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Iranian culture in Central Asia

By Matteo Compareti
July 24, 2001
The Iranian

Sogdiana is an historical region of Central Asia currently comprised of Southern Uzbekistan and Western Tajikistan. Her population was Iranian in culture and language even if many aspects still remain enigmatic.

The existence of such a population has been known for a long time, thanks mainly to Chinese sources. But in the beginning of the 20th century some European archaeological missions in Chinese Turkestan (today Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Province) recovered documents in Sogdian language.

Other documents were discovered in proper Sogdiana at the archaeological sites excavated in the Soviet period and inscriptions appeared along the routes of the so-called Silk Road. Then, scholars realized that three dialects directly linked to ancient Sogdian were still spoken along the Yagnobi River, in Tajikistan. Click image

Sogdiana entered history with the conquest of the region by Persian armies of the Achaemenid Dynasty (559-330 B.C.). The inscription of the Emperor Darius I (522-486 B.C.) at Bihisutun (dated 6th century B.C.) counts Sogdians among the subjects of the kingdom. Sogdiana comprised Khorasmia, Parthia and Aria in the 16th Imperial Satrapy.

After the destruction of the Achaemenids by Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), Sogdiana was one of the regions which boldly opposed the Macedonians. In the end Alexander subjugated the region and married Roxane, daughter of the local chief Oxyartes. At his death, the Macedonian Empire broke up, and Sogdiana was briefly incorporated in the Greek­Bactrian kingdom soon to become an independent state, constantly submitted to the incursions of nomadic populations.

As a consequence of an intense period of migrations, Central Asia and Northern India passed under the control of the enigmatic Kushans (circa 50 B.C.­250 A.D.), a dynasty originating from today's Gansu region in Western China, which adopted the Iranian language of Bactria written with the Greek alphabet, and which protected Buddhism.

The common opinion among scholars is that Sogdiana was not conquered by the Kushans but their influence was very strong, especially in art and coinage. In the period between 250 A.D. and 270 A.D. the Sasanids of Persia (224-642 A.D.) destroyed the Kushan Empire, occupied Bactria and rendered Sogdiana tributary. The Sasanids were then defeated by the Hephtalites (mid. 5th ­mid. 6th century A.D.), another nomadic population that killed the Persian Emperor Peroz (459-484) and took Sogdiana. Click image

But in the period c between 563-568 A.D. an alliance between the Persian Emperor Khosrow I (531-579) and the Qaghan of the Western Turks Istemi (circa 553-576) completely destroyed the Hephtalite kingdom. The two allies shared the dominions of the common enemy-- the Sasanids took Bactria and the Turks gained Sogdiana.

Under the Turkish rule Sogdiana was practically independent. In fact the Qaghan used the Sogdians as diplomats and their language was a sort of "lingua franca" along the Silk Road. Byzantine chronicles record that in 568 A.D. a Turk-Sogdian delegation lead by a certain Maniakh reached Constantinople in order to obtain permission to trade and, eventually, to form an anti-Persian alliance.

Sogdian colonies were widespread in the whole of Central Asia and large Sogdian trade communities lived even in the Chinese capital Chang'an. Their presence is recorded also in Sri Lanka and along the maritime trade routes which linked India to Canton (Southern China). In the Museum of Bangkok, for example, Buddhist reliefs testify the presence of Sogdian donors bringing gifts to the Buddha. Click image

In Northern Pakistan inscriptions and graffiti were recovered in Sogdian directing traders to India. In fact in the paintings of Bagh and Ajanta (in the Indian state of Maharashtra) appear to be Central Asians dressed in typical caftans, boots and pointed caps. An important colony in Crimea (Ukraine) was represented by Sugdaia (or Soldaia as she was known by Marco Polo) whose name betrays her origins.

Under the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) the Chinese defeated the Western Turks and rendered Sogdiana a protectorate between 650 and 675 (circa), but this was just a nominal act and the region was practically independent.

A new menace for Central Asia was represented by the Arabs who were ruled at the time by the Omayad Dynasty (661-750 A.D.). Since 715, the Arabs had been trying to conquer Sogdiana without the intervention of the Chinese army. Only the Tibetans (circa 630-846 A.D.) and the Eastern Turks of Mongolia (683-734 A.D.) helped the Sogdians. But in the end the Arabs won, thanks to the skill of the Governor of Khorassan, Qutayba ibn-Muslim. Click image

Between 720 and 722 the Sogdians lead by Devastich (who proclaimed himself king of Sogdiana) made a rebellion against the Omayads, but they were defeated after a siege at the castle of Mount Mugh and Devastich was crucified.

Until this period, Sogdian culture survived without major problems of intolerance by the Muslims. For example, most of the paintings recovered in the city of Penjikent (Western Tajikistan) are dated to this period. In 750 power passed from the Omayads to the Abbasids (750-1258 A.D.). The latter wanted to render stronger their power in Central Asia, even defeating the Chinese at Talas (nowadays Kirghizistan) in 751.

The Abbasids also Islamicized every social class in proper Sogdiana thus ending the religions professed in the region -- mainly a form of local Zoroastrianism and Manicheism (other religions were Nestorian Christianity and, less diffused, Judaism and Buddhism). The survival of Sogdian culture was guaranteed until 9th century in the colonies of Central Asia and China and in Ustrushana, a region not Islamicized. Click image

The Sogdians in China

The settlement of Sogdian people in China, mainly for trade, has been recorded since the Han period (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). Subsequently, the number of Sogdians in the Heavenly Empire increased remarkably. They took Chinese surnames (in the dynastic records they are also known as "the nine families") and they started to fill important positions in the army.

They also held public offices to control the immigrants and the Zoroastrian, Manichean and Nestorian temples in China. Such duties interested also Persian immigrants (especially nobles), who, after the destruction of the Sasanid Empire (224-651 A.D.) by the Arabs, were exiled at the Tang court.

According to a Chinese source on the Sui period (581-618 A.D.), the control of some weaving centres of Sichuan, specializing in the production of silks embellished with "western motifs", was given by Imperial decree in 605 to a Sogdian called He Chou. He was also an expert in the production of tiles for the surface architectural decoration. Click image

The Central Asian weaving techniques, in fact, were superior to the Chinese and in great demand because of the lust for exoticism at the Tang court. The Sogdian taste influenced every Chinese artistic field in this period. Painters from Central Asia are especially celebrated in the sources but foreign elements are traceable also in sculpture and metalwork.

The positions of the Sogdians at court was aggravated by the rebellion of An Lushan (755-56 A.D.), a general of Sogdian origin (his name is refers to the word "rokhsh=light -- the same as Alexander's wife, Roxane) who almost broke up the Tang Empire. But the Chinese, already threatened by the Tibetans, asked the Uighur Turks (744-840) for help.

The Sogdians were able to maintain their privileges in China because of the protection granted by the Uighurs, and increase their power at the latter's court. The Sogdians and the Persians, then, enjoyed the funds of the Tang court, at least until the arrival of Minister Li Mi (722-789) who refused them such privileges in 787. This was one of the measures adopted by the Chinese minister in order to oppose the power of Iranians at the court, and remove their control over the production of goods competing with the Chinese.

In 840 the Kirghiz destroyed the Uighur Empire and obliged the population to migrate to China. One group settled in today's Xinjiang region where most of the people are still Uighur, but another group was directed to the Central Plains of China, and then blocked by the Tang army who took advantage of the situation to slaughter a great number of Uighurs and Sogdians.

Another strike against the Iranian community in China was the religious persecutions of 843-45 against Buddhism, in particular, and foreign faiths in general, including Zoroastrianism, Manicheism and Nestorianism.

The activity of Sogdians in China inevitably decreased. They resisted along the southern maritime trade routes for some time but they eventually disappeared completely with the arrival of the Mongols in the 13th century. But they left an indelible sign in the art and culture of the Chinese, of the Uighurs and (indirectly) of the Mongols. The Chinese, in fact, adopted the division of the week in seven days, it seems, just because of the Sogdians. Many fruits and vegetables were introduced from the west, thanks to the Sogdians who are described in Chinese sources as being fond of music and wine.

The importance of Sogdian music and dance particularly in Central Asia, and later at the Tang court, should not be underestimated. The Uighurs, who nowadays have an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet, in the beginning adopted the Sogdian script (derived by the Syriac alphabet but written in vertical lines). The Uighurs handed down such an alphabet to the Mongols and it is still used in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Chinese Province. Later, even the Manchu founders of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) adopted the same alphabet with some modifications.

Traces of the activity of the Sogdians can be observed among the recent archaeological discoveries in Korea and Japan, especially regarding sumptuary arts. In the imperial repository of the Shoso-in at Nara (Japan) large amounts of precious objects (silks, metalwork, glass and musical instruments) were discovered which at first were considered the result of the encounter between Persian and Chinese art. But most probably they were produced in Chinese workshops managed by Sogdians, or where the influence of Sogdian art was massive.


Matteo Compareti has a degree in Oriental Languages and Literatures (Chinese) from Venice University "Ca' Foscari" (1999). He is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Naples University "Istituto Orientale di Napoli" with a program based on Medieval Sogdian history of art. Main interests: history and history of art of Central Asia, specifically Sogdiana and Sogdian colonies in Asia.


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