Coins: Evidence Sogdian Cross-Cultural Exchange
Sogdian coinage reflected various traditions and religions, including Hellenistic from Roman and Byzantine, Sassanian, Muslim, and Chinese, based on the influence of the surrounding regions. The beginning of coin production in Sogdiana and nearby areas is linked to Alexander the Great and with Greek power in Middle Asia (the Seleucids and the rulers of Greco-Bactria). Sogdians minted coins imitating the ones used by their Greek-ruled neighbors. The “Barbarian Imitation of a Tetradrachma of the Greco-Bactrian King Euthydemus” is an example of this. Early imitations may have been more precise, however, over time there was further deviation from the original in design, composition, and size. These Hellenistic modeled coins were used for several centuries. This is evident in the Sogdian ancient letters, dated to the early fourth century, which note the use of staters, originally Greek coins, as the basis for accounting (Hermitage 2014, 52-54). Some scholars even suggest that the “staters” referred to in Sogdian Ancient Letter II are actually the imitation tetradrachma of Euthydemus (de la Vaissère 2005, 54).
As Greek influence faded, the influences of the Sassanian empire grew. Sogdian coins were modeled from coins of the Sassanian silver coins Pērōz paid to the Hephtalites after his defeat, which the Hephtalites distributed in Central Asia through commerce (de la Vaissère 2005, 111-112). Sassanian drachmas of Varakan V served as a model for the Bukhar Khuda series which were minted in Sogdian from fifth to the twelfth centuries of the common era, a extensive period of time for an imitative coin series. The “Silver coin of Khunak the Bukhar Khuda" is one example of a coin from this series. In the eighth century, the Sogdian script on the series was supplemented by Arabic, a reflection of the Muslim conquests at that time (Hermitage 2014, 55). There are even some cases of trilingualism on coins when Arabic was added to the Khorezmian-Sogdian bilingualism (de la Vaissère 2005, 257).
Sogdian coins were used locally as simple tokens of account. Sogdian coins quickly lost much of their value; their circulation was forced as valid within the city-states. Some coins even bear overstrikes to affirm their validity rather than show a lack of quality (de la Vaissère 2005, 172-173).
Sogdian coinage and their relationship with coins also sometimes have links to religious traditions. For example, in the city of Panjikent, there were coins minted in the name of the goddess Nana, which may have been issued by the city’s temple (de la Vaissère 2005, 172). Although the use of naus buildings does not appear in Zoroastrian texts, there have been archaeological finds of coins, particularly gold ones, as burials goods. This was practiced by wealthier and poorer individuals believing it would have a benefit to them (Hansen 2014, 123). In some cases, the coins were found in the mouths of the deceased which is probably based on the practice of offering obols, or coin, to Charon, the old man who ferries souls across the Styx and Acheron rivers to Hades (de la Vaissère 2005, 173).
Sogdian coins were intended for local use within Sogdiana, thus silver Sassanian coins were used more widely because their value remained relatively accurate over time. There is evidence of this in the “Sale contract of a slave-girl” dating to 639 in Turfan when the seller asks to be paid “drachms [coins which are] very pure [and were] minted in [Sassanid] Persia”. Sassanian silver was occasionally able to be used as tender in China. Though found in a limited number in China, the expansive circulation of Sassanian silver coins was contributed to by Sogdian commerce. There are some Chinese sources from the Tang dynasty which indicate that westerners who settled in the empire had to pay their taxes in silver coins for the first two years (de la Vaissère 2005, 173-174). During the Tang dynasty, silk was the more valuable currency. In Dunhuang around 750, one roll of raw silk was worth four hundred-sixty bronze coins while thirty-two bronze coins was equal to one silver coin, making the roll of raw worth a little more than fourteen silver coins (de la Vaissère 2005, 271).
In the seventh century, while some cities minted coins from the Bukhar Khuda series, others were minting imitations of Chinese coins (de la Vaissère 2005, 172). For example, after several centuries of minting imitations of Antioch coins, Samarkand began to mint imitations of Chinese copper coins following the Chinese technique of casting. The Chinese imitations were created using Chinese design but used Sogdiana tamgas, or stamped seals on one side and the name of the Sogdian ruler on the other (Hermitage 2014, 56). These imitations included the Chinese style with a central hole (de la Vaissère 2005, 172).
Though the Sogdians were influenced by their neighbors for minting coins, the coins still incorporated Sogdian elements. The coins which served as models for the Sogdians were not always treated the same way. When first minting coins, some Sogdian imitations, like the one of the tetradrachma of Euthydemus, used the inscription of the ruler’s name as a design element, and not the name of a ruler (Lerner 1999, 79). A few centuries later, when minting coins like those for the Bukhar Khuda series, the Sogdians used the name of their own ruler, giving the coin more of their own identity (Naymark 2010, 8). For the later Chinese imitations, though they followed Chinese design, the Sogdians used the name of their ruler and their seals for the coins (Hermitage 2014, 56). Sogdian coinage and their usage of coins are a reflection of the Sogdians’ position as a people of cross-cultural exchange, borrowing from their neighbors, while still maintaining the distinctive elements of their own culture.
Hansen, Valerie. 2015. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hermitage Amsterdam. 2014. Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. St. Petersburg: State Hermitage Museum.
Lerner, Jeffery D. 1999. The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau: The Foundations of Arsacid Parthia and Graeco-Bactria. Stuttgart, DEU: Franz Steiner Verlag. https://books.google.com/books?id=R_b8GTzK4fsC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Naymark, Aleksandr. 2010. “Drachms of Bukhar Khuda Khunak.” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 5 (1): 7-32.
de la Vaissière, Étienne. 2005. Sogdian Traders: A History. Translated by James Ward. Leiden: Brill.