The Sogdian Ancient Letters

1, 2, 3, and 5

translated by

Prof. Nicholas Sims-Williams
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

Introduction by
Prof. Daniel C. Waugh
University of Washington

The Sogdians, a people of Iranian origin, were important in the commerce of the Silk Road between the fourth and ninth centuries CE. From their home in the region near today's Samarkand in Central Asia (their core territory straddled what is now southern Uzbekistan and Western Tajikistan), Sogdian merchants traveled across Eurasia. Chinese chronicles noted their commercial acumen; members of the Sogdian colonies established in China came to function as administrators. The Sogdian language was used widely for communication along the trade routes, and Sogdians were among the translators of Buddhist scriptures in China. The Sogdian presence in what is now northern Pakistan is attested by inscriptions carved on rocks in the remote mountain valleys through which the trade routes passed. Archaeologists have uncovered in the Sogdian city states of Central Asia impressive architecture and painting which help document a flourishing cosmopolitan urban culture of a people who themselves never created a great empire.

Among the most important documents of Sogdian history are five nearly complete letters, discovered in 1907 by the famous British archaeologist Aurel Stein in a Chinese watch tower just west of the Jade Gate, a fortified outpost guarding the western approaches to the administrative and cultural center of Dunhuang (at the western end of today's Gansu Province). Stein's discovery was some 90 km. west of Dunhuang and 550 km. east of Lou-lan, another important outpost on the southern branch of the silk route, which skirted the Taklamakan Desert. It seems likely that the letters were confiscated by a Chinese garrison at a time when Chinese control this far west was being threatened. While there has been considerable controversy over the dating of the letters, the most persuasive arguments (supported by Prof. Sims-Williams and his colleagues) point to 313 (-314) C.E. Two of the letters were sent by a lady in distress who had been abandoned in Dunhuang (nos. 1 and 3); the other two letters reproduced here (nos. 2 and 5) concern commercial activity of the writers. While a whole archive of Sogdian documents from several centuries later has been discovered in Central Asia, the Sogdian ancient letters are the earliest substantial examples of Sogdian writing and thus provide extremely important information about the early history of the Sogdian diaspora along the eastern end of the silk route.

The author of letter 2 likely was resident in Jincheng (today, Lanzhou), a town in Gansu at the gateway to the Hexi Corridor, the passage between the southern mountains and northern deserts which leads to Dunhuang. He was writing to the "home office" in Samarkand. The first part of the letter concerns the Sogdian diaspora in China and contains the information about the destruction by the Huns of two important Chinese cities, Yeh and the then capital, Luoyang (the latter occurred in 311 CE). The second part of the letter concerns the distribution of funds that the writer had apparently left on deposit at home.

The author of letter 5 was writing from Guzang, the modern Wu-wei, located northwest of Luoyang in the Hexi Corridor. The addressee of the letter may have been resident in Khotan, an important town along the southern silk route just before it crosses the Pamir Mountains to reach the oases of Transoxania, the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. This letter also refers to the chaos and difficult conditions in China; the author's position had apparently been made the more difficult when his commercial partner, Ghawtus, abandoned him. Thus the author was forced to return from Dunhuang to Guzang.

The letters include the names of several products--silver, linen and a kind of unprocessed cloth, musk (whose source was Tibet), pepper, and "white" (probably white lead powder, a valuable commodity used in cosmetics and drugs). Unfortunately the meaning of some terms for other products is not known. It appears from the quantities mentioned that the trade was relatively small-scale and, as we might expect, focussed on goods with high value for the weight.

Bibliography (provided by Prof. Sims-Williams):

Translations © 2004 Nicholas Sims-Williams. Permission to reproduce them must be obtained from Prof. Sims-Williams (
Introduction © 2004 Daniel C. Waugh (

Sogdian Ancient Letter No. 1

[Verso] From her daughter, the free-woman Miwnay, to her d[ear] mother [Chatis].

[Recto] [From her dau]ghter, the free-woman Mi[wnay], to her dear [mother] Chatis, blessing and homage. It would be a good day for him who might [see] you healthy and at ease; and [for me] that day would be the best when we ourselves might see you in good health. I am very anxious to see you, but have no luck. I petitioned the councillor Sagharak, but the councillor says: Here there is no other relative closer to Nanai-dhat than Artivan. And I petitioned Artivan, but he says: Farnkhund ..., and I refuse to hurry, I refuse to ... And Farnkhund says: If your husband’s relative does not consent that you should go back to your mother, how should I take you? Wait until ... comes; perhaps Nanai-dhat will come. I live wretchedly, without clothing, without money; I ask for a loan, but no-one consents to give me one, so I depend on charity from the priest. He said to me: If you go, I will give you a camel, and a man should go with you, and on the way I will look after you well. May he do so for me until you send me a letter!

Sogdian Ancient Letter No. 2

[Envelope] . . . should send and bring [this] letter to Samarkand. And [the noble lord Varzakk . . . should receive(?)] it all(?) [complete(?)]. Sent [by his] servant Nanai-vandak.

[Verso] To the noble lord Varzakk (son of) Nanai-thvar (of the family) Kanakk. Sent [by] his servant Nanai-vandak.

[Recto] To the noble lord Varzakk (son of) Nanai-thvar (of the family) Kanakk, 1,000 (and) 10,000 (times) blessing (and) homage on bended knee, as is offered to the gods, sent by his servant Nanai-vandak. And, sirs, (it would be) a good day for him who might see you happy (and) free from illness; and, sirs, (news of) your (good) health having been heard (by me), I consider myself immortal!

And, sirs, Armat-sach in Jiuquan (is) safe (and) well and Arsach in Guzang (is) safe (and) well. And, sirs, it is three years since a Sogdian came from "inside" [i.e. from China]. I settled(?) Ghotam-sach, and (he is) safe (and) well. He has gone to Kwr¹ynk, and now no-one comes from there so that I might write to you about the Sogdians who went "inside," how they fared (and) which countries they reached. And, sirs, the last emperor, so they say, fled from Luoyang because of the famine, and fire was set to his palace and to the city, and the palace was burnt and the city [destroyed]. Luoyang (is) no more, Ye (is) no more! Moreover, the . . . Huns(?), and they . . . Changan, so that they hold(?) it(?) . . . as far as N'yn'ych and as far as Ye, these (same) Huns [who] yesterday were the emperor's (subjects)! And, sirs, we do not know wh[ether] the remaining Chinese were able to expel the Huns [from] Changan, from China, or (whether) they took the country beyond(?). And [. . . in . . . there are] a hundred freemen from Samarkand . . . in [. . .] Dry'n there are forty men. And, sirs, your [. . . it is] three years since [. . . came] from "inside" . . . unmade (cloth)(?). And from Dunhuang up to Jincheng in . . . to sell, linen cloth is going [= selling well?], and whoever has unmade (cloth)(?) or raghzak (which is) not (yet) brought (to market)(?), not (yet) taken, [can](?) sell [all](?) of it . . . And, sirs, as for us, whoever dwells (in the region) from Ji[ncheng](?) up to Dunhuang, we (only) survive [lit. "have breath"] so long as the . . . lives, and (we are) without family(?), both old and on the point of death. If this were not (so), [I would] not be ready(?) to write to you (about) how we are. And, sirs, if I were to write to you everything (about) how China has fared, (it would be) beyond(?) grief: there is no profit for you (to gain) therefrom. And, sirs, it is eight years since I sent Saghrak and Farn-aghat "inside" and it is three years since I received a reply from there. They were well . . ., (but) now, since the last evil occurred, I do [not] receive a reply from there (about) how they have fared. Moreover, four years ago I sent another man named Artikhu-vandak. When the caravan departed from Guzang, Wakhush[akk] the . . . was there, and when they reached Luoyang, bo[th the . . .] and the Indians and the Sogdians there had all died of starvation. [And I] sent Nasyan to Dunhuang, and he went "outside" [i.e. out of China] and entered (Dunhuang), (but) now he has gone without (obtaining) permission from me, and he has (received) a great retribution and was struck dead in the . . .

Lord Varzakk, my greatest hope is in your lordship! Pesakk (son of) Dhruwasp-vandak holds 5[...]4 staters from me and he put it on deposit(?), not to be transferred, and you should hold [it . . .] sealed from now (on), so that without (my) permission . . . Dhruwasp-van[dak] . . .

[Lord] Nanai-thvar, you should remind Varzakk that he should withdraw(?) this deposit(?), and you should (both) count [it], and if the latter is to hold it, then you should (both) add(?) the interest to the capital and put it in a transfer document, and you (Nanai-thvar) should give this too to Varzakk. And if you (both) think (it) fit that the latter should not hold it, then you should (both) take it and give it to someone else whom you do think fit, so that this money may thereby become more. And, behold, (there is) a certain orphan . . . dependent(?) on this income(?), and if he should live and reach adulthood [lit. "years"], and he has no hope of (anything) other than this money, then, Nanai-thvar, (when) it should be heard that Takut has departed(?) to the gods -- the gods and my father¹s soul (will) be a support(?) to you! -- and when Takhsich-vandak is grown up [lit. "big"], then give him a wife and do not send him away from yourself. Mortal(?) gratification(?) has departed(?) from us(?) in the . . ., because (from) day (to) day we expect murder(?) and robbery. And when (the two of) you need cash, then you (Nanai-thvar) should take either 1,000 staters or 2,000 staters out of the money. And Wan-razmak sent to Dunhuang for me 32 (vesicles of) musk belonging to Takut so that he might deliver them to you. When they are handed over you should make five shares, and therefrom Takhsich-vandak should take three shares, and Pesakk (should take) one share, and you (should take) one share.

[Verso] This letter was written [lit. "made"] when it was the year thirteen of Lord Chirth-swan in the month Taghmich.

Sogdian Ancient Letter No. 3

[Verso] From (his) daughter Shayn to the noble lord Nanai-dhat.

[On another part of the verso] From (his) servant [left unfinished].

[Recto] To (my) noble lord (and) husband Nanai-dhat, blessing (and) homage on bended knee, as is offered to the gods. And (it would be) a good day for him who might see you healthy, happy (and) free from illness, together with everyone; and, sir, when I hear (news of) your (good) health, I consider myself immortal!

Behold, I am living ..., badly, not well, wretchedly, and I consider myself dead. Again and again I send you a letter, (but) I do not receive a (single) letter from you, and I have become without hope towards you. My misfortune is this, (that) I have been in Dunhuang for three years thanks(?) to you, and there was a way out a first, a second, even a fifth time, (but) he(!) refused to bring me out. I requested the leaders that support (should be given) to Farnkhund for me, so that he may take me to (my) husband and I would not be stuck in Dunhuang, (for) Farnkhund says: I am not Nanai-dhat’s servant, nor do I hold his capital. I also requested thus: If he refuses to take me to (my) husband, then ... such support for me that he may take me to (my) mother. The leaders say: Here in Dunhuang there is no other relative closer than Artivan, (but) Artivan [say]s: Farnkhund ... whatever ... to do for you. If(?) I(?) (had) no guarantee, no protection, my father ... I have become ... not ... How much more would I have ... by my father if ... a servant of the Chinese! A free man ... who found ... and ... keeps (his) clothing in good condition(?). And you write (your) bidding to me about everything in ... so that I should ... you and I should know how to think, and if I do not ... you, then you write to me so that I should know how to serve the Chinese. In my paternal abode I did not have such a restricted ... as with(?) you. I obeyed your command (lit. took your command upon my head) and came to Dunhuang and I did not observe (my) mother’s bidding nor (my) brothers’. Surely(?) the gods were angry with me on the day when I did your bidding! I would rather be a dog’s or a pig’s wife than yours! And for me ...

Sent by (your) servant Miwnay. This letter was written in the third month on the tenth day.

[Added in the margin] From (his) daughter Shayn to the noble lord Nanai-dhat, blessing (and) homage. And (it would be) a good [day] for him [who] might see [you] healthy, rested (and) happy. ... I have become ... and I watch over a flock of domestic animals. Differently to you, I had a ..., and ... went out. I am ... and I know that you do not lack twenty staters(?) to send. It is necessary to consider the whole (matter). Farnkhund has run away; the Chinese seek him but do not find him. Because of Farnkhund’s debts we have become the servants of the Chinese, I together with (my) mother.

Sogdian Ancient Letter No. 5

[Verso] To the noble lord, the chief merchant Aspandhat. -- [Sent] by your servant [Fri-khwataw].

[Recto] To the noble lord Aspandhat, blessing (and) homage. And (it would be) a [good] day [for him] who might see you healthy (and) safe, happy, free from illness (and) content. Fr[om Fri-khwataw] your servant. And [for me the] day (would be still) better if [I might see] you [my]self [and] might pay homage to you from nearby, [as] (homage is offered) to the gods.

[From] inside (China) [I] have heard worse, not better, (news) day (by) day, and whatever I might write concerning A[khurmaztakk](?), how he himself went (away) and what he had . . . I have become isolated, and, behold, I stay here in Guzang and I do not go hither (and) thither, and there is no caravan(?) (departing) from here. In Guzang (there are) 4 bundles of "white" for dispatch, and 2,500 (measures of)(?) pepper for dispatch, and a double prasthaka of n(••y)t, and 5 prasthakas of rysk, and half a stater of silver. When Ghawtus went (away) from Guzang I went after him, and I came to Dunhuang, (but) I was prevented(?) from straying(?) outside (China). (If) . . . Ghawtus had seen [=found?] a level route, then I would have brought out the "Blacks." Many Sogdians were ready to leave, (but) they could not leave, for Ghawtus went by(?) the mountains. I(?) would (have) remain(ed) at Dunhuang, but they [=the Sogdian inhabitants] were destitute. I depend(?) on charity(?) from your 'pr'k, for I am serving(?) . . . in Guzang, and [they . . .] me, and they make me . . ., and they obtain my . . ., [and] they increase (it) with our . . . And . . . I am very wretched, and . . . the . . .

I heard thus: Kharstrang [owed(?)] you twenty staters of silver, and he declared(?) thus: I (will) bring(?) (it). He gave me the silver, and I weighed it, and (there were only) four and a half staters altogether. I asked: If he [sent] twenty staters, why do you give me four and a half staters? He said thus: Aspandhat found me on the way and he gave (it) to me(?). {He said thus: (There are) seven and a half staters of silver.} And for four staters I obtained four loads of 'st(k)[•](m). And the "Blacks" took the silver, for they said thus: We(?) have no money. For (according to them it is) better (that) I should be wretched than they! (If) you should hear how Akhurmaztakk has done me harm, then you should pay heed (to this) too.

Sent by your servant Fri-khwataw. This letter was written from Guzang in the third month on the thirtieth (day).