Central Asia in the Early Middle Ages,
Introduction to the history of the regions

3. Sogd

(p. 50, 60-61, 76-77 of Chapter 3, "Sogd", V. Raspopova, G. Shishkina)

Sogd occupies the central region of Central Asia. The principal Sogdian lands were along the valley of the river Zeravshan with Samarkand as a centre. Sogd also included the possession of Kesh and Nakhsheb in the valley of the river Kashka-darja. Beside the Samarkand Sogd the sources mention the Bukhara Sogd which, apparently, depended on Samarkand at the beginning of the VII c. [Mandel'shtam, 1954, p. 83]. The spread of the Sogdian language, writing and culture was not restricted to these territories. In the first half of the VII c. the Chinese traveller Sjuan Czjan remarked that all lands from the town of Sjuab on the river Chu to Kesh were called Sogd and there was spoken the Sogdian language [Beal, 1906. p. 26]. With this he had apparently not the political boundaries of Sogd, but the limits of the lands populated predominantly by Sogdians. The process of Sogdian colonisation to the north-east from the proper Sogd started in the ancient times and was more intensive at the time of the early Middle Ages.

(Images from the web-site of Falling Rain Genomics, Inc.)

The regions of Chach and Ustrushana near Sogd were closely linked with it. Extensive Sogdian colonies were situated in the valleys of the rivers Chu and Talas, where the Sogdian language was preserved until the XI c. All these regions were a place of cultural interactions of the Sogdian with the local cultures. The Sogdian script was widely spread during the early Middle Ages both in the Sogdian-speaking lands and in others, where other languages were spoken. Sogdian legends appear on the coins of Khorezm, Tokharistan, Ferghana, besides the already mentioned Chach, Ustrushana and Semirech'e. Sogdian was the language of the international exchange thanks to both the wide commercial and colonisation activities of the Sogdians, and the important administrative role it played in the Turkic khaganates [Bernshtam, 1940; Kyzlasov, 1959; Kozhemjako, 1959; Raspopova, 1960, 1973; Kljashtornyj, 1964; Marshak, Raspopova, 1983].

Map 3. Sogd.

a - large towns; b - multi-layered towns; c - middle-sized towns; d - castles and fortresses

1. Samarkand, 2. Kosimkurgan, 3. Dun'etepe, 4. Mugtepe, 5. the castle on the mountain Mug, 6. Gardani Khisor, 7. Kala-Miron, 8. Fil'mandar, 9. Baturtepe, 10. Pendzhikent, 11. Chukhkurgan, 13. Tali Adaj, 14. Kesh, 15. Karshi, 16. Erkurgan, 17. Varakhsha, 18. Pajkend, 19. Bukhara, 20. Kafirkala, 21. Talibarzu

Sogdian colonies existed in Eastern Turkestan, Central Asia and Western China. They ranged from real possessions to separate villages. Many Sogdians lived in the towns of Eastern Turkestan and in China [Henning, 1948; Chuguevskij, 1971].

A Chinese embassy visited Central Asia in V c. and mentioned the state of Sogd with capital at Samarkand. The Chinese sources also say that in the second half of the IV c. a certain state called Sude, apparently Sogd, was captured by nomads. Probably these were the Chionites [Enoki, 1955]. The dynasty they founded continued to rule during the first half of the V c. The state of Sude, and after 479 the state of Samarkand regularly sent embassies to China. After 510 AD it was already the Hephthalites who sent the embassies. It is possible that these embassies were mainly commercial caravans of the Sogdian merchants, and that the different names they were called reflected the changes in the political status of Sogd. The definitive conquest of Sogd by the Hephthalites, the centre of whose state was to the south, happened around 510 AD [Enoki, 1959; Marshak, 1971].

In the 60ís of the VI c. the Hephthalites were crushed by the Tjurks and Iran. Sogd was incorporated into the first Turkic khaganate, but preserved its internal autonomy. In the mid-VII c. the principalities of Sogd became virtually independent, acknowledging nominally the authority of the Tan empire. The written sources report the names of several possession in Sogd: Samarkand, Kobudan, Ishtikhan and Mamurg in the Samarkand Sogd; Kesh and Nakhsheb in the valley of Kashka-darja; Bukhara, Pajkend and Vardan in the Bukhara Sogd [Bichurin, 1950, pp. 281-282].

In the second half of the VII c., after the subjugation of Iran the Arabs began their advance in Central Asia, Sogd included [Bolíshakov, 1973. pp. 143-162]. In the beginning of the VIII c. the Arabs subjugated the Sogdian principalities, although their authority was not stable and they had difficulties in suppressing the uprisings. As a results of almost non-ending wars between 719 and 739 AD the country was devastated and went into a deep decline. In the mid-VIII c., after a new series of uprisings, started the process of mass Islamisation and of enrolling of the local nobility into the government of the Caliphate.

In the 70ís of the VIII the Maverannakhr rose again under the leadership of Mukanna. After this revolt was quelled, the Islam took complete hold in the country.


Many religions were present in the pre-Islamic Sogd: fetishism, veneration of the fire, of the celestial bodies, of the trees and all kinds of images. A notable role was played by the Buddhism, which, however, lost its influence even before to the coming of the Arabs. The monasteries were destroyed, and the Buddhism was practically forgotten.

Sjuan Czjan, who visited Central Asia 100 years prior to the coming of the Arabs, wrote that in the country Kan (Sogd) the king and the people did not believe in Buddhism and venerated the fire instead, and that there were two monasteries but no monks. According to Hoj Chao there was one monastery with one monk in Samarkand at the beginning of the VIII c.

The Arab historians wrote a lot about the Sogdian temples and the treasures stored in them. According to Tabari, during the conquest of Samarkand Kutejba ordered many temples to be burnt down. Mentioned were also the temples in Ramitan - a small town near Bukhara, and in Pajkend. In Bukhara there was built a mosque in the place of the temple.

The best studied among the Sogdian temples are those in Pendzhikent. Structurally they are similar to the Zoroastrian temples of fire in India. They had a camera for storing the fire, and a place for ceremonies. An enormous number of murals, depicting mythological or cultic scenes, gods, donors, scenes of feasts, scenes of mourning, processions, etc., have been discovered. The ritual at the Pendzhikent temples included a lightning of a fire and bowing before the images of the gods.

Burial customs

Characteristic to Sogd was the burial of the cleaned from the flesh bones of the deceased in special clay ossuaries or, sometimes, in khumas (pits in the ground) [Staviskij, Bol'shakov, Monchadskaja, 1953; Grenet, 1984]. The ossuaries were then placed in family tombs or, rarely, - in graves. Besides the ossuaries, in the tombs were put vessels with food, sometimes golden coins and bracteate. The earliest Sogdian tombs belong to the V-VI cc.

The cattle-breeders of the Zeravshan valley kept to their traditions of burying the deceased in pits with a niche on one of the walls or with a lid of stones. Several kurgans from the V c. have been excavated at the mouth of the Sazagan valley [Obel'chenko, 1966. p. 66-81]. Some part of the cattle-breeding population of Sogd switched to the custom of exposing the dead in the open and the subsequent burial of the bones in vessels, as shown by earlier kurgans from the Bukhara region [Obel'chenko, 1966. p. 94-99].

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