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Sogdiana, the Wonderland

Sogdiana is the name of a historical area on the territory of present-day Uzbekistan located in the basin of the Zerafshan and Kashkadarya rivers. According to one version the very word 'Sogd' means 'country of fertile valleys'. Poetic lines of 'Avesta' composed in the 9th - 12th centuries B.C. glorify legendary origination of this land: "Then I, Ahura Mazda, created inimitable Sogdiana, the land rich in flocks of sheep".

Sogd had a remarkable, eventful history. As early as the 7th - 6th centuries B.C., in this part of the world there were a lot of fortified urban settlements and extensive network of irrigation structures. The Sogdians belonged to a group of the western Iranian nations. They cultivated wheat, rice, grapes, ranched cattle and for centuries lived in peace with their neighbours - the nomadic clans of Saks and Messagetae.

In the mid 6th century B.C., Sogdiana became part of Achaemenid Empire. However, the Sogdians put up strong resistance to the enemy. 'The Father of History' Herodotus recounted the legends about Tomiris, the queen of Messagetaes, who herself led the army and in a desperate struggle routed the Persian conquerors. This was the last war for Cyrus the Great, whose head Tomiris ordered to put into a leather-bag filled with blood, saying, "Just let him satisfy his blood lust".

Afrosiab excavation site near Samarkand

Darius, his successor, also faced a strong resistance of Central Asian nations. Hellenic author Polienus narrated a story of a Saki shepherd named Shirak. Brave young man volunteered to be the guide for the Persians and, after a week's journey along the desert, deliberately led the enemies to waterless area, yet paid with his life for this daring deed.

In the northern suburbs of Samarkand there is a hilly area known as Afrasiab site. Here, under centuries-old loess layers, lie the ruins of Marakanda, ancient capital of Sogdiana. According to a Zoroastrian legend the foundation of the town is associated with Siyavush, an epic hero. The first settlements on the territory of the town appeared in the 7th - 6th centuries B.C. Yet in 329, the warriors of Alexander the Great saw a large flourishing town, enclosed with outer wall. Inside there was a citadel with residential suburbs round it.

Sogdiana turned out to be the ultimate northeastern land of Alexander's conquests. Here, on the territory of present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan Alexander the Great spent two years, and then, fascinated by stories about endless treasures of India, invaded Northern Hindustan.

But for Alexander these years were far from being undisturbed: the great conqueror had to experience an armed rebellion led by Spitamenes, a Sogdian nobleman. Population of Central Asia put up a spontaneous resistance to Macedonian troops just after their invasion to this land, but in Sogdiana it developed into a real war. A number of neighboring countries, Bactria in particular, were also involved in this liberation movement. Alexander the Great had to exert every effort in order to stifle the rebellion. A legend has it that Spitamenes himself was killed by his wife, who in this way wanted to save her life and the lives of her three children.

After the death of the Great Commander, Sogd became a part of Seleucid and subsequently of Graeco-Bactrian kingdom.

It is not without good reason that scientists consider Sogdiana as one of the centers of ancient world civilizations. Excavations that have been carried out for several decades at Afrosiab site has resulted in many interesting archeological finds. From the ground there were dug out various objects many of which testify to direct influence of Hellenic culture. Among them there were high-quality ceramics, including a bowl with the name of the Goddess of Victory - Nika, terracotta heads of Athena, articles made of bronze, arrow-heads, carved Greek gemmas, coins of Seleucid and Graeco-Bactrian rulers.

It is known that on the walls of temples, palaces and houses of Sogdian nobility were decorated with mural paintings depicting scenes from epic tales. Greek author Khores from Mitilen noted that the most popular legend was the one about great love of a Sogdian young man Zariadr and Odatida, a daughter of Scythian king.

Citizens of old Sogdiana practiced Zoroastrianism and in cultural layer of the town there were found small statues of Goddess of fertility Anahita, various ossuaries, containers for storage of bones of fire worshippers. Pictures of chariot on mural paintings and on golden statuettes from the well-known Amu Darya treasure, which is kept in British Museum in London, remind the words of Zoroastrian hymn from Avesta that glorifies the Sun-God: "We worship Mitra, who steers his heavenly chariot on high wheels. Four white immortal stallions lead that chariot; their front hoofs are forged with gold, while rear hoofs are forged with silver."

Already in Hellenic period through Sogdian towns and cities there run the Great Silk Road, and Marakanda (Samarkand) was located on the main crossroad of the most important caravan routes. Brisk trade relations had a considerable impact on the culture of the neighboring countries. From China the Sogdians adopted silkworm breeding, paper making and gun making technologies, whereas the Chinese imported from Central Asia seeds and young plants of grape, seedlings of cotton plant and alfalfa. From Ferghana Valley the Chinese merchants brought home the famous untiring racers.

The life of Sogdian people was an almost endless series of battles with foreign invaders. Ancient Roman historian Cuintus Curcius Ruphus wrote, "…There are many densely populated villages in Sogdiana; these fertile lands attract not only the natives, but aliens as well". And ancient Greek historian Flavius Arrian specified who these 'aliens' could be. Thus he mentioned Scythians in particular, "These Scythians lived in extreme poverty; they had neither towns, nor permanent dwellings; they had no reason to fear for their material comforts, that is why they could be easily talked into any war".

Incense burners

At the break of the new era many kingdoms appeared and broke up on the territory of Central Asia. Sogdiana was the member of a political confederation, which comprised about twenty different princedoms and independent towns. In the 1st century A.D. Sogdiana, as well as Bactria, became a part of the powerful empire of Great Kushans. At that period trade relations of Sogdian towns, and primarily Samarkand, with India and China were considerably enhanced. Along the Great Silk Road such goods as silk, articles made of lacquer and leather, jade and iron, spices and incense were imported to Sogd, where they were exchanged for glass articles, precious stones, fabrics and carpets.

In spiritual life from the earliest times Sogdiana was the place where various religions met and expanded. In the first century Zoroastrianism was pressed by new world religions, Buddhism and Christianity. It is known that at that period of time Urgut, which is 60 kilometers from Samarkand, became the center of Christianity propagation. It was just here that archeologists found the fragments of a Nestorian monastery. And at the beginning of the 7th century Buddhist monk Xuan Zang visited a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand and found it on the decline and desolation. Such co-existence in the times of Kushans of various religions can be explained by their reciprocal tolerance. In Sogdiana religions flourished 'like flowers in the spring', and this was observed till the invasion of the Arabs who put an end to any religious freedom.

Several centuries later Kushan kingdom fell to nomadic clans of Hephthalites, who in their turn, were crashed by Turkic clans. In the mid-sixth century Sogdiana became a part of Turkic Kaganate.

At that period Sogdiana was a rather prosperous country. Agriculture, artificial irrigation farming in particular, held the key position in the country's economy. It should be noted that Sogdian people considerably succeeded in building irrigational structures. Thus, the inner part of Samarkand, shakhristan, was supplied with water by a special pipe aqueduct coming from the main city's canal named Chakardiza. In historical sources the canal is mentioned as 'Jui-Arziz', or 'Leaden canal', as water was fed into the city through lead-covered aqueduct supported by arched trestle. The whole year round specially appointed supervisors guarded this unique hydro-engineering structure, built of baked bricks. Suffice it to say that this 'Leaden canal' rivaled the famous Roman aqueducts.

On the territory of Central Asia gold, silver, iron, tin, copper, mercury, cinnabar, semi-precious stones were mined on a large scale. The key branches of handicraft industry were those connected with metal working. Sogdian craftsmen were renowned for making various articles - sickles and knives, spears and arrow-heads, daggers and chain armors, stirrups and bits for horses...

Sogdian craftsmen manufactured cotton, woolen and silk cloth. Cotton fabrics, made in Vedar village near Samarkand and sold out not only in Central Asia but abroad as well, were in great demand. No less popular among the merchants was Sogdian silk cloth "zandanachi".

During archaeological excavations on the territory of many ancient Sogdian towns and cities there were found ceramics workshops where glazed ceramics had been manufactured. Local craftsmen possessed high level of mastership in making stained glass and writing paper.

Kushan coins

The contemporaries recorded high skills of Sogdian traders, who, in fact, controlled the trade along the whole eastern section of the Silk Road from Merv to the banks of the Hwang He River. Samarkand, the principal city of the country, was both a commercial center and important point on the Great Silk Road. Most of imported goods, as well as products of local craftsmen were accumulated here.

Trade links of Sogd reached as far as the Mediterranean in the West. Byzantine historian Menandrus wrote, that Sogdian messengers led by a merchant named Maniakh, undertook a journey along ancient detour route across the steppe and further along the northern banks of the Caspian Sea, and finally reached Constantinople and established diplomatic and trade relations with Byzantium.

According to Chinese monk-pilgrim of the 7th century Xuan Zang, half of Sogdian population was engaged in farming, whereas the other half carried on trade. In Samarkand there was a tradition of smearing the tongue of newly born boys with honey, and covering their palms with glue so that they could firmly hold a coin. At the age of five, the boys studied books, and after getting their teens they were sent to learn trading. Having reached their 20th year, young men went to neighboring lands to engage in profitable trade.

One of the most ancient forms of commerce in Sogd was a trade-fair. Xuan Zang noted in his manuscripts, "Every year merchants from all over the world came and gathered at big fairs, and there they discussed their business, sold and bought". At such fairs traders vended cotton fabrics, woolen and silk cloth, other textile goods, leather, including a very popular shagreen leather, furs and ceramics, various articles made of wood, metal and bone. Slaves, horses, cattle were also put up for sale. Fairs in Samarkand offered gold, sal ammoniac, incense, white pearls, velvet, and carpets. Trading with nomads was not unusual. Main places of goods exchange were set in the points, located on the border with steppe regions. The Turkic tribes brought here their cattle and handicrafts which were exchanged for various goods brought by Sogdian merchants from their homeland and other countries.

In the first centuries Sogdiana had the reputation not only for its handicrafts and trade, but also for its literature and arts. Sogdian written language was based on the use of Aramiac alphabet. The earliest Sogdian texts, which survived to our days, date back to the beginning of the 6th century and represent private correspondence written in a rather literary language.

Silver-framed wooden sculpture of a nobleman

Forty years ago during excavations on one of the hills of Afrosiab there was found a rich man's house the walls of which were decorated with pictures of elegantly dressed horsemen and women sitting on elephants, camels and horses. On the dress of one of the men, whose features bear ethnic distinction from faces of other characters, there was an inscription made in the Sogdian language. Having deciphered the inscription, scientists managed to read the following text, "I am Byr-Zatak, Chaganian head of chancellery. I arrived to Samarkand to express my respect to the king of Samarkand. And you do not harbour any suspicion toward me, for I am well informed of the gods and written language of Samarkand…".

Sogdian artists were passionate about imaging richness and luxury of noblemen. On the walls of temples and palaces in Samarkand, Varakhsha, and Penjikent they created splendid pictures of the nobility dressed in luxurious clothes made of brocade and silk, in golden crowns and sash, with daggers tucked behind their sashes, wearing precious earrings, necklaces and bracelets; with gentle faces and thin girlish waists, with gilded cups in their hands.

When in the 7th century Arab conquerors met the Sogdian noblemen in reality, the latter were no less sumptuous than those on the mural paintings. And this luxury could not but call forth envy and avidity in the Arabs, thus provoking a larger scale of Arabic aggression.

In 651 Arabs' army reached Sogdiana, which they called "Garden of victorious Caliph". But here they faced strong resistance. Only in 712 Sogd fell under onslaught of the army of Kuteiba ibn Muslim. Sogdian ishhid (king), Divashtich, did not submit to the conquerors and was replaced with another king, Gurek.


Divashtich had to withdraw to Penjikent, his ancestral domain, and there, 70 kilometers off the town on Mount Mug he built his unassailable castle. Ten years later Khorasan governor, emir Said al Kharashi, decided to do away with the recalcitrant king. The Arabs destructed the palace and Temple of Fire in Penjikent, broke all the statues, destroyed all mural paintings, and burnt Sogdian manuscripts. The fortress on Mount Mug was taken by storm and Divashtich himself was taken prisoner, and then was crucified on the wall of a mausoleum close to the present-day town of Aktash in Samarkand region.

The Arabs extirpated local religions and established Islam as state religion. The Sogdian language was replaced with Dari, whereas the unique Sogdian characters were replaced with Arabic script often called "eastern Latin".

Since the 10th century the word Sogd as the name of both the kingdom and a historical area fell into disuse but for the times of Temurids when it continued to be used as the name of two small districts to the west of Samarkand.

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