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Once More About Peculiarities of the Sogdian

Civilization of the 4th-10th Centuries


By: Boris Y. Stavisky*


Abstract: Sogdian civilization of the 4th-10th centuries had its notable specific features, the main of which was the formation of its diaspora outside the metropolis in the North-East of the Central Asia in Chinese Turkestan and South Siberia. This diaspora has played a great role in the cultural history of Eurasia.


I have had occasion to write and talk to my university students about peculiarities of the Sogdian civilization in early medieval time1. And here, in a volume in honour of the seventy fifth anniversary of Boris Marshak I take the liberty of reverting to this subject since the hero of the day in the fiftieth of the last century joined the excavations of Ancient Panjikent and then became one of the major scholars and connoisseurs of the history, culture and art of the Sogdian world.

In Central Asia the Sogdian civilization was preceded by three others - Achaemenian of classic old-oriental type (middle of 6th - end of the 4th centuries B.C.), East-Hellenistic (end of the 4th - 1st centuries B.C.), and Kushanian (1st - 4th centuries). Each had its own specific features, but the Sogdian civilization was, none the less, a true phenomenon of Central Asia.

While the main centres of the Achaemenian and East-Hellenistic civilizations were localized outside Middle Asia, which was but a periphery, the Sogdian civilization as well as the Kushanian state arose on the territory of Central Asia in Sogd (the motherland of the Kushan state was Bactria).


All illustrations are taken from the book: B. Stavisky, Art of Central Asia, Moscow: "Iskusstvo", 1974.

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1. Temples of the 1st - 2nd centuries. Ancient Panjikent. Plan on the basis of data from the end of the fifties.

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2. Reconstruction by Ju. P. Gremyachinskaya.

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3. Ceremonial Hall in the house of a noble citizen (object VI).

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4. Detail of the wall painting. Ancient Panjikent with scenes of the fable about greedy master of a goose, laying golden eggs (tracing).

5. a, b. Details of the wall painting in the ceremonial Hall on Afrasiab. Noble ambassadors from Chaganian to the king of Samarkand:

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a) "white-faced";

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b) "red-faced".

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6. General view of the Varakhsha citadel (reconstruction of the Tashkent architect V. Nilsen).

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7. Female head. Detail of the palace stucco decor of the Varakhsh citadel.

8. a, b. Portrayals of the Sogdians:

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a) on the clay vessel from Kafyr-Kala in vicinity of Samarkand;

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b) on the boss of the ossuary (bone-depository) lid from Samarkand.

9. a, b. Silver cup with guilding and a Sogdian inscription:

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a) classical personages;

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b) the bridegroom and bride at the wedding feast (on the bottom of the cup - a mask of a ferocious Indian personage who has devoured his own body).

  (Click to enlarge)

Whereas all the three preceding civilizations leaned for support onto military and political power of large empires, the pre-Moslem Sogd remained a relatively small country in the basins of the Zeravshan and Kashka-Darya rivers. In the 6th - 9th centuries it was far from being a united centralized state and could be rather defined as a conglomeration of separate domains, which but nominally recognized the supremacy of a few large principalities, for instance, such as Samarkand. The sovereign of the latter had the title of not only "ruler of Samarkand", but also that of Sogdian king". Even at the end of the 19th century Bartold wrote that the pre-Moslem rulers of the Central Asian Mesopotamia bore a much stronger resemblance to ancient Greek basileis than to the Asiatic despots (meaning the Achaemenian "king of kings")2.

Sogdian principalities now quarreled with each other, now concluded ephemeral alliances against recent friends or bitterest enemies. Moreover, as their detachments though valiant were not numerous, the Sogdian rulers were perpetually forced to acknowledge their vassalage to unexpectedly rising chiefs of steppe and mountain tribes and Old Turkic kagans, or the Chinese "Son of the Heaven", or, finally, to the Arab deputy-general of Maverannahr (Transoxiana, the right-side of the Amu-Darya river).

After the downfall of the Kushanian state in the 4th - beginning of the 5th centuries Sogd begins to rise. First, due to the finding of the "Old letters" near Tun-huang (Dunhuan) (Druan in Sogdian) and their investigation by the most eminent Iranian scholar of the 20th century W. B. Henning, we became aware of a merchant colony of natives of Samarkand (it numbered about 1000 inhabitants)3, settled there on the Great Silk Road as early as the 4th century. Later on, Sogdians continuously moved on to the East and besides not only merchants but also farmers, artisans, Buddhist and other kind of missionaries, along with painters, dancers, musicians and even political adventurers as, for instance, An Lu-shan (Rokshan in Sogdian). He made a breath-taking military and court carrier, stirred up a "great mutiny", ransacked the both capitals of the empire and very nearly captured the throne4.

The fact, which favoured to the rise of Sogd, was that it had suffered from political storms of that period less, than the core of the Kushanian state - Bactria-Tocharistan and the Central Asian North (including Khorezm). But the main thing was that the Sogdian civilization, standing up, could firmly rest upon extensive international trade and powerful cultural potential of its bearers - the Sogdians. As V. V. Bartold truly pointed out, the cultural activity of the Sogdians "along the caravan roads ... yields little to the cultural activity of the Phoenicians along the routes of sea trade"5.

Before the Arabian conquest of Central Asia and in the first centuries after that, the Sogdians were truly "the Phoenicians of the caravan roads". Their language in that time was a universally recognized language on the broadest lands of the Old World. In Merv, for instance, among the inscriptions discovered there a Sogdian educational record on a crock was found; its first publication6 was completed and corrected after more than twenty years7. The stele, discovered at Bugut in Central Mongolia and recognized firstly as an Uighurian one, turned out to be an epitaph of the Turk Mahan-tegin, which was written in Sogdian between 581 and 587. This discovery gave ground to conclude that in the first Turkic kaganate, in the second half of the 6th century, the Sogdian language was used as an official one8.

The Karabalghasun inscription, discovered in 1889 in the ruins of the capital of the Uighur state, on the Orhon river in Mongolia, is highly demonstrative. The text on that illustrious and great stele, mentioning the Uighurian kagan Alp-tegin who ruled in 808-821, was made not only in Uighurian, but also in the Chinese and Sogdian languages9. Moreover, if the Chinese inscription could be an involuntary tribute to the threatening power of the southern neighbour of the Uighurs, then one should consider the Sogdian one rather as free-will recognition of the cultural significance of a relatively small Central Asian nation, though not powerful in the military respect. Sogd and its metropolis in the time when the text of the Karabalghasun inscription was composed had lost its political independence and formed part of the Arabian Caliphate.

Cultural influence of the Sogdians manifested itself at that time and later on both in the Orient and in the West: in spite of opposition of the Sasanian authorities10, the Sogdian and Turkic envoys and merchants, having taken advantage of the ancient steppe roads through the Northern Caspian Sea Coast, got into immediate contact with Byzantium, and during many years an extensive interchange of embassies and caravans was taking place between Central Asia and Byzantine domains, and it is evident that Sogdian merchants were permanently living in Constantinople. It is very likely that the city Sudak in the Crimea got its name at that time (in the Middle Ages its name was "Sugdak", or "Soldeya", which meant "Sogdian").

Repeated discoveries of the Byzantine coins, their imitations, and other objects in Sogd, Central Asia proper, as well as in Sinkiang (Hsin-chiang, Xinjiang), serve a material evidence of these contacts, so as the Sogdian silk cloths, quite often with Sogdian inscriptions11, revealed in the West-European temple treasuries. It should be added to the above-mentioned that Sogdian wares were found both in Japan and in Korea - just there the eastern boundaries of the Sogdian influences were defined. A building in the city of Kushania (between Samarkand and Bukhara) which was described by the Chinese source could be considered as a symbol of the Sogdian civilization. On its walls were painted images of sovereigns of Rome-Rum (Byzantium), Central Asia, China, and India. According to V. V. Bartold, there was not such a city in any other country, where similar portrayals could be united in one building12. And certainly, it is not accidental that in "The Life of Constantine" written in the second half of the 9th century in Great Moravia, among the nations, mastered in pencraft and praising the Lord "each one in his own language", the Sogdians were named along with others13.

The Arabian and Persian authors reporting about the Moslem conquest of Central Asia related on mass migrations to that region from Iran and the Middle East, and on departure of the Sogdian merchants from there to the oases of the present Sinkiang (Hsin-chiang, Xinjiang) and to China14. Impressing are also the records of the Chinese sources on migrations of the Sogdian emigrants to China - to the region Tun-huang (Dunhuan), Druan in Sogdian, to Inner Mongolia, and so on. In addition to the aforesaid about Tun-huang’s settlement, numbering at the beginning of the 4th century about 1000 people, there are also many other facts known at present.

Thus, in 658-705, a settlement of Sogdians in Tsinhuasian is mentioned. According to the calculations of the Japanese professor Ikeda On, who studied the courtyard registers, the dwellers of this village numbered about 300 homesteads and 1400 inhabitants. In his opinion, the dwellers of the village were apparently recognized as subjects of the Tang Empire: "Tsinhua" is a Chinese term, meaning "to assimilate, to submit, to be naturalized", "sian" is "village". At the same time, the following fact attracts our attention that there is no mention of the persons, connected with servicing irrigative system, but some posts, connected with trade control (there were not such posts in other villages). It is typical that the administrative jobs connected with tax collection and duty service control (that required continual contacts with Chinese officials) were designated to the persons for the most part bearing Chinese names"15.

The migration from Sogd to the present Sinkiang (Hsin-chiang, Xinjiang), as mentioned already, was enormous. Some more examples should be added to the aforesaid. Such is, for instance, "formation of a Sogdian settlement (a group of settlements) by migrants from Samarkand (Kan) near Lop Nor in the province Shanshan (Lou-lan), in 627-64716.

The Chinese geographical text of the 9th century from Tun-huang (Dunhuan) relates on Kan Yang-tian’s arrival here, "the great chieftain from the Kan empire" who along with other Samarkandians inhabited the city which had been founded during the reign of the Sui dynasty (ruled Northern China from 581 until 618 - B. Stavisky) and abandoned by the Chinese after 618. Kan Yangtian, "the great chieftain from the Kan empire (Samarkand)", came to the East and settled in this town. He was accompanied by many Hu (i.e. by the Sogdians), so this place became populated and was called Tian-he, (i.e. "associated with Kan Yangtian") ... After some time Kan Yang-tian founded three fortified settlements near the town of Tian-he, one of which was called Putaochen - "The town of grapes" ... As known from another Chinese source, the settlement of Sogdians near Tun-huang (Dunhuan) "had a name of Anchen, literally "city of the people from the country An (Bukhara)"17.

L. P. Kyzlasov discovered in Khakassia a Manichaean cultural centre which, according to this eminent explorer of Southern Siberia, was built by the Sogdians, the bearers of the traditions of Ancient Sogd18.

The examples given here define the third feature of the Sogdian civilization - formation of a numerous and powerful Sogdian (as well as the Sogdian-Turkic) diaspora. This diaspora existed for a long time on the north-east of Central Asia, in Eastern Turkestan and on the south of Siberia, and its members now drove merchant caravans along the vast expanses of Eurasia, now propagandized one or another world religion, now were architects and builders of religious and other buildings, where earlier there were not skills of building the loess houses and edifices with columns. And all that had taken place after the rule of the Arabian caliphate was firmly established in "Sogdian mother country" to the end of the 8th century, and at its periphery, the Sogdian language gradually turned into anachronism (as well as Sogdian way of life and customs).

As shown by the investigations of Russian and foreign scholars (I will name, for instance, one of the latest works - A. L. Juliano, J. A. Lerner, 2001 - an international collective was involved in this work, including Boris Marshak), it is difficult to overestimate the contribution of the Sogdians to culture and art of Islamic, Medieval European and other worlds. I could not leave without mention, for instance, some of the remarkable artistic monuments of the Sogdian civilization, which were discovered as a result of the archaeological excavations in the 20th century.

Such is Ancient Panjikent, mainly a small town, which in 6th-9th centuries was a capital of the Panch principality, the eastern most one in the valley of Zeravshan. Every year since 1946 on its site front rooms has been unearthed during each field season. The walls of the buildings are decorated by murals, clay sculpture, and carved wood. These monumental buildings make it possible to judge about high professionalism of the Panjikent and Sogdian architects and builders. The finds in the houses of the town elite and nobility, in temples, at markets, in the suburban necropolis and in town streets show the everyday life of townsmen and people who arrived there from villages and other cities of Sogd, neighbouring and remote districts and countries. Incriptions on different languages, numerous coins (including copper coins, an evidence of a high level of the inland trade) has been discovered at the site.

Another most important Sogdian city was Samarkand. Its huge site (Afrasiab) attracted attention of archaeologists already at the end of the 19th century. Its excavation, however, was embarrassed by the fact that the life here lasted for not less than one and a half thousand year. Unlike Panjikent, many buildings did not come up to us - they have been lost at the time of repeated repairs and reconstructions. However, many valuable historical and cultural discoveries have been made also in Afrasiab in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Such, for instance, were the discoveries of the palace buildings of the 8th-9th centuries and the well-known so-called "reception hall of kings" with scenes of arrival in Samarkand of a bride from Chaganian (a district in the south of the present-day Uzbekistan) and guests from different regions and countries of the world for wedding celebrations19. During repeated investigations of the paintings in 1978, it was found that under "the scene with boating" there was an imprint of a personal hieroglyphic seal of a painter; the scene imitates in this way "the pictorial scroll of a certain Khotanian"20.

I would also name the palaces of the Bukharian possessors (the Bukhar-khudats) at the site of Varakhsha with magnificent wall-paintings and stucco panels21 (fig. 5, 6), and of the Ustrushanian sovereign (afshin) in Shahristan with a colourful picture of the she-wolf, breast-feeding two wolf-cubs at the north of the present-day Tajikistan22. On these and many other archaeological monuments of Sogd many facts and evidences have been obtained, which testify to its great role in history, culture and art of the Old World (fig. 8, 9).

In Panjikent, for instance, the portrayal of a Chinese merchant and his wife dated as far as the end of the 7th century and of the Chinese musicians of the first half of the 8th century were discovered in one of the living quarters of nobility (object VI). Therein in the front halls there were uncovered scenes, narrating about feats of arms of the legendary epic heroes, their feasts and leisure. We find there subjects of popular literary works, e.g. fables of the Greek authors and Indian "Panchatantra" (fig. 7). In Panjikent the archaeologists found pictures of elephant, similar to that, discovered in Varakhsha, which likewise were misinterpreted by Sogdian painters, who had never seen such an exotic Indian animal. In the light of all these facts, the report of the Chinese chronicler about the personages on murals of the building in Kushania sounds much more convincing, than at the time of V. V. Bartold.


Albaum (1971), New Afrasiab paintings // Strany i narody Vostoka, X, Moscow (in Russian).

Albaum, Brentjes (1972), Wachnter des Goldes: Zur Geschichte und Kultur mittelasiatischer Volker vor der Islam, Berlin.

Albaum (1975), Afrasiab Painting, Tashkent (in Russian).

Azarpay (1983), The Sogdian Painting (The Pictoral Epic in Oriental Art), Berkeley.

Bartold (1896a, 1964b), A few words about the Arian Culture in Central Asia // Sochineniya, XI, 2, Moscow (in Russian).

Bartold (1927a, 1964b), On the Sogdian and Tokharian Languages // Sochineniya, XI, 2, Moscow (in Russian).

Bartold (1927a, 1963b), The History of the Cultural Life in Turkestan // Sochineniya, XI, 2, Moscow (in Russian).

Belenitsky, Bentovich, Bolshakov (1973), The Medieval Town of Central Asia, Leningrad (in Russian).

Discovery (1999). Discovery of the State Religion of Ancient Khakasses, Moscow-Abakan (in Russian).

Destinus (1870), Byzantine Historians, Sankt-Petersburg (in Russian).

Chuguevsky (1971), New Materials on the History of the Sogdian Colony in the Region of Tsun Khuasian // Strany i narody Vostoka, X, Moscow (in Russian).

Freimann (1939), The Sogdian Inscription from Old Merv // Zapiski instituta vostokovedenija AN SSSR, X (in Russian).

Gernet (1956), Les aspects Économiques du Buddhisme dans la sociètè Chinoise du V-e du X-e siécle, Saigon.

Henning (1948), The Date of the Sogdian Ancient Letters // Bulletine of the School of Oriental Studies, XII, London.

Henning (1958), Mitteliranisch, Handbuch der Orientalistc. 1. Abteilung, 4 Band: Iranistik 1 Abschnits: Linguistik, Leiden-Kôln.

Jerusalimskaja (1972), On the history of the formation of the school of artistic silkworm breeding in Sogd, Leningrad.

Jerusalimskaja (1996), Die Gräber der Mošcevaja Balka // Frühmittelalterischen Funde an der Nordkaukasischen Seidenstrasse, München.

Juliano, Lerner (2001), Monks and Merchants. Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China. Gansu and Ningxia, 4th - 7th centuries, New York.

Kliashtornyj (1964), Old-Turkic Runic monuments as a Source of Central Asian History, Moscow (in Russian).

Kyashtornyj, Livšic (1971), Une inscription inédite turque et sogdienne: la stéle de Sevrey (Goby Meridional) // Journal Asiatique, Paris.

Klyashtornyj, Livšic (1972), Sogdian inscription of Bugut revised // Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 26, fasc. 1, Budapest.

Kondakov (1927), On Manichaeism and Bogumils // Seminarium Kondakovianum, I, Prague (in Russian).

Legends (1981). Legends of the beginning of Slavic written Language, Moscow (in Russian).

Livschits (1962), Legal documents and Letters. Sogdian documents from Mt. Mugh, II, Moscow (in Russian).

Livschits, Khromov (1981), The Sogdian Language. Foundations of the Iranian Linguistics: Middle Iranian, Moscow (in Russian).

Lifshits (2002), Sogdian Sanak, Manichaean Bishop of the Early 6th century // Turfanforschung Brandenburgische Academie der Wissenschaften 1/2, 2/2.

Lubo-Lesnitchenko (1994), China on the Silk Road, Moscow (in Russian).

Mode (1993), Sogdien und die Herrscher der Welt: Türken, Sasaniden und Chinesen in Historiengemälden das 7. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. aus Alt-Samarqand, Frankfurt am Main.

Negmatov (1968). The emblem of Roma in Ustrushana painting // Izvestiya otdeleniya obschestvennykh nauk Akadenii Nauk Tadjikistana, 2, Dushanbe (former Stalinabad).

Pelliot (1916), Le "Cha tcheou toutoufou t’ou king" et la colonie Sogdienne de la rйgion du Lob Nor // Journal asiatique, XII, Paris.

Pigulevskaja (1951), Byzantium on the roads to India. Moscow (in Russian).

Pulleyblank (1952), A Sogdian colony in Inner Mongolia // T’oung Pao, 41, Paris-Leiden.

Pulleybank (1955), The Background of the Rebellion of An Lushan, London.

Schafer (1963), The Golden Peaches of Samarkand // Study of T’ang Exotics, Berkeley-Los Angeles.

Schafer (1981), The Golden Peaches of Samarkand. A Book about Foreign Marvels in Tang Empire, Moscow (in Russian).

Shishkin (1963), Varakhsha, Moscow (in Russian).

Stavisky (1960), On International Connections of Central Asia in 5th - middle of 8th centuries: in the Light of Archeological Data (Problemy vostokovedenija, 5), Moscow (in Russian).

Stavisky (2000), Sogdian Civilization as a Phenomenon of Central Asia in the 5th - 9th centuries. In memory of Sergej (Sergeevich) Tselniker // Sbornik statej, Moscow (in Russian).

Stavisky, Jatsenko (2001), Art and Culture of Ancient Iranians: Great Steppe, Iranian Plateau, Middle and Central Asia (in Russian).




* Moscow, Russia

1 See e. g.: Stavisky 2000, pp. 131-137.

2 See: Bartold 1896; 1964, p. 324.

3 See: Henning, 1948, p. 606.

4 Cf.: Lubo-Lesnichenko 1994, pp. 257-260.

5 Bartold 1927; 1963, p. 184.

6 Freimann, 1939, p. 296-302.

7 Livshits, 1962, p. 67-68.

8 Klyashtornyj, Livshits, 1971a; Klyastornyj, Livsic, 1972; Livshits, Khromov, 1981, p. 363.

9 Livshits, Khromov, 1981, p. 363-364.

10 See, for instance, Destinus, 1860; Pigulevskaya, 1951.

11 On the Sogdian silk-weaving, see, for instance: Jerusalimskaja, 1972; Jerusalimskaja, 1996.

12 Bartold, 1963, p. 191.

13 Kondakov, 1927, p. 298; Skazanie, 1981, p. 88-89.

14 Besides the classical works of V. V. Bartold and his disciple and successor A. J. Jakubovsky, see, for instance, Belenitsky, Bentovich, Bolshakov, 1973, p. 109-110.

15 Chuguevsky, 1971, p. 150-151.

16 Kliashtornyj, 1964, p. 99-100; Gernet, 1956; Pelliot, 1916; Pulleyblank, 1952.

17 Chuguevsky, 1971, p. 153-154.

18 See: Discovery, 1999; Kyzlasov, 1999; 2001.

19 Much was written about these paintings; see, for instance, the first their publication by L. I Albaum: Albaum, 1971; the book of the same author of 1975; the monograph of the German scholar Markus Mode: Mode, 1993; see also: Albaum, Brentjes, 1972.

20 See: Stavisky, Jatsenko 2002, p. 344-345, fig. 10.3 on p. 439.

21 See, for instance, Shishkin, 1963; Albaum, Brentjes, 1972, S. 167-168.

22 See, for instance, Negmatov, 1968.




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