Peter Frankopan and the Sogdians? Sounds like an Indie music group that would appear at international music festivals in places like Coachella, Croatia, and the Isle of Wight. Wrong. Peter Frankopan is an Oxford-based researcher who wrote in 2015 perhaps the most comprehensive book to date on trade routes in Asia, titled The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. It is not a short read at 636 pages, but well worth your time if you have an interest in the history of Asia, of Christianity and other faiths there, as well as in the history and future of the world! 🙂 You can also use it as a doorstop, coffee table ornament to impress your friends, or in dire situations as a weapon.
I am not joking about the importance of knowledge about the history of the Silk roads for understanding where the future of the world is headed. As we learn more about the cultural and religious diversity and interaction that was happening over 1000 years along these trade routes from Xian, China all the way into Europe, we are able to more accurately understand the central importance of Asia that is happening again in the 21st century.
As a note for those interested in reading more about the history of these regions of Asia but challenged by the length of this book, I recommend the books of Peter Hopkirk. I began to read him about 30 years ago in India, and found his books very accessible both in length and content. They are all worth your attention, but start with The Great Game, a big-picture account of the rivalry in South and Central Asia between the British and Russian Empires through the 18th-19th centuries, extending well into the middle of the 20th. Another of my favorites by Hopkirk is Setting the East Ablaze, which tells the fascinating story of the desires of Lenin in Soviet Russia to see India turn Communist and be a key to revolution in all of Asia.
But back to Frankopan. On page xvi in his preface, he calls these trade routes across Asia a “network that fans out in every direction, routes along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been bought and sold, and ideas exchanged, adapted, and refined. They have carried not only prosperity, but also death and violence, disease and disaster. In the late nineteenth century, this sprawling web of connections was given a name by an eminent German geologist, Ferdinand von Richtofen (uncle of the First World War flying ace the ‘Red Baron’) that has stuck ever since.” The Silk Roads. Actually not in the singular as it is usually seen, because Richtofen recognised the reality that it was many roads including one over sea through the Indian Ocean, the maritime route.
As Frankopan writes, these routes were the world’s “central nervous system, connecting peoples and places together, but lying beneath the skin, invisible to the naked eye.” An important thing to realize is that now, in 2016, this is becoming the case again. If the 20th century was to some the “Pacific Ocean” century, or even an “American” one, then the 21st as it moves on could very well be a “New Silk Roads” one, including the Indian Ocean and much of Asia. (These are my words, not Frankopan’s.)
So who are the Sogdians? Along the Silk Roads of the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., one of the peoples most known for their mercantile expertise were the Sogdians. This people group, no longer known by that name but a very important player in Central Asia in earlier centuries, had their own kingdom called Sogdiana spanning what is now parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other parts of Central Asia. The Sogdians, according to Frankopan, handled a “considerable part of this long-range commerce…famous for their caravans, financial acumen and close family ties that enabled them to trade goods along the massive arteries running across Central Asia into Xinjiang and western China.” (pg. 57)
But what is also fascinating about the Sogdians is that many of them became fervent followers of Christ and part of the Church of the East in Asia. They helped spread their Christian faith across these same trade routes, perhaps some of the earliest truly “Business with Mission” proponents! Peter Hopkirk, the author I mentioned earlier in this post, has written about the great Central Asia and China explorer Auriel Stein, who in the early 20th century uncovered some amazing document treasure troves. (unfortunately he also plundered them in a time when there was little concern for local sensibilities or the robbing of a people’s treasures.)
In these finds at places like Dunhuang in China along the trade routes, scrolls were discovered that not only evidenced the influence of faiths like Buddhism and Manichaeism, but also Christianity. In fact, much more recently, discoveries continue across these regions of Asia not only of documents that evidence the integration of the Christian faith with the Sogdian and other peoples like the Uyghurs, but even buried monasteries and churches.
A more complete picture continues to emerge of the importance of the Christian faith in these early centuries in Asia. That is in turn causing us to re-examine the place of Christianity in the West and World history. By seeing a true picture of how strong Christianity was in places like India, China, and Central Asia before 1500, our whole view of the Church as a predominately Western propagated faith has to change.
Who are the Sogdians today? Who are the peoples who combine faith and business to have an important influence on the present and future of world history? More in a future post!