Sogdiana was surrounded on all sides by large and powerful empires. To its west lay the Roman and later Byzantine empires, to the north the Russian steppe, to the south Bactria and India, and to the east, China (Lerner 2002, 222). The Sogdians’ territory, as a result, was at various times under the control of one or another of these empires. The local power structures within Sogdian towns existed usually under outside control, with each small city-state exerting their own autonomy only within this larger power structure (Lerner 2002, 222).
Given this history of outside domination, it is notable that Sogdians came to dominate the trade routes of the region, and were seen as the most skilled merchants and traders throughout the huge network of routes that made up what came to be known as the Silk Road. We can see evidence of this vast network in Sogdian art such as the mural depicting the Chaghanian Mission to the Royal Court at Samarkand, or the representations of Sogdians unearthed in the tomb of Xianyu Tinghui, a Chinese military officer under the Tang Dynasty. In examining these far-flung extant records of Sogdian mercantile operations, we begin to see that it was the Sogdians’ adaptability and careful diplomacy that allowed them to operate this far-reaching trade network as successfully as they did. Acting as the commercial intermediaries between larger empires, the Sogdians made themselves into a source of profit for those who would act as their protectors, thereby insuring their own safety while traveling the often dangerous terrain involved in their mercantile ventures.
The routes traveled by Sogdian traders were incredibly dangerous, even for seasoned veterans of their trade. It is important to understand the vast distances covered to appreciate the difficulties faced by Sogdian traders. For example, the journey from Samarkand to Chang’an, a route traveled by merchants many times in a lifetime, was over three thousand miles (Whitfield 2001, 22). Travelers had to contend with a series of harsh geographies, including steep, snow-covered mountain passes and the Taklamakan desert, a name which translates roughly to “unreturnable” (New World Encyclopedia 2016). At certain times of year, the threat of avalanche would keep traders off of the mountain passes; there is some evidence that the monk Xuanzang and his companions were caught in an avalanche that cost the lives of three or four out of every ten men (Hansen 2015, 114). All trade routes were designed to skirt the edges of the Taklamakan, however, running out of water in this arid section of the route was always a danger (Whitfield 2001, 45).
Aside from the treacherous physical conditions of the route, travelers had to contend with interference from state agents and bandits alike. Xuanzang reported an encounter with over two thousand Turk robbers on horseback two days outside of Kucha (Hansen 2015, 113). Records of a legal dispute found among the Turfan documents tell the story of Cao Lushan, a Sogdian trader who set out for the Kuche oasis and never arrived at his destination. One witness in this case testified that his cargo of weapons and saddles would have made him an attractive target for bandits (Hansen 2003, 37). Beyond the threat of thieves along the road, merchants were often required to present a bribe to officials at the border when entering China to conduct trade (Whitfield 2001, 29).
The Sogdians were able to face these challenges due to a variety of practical adaptations and strategic alliance building with states more powerful than their own. As vassals to one imperial ruler or another, the profit made by Sogdians also represented state income for any entity collecting taxes or tribute from them. Whether under the control of the Hepthalites, Turks, or in some cases the Tang dynasty, the Sogdians’ overlords always had an interest in maintaining the safety of the routes in order to support mercantile activity (Lerner 2002, 222).
Safe passage was also made possible by the network of service providers that developed to serve travelers’ needs. In order to facilitate commercial activity, Sogdians founded a series of settlements all along the Silk Road trade routes, stretching from the western edges of the route all the way east into China (Lerner 2002, 225). These Sogdian outposts created a network of trade in which most merchants did not travel the massive distances of the entire route, but would transport goods from one post to the next, which was a far safer enterprise.
The Sogdians’ relationship with China, particularly the Tang Dynasty, is of specific importance to this discussion of safe passage. During the seventh and eighth centuries, the Tang Dynasty devoted considerable resources to the areas of Central Asia where they had recently established Tang state apparatus and army posts (Hansen 2005, 43). In fact, the money flowing from the Tang Dynasty into the hands of their soldiers and subjects in these areas may have been a key factor in the surge in trade that occurred in Central Asia at this time. The Turfan documents recording the case surrounding Cao Lushan, mentioned above, provide a very important insight into the character of the Tang legal structure. After hearing the facts of this case, brought by Cao Lushan’s brother in an effort to receive repayment of a loan of 275 bolts of silk, the Tang court found in favor of Rokshan, the brother of Cao Lushan (Hansen 2005, 49). This is significant, since it shows us that the Tang court was willing to enforce the terms of a contract, and specifically to do so on behalf of a Sogdian bringing suit against a Chinese merchant. The fact that a Sogdian merchant in this context could rely on the Tang court to support the enforceability of contracts provided a layer of legal protection that made it safer to conduct business along the Silk Road trade routes (Hansen 2005, 53).
The Sogdians faced many challenges as the facilitators of Silk Road commerce, yet they were able to thrive in this role. Through the use of small trading outposts along the route, they created a network of safe havens where merchants could stop to rest, feed their caravan animals, and spend a night in relative safety. Since their profits would translate into state revenue in the form of taxes or tribute, Sogdians could also rely on the protection of those who claimed imperial control over any given region. Overall, it was the Sogdians’ ability to adapt to the geographic and political conditions around them that allowed them to be so successful as the dominant merchant class of Silk Road commerce.