Sogdia was a Central Asian kingdom which flourished between the fourth and the ninth centuries CE. At the time it incorporated both Samarkand and Bukhara. Yet it is more than anything for their commercial acumen that the Sogdians have become famous. They traded grapes, alfalfa, Sassanian silverware, glass, corals, Buddhist images, Roman wool and amber from the Baltic sea, and bought paper, copper and silk in China. They operated as financial intermediaries too, setting up business deals, organizing caravans, arranging for money to be transferred and invested. While most merchants only traveled quite short distances, Sogdian communities could be found along the entire network of trade routes. There were Sogdians in Constantinople and in Xian, and the Sogdian language was the universal language of commerce across the Eurasian landmass. In this way they created a commercial empire which was far bigger than their own country.
In 1907, the British archeologist Aurel Stein discovered a pouch of papers in the ruins of an old watch-tower in the Chinese city of Dunhuang, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The letters turned out to be far older than anyone could have imagined — from early in the fourth century CE. And even more amazingly, the were not written by officials but by ordinary members of the Sogdian business community. One of them, a wealthy merchant, writes to his home-office to give an account of a recent attack by Xiongnu forces; another complains about his business partners who have abandoned him [Read more: “The Xiongnu confederation“] The most touching letter is from a woman, Mewnai, to her mother. She complains that her husband has deserted her and their young daughter and that she is not allowed to leave Dunhuang on her own. “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.” Perhaps her husband perished somewhere along the perilous trade routes and in any case Mewnai’s mother never got the letter. For one reason or another it was left in the watch-tower for close to two thousand years.