Detail, Camel with Musicians. China, Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). Glazed earthenware. National Museum of China, Beijing. Photograph © National Museum of China

The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads

Who were the Sogdians? While mostly lost to history, these ancient people of the Silk Roads shaped the world around them—not with an empire or an army but through trade.

Sogdian Trade Route Map
Land and sea trade routes in the first millennium CE. Bukhara and Samarkand were major cities in Sogdiana.

One of the first references to the Sogdians dates to the fifth century BCE. They were known for their importance on the trade routes that crisscrossed Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. The Sogdian homeland, in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, was famous for its bountiful oases that served as crucial stopovers between expansive deserts and rugged mountains.

The Sogdians traded silk from China, horses from Uzbekistan, gemstones from India, musk from Tibet, and furs from the northern steppes. Skilled artisans, they made and sold luxurious objects, particularly metalwork and textiles, across the Asian steppe and into China. They also exported fashions, dances, and music traditions. In addition to serving as diplomats and translators, the Sogdians were instrumental in spreading Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism, a dualistic Iranian religion founded in the third century CE. The Sogdians largely disappeared by the eighth century, and their language, architecture, and history were lost to time.

Archaeological discoveries—from ancient letters to monumental wall paintings—have allowed scholars to reconstruct some of the extraordinary contributions Sogdians made to Late Antiquity. To learn more about these dynamic people who crossed geographic, political, and cultural boundaries, the Freer|Sackler assembled an international team of scholars, convened workshops across the world, and worked with graduate students for almost a decade.

carved brown stone showing figures and divinities
Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities. China, purportedly Anyang, Northern Qi dynasty (550–577 CE). Marble with traces of pigment. Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110.

The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads is a new digital exhibition that explores Sogdian art through existing material culture. It focuses on the golden age of the Sogdians, from the fourth to the eighth centuries CE, when Sogdiana flourished through trade and agriculture. Sogdian emigrant communities spread across China, South and Southeast Asia, and into the Central Asian steppe and Mongolia. During these centuries, a highly sophisticated and distinct Sogdian urban culture developed, epitomized by richly colored wall paintings and exceptional textiles, metalwork, and sculptures.

Various dimensions of Sogdian culture, from art, music, and feasting to religious and funerary practices, are presented in this digital exhibition. New 3-D models of metalwork objects, photographs of archaeological sites, and international scholarship reveal new details about these forgotten people. Investigate Sogdian objects, travel the Silk Roads on an interactive map, and watch leading scholars discuss their latest research as you discover the most important people you’ve (maybe) never heard of.

Explore the digital exhibit: www.asia.si.edu/sogdians

Explore this 3-D interactive model of a winged camel ewer, late 7th or early 8th century, now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Model © The State Hermitage Museum, S-11.

This online exhibition is made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation, with additional support from the Thaw Charitable Trust and the Smithsonian Provost Scholarly Studies Award program.

We warmly recognize the collaboration of the State Hermitage Museum, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (NYU), XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement (NYU), the Bard Graduate Center, and the Association Sauvegarde Peinture Afrasiab.

This piece is part of a series on The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads. Check back for additional posts from our collaborators.

 

Sana Mirza

Sana Mirza is an education specialist at the Freer|Sackler.

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