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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia

 

Turkic Tribes IndexXionites / Hephthalites (White Huns / Hunas) (Turks)

Starting in the fourth century AD, a general invasion of nomadic tribes began to overwhelm southern Central Asia and northern South Asia (a region which can be combined under the label of 'eastern Iran'). This wave of barbarian invasions is attributed to tribal confederations which originated on the Central Asian steppe. The route southwards from there was not a new one but it was the Kidarites (Red Huns) who were the first to follow it on this occasion. An examination of their origins and of those of Xionites in general is included in their introduction, the other groups being the Hephthalites, Alchons, and Nezak.

FeatureThat name - Xionites (Chionites) - is the one most associated with this fresh wave of migrant warriors and their families. It has also created the speculation that they are related to the Huns of Europe. They were certainly the Huna of India, while Chinese sources linked the Xionite groups both to the Xiongnu and to the Huns. Modern scholars also follow this lead, with current thought suggesting that the Xionites were a Turkic-Mongolian grouping which had migrated from the region around the Altai Mountains. This area seems to have formed the original homeland of the early Turks (the Göktürks), where they mingled with Indo-European Tocharians to the south and Mongolians to the north. (See feature link for an in-depth exploration of the Xionite name.)

FeaturePtolemy in the second century AD is one of the first European writers to mention the Huns, with Marcellinus and Priscus also doing so. They likewise suggest that the Huns were an inner Asian people - although it appears that not all Huns were of the same stock. The White Huns (Hephthalites) especially appear to have been formed of a very different group of people. Procopius of Caesarea in the sixth century states that the Xionites were of the same stock as the European Huns, 'in fact as well as in name', but [the White Huns] were sedentary, white-skinned, and did not possess 'ugly features'. This distinction is important. It seems to infer that while the European Huns and possibly also the Red Huns (Kidarites) were dark-skinned, nomadic, and Mongolian or Turko-Mongolian in appearance, the Hephthalites were not. (See feature link for more on this discussion.)

The Hephthalites were more likely to be steppe-dwelling Indo-Iranians who joined the early, more aggressive Turko-Mongolian groups to become - for a while - nomadic horse-borne warriors before settling down in the territories they conquered in eastern Iran. Procopius states that they 'do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia'. This supports the idea of an Indo-Iranian origin. Ammianus Marcellinus was in Bactria between AD 356-357 - prior to the Xionite invasions of eastern Iran - and stated that the 'Chionitae' were living with the Kushans. This means that they were already present in the region, but were seemingly docile subjects of the Kushan empire. After that empire faded, the Kidarites were able to launch their own invasion of eastern Iran, sweeping the White Huns along with them.

The other two Xionite groups, the Alchons and Nezak, are much harder to pin down but, seeing as the Alchons were heavily involved in Hephthalite efforts to conquer northern India, there is a chance that they were of the same stock. In fact, the debate about whether the Hephthalites are to be considered a separate entity from the Alchons, as promoted by numismatists, is among the most important issues surrounding the identity of the Hephthalites. Even so, all groups may to some extent have been influenced by and had adopted the still-dominant Indo-Iranian culture and language even prior to their invasion. The Kidarites seemed to dominate the others, perhaps as overlords. When they were defeated, this seemingly freed up the other groups to become dominant.

The name Hephthalite is mentioned in the work of the Byzantine historian Procopius. Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite who lived close to the period of Sassanid engagement with Constantinople always calls them Huns or Chionites. In Armenian sources, they are known as Hep't'al, and in Middle Persian sources as ēftāl. In Arabic and Classical Persian histories, they are often mentioned as Hayātila (singular Hytāl), most likely a spelling mistake for hbtāl/hptāl. In Chinese sources, they are called I-ta or Yida.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE - 651 CE), Khodadad Rezakhani (Touraj Daryaee, Ed, Ancient Iran Series Vol IV, 2017), from Xiiaona- and Xyôn in Zoroastrian Texts, C G Cereti (Coins, Art, and Chronology II, Michael Alram & Deborah E Klimburg-Salter, Eds, 2010), from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, R C Blockley (Francis Cairns, Oxford, 1983), from The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Joseph Kitagawa (Routledge, 2013), from Procopius of Caesarea: Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity, Anthony Kaldellis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), from Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Conant (Cambridge University Press, 2012), from History of Civilizations of Central Asia, B A Litvinsky (Ed, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, Delhi, 1999), from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), and from External Links: History of the Wars, Procopius (Wikisource), and The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, Vol 7: The Sassanian or New Persian Empire, George Rawlinson (1875, now available via Project Gutenberg), and Encyclopaedia Iranica.)

c.410

Despite being bordered by the powerful Guptas to the east and the Sassanids to the west. Kushanshah vassal rule of the region is displaced from the north, as the Hephthalites invade and conquer Bactria and Gandhara. However, prior to the Xionite invasions of eastern Iran, Ammianus Marcellinus had been in Bactria between AD 356-357 - a key region of Kushanshah territory. He had stated that the 'Chionitae' had been living with the Kushans. This meant that they had already been present in the region, but had seemingly been docile subjects of the Kushans. After that empire had faded, and now the same is happening to the Kushanshas, the Kidarites are able to launch their own invasion of eastern Iran, sweeping the Hephthalites along with them.

Map of Central Asia - Turkic Expansion AD 300-600
Kushanshah letter addressed to Varhran
A Kushanshah letter addressed to their mid-fourth century AD ruler, Varhran, who already only governed the northern parts of Kushanshah territory and quickly lost that to the invading Kidarites, while above is a map covering Turkic origins, with the region around the Altai Mountains seemingly having served as a general incubator (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.410 - 413

In fact the Hephthalites swiftly become a major threat. After finishing his campaigns both in the east and west of India, Gupta King Chandragupta proceeds northwards to subjugate the Hephthalites and the Kamboja tribes which are located in the west and east Oxus valleys respectively. The journey is a remarkably long one for an Indian king. Very rarely, apart from Chandragupta of the Mauryan empire, do they cross the Hindu Kush.

? - c.427

?

Unnamed Hephthalite ruler in Merv (Margiana). Killed.

c.421 - 427

While Bahram V has been occupied by the fighting against Rome, the Kidarites and Hephthalites invade and occupy Sassanid territory in eastern Iran, with the Hephthalites at least occupying Merv (precise details are typically lacking). Having agree peace terms with Rome in 422, Bahram quickly assembles a fresh army to take east. Merv, the capital of Margiana, is captured and the Hephthalite ruler is killed. The Sassanid eastern frontier is fully secure by 427 and a pillar of thanks is erected on the banks of the Amu Darya - the northern limits of Sassanid control.

c.450s

By this time Akhshunwar has become the leader of the Hephthalite confederacy. Known also as Khushnavaz, Khush-Newaz, Ḵošnavāz, or Aḵšonvār, no numismatic evidence survives for him as it does for his successors, possibly because the Hephthalites have not yet adopted such civilised trappings or perhaps because the number of coins is so small that none have survived to be rediscovered by archaeologists. It is more likely that Kushanshah coinage is still being used.

In the much later Islamic text, the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Khushnavaz is anachronistically referred to as 'the King of the Turks' before the first Gök Türks have made an appearance in history. The Hephthalite capital is probably located around the modern city of Kunduz in eastern Tokharistan, known to Al-Biruni as War-Walīz, a name that may be connected to the Chinese designation of the Hephthalites as Hua.

c.450s - 480s

Khushnavaz / Akhshunwar

Leader of the Hephthalite confederacy.

455 - c.467

The early years of the reign of Gupta King Skandagupta are marked by violent civil war between the sons of Kumaragupta. Skandagupta manages to defeat his rivals and secure the throne. However, continual threats arise, first from the Pushyamitras whom he defeats, and then from the Hephthalites who invade from the north-west. They are repulsed around AD 467, but the empire is sapped of resources and begins to decline.

Around the same time, 467, migrating Oguric-speaking tribes make their presence felt on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Saragurs attack the Akatirs and other tribes that had been part of the Hunnic union. Then, perhaps prompted by the Byzantine empire, the Ogurics raid Sassanid-held Transcaucasia, ravaging the Georgian kingdoms of Egrisi and Iberia and also Armenia while on their way southwards.

The Ogurics also appear in a listing of tribes in the supplement to the Syriac translation of 'Pseudo-' Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History, composed around AD 555 based on an earlier text. The supplement (perhaps not fully reliable for the fifth century situation) mentions the tribes of Onogur, Ogur, Sabir, Burgar (Bulgar), Kutrigur, Abar, Kasar (this name is uncertain, possibly also being Kasir or Akatzir), Sarurgur (Sarugur/Saragur), Xwâlis, and Abdel (Hephthalites).

457 - 459

The death of Shah Yazdagird allows his younger son to seize the Sassanid throne ahead of the rightful heir, Peroz. The latter is occupying the position of governor in Seistan (Sakastan) at the time, and instantly seeks the protection of the Hephthalites. Their king, Khushnavaz, is happy to take advantage of Sassanid disunity. Other support comes from the House of Mihran which has already provided the Chosroid kings of Caucasian Iberia, and Peroz is soon able to capture Hormizd. Taloqan is ceded to Khushnavaz in thanks, expanding Hephthalite domains westwards by an extra province.

Hephthalite coins
Shown here are both sides of a silver drachm which was issued by the Hephthalites and which imitated issuances of the powerful but unlucky Sassanid Shah Peroz

462

The presence of an Hephthalo-Alchon figure known as Meyam or Mehama is probably a good indication of the progress of Hephthalite power during and after the reign of Shah Peroz. At this point he is first mentioned in two documents (BD ea 1-2 and ed 1-2, dated to 239 and 252 in the Bactrian Era, AD 462 and 475 respectively).

He is acting as a local administrator under Sassanid Shah Peroz, in a somewhat nebulous and hard-to-locate region known as Kadag which would appear to fall within the general bounds of Bactria. In the period in which Peroz is finally defeated and during the political vacuum which follows in and after 484, Meyam is soon raised to the position of Mahāṣāhi Mehama. The power vacuum allows various local authorities to claim independence, and the situation remains the same in Tokharistan, and farther south and east around Kabul in Gandhara and across Gandhara itself, until the destruction of Hephthalite power.

467/468

Attacked by a now-powerful Sassanid Shah Peroz, the current Kidarite king, Kunkhas, flees his capital of Balaam (which may be Bactrian Bactra or, much less likely, a similarly named city in Sogdiana), possibly taking refuge in Gandhara where he may continue to rule. The Kidarites have permanently lost their position in Tokharistan  to the Hephthalites, or perhaps first (and temporarily) to the Sassanids, and only retain control of Gandhara, possibly in Swat. Now the Hephthalite confederacy appears to set about expanding its own power over the rest of Tokharistan from an eastern base, possibly in the Badakhshan region (in the Pamir foothills to the east of Samarkand - modern north-eastern Afghanistan). Hephthalite control of Tokharistan seems to be complete by 483.

469

The Hephthalites apparently betray the trust of Shah Peroz by seizing the Bactrian capital of Bactra which has so recently been restored from Kidarite rule. This triggers the First Sassanid-Hephthalite War, but it does not go well for Peroz. The Sassanids are badly mauled at the third battle in this conflict and Peroz is captured by the Hephthalites. He is forced to pay a hefty ransom to ensure his release. This is the start of what has been labelled by later historians the period of the 'Imperial Hephthalites'.

c.470

Narasimhagupta of the Guptas drives the Hephthalites from the plains of northern India, but the Kidarites sense an opportunity in the increasing fragility of the empire and begin menacing its borders. There is clearly still some life left in the Kidarites despite their authority being severely reduced, but the lack of any specific mention after this point suggests that they become indistinguishable from the population of Hephthalites or Alchons.

Map of Central Asia and India AD 500
By the late 400s the eastern sections of the Sassanid empire had been overrun and to an extent occupied by the Hephthalites (Xionites) after they had killed Shah Peroz (click or tap on map to view full sized)

481

A Second Sassanid-Hephthalite War is launched by Peroz, with Vakhtang I Gorgasil of Chosroid Iberia in support. Initially successful by chasing the Hephthalites out of Bactra, the war ends in the capture (again) of Peroz, with him agreeing to the payment of thirty mule packs of silver drachms as a ransom, parts of which he pays through imposing a poll tax. To meet the rest of the demanded sum he leaves his son Kavad as a hostage with the Hephthalites, along with a daughter and the Sassanid chief priest.

fl c.490 - 520

Toramana

Alchon leader operating in India.

480s - 500

Toramana breaks through the Gupta defences in the north-west, and much of the empire is overrun by the Hephthalites by AD 500. The empire disintegrates under Toramana's attacks, and those of his successor, Mihirakula. The Hephthalites conquer several provinces of the former empire, including Malwa, while Gujarat and Thaneshwar break away under local dynasties. The surviving Guptas are forced south and east, to Jabbalpur (in modern Madhya Pradesh) and northern Bengal, where they establish minor Gupta holdings.

484

Peroz again chases the Hephthalites out of Bactra and towards Arion in Aria (Alexandria Ariana, modern Herat). Along the way he destroys the tower built by Bahram V which marks the border between Sassanid and Hephthalite. On the other side of the border, Khushnavaz sets a trap into which Peroz falls (literally - the trap being a deep ditch), along with around thirty of his sons and about 100,000 troops. Their bodies are never recovered by the Sassanids. The eastern empire is overrun and is largely occupied by the Hephthalites until their final fall - this includes regions such as Margiana, with the Hephthalites setting up puppet governors there. In Kabul and Zabulistan the Nezak are able to create their own semi-independent dynasty.

fl c.500 - 540?

Mihirakula

Son? Alchon leader operating in India.

c.500 - 530

The coins of Mihirakula and his contemporary, Jara (both part of a Xionite population which can be said to be Post-Hephthalite Alchons), are usually attributed to Taxila and Punjab, although there are other issues from the Kashmir region which neighbours Taxila to the east. If the attribution to Meyam, Alchon governor of Kadag in Bactria, is correct for coins of about AD 495 then this places the coins of Mihirakula and Jara shortly afterwards, explaining the parallels between their designs.

c.510

Around this time it has been claimed that 'some Turk tribes arrive from Asia' and aid the Sassanids in the eventual overthrow of the Hephthalites. If this is accurate then they are amongst the earliest Turks to be seen outside Xinjiang and the Altai Mountains to which they have only recently migrated. These Turks are almost certainly members of the Türük people, the pre-imperial Göktürks.

Coins of Mihirakula
Two coins issued by Mihirakula who, following defeat in India, retreated to Kashmir where he unseated a local king (probably a fellow Xionite prince) and took command of the Gandhara region

530s - 540s

The significant setbacks experienced by the Sassanids in the latter part of the fifth century - directly caused by the Hephthalites - are a prime motivator for reforms that are undertaken by shahs Kavad and Khosrow I. Most significantly, the creation of four major defensive, and presumably administrative, zones in the Sassanid administration is a direct response to the inefficiency of centralised defence. The north-east and east of the empire are entrusted to an Ispahbed of Khwarasan (Khwarasan being Chorasmia, while this is the first time that 'Ispahbed' appears in history, meaning an army chief).

? - 565?

Ḡātfar / Warāz / Wazar

Leader of the Hephthalite confederacy. Fate unknown.

565

The Hephthalites make the mistake of killing a Chinese envoy on his way to the Sassanid court with the offer of an alliance. China sends its general, recorded variously as 'Sinjibu', or 'Sizibulous' or 'Sinjibu Khan', although 'Sinjibu' is a derogatory Turkic nickname meaning 'treacherous'). In fact this general is İstemi 'Yabgu', viceroy of the western Göktürks, brother to (eastern) Göktürk Khagan Bumin who himself is brother-in-law to the Western Wei emperor.

The powerful Hephthalites are defeated by an alliance of Göktürks and Sassanids at a great battle near Bukhara. A level of Indo-Sassanid authority is re-established in the region for the next century. The remnants of the northern Hephthalite forces withdraw to a small principality between Akhrun and Khulm, close to the southern entrance to the Iron Gate, called Chaganiyan (Saghaniyan), where its ruler, Faganish, is selected as the new Hephthalite king. He is quickly forced to submit to the Sassanids under Khusro I.

The western Göktürks set up rival states in Bamiyan, Kabul, and Kapisa under the authority of the viceroy in Tokharistan, strengthening their hold on the Silk Road. Hephthalite subjects of the Göktürks are known to be involved in the First Perso-Turkic War. Remaining independent Hephthalite activity is now confined to the southern side of the Hindu Kush, combined with other Xionite groups as Post-Hephthalite Alchons.

Not much known is about the remnants of the northern Hephthalites, although their survival in the region seems to be indisputable. The remaining Hephthalites 'principalities' form autonomous small authorities that survive under Sassanid and (western) Göktürk governance, and the Hephthalite people gradually blend into the eastern Iranian population. There is also a theory that Hephthalite origins may have been local - backed up by the statement by Ammianus Marcellinus following his visit to the region in AD 356-357 that the 'Chionitae' had already been living with the Kushans. It is more likely that any localisation has been brought about by intermarriage with Bactrians and Gandharans. The later Khalaj Turks are sometimes claimed as the descendants of the Hephthalites, although without any provable veracity.

Map of Xionite North-Western India AD 500s-600s
Following the fall of the Hephthalite empire, Gandhara remained a key stronghold of Xionite power, with several principalities having been established and coin-producing mints springing up to provide vague clues about the existence of their rulers (click or tap on map to view full sized)

631 - 651

Sassanid Mesopotamia is lost to the Arabs in 637. The Sassanids are defeated at the Battle of Nahāvand by Caliph Umar in 642. Persia is overrun by Islam by 651. Retreating into Margiana, Sassanid King Yazdagird finds few allies and is forced to retreat again. Organising a hurried alliance with the Hephthalites (clearly still extant as some kind of regional force), he advances back towards Margiana, only to be defeated at the Battle of the Oxus. Yazdagird takes refuge in a mill, where the owner kills him while his family flee to Turkestan (former Tokharistan). The Sassanid empire has fallen, along with any regional Hephthalite self-governance.