My particular interest with the Sogdians is with their place along the greater “Silk Road” and the way in which they both interacted with their neighbors and the way they facilitated interaction between their neighbors. Specifically, I’m looking to highlight Sogdiana’s role as a crossroads between other societies, such as the Chinese, the people on the steppes, and the Indian Subcontinent. The objects I have chosen are all either Sogdian objects that have been found outside of Sogdiana or allude to Sogdian interaction with their neighbors.
- Rhyton: My interest in this particular rhyton stems from its location of discovery, Siberia. Through it I hope to investigate Sogdian interaction not just with the steppes but also with the areas that stretch even further beyond.
- Fragment of a Wall Painting with a scene from the Mahabharata: Beyond its fantastic aesthetic qualities, this piece demonstrates a great many things about Sogdian society. We see in one image the pluralism of Sogdian religious attitudes, the interest in stories originating from abroad, as well as evidence of interaction with the Indian subcontinent. A deal can still be investigated as to the possible importance of this painting. Was its significance religious, secular, or both?
- Cup with Arabic Inscription: While our focus on the Sogdians tapers off significantly after the Islamic conquests of the region, this object still gives us insight to Sogdian life under Arab rule.
- Badamu Document: This document gives us particular insight into not just how the Sogdians interacted with their neighbors but the general political climate of the region. This object in particular is interesting because while the subject matter of the document is not strictly Sogdian, it being written in the Sogdian language shows the important roles Sogdians played as diplomats in the region.
- Pendant in the form of Buddha Sakyamuni: The Sogdians are often credited as being important to the transmission of Buddhism in the region. Yet other sources suggest that Buddhism was not widely practiced in Sogdiana, and that at times Buddhists may have been persecuted. I hope to use this object to explore the complicated relationship the Sogdians had with the religion.
- Baba-ye Dihqan: While the figure of Baba-ye Dihqan himself is quite interesting, this wall painting in particular has a lot to unpack. As we have been told, not only is the painting unique in its portrayal of peasantry, but it also has some Christian elements as well. In this one painting we see links across physical space (with the Christian elements) and temporal space (with the continuing importance of the figure of Babe-ye Dihqan in the region), as well as an insight into Sogdian attitudes about the lower classes.
Valerie Hansen: The Silk Road: A New History
Boris Marshak: Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana
Sören Stark: “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia”
Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West
The Sogdians as Silk Road Intermediaries
Many of the Chinese sources we have about the Sogdians mention them in relation to Buddhism. Research suggests that the Sogdians were instrumental in bringing the practice of Buddhism to China. We know that they were responsible for translating some of the sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese, and that there were Sogdian monks in both China and India. Yet archeological evidence for the practice of Buddhism within Sogdiana is slim, though this could be due to a general lack of emphasis on idolatry and physical worship in Buddhist theology. As well, there are a few Chinese sources that suggest Buddhists we at times persecuted in Sogdiana. This suggests that, while the Sogdians were essential players in the spread of Buddhism, on the whole they weren’t too fond of the religion itself. Zoroastrianism, or at least some local form of the Persian religion, seemed to be much more influential and accepted. I’d like to explore this contradiction further.
Evidence suggests that the “Silk Road”, and by relation the Sogdians, were at their peak when China was specifically focusing its attention on central Asia and the west. The Sogdians also seemed to thrive when there were other strong neighbors surrounding them. We also know that the Sogdians served as political intermediaries for the Chinese and the Steppe societies. It seems that, not only did Sogdian society depend on strong neighbors to flourish, but they excelled in the role of intermediary between the Chinese and other regional powers. Sogdians played prominent roles on the fringes of Chinese society. We have records of them serving as community leaders, suggesting a role that placed them in a dialogue between their homeland and China. And we also know of a number of Sogdian military leaders working for foreign powers. These are a people that are, for the most part, defined by their interactions with others. While all signs point to them being an essential part of Silk Road diplomacy, I also think that Silk Road diplomacy was what helped keep them a thriving society.
Multiple sources cite the Sogdians as having linguistic prowess. We have Sogdian tombs in China that feature both Sogdian and Chinese. We also know that some of the Buddhist sutras made it to China by way of the Sogdians, who translated the texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. As well, an ability to translate would have complimented their role as intermediaries between China and “the west.” What can we learn about their culture from their linguistic flexibility? We know that Sogdian is an offshoot of old Persian, but are there aspects of the language that are related to Chinese or other languages in the region? Did the Sogdian language itself work as an intermediary or lingua franca? We have previously seen sources that have suggested Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road, but is there any hard evidence to support this?
Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History
Stark, “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia”
Grenet, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism”
A.L. Juliano & J.A. Lerner, eds, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China