The lost empire that ruled the Silk Road


Today, the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan is relatively remote, known mostly for its magnificent medieval ruins. But over a millennium ago, it was one of the richest cities on the infamous trade route known as the Silk Road. Back in the 600s CE, that route was called simply “the road to Samarkand.”

Its culture was a hybrid of Iranian and Chinese influences, its religion a mix of Zoroastrianism and other traditions, and it belonged to a now-vanished ethnic group called the Sogdians.

The Road to Samarkand

It’s been centuries since anyone used the Silk Road as a major trade route, but its legend lives on. Most recently, a group of programmers used the name Silk Road for an anonymous, bitcoin-fueled online trading site specialising in illegal goods.

There are some truths to the myths. Many parts of the route were extremely dangerous, winding through jagged mountain ranges and skirting the parched Taklamakan Desert at the western edge of China. Enormous caravans sometimes perished in landslides and sandstorms, or were murdered by gangs of outlaws in remote areas. There were rich cities along the way, and jewel-encrusted temples. People on the route sold everything, from silk robes to drugs and slaves.

But in reality, there was no one “silk road” – the trade routes across the Eurasian continent forked in many directions, its tributaries leading deep into India, the Middle East, Central Asia, and coastal China. It jumped across the ocean to Japan and Korea on one side, and flowed across the Arabian Sea between India, Africa and Europe on the other.

The term “Silk Road” was popularised by European explorers in the nineteenth century. German scientist Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term in 1877, while attempting to follow its eroded pathways centuries after the world economy had come to rely on ocean shipping routes. Also, there is no evidence that anyone travelled along the entire route from Europe to China until Marco Polo wrote about his journey in the thirteenth century. (Polo probably wasn’t the first traveller to do this, but his account popularised the idea and led to many more journeys.)

But for most people the Silk Road was just a local highway system. They used the routes to go from one city to another, and more rarely to cross the borders between empires.


As Yale historian Valerie Hansen explains in her book The Silk Road: A New History, most people living along the route would have called it “the road to the next city.” Often people referred to it as the “road to Samarkand,” because Samarkand was one of the richest and best-known cities on the routes. If you look at the map above, you can also see that Samarkand falls at a mid-point between Iran, India and Central Asia. So it was a landmark known to groups in many surrounding areas. It was also hugely influential: Sogdian, the language of Samarkand and its environs, was the lingua franca along trade routes that led east into China.

Silk, Slaves and Immigrants

Another myth about the Silk Road is that people mostly sold silk on it. Certainly silk was a major commodity, but mostly it was used as money. We know that people from soldiers to local rulers were paid in bolts of silk, and traders found it much easier to carry these rolls of soft fabric than the extremely heavy coins in use at the time. Other commodities popular on the Silk Road were also, not surprisingly, lightweight: gems, spices, musk, manuscripts, minerals, glass, medicines, and various textiles.

Perhaps the most valuable items that travelled the silk route were living beings. The Chinese placed a high value on the strong, healthy horses reared by the nomadic groups that ruled the northern steppes. Slaves were also bought and sold along the routes. One of the few surviving documents we have in Sogdian is a marriage contract from the early 700s, which contains a special rider freeing the husband and wife of their obligations to one another if either party should be enslaved. This was a time when slavery was an ordinary part of everyday life. Ever-present conflicts over trade routes and territory could topple fortunes overnight, turning wealthy aristocrats into chattel.

Ultimately, as Hansen argues, the Silk Road changed the world not by bringing silk to the west, or glass to the east – instead, it brought immigrants to and from all parts of the world. And with them came new ideas, new scientific discoveries, and new political alliances between far-flung groups. By far the most common use for the Silk Road was immigration, whether that was done by people wanting to set up trade outposts or flee from invaders. The Sogdians, whose fortunes were rooted in the vast, crazy market city of Samarkand, were also the Silk Road’s greatest immigrant community.

Born with honey on their mouths and glue in their hands

Samarkand is an ancient city, likely founded by groups who came from Iran in the 700s BCE. Built on a hill, surrounded by lush farms and gardens, it was conquered by Alexander in 329 BCE. About 600 years later, it was conquered by a powerful Iranian group called the Sassanians. Though subsequently claimed by one group after another, ranging from the Turks to China’s Tang Dynasty, the city was not shattered by the conflicts boiling around it. Instead, it grew large and prosperous.

That was likely because Samarkand opened its gates to anyone who would obey the laws of trade. The city’s marketplace was famous for its diversity of goods: you could buy anything from language translation guides to sex slaves. Its artisans were famous for their paper and silk manufacturing. It was a city of trade and industry, whose reputation spread because Sogdians often immigrated to other key trade cities in Western China like Dunhuang and Chang’an (now Xi’an). Everywhere they went, Sogdians built ethnic neighbourhoods which today we would probably name “Little Samarkand” or “Sogdiatown.”

The Sogdians’ reputations preceded them in the form of ethnic prejudice. Historians who compiled the New Book of Tang, an official chronicle of the Tang Dynasty completed in 1060, described the Chinese view of the Sogdians like this: “When they give birth to a son, they put honey on his mouth and place glue in his palms so that when he grows up, he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hand as if they were glued there … They are good at trading, love profit, and go abroad at the age of twenty. They are everywhere profit is to be found.”

Not exactly realistic, nor flattering.

In the early twentieth century, an Indiana Jones-ish archaeologist named Aurel Stein was exploring some of the more remote stretches on the trade routes in Western China. Outside Dunhuang, he found a mailbag of eight extremely well-preserved letters. They were written in Sogdian – a language that nobody in the modern world had ever seen before – and addressed to Samarkand.

Two of the letters were poignant rants sent by an impoverished Sogdian woman, Miwnay, to her mother and to the husband who had abandoned her in Dunhuang’s Sogdian neighbourhood. She had no money, and told her mother she’d been reduced to begging. Nobody would help her other than the “temple priest” (who was likely Zoroastrian). She cursed her husband, saying she’d rather be married to a dog or a pig.

What these letters capture, other than the fact that relationship drama is as old as civilisation, is the extent to which Sogdian ethnic neighbourhoods had a significant history already in Chinese cities. Miwnay was part of an established Sogdian community in Dunhuang, though her home city was all the way across the Taklamakan Desert.

Sogdians weren’t successful because they were raised on honey and glue. They created far-flung trade networks, settled in unfamiliar cities, and adapted to local customs. Many intermarried with the locals. One Sogdian home found in the city of Chang’an – often considered the Chinese gateway to the Silk Road – boasted a mixture of Chinese and Zoroastrian art, along with a Chinese grave carved with images of Zoroastrian fire rituals. Samarkand was a city whose reach extended far beyond its walls.

Medieval Multiculturalism

From the sixth through the eighth centuries, Samarkand’s religions and cultures were as diverse as the people who had claimed the city as their own. Zoroastrian and Manichean traditions mingled with Buddhism, mystical Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and local religions whose deities had been worshipped in Mesopotamia for millennia. Sogdians seemed to deal with multiculturalism by adding more gods to their roster of icons to worship, rather than outlawing outsider beliefs the way other cities did.

Much of the city’s religious pluralism was lost when it was conquered by the Arab General Qutayba ibn Muslim in 712. Still it remained a wealthy city, with a thriving and diverse market culture, and was eventually conquered by the Mongols, under whose control the Silk Road flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some of Samarkand’s mixed heritage is obvious even today. People in Samarkand and throughout Central Asia still celebrate Nauruz, the traditional Zoroastrian festival of spring.

This mural below, found in an excavation of ancient Samarkand, shows the Nauruz celebration when Zoroastrianism was still widely practiced.

Though little remains of the pre-Islamic city of Samarkand, archaeologists have recently excavated a nearby city called Panjikent, in Tajikistan, which dates back to the fifth century. It was abandoned a few decades after the Arabs took Samarkand and the surrounding regions in the early eighth century, and thus gives us a good look at what a Sogdian city would have looked like earlier in its history.

One home in particular, which likely belonged to a very wealthy family, has wall paintings which give us a fascinating glimpse of how Sogdians viewed the world. It portrays the local rulers, surrounded by merchants and other people from all over the world, including China and Korea.

Many of these groups are easy to recognise from their dress and hairstyles — for example, the Chinese wore their hair long, while the Sogdians shaved their heads and wore caps. Other homes have decorations that mix Buddhist temples with Zoroastrian fire shrines.

Sodgians didn’t just trade goods with their neighbours; they traded ideas. As religious studies scholar Richard Foltz points out in his book Religions of the Silk Road, Sogdians were likely responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and, later, Islam throughout the Central Asian and Chinese communities to the east. They brought Buddhist texts from India to China, and Manichean ideas from Iran to a group known as the Uighurs in northern central Asia.


Today there are still thriving Islamic and Christian communities in western China, many of whom might trace their origins back to a group of well-read, adventurous traders who hailed originally from Iran and settled in a beautiful city on a hill called Samarkand.

An Lushan’s Rebellion

When Samarkand was conquered by Arab forces in the early eighth century, things changed dramatically for Sogdians. The city’s new leaders offered tax breaks to anyone who converted to Islam, and made it very difficult for people who refused this deal. Zoroastrian Sogdians fled the city along with anyone who didn’t like the new Arab regime, and many wound up in the bustling Sogdian neighbourhoods of Chinese cities like Chang’an, capital of the Tang Dynasty.

The famous military leader An Lushan was a child of one of these waves of immigrants. Born to Sogdian parents, he grew up in China, became an outstanding military leader and close personal friend of Emperor Xuanzong in Chang’an, and eventually started one of the deadliest wars in history in 755. After raising his own army, sacking several Chinese cities, and killing millions, An Lushan declared himself emperor of a region and dynasty he dubbed Yan. By all accounts, he ruled rather mercilessly for a few years before Yan fell in 763.

The emperor was only able to win back the Yan region from An Lushan’s forces with help from the Uighurs, a nomadic group who had formed a massive empire in the eighth century.

Below the Uighur empire you can see the Tang Dynasty Chinese Empire. After the Uighurs defeated An Lushan’s troops, the soldiers were allowed to sack the city of Chang’an as a prize for their efforts. This ignominious end to An Lushan’s reign also basically marked the end of the Sogdians as an ethnic group.

In the wake of An Lushan’s rebellion, the emperor outlawed Sogdian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Christianity and even Buddhism (the Buddhism ban was fairly quickly lifted). Surviving Sogdians changed their names to hide their ethnic background, but were still regularly persecuted. Many fled from Chinese cities in the region near Chang’an, and still others were pushed out by new laws that made it difficult for “foreigners” to live in Chinese cities – even if these foreigners were Sogdians whose families had been in China for generations.

Over time, the Sogdian culture that once controlled Samarkand died out completely. There is a small ethnic group in eastern Iran where people speak a language called Yaghnobi that’s related to Sogdian. But the once-influential people who ruled trade on the Silk Road are now barely known. We have only a few examples of their writing and art, and know of Sogdians mostly through accounts like the one from the Tang Dynasty history that explains how their children are raised to be greedy.

Of course the Sogdian city of Samarkand lived on, and saw centuries of cultural change and prosperity. So too did the offspring of those hidden Sogdians, who probably grew up thinking of themselves as Mongols or Turks or Chinese or whatever adopted identities their families chose to hide behind.

In many western Chinese cities today, there remain Islamic groups whose distant ancestors may have been Sogdian. But their Sogdian cultural history was erased completely in the wake of An Lushan’s rebellion.

The Soviets revived the ancient term ‘Uighur’ in the twentieth century to refer to ethnic groups in western China and central Asia who were from some of the same regions as the eighth century Sogdians and Uighurs. This is perhaps one of the clearest examples you’ll ever find of history being written by the winners. Though the distant offspring of Sogidans may be among the peoples labelled ‘Uighur’ today, they’re known by the name of China’s old allies.