Communication in Eastern Central Asia during the first Millennium

Actors – Motives – Natural Region


Eastern Central Asia: The Zarafshan Valley (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan), as well as the area of Northwestern China (including the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Ningxia, and the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia)


Fig. 1: The emblazed gilded stone funerary divan in the tomb of An Jia. Photo: Xing Fulai. © DAIThe period starting with the decline of the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AC) until the establishment of new Chinese centralized states – the Sui- (581-618 AC) and Tang- (618-907 AC) dynasties – belongs to one of the most vibrating eras of Eastern Central Asian cultural history due to the direct involvement of Northern China in a flourishing, Central Asian communication network. Members of various Eurasian peoples, including Syrians, Byzantines, Turks, Iranians (especially Saka, Sogdians and Bactrians, but also Parthians and Persians), Indians, Uyghur and Tibetans met in the growing metropolis of China, had a lasting effect on the local society and were influenced by it at the same time. In this sphere, Sogdians seem to have played an outstanding role as mediators.

As the present geopolitical and climatic constellations are very similar to past circumstances, the study of this period is extremely important for a better understanding of the present relations between China and the Central Asian states. Governmental instability in Central Asia is confronted with an economically and politically fast growing China. Now and then, water shortages and increasing droughts in parts of Central Asia, including Western China, make this area uninhabitable.


Fig. 2: In a symbolic scene, the two leaders meet on horseback the Sogdian An Jia on the right, the Turk leader on the left. The allusion to the economic-strategical reality is obvious. Photo: Shaanxi 2004. © DAIThis project is aimed at merging three types of archives and scientific disciplines: Finds and features (Archaeology), texts (Philology) as well as climatic archives (Palaeoclimatology), for answering the following questions, among others:

1. Which groups of peoples with how many inhabitants settled in which areas at what periods during the first millennium in Central Asia? The scientific database CHARDA-Xplore will be available for the digital mapping of dated archaeological finds and texts.

2. Which political and climatic constellations led to repeated impulses of migration flows of peoples in Central Asia since the end of the Parthian Empire and the Han dynasty?

3. What role did Central Asians play in Western China during the process of the establishment and consolidation of the new Chinese central state, the Sui/Tang-dynasty, between the 6th and the 9th century AC?

4. Which factors facilitated the development of a Sogdian "lingua franca" along the Silk Road?

Current research

Translation and analysis of the archaeological excavation report on the tomb of the Sogdian An Jia at Xi’an, published in 2004. Besides the remains of the adult male, a belt, an epitaph stone and tablet as well as a funerary stone divan, there was nothing else inside the main chamber of the tomb.

In particular, the funerary stone divan with its lively scenes on the screen walls caused a sensation. In an unprecedented way, the life of a noble Sogdian at the zenith of his power is depicted. The deceased was an aristocratic Sogdian, son of an immigrant from Bukhara, who held the office of a Sabao in the Chinese Empire and passed away in 579 at the age of 61 years. Originally, the term “Sabao” designated a caravan leader. Later, this post was adopted as official title for the political and religious leaders of foreign settlements within China.

The relief panels of the stone divan are painted in colour and embellished with gold foil. They show a Sogdian – dressed in a caftan and wearing a conical hat with fur brim – engaged in official communications with other high-ranking people. He is shown at meetings on horseback, at diplomatic negotiations in tents, at stately banquets und aristocratic hunts. Camel caravans and travel scenes implicate the contents of the talks.

Another great sensation was caused by the opening of a tomb in 2003, located in the same cemetery for foreigners at Xi’an, where the tomb of An Jia had been found before. The tomb chamber contained a stone sarcophagus with a bilingual inscription in Sogdian and Chinese – the first find of its kind so far. The deceased man was a Sogdian called Wirkak from Kesh, modern Shahr-i Sabz, 70 km south of Samarkand, who passed away in 579 at the age of 85 years. 

Fig. 4: Besides the Zoroastrian motifs, one can also find Manichaean and Hindu symbols on the sarcophagus of the Sabao Wirkak. The gates in front are flanked by Buddhist guardians. Photo: P. Wertmann. © DAIFig. 3: A hybrid creature, composed of the torso of a priest and the body of a rooster, belongs to Zoroastrian iconography. A rooster is considered to be the priest of Srosh, the god of ritual acts. He is believed to help the souls of the deceased to pass over the Chinvad Bridge into paradise. Sarcophagus of the Sabao Wirkak, died in 579. Photo: P. Wertmann. © DAIThe depictions on the stone panels of the sarcophagus tell the life of the deceased in various scenes. Just as on the stone divan of An Jia, scenes of aristocratic life with hunts and excessive banquets, as well as trading caravans and journeys into distant countries, take up an important part among the motifs. New, however, are explicit references to the biography of Wirkak and religious themes on the sarcophagus, which show the function of this very Sogdian as religious leader in his Sogdian community.   

In Chinese sources, Sogdians appear as disciples and propagators of the three great religions of redemption – Buddhism, Christianity and Manichaeism – because they served as translators of respective religious texts. Surprisingly, the symbols and pictures on the sarcophagus of Wirkak are predominantly Zoroastrian like in his home country. Zoroastrian priests in front of the sacred fire can be identified by their mask, which is supposed to prevent the fire of getting polluted by the breath of the priest. Depicted are hybrid creatures, half man, half rooster, which help the souls of the deceased to pass over the Chinvad Bridge into paradise by means of a fire ceremony.

Cooperation / Cooperation partners

- German Archaeological Institute, Eurasia Department, Branch office Beijing
- The research project “Turfan Studies” of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities
- Archaeological Institute of Shaanxi Province 陕西省考古研究所
- Turfan Academy, P.R. China

Further Contact

- Patrick Wertmann, M.A. (PhD stipend of the Gerda Henkel Foundation)
- Prof. Dr. Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst (BBAW Turfan Studies)
- PD Dr. Pavel Tarasov (FUB Geological Sciences)

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