Afghanistan, they say, is the graveyard of empires. Central Asia, if we look at the archaeology clearly, is the graveyard of unitary nationalist histories. Perhaps no people exemplify this as much as the Sogdians: arguably one of the most influential diasporas in human history, on par with or even surpassing India’s own.
In the 7th century CE, the city of Kabul was home to Hindu Turk Shahs. If you were to travel to its north, across the Oxus (Amu Darya) river, you would come across a scattering of city-states, squabbling and trading with each other and the world. Within them you would meet the Sogdians, who were Buddhists, Mazdaists, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews; alongside them were diasporas of Central Asian, South Asian, West Asian, or East Asian descent; they spoke a babble of languages, primarily Iranic, but with many Indic loan words. These forgotten people remind us, as always, that the past was a world without borders.
In the shadow of the Kushans
To understand the Sogdians at their peak in the 7th–8thcenturies CE, we need to first see them when they were insignificant nobodies, 500 years prior. The Kushan imperial network, which we have visited in previous editions of Thinking Medieval, was a great force through much of the Gangetic Plains, Afghanistan, and parts of Xinjiang. They controlled the origin points of trade networks that stretched from the Indian Subcontinent into Persia, the Roman Empire, and into distant China. Overland trade to China was conducted by skirting the Taklamakan desert, either from the north or from the south.
Trade over the desert was a risky endeavour. Historian Valerie Hansen notes in The Silk Roads: A New History that it generally consisted of valuable commodities in small volumes. But such commodities could still generate enormous profits: as Judith A Lerner and Thomas Wilde put it in their exhibition notes for the Smithsonian Institution, they were among the most demanded items in the ancient world, such as “horses from the Ferghana Valley, gemstones from India, musk from Tibet, furs from the steppes to the north”.
The “brilliant urban civilisation” of the Kushans, according to historian Étienne de la Vassière in her magisterial Sogdian Traders: A History, quite outshone the “very mediocre situation” in Sogdiana—roughly the region corresponding to present-day southwest Uzbekistan and eastern Tajikistan. Sogdiana was somewhat of a backwater, situated off to the northeast to the trade routes that led across the Taklamakan Desert. At the time, Kushan merchants dominated the trade in horses in the 2nd century CE, appearing as far afield as China and Southeast Asia. But Sogdian traders also began to participate in the same networks, immigrating and putting down roots in Kushan cities while maintaining ties to their homeland.
de la Vassière notes that when the Karakoram Highway was built between present-day Pakistan and China, enormous amounts of Sogdian graffiti were discovered, suggesting that they were settling in the upper reaches of the Indus River by the 3rd century CE. One interesting bit of graffiti is a prayer by a Sogdian merchant to a local spirit, asking for protection so that he could visit his brother safely. Such family networks allowed Sogdians access to capital and market information and gave them a competitive advantage over other groups.
At the same time, Sogdians also began to appear in China. In A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam, historian Xinriu Liu points out that the earliest Buddhist monks in China were not native Indians, but Sogdians. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, they were working in China, translating texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. de la Vassière notes that Buddhism was not a major force in Sogdiana at this time, and so these Sogdian Buddhist monks were most probably members of merchant families who had settled in India, where they had absorbed both Buddhism and Sanskrit before moving to China.