Sogdiana : Land of Nomads, meetings between Conflictual Cultures


Land of Nomads, meetings between Conflictual Cultures

This ancient name refers to a  large part of Transoxiana, a geografically vast area between the rivers Oxus (Amu-Darya) to the west and Iaxartes (Syr-Darya) to the east. Today, this region corresponds to Central Uzbekistan and Western Tajiikistan. In its central portion the region consists mostly of irrigated lands located in the medium valleys of the two rivers and their tributaries, especially along the river Zeravshan, the Polytimetos of Greek sources, the rural area between Bukhara and Samarkand, where a civilization of great interest, of Iranian language and culture, developed from the 3rd century B.C. (later, then, than that of the neighbouring regions) and reached its peak between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, becoming one of the most developed regions of Transoxiana.

In Central Asia, the closest neighbours of the Sogdians were the Bactrians, who settled on the opposite bank of the Amu-Darya, southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Going over these lands lays India, which can be reached through the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush. To the south-west region the Sogdians had contacts with the Iranian world, which occurred both via Amu-Darya, reaching the city-oasis of Merv in Turkmenistan, or via the desert. To the north-west lays Chorasmia, the region surrounded by the Kyzil Kum desert and the delta of the rivers Kyzil Kum and Syr-Darya, not far from the Aral Sea. In the north, once crossed the Syr-Darya, the territory is morphologically characterized by the steppes inhabited by Saka nomads. Across the steppes is possible to reach the Black Sea to the west, and the Tarim Basin, Mongolia and China to the east through the foothills of the Tien Shan mountain range. Located in the geographic epicentre of Eurasia, Sogdiana is in constant contact with the four major historical and cultural regions: China in the north-east, Iran in the south-west, the Indian subcontinent to the south-east and with nomads of the northen and eastern steppes as well.

Sogdiana is, therefore, a land full of history, even if the first explicit evidence about the region and the people who lived there before the advent of Islam has come to us thanks particularly, and in some cases exclusively, to archaeological research, due to the lack of dedicated local historiographical literature and because of the little information provided by written sources. Among the historical texts, we should remember the mention of Sogdiana found in the Avesta (Vidēvdāt 1.4; Yašt 10.14), the cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenid period: the inscriptions of Darius I (late 6th-5th cent. BC) in Bīsutūn (DB I 16), Hamadan (DH 5), Naqš-e Rostam (DNa 23), Persepolis (DPe 16, DPh 6) and Susa (DSe 22, DSf 38, DSm 9) and, afterwards, the inscription of the Sasanian king Šābuhr I (3rd cent. AD) in the so-called Ka’be-ye Zardošt (ŠKZ MPers. 3, Parth. 2, Gr. 4).

Among the classical authors who dealt with the area we can mention the historians Arrian, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, and the geographers Strabo and Ptolemy; however, these are sources, historical documents and fragmentary geographic descriptions relating almost exclusively to the expedition of Alexander the Great.

For the period prior to the Islamic invasion a lot of information was gathered by Arabic historians as Narshakhi, al-Tabari, and by those of the Arabic geographers whose descriptions are collected and published in the Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum. Without neglecting the Chinese sources such as the Dynastic Annals which include the events from the 2nd cent. BC onwards and the travel reports by Chinese pilgrims, or the Old Turkic sources, perhaps less extensive but certainly significant, it is worth to remember the Sogdian inscriptions found at Kultobe in south Kazakhstan, the Sogdian documents from Mount Mug, east of Samarkand in present-day Tajikistan, and the “Sogdian ancient Letters” found in China near the site of Dunhuang.