History Files
 

 

European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

 

 

Turkic Tribes IndexUtigurs (Turks)

One of many steppe nomad groups of the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the origins of the Utigurs are obscure. They are generally accepted as being an Oguric-speaking Turkic group, like many other groups that could be found neighbouring them in later years. It has been suggested that they began as a unit of the Saragurs who had divided into two groups - them and the closely-related Kutrigurs. A later Utigur ruler named Sandlikh confirmed the close relationship by referring to them as 'our tribesmen who not only speak a language that is identical to ours, who are our neighbours, and who have the same dressing and manners of life, but who are also our relatives, even though subjected to other lords'.

As with the majority of the tribes that originally appeared either on the Kazakh steppe or further eastwards from the third century AD onwards, the Utigurs are generally accepted as being part of a vast wave of Turko-Mongoloid steppe-dwelling nomads (the Xionites among them). Various other influences can sometimes be detected in their early history, such as that of the Tocharians or Indo-Iranians (which is especially the case for another early group of Turks, the Göktürks).

The Utigurs were dragged westwards by the Huns and were subsumed within their empire along with a large number of other tribes and groups. The death of Attila in AD 453 led to his sons fighting each other for control, and the Hunnic confederation began to dissolve as a cohesive entity. The following year, the core Hunnic lands were conquered by the Gepids, scattering the empire's various nomadic groups, and within two years Attila's sons had been routed by the Ostrogoths. At least three main survivor branches emerged, the Altyn Ola horde, the Kutrigurs, and the Utigurs, but they may not have been formalised as such until the next generation of leaders succeeded Attila's sons. The initial Utigur leader is somewhat debatable, but it would seem to have been Ernakh, youngest son of Attila. His other surviving brother, Dengisich, remained the overall commander as senior khan, in essence leading the combined groups as Huns of a reduced empire. It seems that they only gained their Kutrigur and Utigur names when they were commanded by two of Ernakh's sons, which probably confirmed the final separation of these 'Huns' into two separate units. Either way, they quickly found themselves occupying territory to the west of the River Don.

The relationship between the Kutrigurs and Utigurs and the Onogurs and Bulgars who now lived in the same region is also unclear. The fact that the Utigurs seemed to disappear as the Avars temporarily took over the region, to be superseded by the Bulgar state of Great Bulgaria, has them linked with the Bulgars so that they are often known as Utigur Bulgars. In all probability their worn-torn remnants were absorbed by the proto-Bulgars during the Great Bulgaria period and lost their individual identity. Procopius provides support for the Kutrigurs and the very similar Utigurs being tribal unions within the Hunnic empire while that lasted, adding that they shared a common origin and that they occupied the Tanaitic-Maeotic steppe zone (now the region between the River Don and the Sea of Azov near the Crimea). The Kutrigurs occupied the western part of this region in the late fifth century and sixth century, and the Utigurs the east.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), from The Proto-Bulgarians North and West of the Black Sea, D Dimitrov (Varna, 1987), from The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture - Chapter IX. Language: 5. Iranian Names, Otto J Maenchen-Helfen (University of California Press, 1973), from Romans and Barbarians: The Decline of the Western Empire, E A Thompson (Wisconsin Studies in Classics, University of Wisconsin, 1982), from Avar Blitzkrieg, Slavic and Bulgar Raiders, and Roman Special Ops: mobile warriors in the 6th century Balkans, Florin Curta (Eurasia in the Middle Ages. Studies in Honour of Peter B Golden, Zimonyi István & Osman Karatay, Otto Harrassowitz, 2015), and from External Links: Gothica, Jordanes (full text available online at Archive.com), and Kroraina, Vassil Karloukovski.)

456 - 481

Ernakh / Irnek / Hernach / Belkermak

Son of Attila the Hun. Ruler of the Utigurs and Altyn Ola.

469

With battles against the Ostrogoths and Eastern Romans seemingly ongoing for the past decade, Dengisich of the Kutrigurs is now killed by Anagastes, the Roman general in Thrace, and his head is taken to Constantinople to be paraded through the city. His brother, Ernakh, is probably now the dominant Hunnic ruler on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. His fate is unknown, suggesting a peaceful end for a ruler who is more content with the lands under his control than had been the case with his brother.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click on map to view full sized)

490s - 510s

Uturgur / Utigur / Utig

Son. First of khazarig dynasty & possible 'founder' of the Utigurs.

520 - c.528

Grod / Grodas

Also Kutrigurs. Christianised. Became Roman puppet. Killed.

c.528 - 530

Mugel / Maugeris

Brother. Also ruled Kutrigurs. Replaced by Khinialon.

c.530

With Mugel being removed from command (forcibly or otherwise is not confirmed), the Kutrigurs and Utigurs formally separate into two factions, the former being led by Khinialon and the latter by Sandlikh. Both seem to be strong-willed leaders and, inevitably, they clash, leading their respective groups into what amounts to a destructive civil war.

540s - 560s

Sandlikh / Sandilch

Son of Uturgur. Fought the Kutrigurs. Succeeded by Unogonduri.

550/551

The Gothic writer Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople, completes his sixth century work at this time, entitled Getica. Among many other things, it provides an account of the people of the Acatziri who live to the south of the Goths (Tauric Goths). Beyond them, above the Pontic Sea (Black Sea), is the habitat of the 'Bulgari', seemingly neighbouring the Hunnic branches of the Altziagiri (possibly the Altyn Ola horde) and Saviri (probably Sabirs).

At the time of Jordanes' writing, the Kutrigurs are enlisted as allies by the Gepids, whose kingdom is under threat by the Langobards and Eastern Romans. They are ferried across the Danube either in 550 or 551 but Emperor Justinian immediately brings into action his own allies, the Utigurs, cousins of the Kutrigurs. The Utigurs request help of their own allies, the Tetraxite Ostrogoths of the Crimea. The latter invade the Kutrigur homeland, taking advantage of the absence of the main Kutrigur force of warriors, and the Kutrigurs are forced to abandon their mission and return to defend their homeland.

552

In Central Asia, the Rouran khagan faces an uprising by the early Göktürks, one which is supported by the Western Wei. The Rouran are defeated in battle to the north of Huaihuang (now the prefecture city of Zhangjiakou in northern China's Hebei Province). The Göktürk people are now free to become the main power in the region.

They move away from their traditional homeland in the southern Altai and migrate into the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia. This forms the centre of Göktürk power during their period of empire, but their rapid expansion may be responsible for pushing the proto-Bulgars westwards over the next half a century to settle in the Caucuses. The Göktürks soon follow them to establish their domination over the nomadic tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe - especially the Ogurs, Onogurs, Sabirs, Utigurs, and the main body of Bulgars (although some groups may already have moved to Pannonia under Avar domination). The extent of Göktürk domination over the Bulgars is unclear.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states that had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click on map to view full sized)

c.560s - 600s

The Altyn Ola are absorbed by the early Bulgars, probably immediately prior to the formation of Great Bulgaria. This does not mean that they become part of the later Bulgarian state, which is a much smaller entity. Instead they probably dissipate into the surrounding population in Ukraine. However, the notion that Hun descendants or even their close affiliates may enter the Bulgarian gene pool seems to be highly controversial and open to strong objections. If it happens at all, the number of actual Huns rather than their many subject peoples who are not of Hunnish descent is likely to be a minute part of the population.

Around the same time - AD 558, prompted by Kutrigur agitation at the advance of the Avars - this group raids Eastern Roman territory. The result is that Emperor Justinian commands his Utigur allies to attack the Kutrigurs and the two groups virtually annihilate one another. Subsequently both groups are dominated by the Avars.

560s - 571

A people, country, and town with the name in later Arab sources of Belendzher or Balandzhar is mentioned for the first time by the Arab historian at-Tabari in connection with events from the 560s. Sassanid-controlled Armenia is invaded by four peoples - 'abkhaz', 'b-ndzh-r' (Bandzhar), 'b-l-ndzh-r' (Balandzhar), and the Alans.

Between these two dates, İstemi, the khagan of the western Göktürks, defeats the peoples who are noted in later Arab sources as 'b-ndzh-r' (Bandzhar), 'b-l-n-dzh-r' (Balandzhar), and Khazars, who then agree to serve him. The scholar, A V Gadlo, concludes that the name 'bandzhar' refers to the Ogurs, and 'balandzhar' is a Perso-Arabic form of the Onogur/Utigur name.

The remnants of the Utigurs are largely absorbed by the Avar union during its brief period of ascendancy over the Pontic steppe, and then probably by Great Bulgaria which succeeds the union. The Utigur remnants, indeed, appear to become indivisible from the Onogurs who also become part of Great Bulgaria. However, it would seem to be an Utigur tribal leader who leads the formation of Great Bulgaria, given that Qaghan Kubrat is acclaimed as an Unogonduri tribal leader (the Unogundur Bulgars are seemingly related to the Onogurs/Utigurs who themselves may be indistinguishable from one another).

c.580s - 590s

The twelfth century chronicle of the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, Michael of Syria, uses earlier sources to describe the arrival of at least one group of proto-Bulgars on the Pontic-Caspian steppe (although certainly not the first). The story is a conglomeration of facts pertaining to several events from different periods in time, all of them united around the story of the expansion of Khazar political power in the second half of the seventh century.

Bulgarian troops of the eighth century
Oguric-speaking warriors on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the sixth century would have been largely indistinguishable from each other but, under Eastern Roman influence, some would have begun to resemble the Romans just like the eighth century Bulgars shown here

 

According to the story, three 'Scythian' brothers (perhaps indicating an Indo-Iranian origin or cultural bias) set out on a journey from the mountain of Imaon (Tien-Shan) in Asia and reach the River Tanais (the modern Don). Here one of the brothers, called Bulgarios, takes 10,000 people with him, parts from his brothers and, with the permission of Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice, settles in Upper and Lower Moesia and Dacia. Here, no doubt, they can be used as a buffer against the Avars whom Maurice pushes to the north of the Danube by 599. The need for this additional migration can be attributed to Khazar pressure on the Caspian steppe.

The other two brothers enter the country of the Alans, which is called Barsalia (Bersilia - the land of the Barsils). Their towns are built with assistance from the Eastern Romans to serve as a buffer against the steppe nomads. One of these towns is named as Caspij, identified by most historians as the area around the Torajan Gates or Caspian Gates (Derbent). The Bulgars and the Pugurs ('puguraje' - a Bulgar ethnic affiliate group) inhabit these places, seemingly providing an origin for the Barsils themselves. One of the brothers is named as Khazarig - probably an attempt to provide an origin story for the Khazars (it is the Khazars who later dominate those Barsils who do not migrate northwards to join the Volga Bulgars), but possibly an origin story for Uturgur, founder of the Khazarig dynasty of Hunno-Bulgar leaders of the Kutrigurs and Utigurs.

Coincidentally, perhaps, around the same time an Unogonduri tribal leader by the name of Houdbaad becomes dominant in 'Patria Onoguria', the land of the Onogurs, a Turkic group which is largely inseparable from the early Bulgars themselves. His dominance succeeds that of Sandlikh of the Utigurs. His state has its heartland on the Taman Peninsula, an outcrop of territory on what is now the Russian side of the Strait of Kerch and the southern coast of the Sea of Azov, opposite Crimea. This is the precursor to the creation of Great Bulgaria.