The Sogdians Were the Guardians of the Silk Road
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a major discovery of fourth century Sogdian letters found in an old watchtower in Dunhuang in the northwestern Gansu Province of western China became some of the earliest examples of Sogdian writing ever recovered. Known as the masters of the Silk Road, the Sogdian language was the language of trade along the trade routes beginning in the fourth century. The Sogdians grew in influence, eventually dominating the central Asian stretch of the Silk Road between the sixth century and the tenth century.
The Sogdians were a nomadic Iranian people from modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Cyrus the Great conquered the lands that the Sogdians lived in on his Central Asian campaign in the mid-6th century, and they remained under the control of the Achaemenid Empire until the following century. At this time, the Sogdians engaged in long-distance trade, contributing to the spread of goods and religion along central Asian trade routes. They never officially formed their own empire, choosing instead to spread out along central Asia and maintaining their trade contacts.
In the second century BCE, the Sogdians engaged in trade with China, at the suggestion of the Chinese diplomat and explorer Zhang Qian. China sent many diplomatic missions to Sogdian lands, and the Sogdians created a monopoly on the trade between China and India by the 4th century. Their influence also spread to the West, forming a trade agreement with the Byzantine empire.
The Sogdians dominated the major trading towns of Suyab and Talas in present-day Kyrgyzstan, and they controlled the northern caravan routes along the Silk Road until the 8th century. By the 10th century, the Sogdian lands were conquered by the Uighur Empire; the Uyghurs learned the trade techniques from the Sogdians and eventually replaced them as the mediators of Silk Road trade after the 10th century.
The Dunhuang letters offer both a glimpse into everyday life of the Sogdians and demonstrate their knowledge of the trade markets. Two of the letters were written by an abandoned Sogdian wife, while two others complain of the threat of attack by the Huns along their areas of influence. In one letter, Sogdian merchants write to another merchant in Samarkand that political instability in Luoyang, a major hub of Chinese trade, greatly reduced the trade opportunities there.