The Sogdian Caravan and Trade Records

A dizzying amount of goods were being circulated along the Silk Road and the Sogdians were the major facilitators in this cross-cultural exchange. Sogdians dominated the Silk Road trade empire between 500 CE and 1000 CE.  It has been repeatedly said of the Sogdians that,

“at birth honey was put in their mouths and gum in their hands, that they learned the trade from the age of five that on reaching their twelfth year they were sent to do business in a neighboring state.”

                                                             -  (Nicholas Sims-Williams 1996, 46)

This quote stereotypes Sogdians as sweet talkers who are bred to trade and make money. Although this is quite a simplistic description of them, it does highlight the widely accepted fact that Sogdians were incredibly smart merchants. Their influence allowed them to trade not just material goods, but ideas, beliefs, art, and culture. I am interested in the commercial and economic trade of the Sogdians – what and how did they achieve such a legacy while flying under the radar for so long?

Stone used for weighing, inscriped with the weight 485 (drahms)

Weighing Stone from Penjikent

Most individual travelers moved in small circuits from one oasis to the next, on average a few hundred miles in between. Oasis towns were hubs for trade, settlement, and Sogdian communities. Most trade was local and between adjacent towns, and almost never involved large camel caravans crossing vast distances. As merchant caravans traveled from oasis to oasis, they had to stop in each town and go through checkpoints. Merchants passing through the Gaochang Kingdom in China were taxed by government officials through having their goods weighed and then taxed in silver coins accordingly. One of the most informative trade documents listing buyers, sellers, products, and taxes is the scale-fee register lists from Gaochang Kingdom. This scale-fee document from a tax collector is extremely important because it tells us that trade was on a relatively small scale and that goods were highly valued compared to their weight. (Hansen 2015, 100-102) The surviving documents derive from ten paper shoe soles, excavated in Astana, Turfan by Aurel Stein. 

The rate of taxation was measured in two silver coins per two Chinese pounds (jin) of silver. Although it is unclear the weight of jin in 600 CE, it has been estimated at either 6 ounces (8 grams) in the older system or 1 pound 3 ounces (600 grams) in the newer system (Hansen 2015, 99). Valerie Hansen has interpreted the tax-fee records in the original units of jin and liang, where a jin weighed 6 ounces and there were 16 liang to a jin. The scale-fee register lists 37 transactions over the course of a single year, but for the purposes of my graph above, I have only included transactions with the most usable information. Importantly, of the 48 sellers and buyers listed, 41 are identified as Sogdian by their last name (Hansen 2015, 99).

The Silk Road did not just facilitate the exchange of silk, but a vast variety of materials and products. In fact, looking at the trade of everyday objects gives us more insight into the typical Sogdian lifestyle, the raw materials that form luxury goods such as rich, silk textiles. The use and trade of craft materials is discussed further, here. As illustrated in the above tax record, silver, gold, brass, fragrance, medicine, silk thread, ammonium chloride, copper, turmeric, and sugar were commonly traded goods. The largest quantity interactions mentioned are of fragrance and ammonium chloride.  

What happened when merchants were unable to pay their scale-fee taxes? Much like a modern pawn shop or bank loan, those in need would turn to money lenders. Also from Turfan, documents found in the tomb of Zuo (died 673) tell us that he was a moneylender and passed away with many unsettled debts. 15 preserved contracts from Zuo’s tomb explain what government regulations on trade existed, the size and amount of loans being given out, and what was being traded in 7th century Silk Road interactions. (Hansen, 96) Government specifications required bolts of silk to be used for large purchases, such as slaves and livestock, while coins be utilized for less valuable products. Zuo purchased a slave girl for six bolts of degummed silk in 661, and paid 450 silver coins for 90 bundles of hay in 668. Eight contracts record loans of silk or silver coins, while 5 contacts record the rental of fields. Zuo charged interest of between 10 and 15 % each month a debt went unpaid. Why were these debt records buried with Zuo? Because these debts were never paid and Zuo probably hoped they would be reconciled in his next life. Also, it was customary for contracts to be destroyed after final payments had been made. Along with these contracts was a letter from a servant to Zuo that denied his responsibility for the theft of 500 silver coins in 667. The fact that someone carried 500 silver coins on them at a time is quite telling of the most prosperous members of society at this time.

One of the most important members of the Sogdian caravan were the pack animals who physically carried all large bolts of silk, and raw materials to be sold and purchased. Without horses, donkeys, and camels tangible trade products would not have traveled as far as they did. 

As illustrated above, Christopher Beckwirth highlights key records and trends of the horse trade between China and the Uighurs in the 8th -9th Centuries. In 760, when they started trading horses the Uighurs were supposed to have gotten 40 pieces of silk per horse, amounting to $400,000. In 780, when the price of 40 pieces of silk per horse remained the same, the price of silk took a decline and it cost $270,000 per horse. In 809 the Chinese paid $250,000 pieces for 6,500 horses, which is 38.46 pieces of silk or $30,768 per horse (Beckwirth 187). By 838, silk in China returned to its earlier value $1,000 per piece, resulting in the imported horses costing 38 pieces of silk, or $38,000. The economic rise and fall of silk’s value show us that the Uighurs had to increase their export of horses to make up for China’s loss in purchasing power. (Mackerras 1969, 238-239) For a further analysis of Tang horses see this essay on horses and their significance in Sogdian history.  

The Sogdian Caravan and Trade Records