Getting to know Sogdian: Part Two

Major epigraphy

By Adam Benkato

In part one, we discussed the various scripts used to write Sogdian, as well as the main collections of Sogdian texts. A rough familiarity with both is necessary to understand, and follow up on, the types of primary sources referred to in a scholarly work.

In this part, we will look at what I call the major Sogdian primary sources. There isn’t really any strict definition of ‘major’; in fact, most discoveries of texts have been pretty major, involving either large numbers of manuscripts/fragments or lengthy and historically important documents. Most such texts will be discussed in this part, but there is a number of smaller texts (such as coin legends, ostraca, small single inscriptions, etc.) that we’ll leave to a third part.

The following overview proceeds chronologically. Since dates of texts are not always known or certain, I’ve simply drawn from what estimations are provided in the scholarly literature – so dates and their order are not to be taken as fact, but are more to help give a rough idea. Furthermore, the references provided are not exhaustive. A bibliography which I’ve compiled contains more, but if you really want to learn about a particular text or group of texts in-depth, you’ll have to follow the references starting from those selected here.


The Kultobe inscriptions are a group of dedicatory inscriptions on the foundation stones (and similar) of a fortress in Kultobe, in present-day southern Kazakhstan; they are now preserved in the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan. It would have been in the north of Sogdiana; the inscriptions seem to allude to military operations along the border of Sogdiana with more northern nomads. They are first edited in Sims-Williams & Grenet (2006)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas & Frantz Grenet. 2006. The Sogdian inscriptions of Kultobe. Shygys 1. 95–111.[/ref], publ. of nos. 1–8, and Sims-Williams, Grenet & Podushkin (2007)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas, Frantz Grenet, & A. Podushkin. 2007. Les plus anciens monuments de la langue sogdienne: Les inscriptions de Kultobe au Kazakhstan. CRAIBL. 1005–1034.[/ref], publ. of nos. 9-11. No dates are found in the extant inscriptions, but since certain features of script and orthography are somewhat more archaic than the next-oldest Sogdian documents, these inscriptions are thought to be significantly older.

Ancient Letters

The group of documents known as the ‘Ancient Letters’ (sometimes ‘Alten Briefe’) are so called because they were the oldest Sogdian texts known until the discovery of the Kultobe inscriptions, and are still the oldest ones of significant length. They are letters from Sogdian merchants away from the homeland to contacts back home in Samarkand that were found, still unopened and sealed in a postal bag, by Aurel Stein in a watchtower between Dunhuang and Lou-lan on the route to Samarkand. We can thus surmise that they never reached their destinations, and thus that their recipients may never have been informed of the dramatic events described in the letters. The date of 312–313 CE is generally accepted for the composition of the letters (see Henning 1948[ref]Henning, Walter Bruno. 1948. The date of the Sogdian ancient letters. BSOAS 12. 601–615.[/ref] and Grenet & Sims-Williams 1987 [ref]Grenet, Frantz & Nicholas Sims-Williams. 1987. The historical context of the Sogdian ancient letters. Transition periods in Iranian history. Actes du symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau (22-24 mai 1985) (Studia Iranica Cahier 5), 101-22. Paris.[/ref]). There are five well-preserved, nearly-complete letters, a moderately-preserved fragment of a sixth letter, and smaller fragments of perhaps two more letters. The letters are written in the Sogdian script, although in an archaic form that is less cursive than that used in the Mugh documents and represents a stage closer to the Aramaic script. The Ancient Letters also make use of a number of heterograms not used in later writing in Sogdian script (see here) and contain a number of Indian words for commercial terms, indicating perhaps close relations between Sogdian and Indian merchants. The letters were not really deciphered until the work of Hans Reichelt, whose editio princeps was published in 1931[ref]Reichelt, Hans. 1931. Die soghdischen Handschriftenreste des Britischen Museums, Bd. 2: Die nicht-buddhistischen Texte. Heidelberg.[/ref].

A modern edition of the letters as a whole is lacking, but letters one (Sims-Williams 2005)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 2005. Towards a new edition of the Sogdian ancient letters: Ancient letter 1. Les sogdiens en chine, 181–93.[/ref], two (Sims-Williams 2001)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 2001. The Sogdian ancient aetter II. Fs Humbach. 267–280.[/ref], three (Livshits 2008)[ref]Livshits, V. A. 2008. The Sogdian “Ancient Letters” (I, III). Iran and the Caucasus 12. 289–293.[/ref], and five (Sims-Williams et al. 1998)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas, Frantz Grenet & É. de la Vaissière. 1998. The Sogdian ancient letter V. Alexander’s Legacy in the East: Studies in honor of Paul Bernard. BAI 12. 91–104. See here for the article.[/ref] have been recently re-edited.

Upper Indus graffiti

The next major epigraphical corpus is that of Shatial, located near Gilgit in what is now northern Pakistan. The site consists of nearly 600 short inscriptions in Sogdian (together with a handful in Bactrian, Middle Persian, and Parthian) made by merchants visiting the location over a particular trade route. The inscriptions for the most part consist of only a personal name, sometimes with patronymic or other identifier, and only a few consist of a longer phrase; the purpose of all, it seems, was to commemorate the named individual’s visit. The script and certain archaisms of the language bear similarities to the Ancient Letters (see Sims-Williams 2000: 533–4)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 2000. The Iranian inscriptions of Shatial. Indologica Taurinensia 23–24. 523–541.[/ref], and so the inscriptions probably date from a period ranging from the 3ʳᵈ century CE to the 7th century. The seminal edition of the inscriptions, along with a discussion and photographs is Sims-Williams 1989/1992[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 1989/1992. Sogdian and other Iranian inscriptions of the Upper Indus. 2 vols. London.[/ref].

Mugh Documents

Mount Mugh is the site of a castle east of Panjikent (present-day Tajikistan), overlooking the Zerafshan and Qom rivers, which was a refuge of the last rulers of Panjikent fleeing the conquering Muslim armies in the early 8th century. In 1932 and 1933, some Sogdian documents were discovered there, which turned out to be part of the archives of Ðēwaštīč (r. 706–722), one of the final Sogdian pre-Islamic rulers. The materials from Mugh (including 74 Sogdian documents, an Arabic one, and a handful in Turkish and Chinese) are now in the Oriental Institute of St. Petersburg. The entire Sogdian corpus was initially edited by a team of Russian scholars, and recently re-edited by Livshits (2008)[ref]Livshits, V.A. 2008. Sogdijskaja èpigrafika Srednej Azii i Semireč’ja [Sogdian Epigraphy from Central Asia and Semirechya]. Saint Petersburg.[/ref], taking into account a number of articles dealing with specific aspects of the Mugh texts; the latter work will soon appear in English translation (Livshits fthc.)[ref]Livshits, V. A. fthc. Sogdian epigraphy of Central Asia and Semirech’e (Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum Part II, Vol. III). London: SOAS.[/ref]. Many individual linguistic and historical articles are also devoted to aspects of the Mugh texts. The documents are all written in a variety of the Sogdian script that is more developed than that of the Ancient Letters but also differs from that of the later Manichaean texts.

Buddhist Texts

Buddhist texts in Sogdian come from both Turfan and Dunhuang, and were produced probably in the 7th and 8th centuries CE. These texts are typically written in the variety of the Sogdian script known as the ‘formal’ script (sometimes called ‘sutra’ script), but are also commonly found in other varieties of the Sogdian script. In nearly all cases have the texts been identified, and are translations from identifiable Chinese originals, though it is sometimes the case that an exact parallel is no longer extant in Chinese. The Sogdian transcriptions of Sanskrit and Chinese names and words are extremely fruitful material for the study not only of Sogdian, but also of the Sanskrit (or Prakrit) and Chinese pronunciation of that era (see especially Provasi 2013)[ref]Provasi, Elio. 2013. Sanskrit and Chinese in Sogdian garb: the transcription of Indic proper names in the Sogdian Buddhist texts. In Brarvig, Jens, Markham Geller, Velizar Sadovski & Gebhard Selz (eds.), Multilingualism and history of knowledge: Buddhism among the Iranian peoples of Central Asia (Iranische Onomastik 11), 191–308. Wien: VÖAW.[/ref]. A helpful guide to the Sogdian Buddhist lexicon was prepared by MacKenzie (1971)[ref]MacKenzie, David Neil. 1971. Buddhist terminology in Sogdian: A glossary. Asia Major 17(1). 28–89.[/ref]; for a survey of scholarship until the mid-1970s see Utz 1978[ref]Utz, D. A. 1978. A Survey of Buddhist Sogdian Studies. Tokyo.[/ref]; for a study of the Chinese-to-Sogdian translation method, see Yoshida (2013)[ref]Yoshida, Yutaka. 2013. Buddhist texts produced by the Sogdians in China. In Brarvig, Jens, Markham Geller, Velizar Sadovski & Gebhard Selz (eds.), Multilingualism and history of knowledge: Buddhism among the Iranian peoples of Central Asia (Iranische Onomastik 11), 155–180. Wien: VÖAW.[/ref]. The texts held in Paris were all edited by Benveniste (1940[ref]Benveniste, Émile. 1940. Textes sogdiens. Paris.[/ref], 1946[ref]Benveniste, Émile. 1946. Vessantara Jataka: texte sogdien. Paris.[/ref]), while MacKenzie was responsible for the updated publication of those held in London (1970[ref]MacKenzie, David Neil. 1970. The ‘Sūtra of the causes and effects of actions’ in Sogdian. Oxford.[/ref], 1976[ref]MacKenzie, David Neil. 1976. The Buddhist Sogdian texts of the British Library. Leiden.[/ref]). A large number of Buddhist fragments from Turfan are held in Berlin and have been edited in articles by especially Sundermann, Kudara, Yoshida, and Reck (whose catalogue of Buddhist fragments in Sogdian script is forthcoming).

Christian Texts

Nearly all the Christian texts (some 600 in number) in Sogdian come from a ruined monastery called Shüi-pang in Bulayïq, a site in the northern part of the Turfan oasis; a few come from other sites within Turfan. All seem to be translations from Syriac originals, and are chiefly written in a variety of the Syriac script which has been adapted for Sogdian (about 550), though some fragments are in the Sogdian script (about 50). These texts are generally dated between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. The best overview of the Christian literature in Sogdian is to be found in Sims-Williams (2009)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 2009. Christian literature in Middle Iranian languages. In The literature of pre-Islamic Iran, 266–287.[/ref], while Dickens (2009)[ref]Dickens, Mark. 2009. Multilingual Christian manuscripts from Turfan. Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 9, 22–42. See here for the article.[/ref] provides a useful overview of Christian texts from Turfan in general. The recent catalogue of Sims-Williams is where one should look for descriptions of texts in Syriac script, while Reck (2008)[ref]Reck, Christiane. 2008. A survey of the Christian Sogdian fragments in Sogdian script in the Berlin Turfan collection. In C. Jullien (ed.), Controverses des chrétiens dans l’Iran sassanide (Studia Iranica, Cahier 36), 191–205. Paris.[/ref] is a useful overview of those in Sogdian script. Regarding major editions of texts, first and foremost is Sims-Williams’ (1985)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 1985. The Christian Sogdian manuscript C2 (BT XII). Berlin.[/ref] edition of the C2 (now E27) codex, which along with GMS is probably the most frequently cited work on Sogdian and an absolutely necessary reference for the study of any variety of Sogdian. Two other major editions have recently been published (see Sims-Williams 2014[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas, Martin Schwartz & W. J. Pittard. 2014. Biblical and other Christian Sogdian texts from the Turfan collection. (BT XXXII). Turnhout.[/ref] and fthc.[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas. fthc. The Life of Serapion and other Christian Sogdian texts from the manuscripts E25 and E26 (BT XXXV). Turnhout.[/ref]).


The Karabalgasun inscription is a commemorative trilingual (Sogdian, Chinese, Uighur) inscription on a large granite boulder in present-day Mongolia, commissioned by the eighth khagan (r. 808-822) of the Uighur steppe empire, of which the official religion was Manichaeism from about 762/3 CE until its collapse in about 840 CE. Much value lies in the fact that many historical events are only known from this inscription and that it describes the adoption of Manichaeism by the Uighur khagans. Ironically, it was actually the first original Sogdian text to become known, though it was mistakenly thought to be Uighur from its discovery in the late 1800s (before the discovery of the Turfan texts) until F.W.K. Müller (1909)[ref]Müller, Friedrich Wilhelm Karl. 1909. Ein iranisches Sprachdenkmal aus der nördlichen Mongolei. SPAW XXVII, 726–30.[/ref] recognized it as Sogdian. A good overview can be found in Yoshida (2011)[ref]Yoshida, Yutaka. 2011. Some new readings in the Sogdian version of the Karabalgasun inscription. Ötüken’den İstanbul’a. Türkçenin 1290 Yılı (720-2010). In M. Ölmez et al. (ed.), From Ötüken to Istanbul. 1290 years of Turkish (720-2010), 77–86. Istanbul.[/ref], which gives references to intervening studies and new readings; Yoshida (1990)[ref]Yoshida, Yutaka. 1990. Some new readings of the Sogdian version of the Karabalgasun inscription. In A. Haneda (ed.), Documents et archives provenant de l’Asie Centrale, 117–123. Kyoto.[/ref] provides an English summary of his earlier Japanese re-edition of the entire inscription.


The Manichaean texts in Middle Iranian were discovered in Turfan by a number of expeditions from different countries, and so the texts are preserved in Berlin, Kyoto, St. Petersburg, London, and China. The Sogdian part thereof consists of a wide range of texts, in both Manichaean and Sogdian scripts, from the various locales (such as Qočo, Toyoq, Bäzäklik) within Turfan. These were the first original Manichaean sources to become known, though in some cases are extremely fragmentary. They are datable to the 8th through 10th centuries CE. Publications thereon are far too numerous to list exhaustively, but major editions of texts are usually published in the Berliner Turfantexte series. Among those, the editions of Sundermann are of utmost importance (see 1981, 1985, 1990, 1992, 1997)[ref]–Sundermann, Werner. 1981. Mitteliranische manichäische Texte kirchengeschichtlichen Inhalts. (BT XI). Berlin.
–Sundermann, Werner. 1985. Ein manichäisch-soghdisches Parabelbuch. (BT XV). Berlin.
–Sundermann, Werner. 1990. The Manichaean Hymn cycles Huyadagmān and Angad rōšnān in Parthian and Sogdian. London.
–Sundermann, Werner. 1992. Der Sermon vom Licht-Nous (BT XVII). Berlin.
–Sundermann, Werner. 1997. Der Sermon von der Seele (BT XIX). Turnhout.[/ref], while he devoted many articles to smaller problems. Henning’s study (1936)[ref]Henning, Walter Bruno. 1936. Ein manichäisches Bet- und Beichtbuch. APAW 10, 1-143.[/ref] of the largest Manichaean codex (mostly in WMIr. with parts in Sogdian) is still a standard work, and nearly all his publications continue to be indispensable. The handbook of Gershevitch (1954)[ref]Gershevitch, Ilya. 1954. A Grammar of Manichean Sogdian. Oxford.[/ref] is still the only general guide to aspects of grammar. Finally, there are numerous publications of Sims-Williams, the Turfanforschung group (Durkin-Meisterernst, Reck), and Morano, as well as nearly every other scholar of Sogdian since the early 1900s. Those who want an easily accessible translation of Manichaean texts with references to primary sources should consult Klimkeit (1993)[ref]Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. 1993. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic texts from Central Asia. New York.[/ref].


Documents from Dunhuang dating from the later part of the era of Sogdian as a written language, revealing a heavy Turkish (i.e. Uighur) influence on written Sogdian. There is also a degree of Chinese influence in the texts. For the latest edition of the relevant sources, see Sims-Williams & Hamilton (1990)[ref]Sims-Williams, Nicholas & J. Hamilton. 1990. Documents turco-sogdiens du IXe–Xe siècle de Touen-houang. London.[/ref], and Yoshida (2009)[ref]Yoshida, Yutaka. 2009. Turco-Sogdian features. In Sundermann, Werner, Almut Hintze & François de Blois (eds.), Exegisti monumenta. Festschrift in honour of Nicholas Sims-Williams (Iranica 17), 571–586. Wiesbaden.[/ref] for further grammatical remarks.