The Sogdians as Central Asian Intermediaries

Sogdians held a precarious political spot along the Silk Road.  To their east were the Chinese, to the south the Indian subcontinent, to the west the Persians and Arabs, and to the north were the Turkish steppes.  The Sogdians sat in between all of these major powers, and took advantage of their intermediary location.  They partially achieved this through their mercantilism.  A significant amount of the information we have about the Sogdians shows them from this perspective.  But the Sogdians took advantage of their position in other ways as well.  The Sogdians found a diplomatic niche in Central Asia, serving as intermediaries between the surrounding foreign powers and using that position to thrive.

Badamu document: mediators between Chinese and Turkish tribes

The Badamu document

We see evidence for this in multiple forms.  First, we have the Badamu document.  Discovered in a Sogdian cemetery in Turfan, the Badamu document is a diplomatic text between the Chinese and the Turks written in the Sogdian language.  What exists is only a small fragment of what can be assumed to have been a much larger document, but still it gives us some insight to the political situation of the time.  First, while written in Sogdian, the text involves the Chinese reaching out to the Turks.  This gives a concrete archeological example of diplomatic relations occurring across Sogdiana.  Second, we have the language on the letter itself.  While coming from the Chinese, and destined for the Turks, the letter is written in the Sogdian language.  This more than any other aspect of the letter shows the role Sogdians played.  Clearly Sogdian was seen as an intermediary language, one that could bridge the gap between these two societies.  Third, we have the location where the document was found, a Sogdian cemetery in Badamu, outside of Turfan.  Turfan was a sort of melting pot of a city, sitting between eastern China and Sogdiana.  As Silk Road scholar Valerie Hansen describes it, 

"Migrants from China and Sogdiana, the region around Samarkand, formed the largest communities.  After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE the Chinese migrated in large numbers to the northwest.  Turban and Kulcha were the two largest settlements on the northern route around the Taklamakan.  The Chinese residents of Turfan listened to Iranian music as they, man and women alike, performed the Sogdian swirl, a wild twirling dance that was all the rage…To the Sogdians, Turfan felt so Chinese that they called it Chinatown, (Hansen 2012, 83)."  

Given this context, the Badamu document makes a great deal of sense.  We can see how these two societies, the Chinese and the Sogdians, were interacting on each other’s fringes.

But what of the Turks and the other societies on the steppes?  The Sogdians had a long relation with them.  The interaction was not always amiable, and there was a point where Samarkand was occupied and ruled by Turkic peoples.  For much of the 4th century the city was controlled by either the Hephthalites or the Western Turks (Hansen 2012, 120-121).  These occupations and a continued history of interaction had a lasting impact.  As Hansen elaborates, “Although the Turks developed a written language of their own in the eighth century, they often wrote in Sogdian, and cultural ties between the Turks and Sogdians were close,” (Hansen 2012, 121).

Detail of a Sogdian mural depicting members of the Chaghanian mission to the royal court at Samarkand

A diplomatic envoy, as featured in a 7th century painting from Samarkand

The Turks themselves had further reaching influence than Sogdiana.  As Soren Stark explains, “with the establishment of Türk rule shortly after the middle of the sixth century CE over most parts of the Eurasian steppes, political and economic exchange throughout the Eurasian continent intensified remarkably,” (Stark 2015, 463).  We know that the Sogdians traded silver and metalwork with the Turks, though what was given in return, be it other goods, goodwill, or respite form war, is unclear.  And the Turks traded and raided in exchange for commodities from China (Stark 2015, 477).  Clearly, like the Chinese, they were a power to be reckoned with.  Even the venerable Chinese monk Xuanzang, in his journey to the west, reported on his encounters with many Turkic people, from khans to raiders (Expedition Silk Road 2015, 13). 

And so sat the Sogdians, in between China and the Turks.  Given all we have seen, the Sogdians were primed to play a role as intermediary.  The Chinese were familiar with the Sogdians.  They intermingled on the Chinese western border and many ventured further in to China to trade.  By that same logic, the Sogdians also knew the Chinese, integrating and even adopting some of their customs in the borderland oases along the road.  And the Sogdians knew the Turks.  Neighbors, formerly in conflict but always in trade, the two societies had a constant dialogue.  And importantly, the Turks knew the Sogdians.  Even some important statues of khans had Sogdian inscriptions on them (Stark 2015, 481).

But most importantly, there was a need.  The Turks desired Chinese commodities, and while they did raid for them, they were willing to take a diplomatic approach.  And the Chinese, beyond desiring peace and allies, always desired the fantastic horses that were raised on those central Asian grasslands (Hansen 16).  The Sogdians stood primed for their role as intermediaries, and in doing so flourished.  The height of Sogdian civilization, before the fall of Samarkand in the 8th century, coincided with the height of Chinese interaction with the west, with the barbarian hu, with the Turks.  The Tang dynasty was specificaly trying to exert power and control over Central Asia (de la Vaissiere 2005, 119).  And during that time period even the Turks themselves were briefly unified.  These two powers came together to forge a third one between them.  As intermediaries on the Silk Road, the Sogdians were able to thrive.  We need only to return to the Badamu document to see this in action.  The relatioship between the three societies was not to last, however, as Islamic conquests in the area disrupted the balance of power.  By the time Devastich, the self-styled "King of the Sogdians," was crucified in 722 CE (Marshak 2002, 20), the Sogdians as an independent political unit were effectively finished.

The Sogdians as Central Asian Intermediaries