Mapping the Mount Mugh Letters and early 8th-century Sogdiana
15 March 2022
The only major corpus of Sogdian texts to have been found in Sogdiana itself is the “Mugh Documents”. These texts were discovered by accident in the early 1930s in a ruined fortress atop Mount Mugh, deep along the Zeravshan River in today’s Tajikistan. After Panjikent was sacked in 722 CE, Dhewashtich, known to modern scholars as the last king of Sogdiana, must have fled with some of his followers farther up the Zeravshan, until he was eventually captured at Mount Mugh in August 722 CE and then executed. This much is related in Arabic sources such as al-Ṭabarī. The Sogdian documents from Mount Mugh, though they are not historical chronicles, provide a glimpse of the action from the Sogdian side and confirm many of the details found in Arabic sources, besides adding many more of their own. The corpus also features one Arabic text, one Old Turkic text, and a few fragments in Chinese. (For the publication of the Mugh texts, see most recently Begmatov 2020, Livshits 2015, Yakubovich 2002, 2006).
The presence of the Sogdian documents at Mount Mugh is proof that Dhewashtich and his compatriots brought certain official documents with them in their last days. But it is important to emphasize that the Mugh corpus is not a coherent or intentional archive, though we seem to usually conceive of it as such. Rather, it is a heterogeneous and incomplete collection of documents from various people and various points in time. For example, there are documents dated according to the regnal years of Sogdian rulers ten or fifteen years before the time of Dhewashtich (Table 1).
Doc. No. Date
B-8 15th year of Chegin Chur Bilgä (before 708 CE)
Nov. 3, 4 10th year of King Tarkhun (around 709 CE)
B-3 11th year of Dhewashtich of Panj (719 CE)
B-4 1st year of Dhewashtich, King of Sogdiana (= April 4, 722 CE)
A-16 2nd year of Dhewashtich, King of Sogdiana (= July 28, 722 CE)
Table 1: Dated documents from Mount Mugh
Besides these dated documents, there are missives and orders which, on the basis of their contents, may date to just weeks or months before the capture of Dhewashtich (Table 2).
Doc. No. Date
B-17 spring 721 CE (first attack of Turks)
1.i, Nov. 2 autumn 721 CE to spring 722 CE
A-14 second part of July, 722 CE (capture of Ustrushana by the Arabs)
A-9 early August, 722 CE (capture of Khojand)
Table 2: Inferred dates of some Mugh documents (Grenet & de la Vaissière 2002)
While many of the documents were sent to or by Dhewashtich, quite a few of them must have belonged to other local rulers (khuv) and officials (such as the framāndhār, a kind of majordomo). On the whole, the Mugh corpus thus consists of parts of the personal archives of various individuals. Whether these are the totality of the documents they brought with them as they took refuge at Mount Mugh, or these are all that remain after more than a thousand years, cannot be discerned.
One way of obtaining an overview of the Mugh corpus and what it represents of the communication between Sogdians during the Arab conquest of Sogdiana is to examine various aspects of the part of the corpus consisting of letters. There are 35 letters (or letter fragments), of the 78 total texts.
Overview of writing supports (“document” includes contracts, receipts, and miscellaneous texts types)
The writing support used for these letters varies. There are 13 on paper, 13 on parchment, and 8 on wood sticks. (As you may notice, for a number of the texts it is difficult to figure out if they are on paper or leather based on unclear or missing information in the published sources.) A reasonable question would be whether writing support correlates with any factors such as social status, letter context, location, or anything else. The answer, though, is not straightforward. One might think that writing support aligns with socio-political status, but this is not entirely the case. Dhewashtich, for example, sends and receives multiple letters on both parchment and paper. Of these, two cases are quite noteworthy, though. One is Dhewashtich's letter to the Arab general al-Jarrāḥ b. ‘Abdallah (doc. B-12), which is in Arabic on parchment. The other is ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Ṣubḥ's letter to Dhewashtich (doc. 1.i), which is in Sogdian on paper. Marina Rustow has cleverly suggested, in her recent work The Lost Archive, that if paper was the prestige material for the Sogdians and parchment was such for the Arabs, then the sender may have written on the prestige material of the intended recipient. However, the same explanation does not necessarily hold for other letters of Dhewashtich, and further analysis will be needed.
There is also not an obvious connection with chronology. There has been a sort of theory among scholars of these documents that the wood sticks are a lower status writing material, and were only used because Dhewashtich, under besieged or under house arrest after his capture, had no access to other writing materials. However, this cannot be shown: wood sticks simply seem to have been a convenient writing support, especially high up in the mountain villages and fortifications, but also in general. In recent excavations, Pavel Lurje’s team has found additional texts on wood sticks at the small fortification of Hisorak, called Martshkat in the Mugh documents, even farther up along the Zeravshan River. The 7 wood sticks from Hisorak are undated, but clearly part of the same system of administrative writing as the Mugh texts. All these texts on sticks make use of the same format, structure, and formulae as letters on paper or parchment, in most cases the handwriting is of comparable quality as well, and they are not proveably later than the paper or parchment texts.
A Sogdian text on a wood stick (Mugh Б-7)
When it comes to other rulers and officials, however, correlation of support writing with other factors is not yet clear. For example, a figure called Framāndhār Ut, who seems to be a sort of majordomo for Dhewashtich, receives letters on paper and parchment from Dhewashtich and from other khuvs, and on sticks from other khuvs. He also issues receipts on both parchment and paper. Finally, what is actually very clear is that the “documents” (including contracts and receipts) are almost exclusively on parchment or wood sticks. This seems significant, but the reason for it is unclear—perhaps it has to do with the durability of parchment versus paper under normal conditions and use? But otherwise, especially for the letters, the most I can offer as an explanation for this variation in writing support so far is that scribes simply used the materials they had available, and those materials may have been dictated by a variety of conditions, including the (not necessarily equivalent) availabilities of local and/or imported paper and of parchment.
Part of my current work involves mapping the locations mentioned in the Mugh documents. Here, I’ll give a limited test case, using the four letters which Frantz Grent and Étienne de la Vaissière have argued concerning the last few months of Dhewashtich’s unsuccessful attempts to resist and defeat the Arab armies. These four letters alone contain reference to several places.
Black: locations mentioned in the Mugh docs (A-9, A-14, B-17, Nov. 2). Green: find sites of Sogdian texts. Red: major sites in Sogdiana.
Looking at the letters as a whole, we can also create a rudimentary map of senders and recipients. This shows us what local rulers were in correspondence, and on the basis of the greeting formulae used, how they ranked in the social hierarchy with respect to each other.
Overview of correspondence in the Mugh corpus. Pale yellow indicates Arabic. Arrows show direction of correspondence (thickness indicates multiple letters). Note: the senders and receivers of 7 letters, and the senders of 3, are not preserved.
We can observe that while Dhewashtich and Ut the Framāndhār are in some way the center of this partially-preserved communication network, it extends beyond them as well. Some of these communications seem to come from relatively distant locations, such as Khākhsar near Samarkand, while others are right down or up the river from Mount Mugh, such as Martshkat or Kushtut.
This is only a brief exercise in attempting to map and illustrate the information contained in the Mugh documents. Much more can, and should be done. Updated and more detailed maps of places mentioned in the texts can be made (the last person to attempt this, I believe, was Olga Smirnova in 1960), including the movements of the various parties and armies mentioned in the sources. And, extending to the entire corpus, further study of content, location, and writing support may lead to better conclusions on the nature of text use and writing in this part of Sogdiana at this time.
Finally, if readers take anything from this post, it is that the Mugh corpus still has much to tell us about Sogdiana in the early 8th-century CE, and we should extend our efforts to analyze it.
Selected list of readings:
Begmatov, Alisher. 2020. Sogdian Textual Materials from Central Asia: A Critical Re-edition of the Documents from Mount Mugh. Kyoto University Ph.D. Dissertation.
Grenet, Frantz & Étienne de la Vaissière. 2002. The Last Days of Panjikent. Silk Road Art and Archaeology 8. 155–190.
Livshits, Vladimir A. 2015. Sogdian epigraphy of Central Asia and Semirech’e (Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum Part II, Vol. III). London: SOAS.
Rustow, Marina. 2020. The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue. Princeton.
Smirnova, Olga. 1960. карта верховий зеравшана по мугским документам. In XXV междунар. конгресс востоковедов. Доклады делегации СССР (Издательствово востоцной литературы), 1–18. Moscow.
Yakubovich, Ilya. 2002. Mugh 1.I Revisited. Studia Iranica 31. 231–253.
Yakubovich, Ilya. 2006. Marriage Sogdian Style. In Heiner Eichner, Bert G. Fragner, Velizar Sadovski & Rüdiger Schmitt (eds.), Iranistik in Europa – Gestern, Heute, Morgen (Veröffentlichungen zur Iranistik 34), 307–344. Vienna: ÖAW.