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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Varakhsha / Varaḵša (Sogdiana)

Following the final termination of Greek rule in Bactria around 130 BC - and seemingly for at least some decades before it too - post-Greek Sogdiana's history becomes very hazy. Scholars have not particularly been able to reach a consensus about what was happening in the region even during the Greek kingdom period, let alone afterwards. Very often the only evidence at all is primarily numismatic, with some regional coins being produced bearing the name or likeness of minor tyrants, usually in the Greek style which remained the one to follow for some centuries.

There are few written accounts which cover the region in its late Classical and early medieval periods, and other records are relatively sparse. Even the idea of Sogdiana remaining under the governance of Greek Bactria is one which cannot be confirmed, simply because there is very little evidence to prove it. Sogdiana is indeed included in the list of eastern provinces to be secured by the Seleucids in the campaign of 305 BC. It may well have remained theirs for a while, but an Indo-Greek campaign into the region from Bactria in 283-281 BC and a lack of mentions afterwards paints a distinct picture of a lost region, and perhaps one which was not particularly secure beforehand.

Previously established Indo-Iranian tradition seems to have enjoyed a revival. Sogdian script was used in place of Greek, developed out of Achaemenid courtly Aramaic. New Sogdian fortifications also followed established Indo-Iranian styles, and Sogdian clothing was traditional Central Asian in style rather than Greek. The influx of barbarians into Bactria from the second century BC onwards further influenced Sogdian styles, adding many cultural elements and later mixing those with early Turkic influences. By the seventh century Nestorian Christian crosses were appearing on coins, revealing the arrival of Orthodox Christianity.

The general coinage style was a regional one which had first appeared in the late fourth century AD, albeit without the cross, replacing the previous Greek types. The multitude of regional mints strongly suggests a series of independent city states or principalities in the region. Of those, Samarkand and Bukhara dominated the rest, in terms of regional might if not directly ruling over them. By the middle of the seventh century AD, the thriving Bukharan mint switched to the temporarily-dominant Chinese cash model and started casting coins. The initial coins were simple regional imitations, but then a Bukharan tamgha was added to the reverse and later two types were issued carrying Sogdian inscriptions. The trend in coinage clearly shows a series of independent city states or principalities in the region.

The city of Varakhsha (or, more accurately, Varaḵša) had virtually disappeared during the first century AD Sogdian decline, but it was resurgent by the seventh century and presumably for a good couple of centuries before that. Its territory is thought by archaeologists to lie on the west bank of the River Zarafshan (or Zeravshan, the ancient Polytimetus) which lies between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, with Bukhara on the east bank. It was one of a number of small city states in this river valley, many of which were most likely founded by the early Achaemenid rulers of Suguda. Varakhsha itself started out as a village and only expanded later.

Today perhaps half of the former river irrigation zone on the west bank has long been abandoned, especially in the region of Varakhsha itself, leaving the oasis roughly sixty-six per cent smaller than it had been. However, the fortification lines between Bukhara and the river can still be located, and the now-desolate lands on the west bank clearly house an ancient city 'overwhelmed by sand' during its seventh century peak. UNESCO information claims the city as one of the largest to the west of Bukhara. Varakhsha is one of the few pre-Islamic cities in the Sogdian oases to have been subjected to any detailed archaeological examination. A palace complex was uncovered here in 1938-1939 and 1949-1954, revealing traces of wall paintings and clay statuettes. Many other sites have only been surveyed, not excavated (with the notable exception of Penjikent).

The developing Silk Road

(Information by Peter Kessler, from The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau, Jeffrey D Lerner (1999), from Sogdiana, its Christians and Byzantium, Aleksandr Naymark (doctoral thesis, Indiana University, 2001), from ONS No 206 (Journal of the Oriental Numismatic Society, Winter 2011), from The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3, E Yarshater (Ed), from History of Humanity: from the seventh century BC to the seventh century AD, Joachim Herrmann, Erik Zürcher, & Ahmad Hasan Dani (International commission for a history of the scientific and cultural development of mankind, History of Mankind, Unesco, 1994), from Tārīk-e Boḵārā, Abū Bakr Jaʿfar Naršaḵī (M-T Modarres Rażawī (Ed), Tehran, 1972), and from External Links: the Ancient History Encyclopaedia (dead link), and Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bukhara History Part 5: Bukhara under the Arabian Conquest (Advantour), and The Silk Road, and Varakhsha (UNESCO).)

AD 3rd-6th cent

The Sassanid ruler, Shapur I, seems to conquer Sogdiana around AD 260 while subjugating a good many eastern regions as the Kushans in Bactria wane. If not then, it certainly happens not much later. Much of Sogdiana is occupied for a time (Marakanda, the capital, for instance), while part is occupied for a longer period (Bukhara especially).

The Iron Gates of the Baba-tag Mountains in Sogdiana
The Iron Gates (shown here), are part of a narrow but popular linking route between Sogdiana and Bactria in the Baba-tag Mountains (close to modern Derbent) (click or tap on image to view full sized)

In the fourth century AD, things are changing in Sogdiana. A large network exists of merchants from the cities who are trading with the Tarim Basin (home of the Tocharians) and beyond. However, the last quarter of the century sees the start of invasions of the region by the Kidarites. The style of regional coins in Sogdiana suddenly changes, with imitations of Greek types being replaced with coins of quite a different appearance. These can be linked to Bukhara right up to the seventh century.

The once shrunken and backward Sogdiana is booming again. A sudden and rapid improvement in development take place, with cities which survived the first century AD decline now growing rapidly, and new defensive lines being put up which demonstrate the gaining of significant new territories. A Kidarite influx of 441-457 appears to interrupt trade and communications with China, but an early sixth century take-over by the Hephthalites appears to return things to normal.

In 552 the Western Göktürks expand their dominions towards Chorasmia and the early principalities of Sogdiana, right up against the borders of Persia's eastern territories. They set up a viceroy in Tokharistan to manage the region. In 565 the Hephthalites are defeated by an alliance of Göktürks and Sassanids at a great battle near Bukhara. A level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Western Göktürks come into conflict with their former allies, the Sassanids, between 581-590. Much of Tokharistan remains a Göktürk dependency until the end of the century. By inference, Sogdiana to the north of Bactria is also theirs.

The western Göktürk period is of particular importance in Sogdiana and for the Sogdians. The Göktürks destroy local dynasties such as the dynasty of Paikand, but the integration of the Sogdians into the Göktürk state allows for an expansion of Sogdian culture and commercial activities. The Sogdians start to colonise regions further to the east, including Semirech'e, thereby setting up their expansion into China's western periphery while also enriching the Göktürk empire.

The western extension of the same trading networks allows silk to be exchanged with the Sassanids from China where it has been received as tribute from the Tang due to Göktürk military successes. This also allows for the opening of the Khurasan Road, creating an integration of the Sogdian network into a Sassanid one.

600s - 682

While Sogdians have become the high administrators of the Western Göktürk state, the Sogdian language has also become the lingua franca of the Göktürk empire. It expands far into the east towards China, even lending its script to Old Turkic and many subsequent Turkic and Mongolian languages. In turn, the Göktürk nobility has become part of Sogdian society, with marriages between the families of the kings of Samarkand and that of the Göktürk khagan.

Map of Central Asia AD 600-700
By the beginning of the seventh century AD, Göktürk power in southern Central Asia was waning while the Sassanids had established a degree of control over the southernmost parts of this region, and various city states had emerged in Sogdiana (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.630s - 650s?

It appears that, by now at least, there are several local lords in the Bukhara oasis, especially in the towns of Paikand, Vardana, and Varakhsha. Both Paikand and Varakhsha are mentioned in the Tārīḵ-e Boḵārā by Abū Bakr Jaʿfar Naršaḵī as residences of the rulers, but whether they are local rulers only or rulers of the entire oasis is still unknown. Some form of unity in the oasis is implied by the coinage, the extensive irrigation system, and the long protective walls around the settled and cultivated areas.


Following the Islamic conquest of Sassanid Persia in 651, initial raiding parties have been sent out into the eastern territories on a regular basis. The idea is to sow disruption, force weaker states or cities to reveal themselves as being ripe for conquest, and to exact tribute and plunder freely. One such raid in this year strikes the city of Maimurgh, and proves to be the final straw for the natives. They rise together against the invaders and virtually drive them back into Persia proper. It may be the seemingly unnamed king of Kabul who is amongst the leaders of the retaliation against Islam.

659 - 665

A seemingly partial occupation of Transoxiana by Tang dynasty Chinese is effected in 659, but is ended in 665. This is part of a Tang effort to defend its western approaches after centuries of barbarian incursions and also to provide buffer districts between it and the strife which is engulfing Central Asia. The protectorate of Anxi remains in command of the Tarim Basin and probably also the approaches into China to the basin's immediate north.

Varakhsha's palace
Varaksha's palace as reconstructed by V A Nil'sen and displayed in the publication Varakhsha by Vasilii Shiskin, published in 1963


The Western Göktürk empire has disintegrated rather quickly after gaining its initial quick successes, losing power in the middle of the seventh century and, by 682, ceasing to exist. Despite a restoration of Turkic power at the beginning of the eighth century, the Tang hold nominal power in the region, primarily from their expanded protectorate of Anxi.


Vardan Khuda - ruler of Varakhsha from an unknown point in time - is a title rather than a name. The word 'khuda' means 'lord', so the title would seem to mean 'lord of Vardana', which suggests that he also controls that city. In fact, control of that city would seem to predate that of Varakhsha, which is traditionally the residence of the lord of Bukhara, hinting at a prolonged programme of conquest or unification taking place under this lord's control. Varakhsha is apparently 'overwhelmed by sand' during its seventh century peak, although it survives in some form.

bef 688 - 708

'Vardan Khuda'

Ruler of Varakhsha (and Vardana?). Took Bukhara.


Any unity between the principalities in Sogdiana vanishes around this time, perhaps due to the act of Bukhara being seized by the ruler of its chief rival in the region, the city state of Varakhsha, or perhaps prompting that very act. Alliances form and are abandoned, and inter-dynastic marriages are obtained. The picture is one of small states vying openly for superiority.

Varakhsha Palace's red wall paintings
The palace's 'Red Wall' contains a series of super wall paintings of which various fragments remain, as displayed at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg


Qutaiba ibn Muslim, Umayyad governor of Greater Khorasan, expels Vardan Khuda from Bukhara. Just a year or so later, in 710, he also confirms in his position the Sogdo-Turkic ruler of Samarkand, Ghurak, showing the increasing dominance of Islam over Sogdian politics. The same governor is also claimed as the conqueror of Chach (Tashkent), Ferghana, Khojend, presumably during this same period.

The next fifteen years of conquest marks the beginning of the formal accession of Transoxiana into the Islamic empire, and soon results in the increasing Islamic control of the eastern regions as well. Among other things, this causes the break-up of the Sogdian commercial network, and ultimately an integration of Sogdiana into the Islamic empire. With the waters of the River Zarafshan falling, the declining city is finished off by the Mongols around 1219.

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