Sogdiana was the meeting point of Asia and Central Asia before 100 b.c.e. The Sogdiana area encompassed modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and was also called Transoxiana. The use of the word Sogdiana was an attempt to distinguish surrounding Bactria from Transoxiana, and the provincial Persian terminology has persisted in modern historical literature.
Sogdiana was a collective term to describe the various principalities within its area. Positioned alongside the Silk Road, it is where Greco-Roman, Indian, and Persian culture collided.
The major cities of Sogdiana—Samarkand (Samarqand), Bukhârâ, and Pendzhikent (Penjikent, Panjikand)—enjoyed the fruits of trade that came with their positioning along the Silk Road and played an important part in establishing and maintaining trade relationships between Asia and Central Asia.
Merchants and trade caravans traversed the Silk Road during the early first century b.c.e. Contrary to popular belief, the Silk Road was actually a network of roads that crossed from China into Europe. It was at least 2,000 years old by the time the Chinese had set up satellite towns along specific routes to facilitate trade and commerce. Some cities were the creation of such trade and were in existence from the Bronze Age.
Inscriptions dating to the reign of King Darius I (522–486 b.c.e.) refer to the Sogdian area as Sugudu or Sughuda (in Persian), and the whole region was under the patronage of the Achaemenids for some time. Each province functioned much like a separate state, with its own political, economic, and even social systems.
Greek and Latin manuscripts speak of a "Land of the Thousand Cities", roughly located in the area surrounding Bactria, and in 329 b.c.e. Alexander the Great overthrew the area, placing it under the control of his extended empire.
Later, Transoxiana experienced various political changes due to a wave of strategic invasions led by nomadic tribes. The Kushan Empire (an offshoot of a Chinese nomadic tribe called the Yuezhi [Yueh-chih]) established a state that encompassed the Transoxiana area, however Sassanians overthrew them in 300 c.e.
The Sassanid Empire is believed to have been partly responsible for the reformation of Sogdiana (politically, economically, and socially) and hence contributed to its rise among the trading cities along the Silk Road. Sogdian cities endured various foreign rulers such as the Samanids, who had their capitals at Samarkand and Bukhârâ, and the Mongols from 1219 to 1369 c.e. under Genghis (Chinggis) Khan and Tamurlane (Timur).
The area was a melting pot of religion and culture. Major religions included Buddhism, Manichaeanism, Zoroastrianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Nestorian Christianity, and all were tolerated by the Sogdians. Different ethnic and religious groups were free to worship any god until Islam became the dominant religion.
From around the seventh century c.e. Islam strongly permeated the Sogdian area and as a consequence the area is renowned for its Islamic architecture and for the urbanization of the surrounding areas for irrigation, housing, and farming. The inhabitants were skilled linguists as they often acted as translators to the Chinese with whom they traded and delivered Buddhist scrolls.
The spoken language of Sogdiana was primarily an Iranian dialect (Sogdian); however, due to the mixture of nationalities other languages as diverse as Tajik (Persian as spoken by Tajik ethnic groups of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), Mongolian, Greek, and Chinese were widely used.
Indo-European languages spread quite quickly as the popularity of the trade route grew, and the numbers in the trading cities increased substantially. Written language was highly evolved. Sogdian script was derived from Aramaean script and was used to communicate business deals (among other things) between the trading cities along the Silk Road.
The Sogdian cities first participated in intracountry trade with China around 140 b.c.e. The great Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien)established commercial trade with the Sogdiana area as well as other parts of Central Asia.
The Silk Road is thought to have originated from Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), a prosperous and thriving Chinese city whose markets sold silk, glassware, perfumes, and various spices. It is from this city that Asian traders journeyed to the west, passing such cities as Samarkand, Bukhârâ, and Pendzhikent.
Due to the wealth attained by commerce the cities of Samarkand, Bukhârâ, and Pendzhikent all had internal palaces, surrounded by housing, independent shops, and bazaars. Most bazaar spaces could accommodate more than 2,000 people. The inclusion of palaces pointed toward the existence of a sophisticated social network and hierarchy.
Sections of the cities were transformed into market gardens that produced food for the city inhabitants, as well as providing a surplus for close intracity trade. Most cities of sizable proportions were heavily fortified, its citizens protected by the walls of the city.
The cities also had their own citadels outside of the city that offered added protection to inhabitants and wandering traders. Each city, though it encouraged trade, could be self-reliant when required. The Sogdian region was an area that traditionally had a strong Turkish and Iranian presence, politically, economically, and socially.
The trade routes between some cities were in heavy use, especially that between Samarkand and Bukhârâ, which was referred to as the Royal Road, or Golden Road. The area was famed for the production of artwork and architecture, and Sogdiana artisans were in high demand along the Silk Road.
Pendzhikent and Bukhârâ were known along the route for their frescoes and murals, and Bukhârâ was believed to have functioned more as a city of artisans and scholars than as a commercial trading city, such as Samarkand.
Bukhârâ was also infamously known for its trade in Turkish slaves, who were often used as city laborers or transported to Baghdad for use by the courts. Despite an emphasis on artworks by Bukhârâ artisans, Samarkand and Bukhârâ were seen as the two major trading towns in the Sogdian area. This perhaps contributed to the small size of Pendzhikent in relation to Samarkand and Bukhârâ.
Samarkand is one of the oldest known inhabited cities in the world. The original city was called Afrasiab (Samarkand expanded and outgrew the old city) and may have been Marakand or Marakanda, the Greek name given by Alexander the Great and his forces.
It functioned as the eastern administrative region for the Achaemenid empire and functioned as the commercial center of the Sogdian region. It was also named the capital of Mongolian rule in Central Asia by Tamurlane. The city had an eclectic and diverse history of rulers, having experienced mild domination by the Chinese, Mongolian, Persian, and Turkish empires.
Though each empire had acted as an overlord of sorts, Samarkand, Pendzhikent, and Bukhârâ were able to maintain some degree of independence (much like a state would function within a country) and thus continued to flourish due to the influx of trade and the different social and cultural customs of the merchants.
Samarkand was considered the epicenter of trade in Sogdiana; the local traders had established a mint and produced their own coinage. The city was known for trading lustrous textiles and gilded ware (silver and gold).
It had established proﬁ table commercial trading ties with China to the extent that Samarkand traders lived in China and had established a trading embassy of sorts. Samarkand was also known for its military prowess and for the breeding of military grade horses.
Similarly, Pendzhikent was a highly organized and economically stable city. It was located southwest of Samarkand, overlooking the valley, and was the smallest of the satellite capitals. Pendzhikent acted as a capital of the local area before Samarkand rose in popularity and is believed to have been established around 500 b.c.e.
It experienced a prominent role in the region during the seventh to eighth centuries c.e., mainly due to the trade and commerce brought into the region by the Silk Road. The city was quite wealthy and had a well-established and famous bazaar that indicated a constant influx of traders and merchants had passed through.
The city was used by the Hephthalites (an Iranian tribe believed to have ancestry with the Yuezhi (Yueh-chih) of Central Asia) as a capital, then also by Persian invaders aiming to control the lucrative region.
Bukhârâ had strong ties with Samarkand and once functioned as a capital for the Samanids. The word Bukhârâ is thought to mean "favored place" in ancient Sogdian, or it is thought to refer to a Buddhist word vihara, meaning "place of learning". Persian sources (verbal and written histories such as Tarikh-i Bukhara) speak of a city in the area after Alexander had established his sovereignty.
It was already an established crafts center in 709 b.c.e. Archaeological sites have been uncovered that point toward the city being somewhat active during Kushan rule. A female, Khatun, ruled Bukhârâ on behalf of her son Bukhar Khudah Tughshada sometime before 670 b.c.e. Persian sources conﬁ rmed her existence when their invading forces came into contact with Sogdiana.
The Samanids were interested in trading with Europe, and coinage from Bukhârâ has been located as far north as Scandinavia. This points toward a sophisticated commerce culture, something that the three cities are well known for in their own right. The Sogdian cities enjoyed a relatively long period of influence in the area and even managed to survive numerous political, religious, and social changes.
Samarkand, Bukhara, and Pendzhikent contributed greatly to commerce between Asia and Central Asia, even extending as far as the northern tip of Europe. They disseminated learning, in the form of manuscripts and scrolls, cultural exchange, and political and social tolerance.