February 23 – Religious Life and Material Culture of the Sogdians

///February 23 – Religious Life and Material Culture of the Sogdians
February 23 – Religious Life and Material Culture of the Sogdians 2016-02-23T20:02:01+00:00

Class Plan

  • Guest lecture by Judith Lerner, Visiting Research Scholar, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU


Frantz Grenet, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism,”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27/2 (2007): 463-478. (BGC | NYU)

A.L. Juliano & J.A. Lerner, eds, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China (New York: Abrams, 2002). (BGC | NYU)

Judith Lerner, “Central Asians in sixth-century China: A Zoroastrian funerary rite,” Iranica Antiqua 30 (1995): 179-90. (BGC | NYU)

Judith Lerner, “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China,” The Silk Road 9 (2011): 18-25. (BGC | NYU)


Prior to class students are to meet with Professors Balbale and Keramidas about their object and theme interests based on the Smithsonian-provided list.


  1. eneill February 22, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    In many of our readings, including “Religious Diversity” (p. 466) and Lerner Ch. 6 (pp. 222-223), the same quote from the History of the Tang Dynasty (so called in the article, cited elsewhere variously as Xin Tang shu, the Book of Tang, etc.) is used to characterize Sogdians from the Chinese point of view: “[the people of Kang] are excellent traders; when a man turns twenty, he travels to neighbouring countries and does not stop until there is no more profit to make” (466). What is the initial context for this quote? Are there any further references to the Sogdians in this History? Is there an English translation? (I briefly attempted to find an internet version with no success but found that there are two Books of Tang, the Old and New, which differ significantly in some areas.)

    Lerner’s discussion of Zoroastrian funeral rites brings up the practices of modern Zoroastrians. How can modern practices reflect on ancient practices? Is there necessarily any correspondence across millenia? Were the divisions between religions such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Manichaeism as clear-cut as they seem to be described? The multiple iconographies found in many of these objects seem to suggest a willingness to syncretize or perhaps even practice what would be considered today two religions.

    The mourners in funerary depictions who appear to be wounding themselves are noted to be “in a manner that is antithetical to the Zoroastrian texts… but one that is known from painted schenes of grieving at Sogdian Panjikent in Tajikistan and at Kizil in the Kucha oasis in Chinese Turkestan” (Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China, p. 20). Given the relative proliferation of these images, why is the legitimacy of the text prioritized over the legitimacy of the illustrations? Particularly since the practice was actively prohibited, which tends to suggest it was occuring in large enough numbers to warrant a specific regulation, could this instead be considered a part of the iconography due to an innate meaning known to peoples in the ancient context?

  2. Julie Bellemare February 23, 2016 at 9:38 am

    Several authors refer to a shift in burial practice of Sogdians from open-air exposure of bones in Sogdiana to interment in China. After Professor Stark’s lecture last week, I can understand how urbanization in Sogdiana would allow for such a practice in open fields between towns, and I wonder if one factor at play here could have been that Chinese cities were too densely built up to allow for open-air exposure. Or perhaps it was more difficult to build dakhmas in these cities?

    When discussing burial practices and iconographies, Lerner (2011:20) and Luo Feng (243) both mention the presence of a dog, either buried directly in the tomb or carved in a stone relief scene. What is the significance of this animal?

    On page 476, Grenet argues that because the stone reliefs in Wirkak’s tomb made clear references to Manichaeanism, Wirkak himself must have been very well acquainted with its teachings. This implies that Wirkak gave instructions on how to carve his sarcophagus before his death. Isn’t it also possible that his descendants commissioned these scenes? Could the carver(s) also have had some agency and knowledge of these themes and motifs?

  3. Leslie February 23, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Throughout the discussions of the iconography on sarcophagi, particularly Wirkak’s, I found it amazing how much we can learn about someone’s life (and to an extent a culture) just through funerary decorations. I was really struck by a quick mention of grape vines being associated with the Sogdian way of life (Grenet 467). Later, when discussing the Guimet couch, Grenet also mentions grapes, but this time in the context of Hindu tradition. How do we know that the grape vine is a Sogdian symbol? Where else does it pop up? Further, does it represent something other than grape vines?

    In “Central Asians in Sixth Century China,” Lerner discusses the fireholder or altar. She points out the hourglass shape of the fireholder/altar in a specific relief (181). So here’s what I’m wondering—were these altars reserved for the reverence of the Zoroastrian fire or were they also used for other religious rites, such as sacrifices?

    In the introduction of Monks and Merchants, Lerner and Juliano tell us that the Silk Road provided safe passage for Buddhist monks and pilgrims. This got me thinking about other religions, specifically Christianity. We learn that Sogdiana had direct trade relations with Constantinople in the sixth century, by then established as an important city for Christianity. Were Christian missionaries also given safe passage along the trade routes or was this relationship between Sogdiana and Constantinople strictly economic?

  4. clee February 23, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Lerner’s articles specified the Zoroastrain funerary in the Sogdian culture. There are also many others cultures involved in her description such as Turks and Chinese, which assimilate into it to complete this specific part for the Sogdians: “Distinctive dress and physiognomies identify the nationalities of these figures: the men as Central Asians, most likely Sogdians, although some seem to be Turks; the women as Chinese. The evidence for such identifications will be treated elsewhere, what concerns us here is the ceremony in which these people are involved”(181). I wonder how we can both categorize these cultures each by each, and as well merge them as one?

    In the funerary articles, the dog was mentioned specifically to the part of this culture: “In comparison to this practice, unknown from Zoroastrain Iranian sources, the presence of the dog in the scene refers to a specific Zoroastrain rite. This is the ceremony of sagdid (‘the viewing by the dog’), performed three times in the course of a Zoroastrain funeral”(185). I’m curious as to what the dog represents? I think this is specific to Sogdian culture?

    “Sasanian trade seems to have been in large part state-supported. Like its presecessor, the Parthian state, the Sasanian central government established a monopoly on those sections of the trade routes that passed through Iran, there by preventing direct contacts between the Sogdian caravans and the trading centers of Byzantium in the West. After unsuccessful attempts to gain Sasanian permission to travel through Iran to sell silk directly to the west, the Sogdians appealed to their new overlords, the Turks, to enter into a trade agreement with Constantinople; the Turkie-Sogdian embassy to Constantinople of 568 resulted in the opening of a new trade route across the Caucasus avoiding Iran”(223). This quote seems like a big part of the trading history of the Sogdians. Can this part of history be more specific? What are the conflicts and what are the cooperation?

  5. jbyrne February 23, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    Juliano and Lerner explain the role of the sabao: “A member of each foreign community, known as a sabao, presided over the community’s civic and religious affairs and had Chinese official rank.” (p. 225-6). What do we know about the relationship between civic and religious life for Sogdians living in China? To what extent should we view the mixing of Chinese and Sogdian funerary practices as a negotiation between competing systems?

    Grenet and Lerner both mention the practice of mourners mutilating their own faces, and both point out that the practice was not condoned in Zoroastrian texts. Should we still consider this practice to be a Zoroastrian one? Is there any evidence of this practice found anywhere else in the region among other religious traditions?

    In “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China”, Judith Lerner explains of the men buried in these tombs: “at least seven of these men were elites in the foreign communities in different cities in China” (Lerner 19). Do we know how these burials would have differed from the tombs of Sogdians living in China who were not elite? To what extent can we see the incorporations of Chinese funerary elements as a diplomatic gesture?

  6. sestets February 23, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Judith Lerner in her “Central Asians in Sixth-Century China: A Zoroastrian Funerary Rite” states, “Distinctive dress and physiognomies identify the nationalities of these figures: the men as Central Asians, mostly Sogdians, although some seem to be Turks; the woman as Chinese. The evidence for such identifications will be treated elsewhere” (181). From past readings and lectures, it seems dress and physical characteristics are key Sogdians identifiers. However as illustrated in the above example, not many sources go into descriptive detail about what and how certain characteristics qualify as Sogdian. Has Lerner published her work regarding this evidence yet?

    In “Religious Diversity Among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism “ Frantz Grenet interprets panels of the Wirkak Sarcophagus. I found myself going back and forth between his text and the panels’ illustration in order to fully grasp what he was describing. There were many times when I couldn’t point out the section, symbol, or figure he was highlighting, which was frustrating. Also, having to turn or scroll back and forth between pages was tedious. How can a web platform enhance the critical collaboration between the written word and the reproduction of authentic objects’ illustration or image? How can we get these two information sources to work with one another in an innovative, effortless way for the user?

    On pg. 469, Grenet interprets a section of the Miho couch: “as the family is meditating in front of the mountain landscape and mourners are wounding their faces, a funerary ritual condemned in Zoroastrian texts but nonetheless frequently depicted on Central Asian ossuaries, including on those that bear unequivocal Zoroastrian inscriptions.” What does Gernet mean by wounding their faces?

  7. achaffin February 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    In Grenet’s article, he discusses how it wasn’t common to have an epitaph written in Sogdian (page 465). Knowing that, why was this particular epitaph he is referring to written in both Sogdian and Chinese, and not just one? Granted, we benefit today by the dual epitaphs, but still, what was the purpose behind including both?

    In Judith Lerner’s “Zoroastrian Funeral…”, she mentions the funerary rite, sagdid (page 474). Did the dog have to be a specific breed? Were certain dogs kept purely for this purpose? Or could any dog do?

    In “Monks and Mechants”, dogs are mentioned in eating the flesh of the corpse (page 433). Were these wild dogs? Were these dogs different than the ones used in sagdid?

  8. mdischner February 23, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    These readings continue to support ideas of religious plurality and flexibility that we have seen in previous readings about the Sogdians. As in those previous examples, Zoroastrianism remains key, though these readings seem to place a greater emphasis on the religion than what we have seen in the past. Why is this the case? Is this due to the geographic locations of these artifacts, being further from the Sogdian homeland? Or does this betray an ignorance of what “orthodox” Zoroastrianism actually is? After all, the authors in these readings relate the Zoroastrian elements of these burials to the Zoroastrianism of Sogdiana, yet we have seen that the Zoroastrianism practiced in Sogdiana was unique from the Persian style, including a number of deities from the Indian pantheon as well as a changing emphasis on the hierarchy of deities.

    How accurate is our “biography” of Wirkak? Is there evidence of these types of lives as portrayed on tombs as being accurate, say an outside biography that matches the events on a tomb? While I have no doubts parts are embellished, is there motivation to outright fabricate events on the tomb?

    Grenet expected to find more evidence of Buddhism in his studies, but did not. Why? What colored his expectations? We know that Buddhism spread in China through the Sogdians, is that a reason to expect them to be adherents of the religion? Our readings suggest that Buddhism did not flourish within Sogdiana proper, but still the Sogdians played an important role int he propagation of the religion. How do we make sense of these seeming contradictions?

  9. Sarah Fisk February 23, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    What is the level of inherent sacredness in the Sogdian Zoroastrian burial practices? Where is the Sogdian voice when describing/displaying these types of objects (would they have wanted them to be displayed at all)?

    In Lerner’s (1995, p. 183 and 2011, p. 18) discussion of gate posts associated with a mortuary couch and how its parts are dispersed among several museums, she notes that “the gate posts are in the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst, Cologne, while two rectangular slabs from the couch are in the MFA, Boston, a third slab in the Musee Guimet, Paris, and the dais and two cornices in the Freer Gallery, all having been purchases on the Chinese art market earlier in this century.” Looking at the object list, how can we digitally bring together these objects from disparate collections?

    In relation to how mourners are depicted (Lerner, 1995 p. 184) is this a Western European influence?

  10. amalik February 23, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    In describing practices many religions and cultures are mentioned, not just Zoroastrianism. How can we then so easily merge them under the Zoroastrian religion? Especially when there are references to practices that go against Zoroastrianism?

    Like many others I’m interested in the significance of the dog. From the illustrations the dog looks to be rather small. Although in reading the text I would assume the dog would be much bigger. Was there a specific type of dog required?

    In Grenet’s reading the winged crown is described in almost every scene. He laters describes it as alluding to foreigners. Scene 4 shows the king wearing a winged crown. I’m a little confused as to whether the winged crown was worn by just foreigners or also Sogdians. And if worn by both how to differentiate between the two?

  11. solsen February 23, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    When talking about nomadic peoples of the steppe are they Turk, Türk, or Turkic tribes? Or are these general and interchangeable terms for any number of nomadic groups that are headed by a Kahn/Kagan. There seem to be continual issues in all the literature we have dealt with so far in defining nomadic groups of people that live to the North/ North East of Sogdiana who, by all accounts, are enormously influential in trade, political and military conflict, and cultural identity of the Sodgians.

    It is clear that the appreciation of dancing and music was an important activity for the Sogdians and the people they encountered and lived among. I was struck by mention of groups of Sogdian dancers being taken to and admired by the Chinese court (253) and other mentions of the movement of performing Sogidans to the courts of their neighbors/trading partners. What might their status have been both in Sogdian communities and abroad. Did they earn a living from it? Also what might the Sogdian swirl, huxuan wu, that was such a crowd pleaser have looked like- all that gyrating-leaping- and whirling seems to point to something pretty dynamic, dramatic, and virtuosic.

    Use of foreign “exotic” objects in the Shi family tombs-

    “They may reflect local customs in Sogdiana or changes and modifications made to those customs by these descendants of the Sogdian settlers”(Feng 243).

    Might the foreign “exotic” objects in the Shi family tombs have operated on multiple levels as they were made/commissioned/placed by the deceased persons family who were ”Keenly anxious for the long-lasting safety and peace of their father’s [or other family member’s] graveyard” (257). i.e. as a way to cover all their bases for the afterlife, their relationship with Sogdian culture, and acceptance in/their relationship to their current place of residence.

  12. Maria February 23, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Sogdians are seen from China as Buddhist, and from their homeland as Zoroastrian. How can we explain this? Is it due to artefacts or texts? How can it help to understand what Sogdians thought about them themselves?

    Why would it be divine motives, which break monotony of usually depicted objects, and not some regional symbolism, for example? Does it mean that there was a wider religious diversity in the region, comparing to any other human activities? Or were there more iconographical choices? (Grenet, 469)

    Does the presence of Zoroastrian elements in Chinese funerary practices always refer to Sogdians? Would it be possible to find other people having similar sarcophagus iconography? Would it be a mistake to attribute funerary finds as belonging to Sino-Sogdian cultural strain uniquely basing on this feature? (Lerner)

    If different nations attached to Sogdian caravans, including Persians, what would be the best way to understand the distribution of merchant activities in the region? Is there any way to divide them among the listed nations? (Lerner, Monks and Merchants, 233)

  13. Christina February 23, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Grenet opens his article by stating that the religious Sogdian texts discovered in the Chinese territory were deciphered by Iranologists, supplementing the work of Sinologists based in Chinese literary records (pg. 461). What other types of collaboration in research are possible to increase our (and the world’s) understanding of the Sogdians? Can the idea of collaborative research be incorporated into the digital exhibition? If so, how?

    In her article “Central Asians in Sixth-Century China: A Zoroastrian Funerary Rite,” Lerner writes, “Distinctive dress and physiognomies identify the nationalities of these figures: the men as Central Asians, most likely Sogdians, although some seem to be Turks; the women as Chinese.” (pg. 180) What are these distinctive dress and physiognomies? How are these identities distinguished artistically?

    On pg. 185 of “Central Asians in Sixth-Century China” and pages 19-20 in “Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China,” Lerner describes the ceremony of sagdîd, or “the viewing by the dog,” performed three times during a Zoroastrian funeral. Is there a reason that it is a dog and not another animal, besides the belief its gaze is to “drive away the spirit of dead matter” (pg. 185)? Are there dogs present in at other Zoroastrian ceremonies?

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