Mount Mugh – the Fortress of Dhewashtich

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Mount Mugh lies east of Samarkand and Panjakent in modern day Tajikistan. It is one of the most famous Sogdian archaeological sites, and became famous in the first half of the 20th Century, when a local shepherd discovered documents written in Sogdian, that were translated and greatly added to our knowledge of the Sogdians, particularly their political and economic history.

Mount Mugh lies on a small, remote peak 1500 metres above sea level, 120 km east of Samarkand, which was one of the most important Sogdian cities. It stands at the confluence of the Zerafshan and Kum rivers, which provide protection on two sides. The fortress was relatively small, measuring only approximately 20 x 20 metres, and had multiple floors, most of which had collapsed by the time it was found. It was protected on 3 sides by steep slopes up the mount, and was only accessible from one side, through a passage that ranged from 20 – 50 metres in width and several hundred metres long.  The site served as the final residence of Dhewashtich and his followers, one of the final Sogdian Kings, in the early 8th Century AD.

Dhewashtich, the King of Sogdiana

Dhewashtich ruled over parts of Sogdiana, in Central Asia, between 706 and 722 AD. He lived his early life in Parghar, near Panjakent.  Dhewashtich was elected to become the lord (Khuv) of Panjakent, although he had to share power with the remainder of the nobility. During this time, he bore the title “Lord of Panj.”

Sogdiana during the early 8th Century was turbulent. At the turn of the 8th Century, Samarkand was ruled by Tarkhun. However, Tarkhun perished in a coup in 709 – 710 due to his voluntary submission to the Arabs, and was replaced by Ghurak, who was less friendly toward the Arabs. The Arabs, under Qutayba bin Muslim, attacked Samarkand in 712 and Ghurak was forced to flee. Tarkhun’s two sons fled to the court of Dhewashtich, which gave Dhewashtich a claim to the throne of Samarkand. Emboldened by Turkic military backing, he challenged Ghurak and laid claims to the throne of Samarkand, after which he uses the title “King of Sogdiana and Lord of Samarkand” in his correspondence. The date of this claim is unknown, although may have been between 719 and 721. During these early years, Dhewashtich was friendly toward the Arabs.

The causes of the Sogdian rebellion against the Arabs is not fully understood. Fighting broke out between the Arabs and the Sogdians, who may have been backed by the Turks. However, the Turkic military backing faded away in 722 subsequently, Dhewashtich’s claim to Samarkand became more tenuous. The new Arab governor backed Ghurak’s claim on Samarkand and Dhewashtich was treated as a rebel. Dhewashtich retreated to his residence on Mount Mugh.

The Arabs attacked Dhewashtich’s residence on Mount Mugh. Even as late as the autumn of 722, Dhewashtich was attempting to enlist the help of the Turks and the rulers of Chach, with no avail. Prior to his surrender, he appealed to the Arabs to spare his life, which was initially granted, and the Arab governor of Iraq wanted to set him free. However, Al-Harashi (the general commanding the Arab conquest of Central Asia) disobeyed his orders from the governor of Iraq and executed Dhewashtich. Dhewashtich was crucified on a Zoroastrian tower, his head was sent to Baghdad and his hand was sent to Tokharistan. This act played a part in Al-Harashi’s dismissal from his post.

Ghurak resumed his rule at Samarkand after the rebellion and continued to rule until 738. Dhewashtich’s son named Tarkhun (not to be confused with the Tarkhun of Samarkand) was taken as a prisoner of war and resided in Iraq. 4 generations later, in the 9th Century, one of his descendants named Mikal bin abd al-Wahid settled in Khorasan and founded the Mikalid noble family, who would play a prominent role in the politics, administration, arts, and culture of various east Iranian dynasties. 

The findings at Mount Mugh

Mount Mugh was pillaged by the Arabs on its loss. However, the excavations at the site returned several items – belt parts, arrowheads, various textiles and wicker items, and most importantly, several texts written in Sogdian.

The Sogdian texts from Mount Mugh are written on a variety of materials. Leather (parchment) was commonly used as a writing material in Central Asia and had the benefit of being re-usable – the writing could be scraped off and the parchment could be re-used. Paper was also common in the Mount Mugh documents, and was a Chinese import. Paper was easier to produce than parchment or leather based writing surfaces, and absorbed ink and therefore could not be re-used. However, it was still comparatively expensive, and could not be made locally. In Xinjiang, paper has been found crafted into shoes and other items of clothing for funerary purposes. Willow sticks, often split in two lengthways, were another common Sogdian writing material, and were often used for household accounts and drafts of letters. Ostraca (broken pottery) could also be used for drafts and scribal exercises. One particular ostracon from Panjakent lists the alphabet, and then contains the writing of a scribe, Dhruwasp, who tells that he is practicing his writing at the order of the ruler Kawifarn.

A number of letters were uncovered at Mount Mugh, which are predominantly correspondences between rulers of Sogdian cities, and help tell the story of the last few years of Panjakent, during the time of Dhewashtich’s rise and fall. Other documents include a marriage contract (with surprisingly modern and equitable terms for both the husband and wife) and contracts for the lease of mills and a burial plot. It is possible that some of these documents, such as the marriage contract, may have belonged not to Dhewashtich, but to his followers, who may have brought their important belongings and contracts to the fortress for safe keeping.

There are a small number of military items found at Mount Mugh. Several arrows made of reed show cresting – painting on the shafts, used to identify the owner. A sword scabbard was found, made of wood and leather, and contained two slits on the front as if to be suspended via a scabbard slide, an old method of suspending a sword vertically that had largely been superseded by a two-point suspension system by the 6th or 7th Centuries. A fragment of a large, richly decorated wooden shield was found, covered in thin rawhide on the front and back, bearing the painting of a mounted warrior in a long coat of lamellar armour. A few fragments of lamellar armour were also found, showing an ingenious lacing system similar with finds from Khakassia and Ukraine dated to the 6th – 8th Centuries, that allow a great deal of flexibility while protecting the flexible laces. A reconstruction of this will feature in an upcoming issue.

The textile fragments from Mount Mugh are mostly unremarkable and mono or duochrome textiles. The famous Sogdian “pearl roundel” silks are largely absent, with the exception of one piece, which contains flowers inside pearl roundels and tetrafoil rosettes as separators. This piece has been discoloured over time, but may have originally had red, cream, and black colours and bears a remarkable similarity with a banner from the Shosoin repository in Japan. Additionally, an entire boot has been preserved in almost perfect condition, and from it we can gain insights on leatherworking techniques employed in early medieval Central Asia. 

Traces of painting found at Mount Mugh show that the residence may have been heavily decorated, like the homes of the nobility and mercantile classes in other Sogdian cities. Notable paintings include the coronation of a Sogdian king with a diadem decorated with a crescent moon, wings, and precious stones; and the reception of an Arab envoy by a Sogdian king, likely Dhewashtich himself.

Although relatively small, Mount Mugh is an important archaeological find due to the stories it tells in it’s documents. Through the Mount Mugh letters, we are able to gain a much stronger idea of the political history of Sogdiana in the early 8th Century AD. The finds of every day items in the fortress help illustrate the daily life of Sogdians. Dhewashtich must have made an impression in our modern recollection of the past, for his statue dominates the roundabout on the western side of the modern town of Panjakent.

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