They brought together the best of Asia—then improved on it. Meet the merchant princes of the ancient East.
In the year 36 BCE, a Han Chinese expedition marched west across the Jaxartes River, in what’s now Kazakhstan — more than 4,000 miles west of their home in China, in the heart of the mountainous wilderness of Central Asia.
There on the forested riverbank, the Han horsemen and crossbowmen encountered a force of strange barbarians —
Warriors in heavy iron armor, who fought with long spears and tall shields.
Chinese crossbows and arrows made quick work of these newcomers’ flimsy shields, and soon the spear-fighters were falling in droves. They died quickly, without making it anywhere near the Chinese line.
When at last the battle was over, and the Han soldiers forded the river to examine the bodies of the dead, they marveled at these unusual barbarians — nothing like the Turkic and Mongolic nomads they were used to fighting on the northern steppe.
Not Persian, either, to judge by their pale skin and strange red cloaks. Who could these men be? Where had they come from?
What had brought them to this desolate place, to meet China’s army in battle?
The answers to those questions remain uncertain to this day. But it’s possible that these spear-fighters may have been a lost legion of a Roman army raised by the general Marcus Licinius Crassus, which was sent eastward to wage war against Persia’s Parthian Empire.
Is it really possible that those Roman legionaries ended up 6,000 miles from home, fighting a Chinese army in Kazakhstan — for a Persian emperor?
Here are the known facts: the Parthians soundly defeated the Romans in that war — slaughtered many of their legions, sent others straggling home in despair — and captured at least one legion, whose fate remains unverified.
But whether this story is true or not, the fact that a Roman legion in Kazakhstan is even historically plausible makes one key fact very clear —
By the 1st century BCE, the whole Eurasian landmass had become a deeply interconnected place.
Parthian generals (like those of many iron-age empires) had a well-known habit of sending captured foreign troops to defend the empire’s wild frontiers, where regular soldiers and aristocratic knights preferred not to spend much of their time.
And one of the wildest frontiers of all — the “Alaska” or “Siberia” of the Parthian Empire, if you will — was a province known as Sogdiana. It covered an area that’s still frequently described as a backwater to this day:
“The Stans” — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Like today, those sprawling mountains, forests and steppe-lands served as a vast buffer zone between the Middle East and China; a geopolitical boxing ring where the great empires fought their proxy wars via third-party armies.
It would’ve been an ideal place to send a captured enemy legion, if you wanted to dispose of them somewhat usefully.
Because, of course, Sogdiana was far from empty.
But by the 1st century BCE, when that lost Roman legion (may have) marched eastward to die under Chinese arrows, the Scythians were on the steep decline. By then—
A new civilization was rising in former Scythian territory.
A different people were pushing the Scythians out of the fertile river valleys, up onto the northern steppes of what’s now Russia, to herd and raid as their distant ancestors had done.
These new people were, like the Scythians, a loose confederation of Indo-Iranian horse-archers. In fact, their name for themselves came from the Indo-European root skud-, “to shoot.”
They were the Sugda — the Archers.
But we know them today by the name the ancient Greeks called them: the Sogdians.
Way back in the last days of the Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia (the 600s BCE), the Sogdians seem to have been indistinguishable from their Scythian kinfolk. Assyrian records describe raids from horse archers called the Aškuzai, making no distinction between Saka and Sugd people, as later writers did.
Those Scythian and Sogdian horse-archers aided their Median and Persian cousins in sacking the great city of Nineveh, ending the Assyrian Empire’s iron grip. For the next 1,200 years, Mesopotamia would be ruled by Persian emperors.
But before long, the Sogdians began drifting back out to the mountains.
The Persians weren’t exactly thrilled about this, but they seem to have realized there wasn’t much worth conquering in Sogdiana. The land remained, officially, a province of the Achaemenid Persian Empire — and was “administered” (i.e., periodically squeezed for cash) by governors in the neighboring province of Bactria.
But the Scythians’ and Sogdians’ free-riding lifestyle didn’t appeal to everyone in the Central Asian wilderness. In Part 3 of this series, you met the Royal Scyths — Scythians who left the nomad life behind to settle in fortified cities on the Black Sea coast, where they grew rich on cross-continental trade.
And as the Achaemenid Persian Empire rapidly unraveled in the 300s BCE—
Some provincial Persian governors decided they wanted a piece of that action, too.
In 330 BCE, the armies of Alexander the Great sacked the Persian capital of Persepolis, sending the terrified emperor Darius III fleeing eastward. Darius must’ve felt relieved when he arrived at the provincial capital of Bactria, on the western fringe of the wild steppe — the last island of Persian civilization on the edge of an utter wilderness.
The satrap (governor) of Bactria, man called Bessus, welcomed his exiled emperor with open arms — but the emperor had placed his trust in the wrong man. Before Alexander even had time to arrive on the scene, Bessus assassinated Darius—
And promptly set up his own independent state in Bactria.
In the mountains of what’s now Uzbekistan, Bessus constructed an imposing fortress known as the Sogdian Rock. He recruited a large force of Sogdians to patrol the frontier and keep it clear of nomadic Scythian raiders.
His endgame, apparently, was to set up a sort of tollbooth astride the Silk Road — keeping caravans safe from the savage Scythians in exchange for a reasonable fee.
It worked, for a while. In fact, Sogdian Rock became such a byword for safety that Sogdian chieftains began to store their valuables there. But all was not quiet on the Bactrian front.
Alexander the Great was defying all sane and reasonable expectations, as usual.
He refused to sit still and enjoy the unimaginable wealth he’d won in Babylon and Persia. No, against all odds, the Two-Horned One was marching east again — and this time he had his eye on Bactria and Sogdiana.
At Sogdian Rock, Bessus’s army began to panic. One Sogdian nobleman, Oxyartes, went so far as to beg Bessus to keep his daughter Roxana safe within the hilltop fortress until the fighting was over. Oxyartes must’ve made a convincing case, because Bessus agreed.
In the end, though, all the preparation made no difference.
Alexander’s army laid siege to Sogdian Rock, and the fortress fell in 327 BCE — just three short years after Bessus launched his Sogdian start-up.
Alexander force-married Roxana (along with several other women he’d captured, as was his habit), stamped out the last remaining fires of Sogdian guerrilla resistance, and welded Bactria and Sogdia into a single province of his ever-expanding empire.
Before long, Greek settlers were pouring in from the West.
Sometimes they moved into Sogdian towns to construct Greek theaters and temples; other times they built new Greek-style cities completely from scratch, backed by Alexander’s mountains of Babylonian and Persian gold.
From Egypt to Turkey and Iran, into Pakistan and Afghanistan, even down into the Indian Punjab, brand-new Hellenic (Greek) cities were popping up everywhere in the 200s BCE.
Although these cities were Greek in name (in fact, almost all of them were named “Alexandria,” after their patron), their cultures blended peoples and ideas from all the far-flung lands Alexander had conquered.
The lifestyle of these new cities interwove Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Indian and Sogdian influences into innovative styles of art and architecture — as well as novel kinds of clothes, songs, dishes, dances; and syncretic new faiths that integrated Persian Zoroastrianism and Indian Buddhism into Greek and Egyptian (and Bactrian) polytheism.
Just walking up the high street of one of these cities must’ve been dizzying.
Among Greek pillars decorated with Buddhist imagery, you’d pass Seleucid soldiers in iron armor; as well as thick-bearded traders haggling in the Old Persian tongue over colorful bolts of Chinese silk, while merchants called from their stalls in Greek and Aramaic, beckoning you to examine their baskets of indigo and cinnamon and saffron.
A group of veiled Sogdian ladies might glide by, as a pair of sandalwood-scented Buddhist monks passed on the opposite side of the street, chanting in Sanskrit; and across the square, fur-clad nomadic herders debated the price of sheep and goats in dozens of the Turkic, Mongolic and Indo-Iranian languages spoken by the peoples of the open steppe.
If you were lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of some Han Chinese smugglers hurrying by in their ankle-length robes, whispering mysteries.
In short, these Greco-Bactrian trading hubs were some of the first cities in the world that were not only multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious — but genuinely multi-civilizational.
This was not the world the Sogdians intended to build.
It wasn’t even a world they wanted, at first.
But it was the world they inherited when Alexander’s empire collapsed, leaving these merchants the de facto brokers of the Silk Road — a world where Roman legions battled Chinese armies; where Greek philosophers debated Buddhist monks and Nestorian Christian bishops; where cities were not the strongholds of any single culture, but mixing-bowls where all cultures flowed and ran together like swirling paint.
As their trade wealth continued to pile up, some of the Sogdian merchant-princes established their own dynasties in cosmopolitan cities like Samarkand, Panjikent and Bukhara. Within the walls of these entrepôts, they began to cultivate one of the most extraordinary civilizations in Asian history.
One of the easiest ways to get a basic feel for this culture, at its peak, is to look at how Sodgian aristocrats represented themselves in their visual art.
Gaze at these paintings, and your first impression might be that they’re Chinese — but wait… sometimes the clothes and people look Persian.
Or maybe Indian. And the buildings in the background look almost Byzantine.
And yet, for all this cultural freestyling, Sogdian culture does not feel like any kind of forced mash-up of other people’s ideas.
Sogdian artists and philosophers had an astonishing gift for interweaving the best elements of all the ancient, illustrious civilizations around them into creations greater than mere sums of their parts.
Reading about Sogdian society, and looking at their art, one picks up a strong sense of — I can’t think how else to put it — taste.
The kind of instinctual, worldly taste that somehow just knows that Babylonian dates pair best with Greek wine; that the new Chinese dance will be more exciting if the harpists play in the Lydian mode; that that if we’re going to invite the Parthian ambassador to court, then of course we must invite that new Zoroastrian mystic on the same day.
The Sogdians didn’t actually write things like this, unfortunately.
And of course, you could easily say I’m just dreaming up a version of the Sogdians that I relate to, by backward-projecting my ideals of what “tasteful” society looked like in Versailles or Renaissance Venice.
You could also point out that just about every society in world history has developed its own unique sense of elegance and taste, and that it’s somewhat misleading to call this out as a distinctive trait of Sogdian culture.
And that even if this was a defining trait of Sogdian culture, it can only have applied to the upper classes; the one-percenters.
You could say all those things, and you’d probably be right.
And yet — when you spend time with the art and literature of the Sogdian elite, it’s impossible to ignore the feeling that these people delighted in differences, and were fascinated by contrasts.
Sogdian rulers seem to have gone to great lengths, not to impress Sogdian ideas on anyone else, but to integrate all the ethnicities, aesthetics, religions and philosophies of their lands into one intricate societal symphony.
Perhaps it helped, in certain ways, that Sogdian civilization was never an empire, but a loose confederation of separate-but-equal city-states (a bit like Classical Greece).
Although the Sogdian upper crust of those city-states spoke a common language — a distant relative of Old Persian and modern Farsi — and shared a wealth of culture in common, each city was ruled by an independent king, who made laws according to his own rules—
And only cooperated with the others when their interests happened to align.
Within that flexible framework, Sogdian rulers and merchants made Central Asia the place to be if you wanted to exchange goods, money and/or ideas with people from distant civilizations, from the Mediterranean, through Mesopotamia and Persia, all the way to China.
Yet even as the Sogdian city-states established themselves as key centers at the heart of Eurasian culture, their own trading partners — the Romans, Persians and Chinese — continued to regard Sogdiana as a backwater wilderness. Chalk it up to cultural hubris, I guess.
After all, the Sogdians didn’t have much of a pedigree, compared to civilizations like the Mesopotamians and Chinese, with their thousands of years of recorded history.
Perhaps that was one reason why Sogdian rulers like Divashtich (from whom we’ll hear more in a moment) tried to legitimize their lineage by claiming descent from ancient Persian kings.
At any rate, the Sogdians didn’t just squat behind their own walls.
For more than 1,200 years, from the 100s BCE all the way to the 1100s CE, you could’ve easily found Sogdians working their trade magic all across Iran, India, the Byzantine Empire — and most notably Tang China, where they brokered deals between the great powers at the far ends of the Silk Road.
Sogdian merchants made themselves so invaluable as middlemen that the Sogdian language became the semi-official lingua franca of the entire western half of the Asian continent. When the Turkic Khaganates swept across the Central Asian steppes in the 500s and 600s CE—
Even the Turks used Sogdian as the language of their court documents.
In fact, the Sogdians’ trade interests were so vast that they frequently kept whole Turkic armies on their payroll. Turkic princes sometimes ruled Sogdian city-states, or shared power with Sogdian rulers. Some contemporary sources even hint that the Turks looked up to the Sogdians as “mentors,” and hoped to be made full partners in the family business someday.
Anyone who looked at Central Asia, as a whole, in the early 600s, would’ve had little doubt that the future of the Silk Road belonged to the Sogdians and their Turkic allies.
But nobody could’ve predicted the coming of Islam.
Tales of the unstoppable Arabian conquerors were spreading like wildfire across the Silk Road — but in the early 700s, it looked as if the armies of the new faith might’ve decided to stop and consolidate their conquests in Arabia, Lebanon and Iraq.
That, of course, was no more than wishful thinking. Like Alexander 1,000 years before them, the commanders of the Umayyad Caliphate wanted nothing less than the world. The armies of Islam rode east again, bent on conquest of Sogdiana.
In the beginning, the rulers of the Sogdian city-states didn’t put up much resistance. Compared with some other conquerors (like the Crusaders in centuries to come), Islamic rulers tended to be relatively tolerant of indigenous cultures and faiths, so long as Islam remained at the top of the pecking order.
As for the Sogdians, they didn’t much care whose palms they had to grease.
Just as long as trade kept flowing. Some of them even converted to Islam, as their ancestors had happily adopted Greco-Roman, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs.
Things seemed to be going smoothly for more than a decade — until the fateful year 717, when the fairly tolerant Umayyad governor of Sogdiana was replaced with one Al-Jarrah ibn Abdallah.
This zealot turned out to be too literal-minded for the Sogdians. He declared (unlike his predecessor) that anyone uncircumcised and illiterate in Arabic was not a true Muslim — which meant that all Sogdian men unwilling to undergo circumcision and learn Arabic were now required to pay the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims.
To live, essentially, as second-class citizens in their own city.
Even after that crackdown, infuriating as it was, most Sogdian rulers were not at all certain they wanted to go toe-to-toe with a peak-condition Islamic army.
But one by one, the dominoes began to fall.
Seven years earlier, in 710 CE, the Sogdian ruler of Samarkand — a man named Tarkhun — had been overthrown (and possibly killed) by a rebellion that was fed-up with his policy of Muslim appeasement. Tarkhun’s sons had fled to the city of Panjikent, where they’d been taken in by the local Sogdian ruler, a man named Divashtich.
Divashtich, for his part, was a faithful Muslim par excellence — or so he convinced the Umayyads. After the rebellion in Samarkand, Divashtich doubled down on his vow of loyalty to the Caliphate — and the Islamic governor responded in kind, addressing Divashtich as “King of Sogdia” —
And even hinting that the crown of Samarkand might be in the cards for him.
The balance began to shift, though, when yet another Sogdian ruler — a man named Gurak — tried to go behind the Caliphate’s back and secure military support from the Tang Chinese. The Umayyads found out, shut down the deal, and had Gurak executed.
By now, the Caliphate’s governors were growing increasingly paranoid about Divashtich, too. One governor demanded that Divashtich send in his two sons as hostages, “just in case.”
That demand, it seems, was Divashtich’s breaking point.
He secured alliances with Sogdian rulers named Karzanj and at-Tar, and together they launched an anti-Arab rebellion across Bactria. But despite some initial successes, it turned out their fears were justified: they had no hope against a full-powered Islamic army.
To make matters worse, at-Tar betrayed the allies, revealing the location of Karzanj’s army to the Umayyad general Sa’id ibn Amr al-Harashi. The general showed up at the city where Karzanj was camped, slaughtered the Sogdian army, and butchered 3,000 Sogdian civilians for good measure.
Left to fend for himself, Divashtich was not long for this world. Al-Harashi’s army caught up with him outside the city of Zarafshan (in modern Tajikistan), where they dealt him a crushing defeat. Divashtich and a few of his men managed to escape to a nearby fortress — but, recognizing the hopelessness of their situation, they surrendered just a few days later.
Surprisingly, Divashtich’s captors seem to have treated him fairly well.
In the beginning, at least. He was kept in comfortable surroundings, and there was even talk of letting him go free with a promise of good behavior.
In the end, though, Al-Harashi swayed the judges to his point of view. Divashtich was crucified and beheaded. His head was sent to Iraq as a trophy of the final Sogdian defeat.
And so ended the reign of the great Sogdian city-states.
But at the same time, thousands of Sogdian people were still alive and well all across Asia. Like their Scythian forebears, they continued to trade, prosper, and even serve in high government positions, for centuries after their “subjugation” by a foreign empire.
In China, Sogdian diplomats remained the key brokers of Silk Road trade, well into the 800s. In Byzantium, they negotiated a Christian-Turkic alliance against the Sasanian Persian Empire. Even Islamic geographers drew on Sogdian records as they worked to improve their maps of Asia.
Despite the fact that nobody seemed to want any independent Sogdian states around, the Sogdians had embedded themselves so deeply into Asia’s economy that it had become, quite simply, inconceivable to undertake international business without their help.
Sogdian culture was just “too big to fail.”
Even so, the political map was shifting. In 751 CE, Chinese and Islamic forces met in pitched battle for the first and only time in history, at the Talas River in what’s now Kyrgyzstan — the heart of golden-age Sogdian territory; not all that far, in fact, from the river where the lost Roman legion (maybe) met the Han Chinese force, 800 years earlier.
The Chinese crushed the armies of Islam (in part because the Caliphate’s Turkic mercenaries defected to the other side) — but from that point onward—
Neither the Caliphate nor China would ever make another serious grab for Central Asia.
With the two superpowers out of the neighborhood, new Persian and Turkic states now found room to rise — and Sogdian culture and language gradually began to give way before Persian in the East; Turkic in the North and West.
Along the way, the old Sogdian religions of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity were beginning to fade away in Central Asia. By the 1200s, just about everyone in the region (Sogdians included) was practicing Islam.
Even then, some elements of Sogdian culture still survived. Though Al-Harashi had burned the city of Panjikent when he captured Divashtich, the Sogdian metropolises of Bukhara and Samarkand continued to serve as wealthy trade hubs under their new Turco-Persian overlords of the Ghaznavid and Khwarezmid dynasties, whom you’ll meet in Part 5 of this series.
And the Sogdians themselves are still around, too.
At least, their descendants are. The Yaghnobi people, who live in Tajikistan’s Sughd (“Sogdian”) Province, still speak a dialect of the Sogdian language; and some still practice Zoroastrianism. Their DNA contains certain genes that seem to have been in Central Asia forever, matching genes found in 3,000-year-old mummies of the Andronovo and Scythian cultures.
But despite all the Sogdian art and writing we still have—
Some fundamental quality of their world seems to be lost forever.
Because when we think of Central Asia today, its culture seems inextricably bound up with that of the Middle East. Look at a photo of modern Samarkand or Bukhara, for example (oh yes, they’re both still inhabited cities), and you’re looking at an undeniably Islamic place.
In fact, it’s hard to even imagine a time when Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — let alone Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan — were anything other than Muslim heartlands, from the soil on up. What would a Central Asia without Islam even look like?
Oh, but that’s precisely the world the Sogdians lived in, for more than 800 years!
Their Samarkand and Bukhara, their Pakistan and Afghanistan, were just as bustling and multicultural as those places are today — perhaps quite a bit moreso. But instead of mosques and minarets, you would see only Greek temples and statues of the Buddha; Indian monks and silk-robed Chinese merchants and Zoroastrian magi strolling among Classical colonnades.
This Afghanistan and Pakistan are so different from the ones we know now that’s it’s hard to summon a clear mental image of them. It’s like trying to picture an alternate universe — a vision of a Central Asia that might have been, had things gone very differently.
But it’s no fantasy. That really was Central Asia, from the 200s BCE all the way to the 700s CE.
That was Central Asia when the Sogdians were in charge.
(To meet four more Asian civilizations of the iron-age Silk Road, check out my article, “When Roman ‘Barbarians’ Met the Asian Enlightenment.”)