Photo of the inside of a silver bowl showing a central seated figure, who holds a cup and wears a crown, surrounding by a pair of musicians, a pair of offering-bearers, and a pair of lions.

Silver bowl with court feast; Sogdiana, School A, early 9th century; State Hermitage Museum, S-4; photo by L. Heifet.

CANCELLED: Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Sogdian Culture: Its Prelude, Blossom and Afterlife

Lecture 3: The Heritage of Sogdians: In Middle Asia, Far East and Worldwide

Pavel Lurje

State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Note: This event has been CANCELLED. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Sogdians, an eastern Iranian people who lived in the central part of modern Uzbekistan and neighboring areas of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in the Late Antique and early Medieval periods (4th to 10th centuries CE), produced a culture that made a deep impact on the history of Eurasia. In the last decades, the study of the Sogdians has developed greatly in many countries, and the recent launch of a Sogdian digital exhibition at the Freer|Sackler Gallery marks a new phase of interest in the Sogdians. Archaeological remains and excavated documents tell us the multifaceted story of a society of landlords, merchants, craftsmen, and brave knights—and also of women and their rights and opinions. This is also a story that lacks imperial ambition, but shows religious pluralism in vibrant cities and the life in diasporas, most famously documented in the inclusion of Sogdian merchants in Chinese society, thus contradicting the common opinion of xenophobia of the Celestial Empire. The Sogdians produced outstanding work of visual art, combining intricate ornamental decorations with the rich narrative of epics, tales, and fables. Dr. Lurje's lectures will highlight crucial elements of Sogdian culture, putting together the jigsaw puzzle of archaeological, artistic, textual, and linguistic sources, and introducing discoveries of recent fieldwork activities at Panjakent, where Dr. Lurje has worked for the last 25 years.

Sogdian culture comes to an end in the latter half of the 8th century CE in its homeland but survives for approximately two more centuries in colonies and diaspora communities outside Sogdiana proper: in Semirechie in modern Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan, and Turfan and Dunhuang in the northwestern China. In historical narratives current in present-day Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan, the Sogdians are considered to be the ancestors of the modern nations, despite the fact that the Tajik language is much more closely related to Persian and completely distinct from East Iranian Sogdian or Bactrian. In the archaeology of the 8th through 10th centuries CE, including recent work at Panjakent, we see a sharp turn to Muslim cultural traditions, which included many Persian and Sasanian elements and few native Sogdian elements. As Persian Muslim converts became dominant in the cities of Sogdiana, they installed their culture in this land—both in the material and philological spheres. Today, only in Yaghnob, a small valley in the mountains of Tajikistan, a dialect similar to Sogdian is still spoken. But are Yaghnobis descendants of refugees from Sogdiana who escaped to the mountains or their relatives who always lived in hostile and remote highlands and preserved archaic cultural traditions? In northwestern China, the Sogdian heritage was heavily borrowed by the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who were in turn followed by the Mongols. The clearest example for this cultural borrowing is the continuation of the Sogdian script in traditional Mongol script, still in use in present-day Inner Mongolia, but also in the name of the chief god of the Mongols—Qurbustu Tengri, whose name is borrowed from the Sogdian pronunciation of Ahura Mazda. Even now in various languages of the world, words of Sogdian origin continue to be used, and in many cases we can trace the development of concepts alongside sequences of lexical borrowing. The English word "check," which was ultimately borrowed from the Sogdian word c'k, meaning "document" or "receipt," is a good example of this.

Pavel Lurje is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Section of Central Asia, Caucasus and Crimea in the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Already as a student in the Department of History of the Middle East and Iranian Philology at Saint Petersburg State University, he began working on the long-term archaeological project in Panjakent and later also on projects in Bukhara and Semirechie (Kyrgyzstan). He received his PhD in 2004 from the Saint Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies, where his dissertation focused on "Historico-Linguistic Analysis of Sogdian Toponymy." After his PhD, Dr. Lurje was a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Iranian Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, where he worked on a long-term research project focused on Sogdian onomastics. Since taking up his position at the State Hermitage Museum in 2009, his primary research projects have involved archaeological fieldwork at Panjakent and curating the Chorasmian collections of the museum.

Registration is required at Please note that separate registration is required for each of the four lectures in this series.

The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

Admission to lecture closes 10 minutes after scheduled start time.

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