Sunday, June 6, 2021

Uzbekistan | Paikend | Varakhsha

I already mentioned the Kushans, who may have ruled Bukhara when the Magok-i Attari was first constructed. After the Kushans, around the beginning of the sixth century, Sogdiana fell under the sway of the Hephthalites, perhaps descendants of the Yuezhi, who themselves may have been Blonde-Haired Blue-Eyed Proto-Hippie Potheads but exact origins unclear.

The Hephthalites emerged in the fifth century a.d. and at the peak of their empire controlled much of East Turkistan (current day Xinjiang Province China, Afghanistan, and northwest India. According to one contemporary historian, the word “hephthalite” is derived from the Sogdian word for “strong man” Although the Hephthalites may have claimed suzerainty over the city-states of the Zerafshan Valley the Sogdians probably enjoyed a degree of autonomy, and by 563 a.d. Hephthalite influence in the region had ended altogether.

It was around this time that the Ark in Bukhara and the various small settlements surrounding it had coalesced into an important city. Still, it was one of numerous cities in the Bukhara Oasis and not necessarily the most dominant. Varakhsha, on what was then the western edge of the Bukhara Oasis (its ruins are now in the desert), and Paikend (also Baikand), on the very southern edge of the oasis, were both substantial, well-fortified cities older than Bukhara itself. Indeed, according to the ten-century historian Narshakhi a trader who went to Bagdad was more likely to brag that he was from Paikend than from Bukhara. These cities of the Bukhara oasis and the other loosely aligned city-states which made up Sogdiana dominated trade on the Silk Road arteries stretching from China and India to Byzantium, southern Russia and northern Africa, and their language, an early form of Iranian, became the lingua franca of commerce.
Locations of Paikend and Varakhsha (click on images for enlargements)
Paikend, twenty-eight miles southwest of Bukhara, was an important caravan stop on the Merv-Bukhara-Amul (at the Amu Darya Crossing)-Samarkand route. Attacked and largely destroyed by invading Arabs in the 710s, it was partially rebuilt but probably never recovered its former prominence. It is now in ruins. 
Ruins of Paikend
Southern entrance to the city. Stalls used by merchants can still be seen at top, just left of center.
Remains of what were probably residences
View of vineyards from the walls of the city
Ruins of Varakhsha
Varakhsha, twenty miles west-northwest of Bukhara, probably exceeded Bukhara in importance during its heyday. It boasted of impressive palaces used by Sogdian rulers. Once in the cultivated part of the Bukhara oasis, it may have been abandoned for lack of water as the oasis contracted. 
Ruins of Varakhsha
Ruins of Varakhsha
Ruins of Varakhsha
Ruins of Varakhsha
From Varakhsha the desert now stretches for hundreds of miles to the west
The religions practiced in Sogdia were indicative of these trade links with varying cultures. Buddhism, which had entered the region via Bactria, was in decline by the sixth century, but Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion of the Sassanian Empire to the southwest, was flourishing. Nestorian Christianity, stamped out in Byzantium, had spread eastward, and as early as 334 a.d. there was a Christian bishop in Merv, just south of the Amu Darya. By the sixth century Nestorian Christians were established in Samarkand, and probably in Bukhara. Manichaeism and a host of breakaway sects and chthonic cults also found followers among the Sogdians. By the end of the sixth century Sogdiana was flourishing, but dangers lurked just beyond the horizon. It was probably at this time that the Sogdians constructed the Kanpirak, or “Old Woman, the 150 or-more-long wall which surrounded most of the Bukhara Oasis and served as a bulwark against the hostile Turkish nomads who inhabited the deserts and steppes to the north. The invaders who would bring down Sogdiana and forever change the way of life in the Land Beyond the Rivers came not from the north, however, but from the south, in form of Arabs who came proclaiming the new religion of Islam.


  1. I am no etymologist, but 'hephthalites' sounds very Greek to me. It could be of course how the Byzantines phonetically rendered a Sogdian or Turkic or Chinese word. However, 'heuphthales' is an actual word even in contemporary Greek - it means 'numerous' or 'lush' and it is used mostly in connection to plants and trees, like the more commonly used 'aeithales' that refers to trees that stay without shedding their leaves throughout the year.

    It could be that the White Huns were admired or feared by Constantinople and thus were given a name indicative of their numbers, growth or ever present virility.

    Just sayin'

  2. According to B. A. Litvinsky, the leading scholar of the Hephthalites, in Sogdian the word means “strong man”, as mentioned. He also gives the actual spelling from Greek sources, but I cannot reproduce the Greek alphabet here. The Greeks of Bactria, who the Hephthalites replaced, may indeed have named these people. Apparently in the Khotan Saka language there is also a similar word which means “brave or valiant”. The Hephthalites are by the way very mysterious as to their origins. They were apparently light-haired and blue-eyed. The contemporary Chinese who encountered these people were completely befuddled by their appearance.

  3. Intriguing stuff.

    I have heard a few theories regarding fair haired/fair eyed people in western China and Central Asia: from Uighurs I have heard a story involving lost roman legions; a Pakistani friend of mine mentioned the whole Kallash/Alexander link and about Sialkot and the greco-buddhist kingdoms. I am also aware of the demographic change in Central Asia between Genghis and Tamerlane - iranian populations declining/turkic and mongol populations expanding.

    I have read Eco's Baudolino a couple of times, I am sure that is where I remember White Huns from.

  4. Next time you are in Urumqi swing by the Provincial Museum and see the mummies on display there. Tall and thin, with angular faces and light brown hair and goatees, these are the
    who once lived in this area. The Yueshi may have sprung out of this environment.