March 1 – Political, Cultural, and Economic Exchange in Sogdiana

///March 1 – Political, Cultural, and Economic Exchange in Sogdiana
March 1 – Political, Cultural, and Economic Exchange in Sogdiana 2016-03-05T14:44:07+00:00

Class Plan

  • Guest lecture by Aleksandr Naymark, Professor of Fine Arts, Design, Art History, Hofstra University


Aleksandr Naymark, “Return to Varakhsha,” The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter, vol. 1, issue 2 (December, 2003).

Aleksandr Naymark. “Seleucid Coinage of Samarqand?” Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society, no. 221 (2014): 16–20. (BGC|NYU)

Nicholas Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India,” in Cina e Iran da Alessandro Magno alla dinastia Tang, ed. A. Cadonna & L. Lanciotti (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1996), pp. 45-67. (BGC|NYU)


Theme Proposal due.

Theme Proposals


  1. Leslie February 29, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    In Sogdian Merchants in China and India, Sims-Williams writes, “trade routes of the Sogdian merchants [form] a triangle, with India, China, and Sogdiana as its three corners” (56). This got me thinking about Judith Lerner’s Monks and Merchants—specifically where she talks about trade with Constantinople. This would mess up the triangle. Does Sims-Williams discount Constantinople because he is focusing eastward? Was Constantinople not seen as important? Are there more traces of Sogdians in those areas rather than westward? Is he talking about an entirely different time period?

    In “Seleucid Coinage of Samaqand?,” Naymark outlines the possibility of Seleucid mint in Sogdiana. It is established that Sogdians were subject to Greek rule, which would support the idea of a Greek mint in Sogdiana. However, would this Hellenistic influence affect Sogdian culture and customs? Would relationships with other outside ruling kingdoms affect Sogdian life outside of trade and economics?

    I’ve been thinking about foreign coinage also. We know about the Selucid coins from “Seleucid Coinage of Samarquand?,” Chinese copper coins from “Sogdian Merchants in China and India,” and Sasanian coins from Chapter 3 of The Silk Road. I’m wondering what happens to the value of these coins after the Sogdians are no longer beholden to these powers (if they ever become independent of them)? Do they lose value? Does their value simply rest in their materiality—the value of copper or silver?

  2. Ariel Chaffin February 29, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    In “The Sogdian Mercahnts in China and India”, it says, “The letters contain much information on the activities of the Sogdian merchants in China at this period” (page 47). This made me think, what percentage of the Sogdians were merchants? What do we know about the rest of the population?

    In the same article on page 49, it says, “On the other hand, as will be shown below, there is good reason to think that the Sogdian merchants who operated in Xinjang and China might also have had the opportunity of making contact with Indian merchants in India itself”. Given the mobility of the Sogdian merchants, why wouldn’t they have made contact in India?

    On page 53, he notes, “The Sogdian inscriptions are less informative than one might wish, since they consist almost exclusively of personal names and patronymics”. Out of all the things to inscribe, why focus almost exclusively on names? What was the purpose (for the Sogdians) in doing that?

  3. Christine Lee February 29, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    Regarding “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India”, Sims-Williams described the Sogdian merchants in China: “Chinese documents from the Turfan oasis likewise afford glimpses of the activities of Sogdians in that region during the eighth century. Clearly they were still active as merchants, trading in silk, for instance, or in horses, but this trade seems to have been carried on at a fairly local level. Soon after this period the Sogdians as a distinct community disappear from Chinese history”(60). I am curious as to how the Sogdians “disappear” from Chinese history. Does that mean they assimilate to the Chinese society or they stopped being active with the Chinese? And is there any other documents outside of China that record this part of the history?

    The last part of Sims-Williams’s readings also interests me: he described after the Sogdians’ adoption of Chinese paper, the Chinses loanwords in Sogdian quickly spread to the other countries in Central Asia (61-62). I think this part should be looked carefully as one of the documentation for the language and literature theme. How widely spread was the Sogdian language in Central Asia?

    Naymark described several types of coinage in “Seleucid Coinage of Samarqand?” I’ve been thinking about if Sogdians had ever had invented their own type of coins?

  4. Elizabeth Neill February 29, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    In Naymark’s discussion of Varakhsha, he notes that its population “deliberately rejected township rights” and “it was considered ‘the largest of the villages’ in the Bukharan oasis.” What were township rights, and why would a group of people refuse them? He also mentions traces of industrial quarters in Varakhsha’s environs. Is there any further information about these place of production that can shed light on the peoples that created the wall paintings or other crafts that may have been traded as goods to Bukhara or Khoresm?

    Today’s readings again come up against the issue of biases in historical sources. Naymark highlights the political agendas that affected the study of the sites in modern times alongside the political agendas behind creative adjustments and emphases in historical texts (a significant example being the insertion of Sukah into the Bukharan succession). The “coded” interpretation of the wall paintings from Varakhsha is a visual representation of the difficulties we will also come across in written texts, with multiple layers adjusted based on the needs of the time, a literal whitewashing of history. How can information from historical texts or representations such as these be verified? What are some of the contradictions and inconsistencies that mark out an unreliable (or, perhaps more accurately, biased, though all things have natural bias) text or representation?

    Sims-Williams and Naymark both note the constant problem of fragmentary evidence. In discussing trade items mentioned in textual sources, Sims-Williams identifies gold, musk, pepper, camphor, cloth made of hemp or flax, and wheat, and argues that “in view of the limited extent of the texts, the apparent absence of the work for silk… may be fortuitous” (Sims-Williams, 48). Is there a clear outlier — or several outliers — that appears most often among these fragmentary texts? Perhaps a better question would be, are there any non-perishable goods or perishable goods that leave visible traces in the archaeological record that can verify the limited knowledge conveyed by these fragmentary sources? Rather than relying only on direct textual evidence, which is understandably limited, the logistics of transport and storage (amphorae or the equivalent of transport vessels, warehouses or storage depots, or a lack thereof) might supplement the written sources.

  5. Julie Bellemare March 1, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Naymark’s “Seleucid Coinage of Samarqand” has triggered several questions for me this week. As we have learned from several other readings, coins were readily imitated and often used in Sogdian burials as talismans. When compiling the reports of finds of Hellenistic coins in Sogdiana, is there a provision for fake coins? How can we know for sure which ones are real?

    Regarding the unknown type of Seleucid coins discussed on pages 2-3, the entire analysis is based on the assumption that the first creature represents either a crab or a bee. However, counting the animal’s legs, we arrive at 8 or 9, which would in fact bring it closer to an arachnid than an insect or a crab. The creature on the opposite side, in contrast, has six legs and an oblong body, resembling that of a firefly. Is there any textual or material evidence for the importance of these two creatures? Are there any analytical tools that we could use to interpret these motifs that are more precise than Naymark’s strategy of looking at the entire Seleucid, South Asian and Central Asian imagery for comparative examples?

  6. Summer Olsen March 1, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Dating issues seem to be a key theme across Naymark’s two articles. Problems seem to arise when theories are formed via numismatic data. For example Atakhodzhaev’s assumptions about a possible siege of Sogdiana by the troops of Antiochus III called into question by Naymark on p. 3 of the Seleucid coin article. What volume of coinage/numismatic evidence is necessary to use it to extrapolate definitive facts about the political/economic history of a place?

    To piggyback on Julia’s question about the number of legs on the crab issue on p.2 and 3- could it be a case like the portrayal of elephants on the murals from the Red Hall at Varakhsha (discussed on p 13-16 in Returning to Varakhsha) where the artist was most likely painting from a model and not from actual first hand knowledge about what a crab looked like?

    While reading Nicholas Sims-Williams article I was struck by the ways in which linguists can track relationships between cultures via the use of borrowed words or suffixes/prefixes. I wonder if it is as possible to unravel interaction between the Sodians and their neighbors/trading partners by looking at shared motifs on textiles/metalwork/wall paintings?

  7. Matthew Dischner March 1, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    It seems likely that a great many Sogdian artifacts were sold over the years before they were identified as Sogdian. Is there any way to track of catalogue all of these objects? As valuable as it would be to know what we are missing from archeological sites like Varakhsha, is this a pipe dream?

    Is it really of any historical value that Greco-Bactrian coins were found in Sogdiana? It seems that, given they were neighbors, this would be inevitable and not particularly extraordinary. The analysis of the crabs on the coins, however, is quite fascinating. Would a Sogdian have found these coins valuable (or more valuable) because of the exotic animal? Are these images evidence more of the traveling of Sogdians or of their seeming willingness to appropriate a greta many images from other societies?

    Due to their penchant for travel and their proximity to India, I would have assumed we would have encountered more sources about the Sogdians in India before this week. Obviously there are fewer surviving links between Sogdiana and India than Sogdiana and China, but still it seems a disproportionate amount of research has gone one way and not the other. Why is this the case? I would go so far as to say that, regardless of the fact that many of our sources about the Sogdians are Chinese, a great deal of research seems to be overly Sino-centric.

  8. Christina March 1, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    In “Returning to Varakhsha,” Naymark notes that Vasilii Shishkin’s excavations of Varakhsha “stood out among the contemporary archaeological work in Central Asia because of the unusual attention devoted to the building history of the edifice and the meticulous recording of different architectural materials.” However, Naymark continues that there were some deficiencies in the records as well, compared to more recently excavated sites. How do these early archaeological excavations compare to today’s contemporary excavation records? How can these records be used to understand other archaeological sites where excavations were not carefully recorded? What can future excavations in/around Varakhsha do to fill the deficiencies of the early excavations?

    In “Seleucid Coinage of Samarqand?,” Naymark mentions the “systematic ‘cleaning’ of incorrect and doubtful data in the database, most of which had been derived by different 20th century scholars from the 19th and early 20th century literature.” What is the process for “cleaning” the data derived from earlier scholars? How is the early data used today?

    In his chapter “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India,” Sims-Williams discusses the early Sinicization of the Sogdians as found on a document of a contract. On this document, people of Sogdian origin were referred to by their personal names, their patronymics, and an adjective indicating their city of origin (or that of their family). Is the decision to also include city of origin by choice of the Sogdians or required by the Chinese? What does this say about Sogdian self identity and Sogdian identity as formed by the Chinese?

  9. Joanna Byrne March 1, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    In “The Sogdian Merchants in China and India”, Nicholas Sims-Williams points out that Sogdians were so closely associated with trade that the Khotanese “applied the term…’Sogdian’ to any merchant, regardless of his ethnic origin.” (Sim-Williams 45). How common was that phenomenon? Is it possible that this is a confounding variable to our study of other sources that mention “Sogdians” by name?

    Also on the topic of nomenclature, Sims-Williams refers to a passage in one of the ancient letters, reporting that “when they reached Luoyang the…and Indians and Sogdians there had all died of starvation” (Sims-Williams 49). Given the fluidity between languages, and the lack of a single system of naming other cultures, can we assume that “Indian” always means “from India”? Or is it possible that “Indian” had come to define something other than that specific national origin, in the way that “Sogdian” came to mean “merchant” in Khotanese?

    Naymark discusses the unusual iconography of the ‘animal run’ made up of saddled creatures, and concludes that “this leaves the impression that the patron ordered both the religious content and the political agenda of the paintings to be “coded” and hidden under the neutral cover of the rhythmically organized anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ‘ornament.'” If the contents of this mural were intended to be coded, what groups would have understood the code? If this is in fact an attempt at religio-political subterfuge, why paint it on the wall in the first place?

  10. Sarah Fisk March 1, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Nicholas Sims Williams mentions how “the Sogdians imported Chinese silk, including painted silk scrolls (and indeed the Chinese imported Sogdian figured silk in return) (pg. 61). Where else in the readings/objects can we identify the differences between Chinese and Sogdian silk? Do we have instances where silk was using as a material for documentation and writing?

    In ‘Returning to Varakhsha’ the hunting mural in the Red Hall of the Toghshada Palace is discussed as an “other” in Sogdian mural iconography. Can we use this palace to highlight Indian/Buddhist motifs mixing with Zoroastrian ones (East Hall of the same palace)?

    Naymark discusses the possibility of Greco-Bactrian coins around Bukhara (Seleucid Coinage of Samarqand?). However, there is a lot of coinage jargon I felt could be expanded upon (perhaps he does this in a different article or someone else does it better) – how will we effectively contextualize coinage when many of the coins are in bad condition/illegible as Naymark suggests?

  11. Maria March 1, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I wasn’t totally convinced by the arguments in “Return to Varaksha” that the cuts in the painted walls, described by Naymark, would be definitely made by an artist who wanted to keep them as samples for his later work. Do we have other evidences for this conclusion, except the shapes and the places of the cuts? Are there other preserved samples or similar documented cases?

    The conclusion of the Sims-Williams article “we should not be too ready to accept the Chinese estimation of the Sogdians as barbarians” came as a surprise to me. Thought the reading I haven’t spotted the idea that the Chinese took the Sogdians as barbarians, just the opposite, he says that “Chinese sources tell some tall stories to illustrate the sharpness of the Sogdian merchants” (p.46). The fact that the Sogdians served as key middlemen for religions, ideas and goods between different parts of the Silk Road world, seems to be one of the most important in the article. I wonder if the last sentence of the article isn’t just an awkward formulation. But if not, in which respect the Chinese could perceive the Sogdians as barbarians? Does it refer to a very particular period of history (such as the Muslim rule over the territory of the Sogdiana)?

    Sims-Williams says that in about the 10th century AD Sogdian disappears “from use as a written language” (p.45). Nevertheless, we can trace the Sogdians and their families in China thanks to the “9 surnames” given to them by the Chinese. Can we trace in the documents left after those Chinese families with Sogdian origins any alteration in the use of the Classical Chinese language? If such alterations would be discovered, which kind of conclusions could we draw out of this fact?

  12. Aleena Malik March 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    In terms of coinage, the readings talk about coins minted elsewhere. However, there isn’t any mention of coins minted in Sogdiana. Is this because there weren’t any or have they been lost? And if there weren’t any coins minted there why was that the case? Was that not considered as a political move or was it just not important?

    Sogdian contact with India was described as being uncertain. However, Indian themes do crop up in Sogdian images and text. And considering Sogdians as major players in trade, isn’t it highly likely that they did indeed make contact with Indians?

    The influence of other languages on the Sogdian language is interesting. I wonder if religion played a part in the certain influences? I would like to know more about the significance of borrowing suffixes and prefixes.

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