of the Seleucids, not right after Alexander II of Macedonia’s conquest of Sogdiana in the 320s BCE. Nomads conquered Sogdiana in the end of the third century. Greeks may have returned to Sogdiana in the first half of the second century, but by mid-century, the nomads took it over again. Ancient oriental elements prevail in the architecture of the Greek period. A typical example is the Afrasiab city wall. It was built from large unbaked bricks of a type unknown in Greece on which were written the names of the makers in Greek letters. Unbaked brick constructions were typical of Sogdiana during its whole history. The French-Uzbek expedition excavated at the Afrasiab citadel a large storehouse for grain that belonged to the state or the temple. This storehouse had been built in the time of Greek rule and then was burned, most likely during the nomadic conquest.

Burial sites of the nomadic population near oases date from first centuries BCE to the first centuries CE. Artifacts produced by sedentary masters, including pottery made on the potter’s wheel, were popular among pastoralists. During the period between about the late second and the first centuries and the first and the second centuries CE, tall goblets became a widespread item, and iron arrowheads replaced those made of bronze. The urban culture of Samarkand, Er-kurgan, and other cities and settlements dating from this period is well explored. However, in contrast with the situation for Er-kurgan, the later period from the end of the second to the fourth centuries is not well studied for Samarkand. Under the houses of peasants who lived in the mountains were different from urban dwellings, resembling the houses of Mountain Tajiks in the twentieth century. In the plain, and especially in proximity to cities, there were houses which more or less corresponded to urban norms. The architecture of fortified residences was similar to that of the houses of wealthy citizens.

 Drawing of mural from Panjikent; including famous image of harpest at left  (Click to enlarge)

In the Sogdian decorative arts images of the gods were formed under the Greek influence, to which were added Iranian elements in the fifth century and, in the sixth century, Indian elements. Secular narrative painting was used to illustrate literature of different genres, such as epics, fairy-tales and fables that used local, Iranian, Indian, and Greek plots. Feasts and other celebrations, and equestrian hunts were favorite themes in this painting. Occasionally, artists utilized events of recent history. The mature Sogdian style of the seventh and the eighth centuries was dynamic, and featured a bright and harmonious palette. Among the mineral pigments ochre predominated, and Badakhshani ultramarine was used for the backgrounds.

In the eighth century after several military actions the Arabs conquered Sogdiana, which became one of the richest parts of the Caliphate. However, economic prosperity was combined with cultural assimilation. In the second half of the eighth and the ninth centuries, urban citizens adopted Islam. Simultaneously Persian (Tajik) language replaced Sogdian, although for a long time afterwards inhabitants of rural areas continued to speak Sogdian.

The Uzbek-French expedition [Frantz Grenet, Ivanitskii, Iurii Karev] discovered in Samarkand two palaces of Arab vicegerents dated to the 740s or 750s. Their architecture is not Sogdian. Under the Arabs, local principalities gradually lost autonomy, and noblemen and wealthy merchants abandoned small towns such as Panjikent. However, it was a time of the rapid growth of large cities, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, which then became administrative centers. In the ninth century, Sogdiana lost its ethnic and cultural distinctiveness, although many elements of Sogdian material culture are found in materials dating from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. This is why, starting with the ninth century, it is impossible to speak of Sogdian culture on the territory of Sogdiana itself at the same time that it survived until the eleventh century among Sogdian immigrants who resettled in eastern Central Asia and China.


(For additional references, see the annotated bibliography by Frantz Grenet. There is some overlap between the two listings, but the source' editor felt it important to reproduce Dr. Marshak’s selection in its entirely.)


Al’baum, L. I. Zhivopis’ Afrasiaba [The Painting of Afrasiab]. Tashkent, 1975.

Azarpay, Guitty. Sogdian painting. The pictorial epic in oriental art. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1981 (with contributions by A.M. Belenitskii, B.I. Marshak, and Mark J. Dresden).

Belenitskii, A. M. Monumental’noe iskusstvo Pendzhikenta. Zhivopis’. Skul’ptura [Monumental art of Panjikent: painting, sculpture]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1973.

Belenitskii, A. M.; Bol’shakov, O. G.; Bentovich, I. B. Srednevekovyi gorod Srednei Azii [The medieval city in Central Asia]. Leningrad: Nauka, 1973.

Belenitskii, A. M.; Marshak, B. I.; Raspopova, V. I. “Sogdiiskii gorod v nachale srednikh vekov (itogi i metody issledovaniia drevnego Pendzhikenta) [The Sogdian city at the beginning of the Middle Ages: results and methods of the study of ancient Panjikent].” Sovetskaia arkheologiia [Soviet archaeology], 1981, No. 2, 94-110.

Belenitsky, Aleksandr. Central Asia. Tr. James Hogarth. Geneva etc.: Nagel, 1968. (Archaeologia Mundi).

Belenizki, A. M. Mittelasien: Kunst der Sogden. Tr. Lisa Schirmer. Leipzig: E.A. Seemann, 1980.

Berdimuradov, A. E.; Samibaev, M. K. Khram Dzhartepa – II (k problemam kul’turnoi zhizni Sogda v IV-VIII vv.) [The Temple of Jartepa - II (On the problems of cultural life of Sogdiana in the 4th-8th centuries)]. Tashkent, 1999.Bernard, Paul; Grenet, Frantz; Isamiddinov, Muxammedzhon, et collaborateurs. “Fouilles de la mission franco-soviétique à l’ancienne Samarkand (Afrasiab): première campagne, 1989.” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions & Belles-lettres, 1990, 356-380.

- - - -. “Fouilles de la mission franco-ouzbèke à l’ancienne Samarkand (Afrasiab): deuxième et troisième campagnes (1990-1991).” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions & Belles-lettres, 1992, 275-311.

Besenval, R. and Isakov, A. “Sarazm et les debuts du peuplement agricole dans la region de Samarkand.” Arts Asiatiques, t. 44 (1989).

Bobomulloev, S. “Ein bronze-zeitliches Grab aus Zardca Chalifa bei Pendzikent (Zeravsan-Tal).” Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan, Bd. 29 (1997).

Drevnosti Tadzhikistana. Katalog vystavki [The antiquities of Tajikistan. An exhibit catalogue]. Dushanbe: Donish, 1985.

Grenet, Frantz. “L’art zoroastrien en Sogdiane. Etudes d’iconographie
funeraire.” Mesopotamia, XXI (1986).

- - - -. “Old Samarkand: Nexus of the Ancient World.” Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 2003.

Grenet, Frantz, and Marshak, Boris “Le mythe de Nana dans l’art de la Sogdiane.” Arts Asiatiques, t. 53 (1998), pp. 5-18.

Grigor’ev, G. V. “Gorodishche Tali-Barzu. Kratkii ocherk [The fortified complex of Tali-Barzu. A brief sketch].” Trudy Otdela Vostoka Ermitazha [Works of the Eastern Section of the Hermitage], vol. 2 (Leningrad, 1940).

Grigor’ev, G. V. “K voprosu o khudozhestvennom remesle domusul’manskogo Sogda [On the question of artistic crafts in pre-islamic Sogdiana].” Kratkie soobshcheniia Instituta istorii material’noi kul’tury [Brief communications of the Institute of the history of material culture], vyp. 12 (1946).

Iakubov, Iu. Pargar v VII-VIII vv. n.e. (Verkhnii Zeravshan v epokhu rannego srednevekov’ia) [Pargar in the 7th and 8th centuries CE (The upper Zeravshan in the early Middle Ages)]. Dushanbe: Donish, 1979.

Iakubovskii, A. Iu. “Drevnii Pendzhikent [Ancient Panjikent].” In Po sledam drevnikh kul’tur [Following the traces of ancient cultures]. Moscow: Gos. izd-vo kulturno-prosvetitel’noi lit-ry, 1951.

Isakov, A. I. Sarazm (k voprosu stanovleniia rannezemledel’cheskoi kul’tury Zeravshanskoi doliny) (raskopki 1977-1983) [Sarazm (on the origins of early agriculture in the Zeravshan Valley) (excavations of 1977-1983)]. Dushanbe, 1991.

Isakov, A. I. Tsitadel’ drevnego Pendzhikenta [The citadel of ancient Panjikent]. Dushanbe: Donish, 1977.

Isamiddinov, M. Kh. Istoki gorodskoi kul’tury Samarkandskogo Sogda (problemy vzaimodeistviia kul’turnykh traditsii v epokhu rannezheleznogo veka i v period antichnosti) [The sources of the urban culture of Samarkandian Sogd (problems of the interaction of cultural traditions in the early iron age and in the period of Classical Antiquity)]. Tashkent, 2002.

Isamiddinov, M. Kh., and Sulei-manov, R. Kh. Erkurgan (stratigrafiia i periodizatsiia) [Er-kurgan (stratigraphy and periodization)]. Tashkent, 1984.

Marshak, B. I. “Iskusstvo Sogda [The art of Sogdiana].” In Tsentral’naia Aziia. Novye pamiatniki pis’mennosti i iskusstva. Sbornik statei [Central Asia: New monuments of writing and art. A collection of articles.]. Moscow: Izd-vo “Nauka,” Glav. red. vostochnoi lit-ry, 1987, 233-247.

Marshak, Boris. “La thématique sogdienne dans l’art de la Chine de la seconde moitié du VIe siècle.” Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions & Belles-lettres, 2001, 227-264.

Marshak, Boris. Legends, tales, and fables in the art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002. (With an Appendix by V.A. Livshits).

Marshak, Boris. “Le programme iconographique des peintures de la ‘Salle des Ambassadeurs’ à Afrasiab (Samarkand).” Arts Asiatiques, 49 (1994), 5-20.

Marshak B. I., and Raspopova V. I. “Cultes communautaires et cultes privés en Sogdiane.” In P. Bernard & F. Grenet, ed., Histoire et cultes de l’Asie centrale préislamique. Paris : Editions du CNRS, 1991, 187-195, Pl. LXXIII-LXXVIII.

Mode, Markus. “Die Religion der Sogder im Spiegel ihrer Kunst.” In K. Jettmar and E. Kattner, ed., Die vorislamischen Religionen Mittelasiens. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2003 (=Die Religionen der Menschheit, Bd. 4/3), pp. 141-218.

Mode, Markus. Sogdien und die Herrscher der Welt. Türken, Sasaniden und Chinesen in Historiengemälden des 7. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. aus Alt-Samarqand. Frankfurt/M. etc.: Peter Lang Verlag, 1993 (= Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe XXVII, Kunstgeschichte, Bd. 162).

Obel’chenko, O. V. “Liavandakskii mogil’nik [The Liavandak tomb].” In Istoriia material’noi kul’tury Uzbekistana [History of the material culture of Uzbekistan], vyp. 2. Tashkent: Izd-vo “Fan” Uzbekskoi SSR, 1961.

Obel’chenko, O. V. “Mogil’nik Akdzhar-tepe [The tomb of Akdzhar-tepe].” In Istoriia material’noi kul’tury Uzbekistana [History of the material culture of Uzbekistan], vyp. 3. Tashkent: Izd-vo “Fan” Uzbekskoi SSR, 1962.

Obel’chenko, O. V. “Sazaganskie kurgany [The Sazagan burial mounds].” In Istoriia material’noi kul’tury Uzbekistana [History of the material culture of Uzbekistan], vyp. 7. Tashkent: Izd-vo “Fan” Uzbek-skoi SSR, 1966.

Oxus. Tesori dell’Asia Centrale. Roma: Ed. De Luca, 1993

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Pugachenkova, G. A. Drevnosti Miankalia. Iz rabot Uzbekistanskoi iskusstvovedcheskoi ekspeditsii [The antiquities of Miankal. From the work of the Uzbek art historical expedition]. Tashkent, 1989.

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Boris Il’ich Marshak

(1933 - 2006)

Picture courtesy of L'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres

Late Professor Boris Il’ich Marshak

He was head of the Central Asian and Caucasian Section of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg since 1978, the same year in which he assumed direction of the archaeological excavation at the important Sogdian town of Panjikent (Tajikistan) where he had been working since 1954. The leading expert on the Iranian Studies, especially, archaeology and art history of Sogdiana. He was fellow of many international learned societies and has lectured widely around the world. His books include Sogdian Silver (in Russian) (Moscow, 1971) and most recently Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002).









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Extracted From/Source: This article was originally published in The Silk Road, Vol. 1, No. 2 ( and has been adapted for republication here with the permission of the Silkroad Foundation.



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