Class and Stratification in Sogdian Panjikent

Most of the knowledge we have about the Sogdians comes from outside sources like the Chinese, who tell us little about Sogdian society in their homeland.  Their encounters were primarily with Sogdian merchants abroad (de la Vaissiere 2005, 119).  We can, however, get some ideas about Sogdian social structure by looking at their ruins.  Analysis of the buildings excavated at Panjikent shows us a society clearly segmented by class that nevertheless allowed for some degree of social mobility.

Wooden ceiling at Panjakent.

A reconstruction of a wodden ceiling at Panjikent by Boris Marshak


Panjikent was likely established sometime in the fifth century CE, though it reached its apex in the seventh.  Directly west of Samarkand, it was a stop for trade caravans headed into or out of the heart of Sogdiana.  The town flourished until the Arab conquests of the eighth century.  After a series of battles and occupations the town was abandoned between 770 and 780 (Hansen 2012, 122).  Looking at the ruins of Panjikent we can distinguish both a town proper and a citadel-like palace that stands somewhat apart.  In addition, there were a number of houses set up in the fields around Panjikent, described by Boris Marshak as “modest houses of urban type,” likely occupied by craftsmen and independent farmers (Marshak 2002, 10).  This arrangement hints that Sogdian society followed a feudal ordering.  As Marshak explains it,

"the short-lived brilliance of early medieval pre-Islamic urban civilization of Sogdia which was forgotten about almost completely during the ninth to the eleventh centuries, was the product of a deep split in its society.  One party included the landed aristocracy and the urban population, while the other consisted of the peasantry, (Marshak 2002, 8)."

The society was not classically feudal, however.  While people occaisonally styled themselves as kings of Sogdiana, evidence suggests the Sogdiana operated more as a collection of city states.  The city had a central power and hierarchy, but the was no strong power uniting the different cities.  Judith lerner describes it as "a feudal society with an active and important mercantile class," (Lerner 2002, 221).  Still, while not classically feudal, we can assume those living outside of the city were lower on the social rung than those living in the urban center.

While the split between urban population and peasantry was certainly wide, we can also see hierarchies within the urban population itself.  This is noticeable in the layout and architecture of Panjikent, and seems to have everything to do with wealth.  Some residences were near in size to the palace itself and included not just living spaces but large reception halls.  These houses benifited from their proximity to utilities like shops and forges (Hansen 2012, 124).  The largest houses had courtyards and up to four grand halls.  These would likely have been the residencies of “rulers, the highest nobles, and the most wealthy merchants,” (Marshak 2002, 15-17).  In contrast, the less affluent denizens lacked these grander mansions.  These residents were not, however, poorly off.  Most “middle-class” houses were two stories, including a reception hall likely for family gatherings or guests.  Often these smaller residences were grouped near the larger ones, suggesting the people living in these houses worked for the richer families, given the shops and workshops that sometimes featured in the wealthier residencies.

Fragment of a Wall Painting with a Scene from Mahabharata

A scene from the Mahabharata found in Panjikent

Class divisions were also demonstrated by art.  Besides the prevalence of stunning wall paintings in the larger houses and the general lack of art in the smaller houses, the subject of the art also highlighted the class divide.  Discounting art that is soley religious, the vast majority of paintings focus on nobles doing noble things.  Hunting and feasting are particularly popular subjects while merchants are conspicuously absent.  According to Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen,

"Archeologists have identified one house with a painting of a lavish banquet as the house of a merchant who lived immediately next to one of the bazaars.  The sole indication that the guests are merchants - and not nobles - is that, instead of the usual sword, one guest wears a black bag attached to his belt, (Hansen 2012, 125)."

This limited display of mercantile activity may be because much of the surviving art comes from residences that likely held nobility and not your average merchant.  But given what we know of the nature of Sogdian society and their oft mentioned prevalence as merchants along the Silk Road, it seems unlikely that there were no rich and influential merchants in Panjikent.  Thus, this focus on nobility in art suggests at the very least an aspirational quality to the paintings, images of a good life or something to strive towards.

This makes all the more sense when looking at Panjikent’s palatial citadel.  The structure, which served both as a base of physical power and as a residence for the ruler of the city, was not much more impressive than the other upper class residences within the city.  The relative granduer of the palace may be due to the nature of the Sogdian political system, which was not hereditary.  While we know very little of the Sogdian political process, it seems the title of ruler was less glamorous than in other parts of the feudal world, showing the possibility for social mobility.  Control of the city was not limited to one dynasty, given power and influence. 

Mourning scene from temple ii, Panjikent

A mourning scene from a temple in Panjikent.

Evidence of social mobility is present in the construction of the residences themselves.  For some residences, we can see additions were added to existing dwellings, while in some instances  multiple dwellings were combined into one residence.  It seems that Sogdians who came in to money could buy out their neighbors and incorporate their houses into their own.  There are also some houses with modest plans that still have elaborate wall paintings on the inside, another possible marker of a person who came into wealth in their lifetime.  Marshak interprets all of this to mean “that there was no sharp difference between social groups, that social strata contained many overlapping groups,” (Marshak 2002, 14).  Indeed, many residences, elaborate and modest, had wall paintings (Expedition Silk Road 2002, 90).

Still, even with a nebulous social structure, we see three areas of difference in Panjikent.  As mobile as the social structure was, the ruler was still physically set apart from the rest of the town, with a military garrison to defend him.  Some of the dwellings in the town may have rivaled the palace, but they did not exceed it.  And within the town, the middle and upper class may have intertwined, but there were still clear markers of who was in the upper class and who was not.  The size of houses, the presence of paintings, these all clearly marked the wealthy apart.  Even the art elevated the nobility over the merchants, regardless of how important merchants were to Sogdian society at large.  And finally the peasants, marginalized to the point where their dwellings were impermanent enough that most have not survived, whose presence is ignored in art almost entirely.  While there is still a great deal about the Sogdians and Panjikent not yet uncovered, these divisions are clearly visible when analyzing the city’s ruins.

Class and Stratification in Sogdian Panjikent