North of the modern town of Samarkand lies a grassy plateau called Afrasiab, the name of an evil ruler of the Iranian national epic, the 'Book of Kings'. This marks the site of the first city of Samarkand from its foundation in the 7th or 6th century BC to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century AD.
Samarkand lies at the heart of the Silk Road in the area once called Sogdiana. The merchants of the Sogdian city-states dominated trade on the Eastern Silk Road from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD onwards. Sogdians lived in market towns along the route all the way into China acting as local agents for their countrymen.
The Sogdians were originally Zoroastrians, worshipping at fire altars. Later some became Manichaeans and there were also Buddhist and Nestorian Christian communities. They converted to Islam after the Arab conquests from the late 7th century.
Khotan had a thriving paper industry, and also produced wool, rugs and fine silk. However, it was most famous for jade, brought down as river boulders, which was in constant demand by the Chinese for its hardness, beauty, and durability. It was probably jade that first made Khotan an important trading stop on the Southern Silk Road. Trade exposed Khotan to diverse influences and the art, manuscripts, terracottas, artefacts and coins found at its capital Yotkan and the town of Dandan-Uiliq, reveal a rich mix of cultures.
In the 4th century an itinerant monk excavated a meditation cave in a cliff face south-east of the town. Others followed and by the 8th century there were over a thousand cave temples. One cave was used as a library and filled with manuscripts and paintings. It was sealed and hidden in about AD 1000 and its discovery in 1900 revealed an unrivalled source for knowledge of the official and religious life in this ancient Silk Road town.
Hundreds of wooden tablets written in the Gandhari language were found here. These everyday letters, administrative and legal records, and tax returns, along with the many items of everyday use discarded as the residents left, open an intimate window onto the realities of daily life along the southern Silk Road.
After the 4th century, Kroraina declined and Miran was abandoned. It was not until the conquering Tibetian armies arrived in the mid-8th century that it was occupied again. Miran lay on a mountain pass over which the Tibetan armies crossed into Central Asia, and was an ideal location for them to establish a garrison. They built a substantial fort and the community of soldiers and their families restored the old irrigation system. This settlement remained there until after the Tibetan Empire crumbled in the mid-9th century.
From the 5th century the capital was at Gaochang, a large walled city. The area fell under the control of several nomadic powers before being conquered by the Chinese in 640. Two centuries later it was taken by the Uighurs, a confederation of Turkic tribes who called the capital Kocho.
The plain north of Gaochang, known as Astana, was used as a cemetery from the late 4th century. Almost all the manuscripts from the tombs are in Chinese, but Manichaean texts in Sogdian and Uighur and numerous Buddhist texts in various languages have been found in the ancient city itself.