History Files

Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Kangju (Indo-Iranians)

During the first millennium BC (and likely for much of the largely-unrecorded second millennium BC too) various Indo-Iranian tribes of the East Indo-European division dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They took control from remaining West Indo-European groups, with the Agathyrsi rising early to supremacy over the other tribes. They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.

In peeling back the layers of a highly-interconnected story, the Alani appear to be one and the same group as the Yancai of Chinese records. The Yancai are strongly linked to the Kangju, and the time periods which are involved in their story would appear to connect them to the Greater Yuezhi. A process of westwards migration towards Europe and unification marks out the Yancai journey away from Kangju domination in Central Asia, although records covering this detachment are brief.

The pre-migration Yancai of the first century BC were located on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. The Kangju were to the south and east of them, in territory which has been equated with Sogdiana (today's Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). This former Achaemenid province (Suguda) was at that time dominated by the Greater Yuezhi, suggesting that the Indo-Iranians of Kangju may have been a Greater Yuezhi division, or perhaps a Saka unit which was under their sway.

The name Kangju (or Kangyuy) comes exclusively from Chinese records, and is hard to match up fully with any Indo-Iranian formations which were known to western writers. Their burial customs do show a high degree similarity with Saka burials though.

Shown as K'ang-chü in older English-language works (from the twentieth century AD), the name is generally regarded as a Sinicisation of 'Sogdiana' itself. China regarded this as the secondmost important state in Central Asia after Yuezhi-dominated Bactria itself.

Although clearly Indo-Iranians who were leading a semi-nomadic way of life, it is hard to pin down the precise identity of this group. They were not Alani, as they dominated the Alani. Instead, they may have been the Asioi of the Greater Yuezhi, but the rise of the Kushan empire seemed to result in the isolation of Sogdiana and the Kangju. As a result of this, an Indo-Iranian exodus could be found heading north and westwards as Sogdiana declined, which also increased the westwards flow of Sarmatians and Alani.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus, from Les Alains, Cavaliers des steppes, seigneurs du Caucase Ie-XVe siècle, Vladimir Kouznetsov & Iaroslav Lebedynsky (Editions Errance, Paris 2005), from Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, A V Gadlo, from Eucharisticos (Thanksgiving), Paulinus of Pella, from the Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, Constantius of Lyon, from The Pechenegs: Nomads in the Political and Cultural Landscape of Medieval Europe, Aleksander Paroń (Translated by Thomas Anessi, Brill, 2021), and from External Links: Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions, and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition), and Genetic clues to the Ossetian past, Asya Pereltsvaig (Languages of the World), and The Alans (Marres Education), and Turkic History, and The original 'Red Sonja' (Mail Online).)

c.200 BC ?

An announcement in 2015 concerns the discovery of the remains of an ancient female warrior who is still clasping a huge sword and dagger. The remains are discovered in today's southern Kazakhstan.

Red Sonja burian in Kazakhstan
'Red Sonja', as the find has been dubbed, was the first female warrior ever to have been discovered in southern Kazakhstan, and experts believed she would have wielded significant influence amongst the people of Kangju

Dubbed 'Red Sonja' after the fearsome warrior woman who is portrayed by Brigitte Nielsen in the 1985 film of the same name, the perfectly preserved skeleton lies alongside an impressive arsenal of weapons.

The remains are dated tentatively to about 200 BC (although they could be several centuries older), meaning that this warrior woman is most likely to be an early member of the nomadic state of Kangju (or Kangyuy). She is also the first female warrior ever to have been discovered in the region.

126 BC

The Chinese envoy, Chang-kien or Zhang Qian, visits the newly-established Greater Yuezhi capital of Kian-she in Ta-Hsia (otherwise shown as Daxia to the Chinese, and Bactria-Tokharistan to western writers) and the rich and fertile country of the Bukhara region of Sogdiana (the land of Kangju).

Zhang Qian, ambassador and explorer
Zhang Qian was a Chinese ambassador and explorer who, between 138-126 BC, met and documented many of the steppe tribes, including the Yancai to the north of the Aral Sea

Apparently the people of Kangju pay homage not only to the Greater Yuezhi but also to the Xiongnu on the north-western Chinese plains. Clearly the reach of this second group extends west through the mountain passes which generally separate Central Asia from East Asia. Zhang Qian also travels almost a thousand kilometres to the north-west to visit the Yancai who, he states, have very similar customs to the people of Kangju.

90s BC

The nomadic Yancai are recorded by Sima Qian of China, centred on the northern shore of the Aral Sea. Their territory lays to the north-west of the Kangju nomadic federation, with whom - again - they hold some similarities in terms of customs.

5 - 3 BC

The Wusun launch a raid into Chuban pastures in 5 BC. Uchjulü-Chanyu, the Xiongnu ruler, repulses them, and the Wusun ruler is forced to send his son to the Chuban court as a hostage.The increasing dominance of Wang Chang in the Han court and his direct interventions into nomad politics are causing regional disorder.

Map of Central Asia & India c.50 BC
By the period between 100-50 BC the Greek kingdom of Bactria had fallen and the remaining Indo-Greek territories (shown in white) had been squeezed towards Eastern Punjab. India was partially fragmented, and the once tribal Sakas were coming to the end of a period of domination of a large swathe of territory in modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-western India. The dates within their lands (shown in yellow) show their defeats of the Greeks which had gained them those lands, but they were very soon to be overthrown in the north by the Kushans while still battling for survival against the Satvahanas of India (click or tap on map to view full sized)

In 2 BC the Wusun take 80,000 of their people to Kangju, their former opponent, seeking help against the Chinese. The same Wusun ruler is duped by the Chinese in AD 3 and is killed. Following this event historical references to the Wusun almost entirely disappear.

1st century AD

Elements of the Alani can again be confirmed as occupying territory to the north of the Sea of Azov. They are extending their influence to control the trade routes between the northern Black Sea coast to the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea. They are showing warlike traits which are typical of Indo-Iranian tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

Shortly before his death in AD 24, Strabo completes ongoing work on his Geography. It contains a description of the peoples and places known to this Greek writer who latterly lives in Rome. He describes the Alani as As or Asioi.

This is 'Asiani' in Latin - possibly a confusion with the Greater Yuezhi or their immediate neighbours. Alternatively the Alani could extend far into Central Asia and, if the Asiani are indeed a division of the Greater Yuezhi, then so too could be the Alani. This places the Kangju directly in the middle of this pair, making it more likely that they are also a Greater Yuezhi unit.

Ancient Bactra/Balkh city walls
The landscape around the walls of the ancient city of Bactra, capital of Bactria (shown here - now known as Balkh in northern Afghanistan, close to the border along the Amu Darya), was and still is very diverse, offering both challenges and rewards to any settlers there, including the newly arrived Greater Yuezhi

A few coins have been found in Sogdiana which are minted (probably) in the first century AD by one Phseigaharis. The coins all come from the prosperous Kashka Darya valley of the western Pamir mountain range immediately south of Marakanda (Samarkand, with the valley now being in the region of Qashqadaryo in eastern Uzbekistan, with 'Qashqadaryo' being the modern form of 'Kashka Darya').

Most of the coins do not permit any especially accurate dating, or even an accurate location, as they are generalised Greek types.

One more recent archaeological find carries an Aramaic legend behind the ruler's head on the obverse as well as a Greek legend. This pinpoints the mint to that at Marakanda, while the ruler's hair style and 'ethnic' characteristics strongly suggest a first century AD date.

Otherwise unknown except for these coin finds, Phseigaharis can be classed as a local ruler in Sogdiana, possibly a member of the Greater Yuezhi or one of their regional vassals, possibly of the Kangju.

The rise of the Kushan tribe and its formation of an empire based in Bactria-Tokharistan sees an abrupt decline in wealth and production in Sogdiana. Large sections of their territory which had previously been inhabited are now abandoned, dwellings left empty. Only the Kashka Darya basin to the south of Marakanda escapes the decline, probably acting as a cultural refuge for Sogdiana as a whole. The Iron Gates are sealed by the Kushan.

The Iron Gates of the Baba-tag Mountains in Sogdiana
The Iron Gates (shown here), are part of a narrow but popular linking route between Sogdiana and Bactria in the Baba-tag Mountains (close to modern Derbent) (click or tap on image to view full sized)


By now, Chinese records confirm the unification of the Yancai peoples as the Alanliao (or the 'old Yancai'), who have expanded towards the Caspian Sea, to the west of the Wusun. They appear to remain dependent upon the Kangju, at least for a time, before becoming dominant in Sarmatia.

In fact, the Kangju people have also been expanding north and west, and it could be this which has triggered the Yancai migration and also that of the Sarmatians (this argument is generally accepted by modern scholars).

c.240s - 250s

The Yancai are no longer dependent upon the Kangju, as recorded by the Weilüe history of the Chinese Wei dynasty. Presumably this means that they have moved far enough to the west to avoid the Kangju. If that is correct then it would also seem to signify the completion of the westwards migration of Alani groups over the past three centuries. The Yancai are not mentioned again in any records, but the Alani certainly are.

Map of Three Kingdoms China AD 220-263
In AD 220 the Late Han Chinese empire was officially transferred to the Wei or Cao Wei dynasty, while the Alani were migrating out of their reach (click or tap on map to view full sized)

312 - 313

The 'Ancient Sogdian Letters' form the first documentary evidence to show that things are changing in Sogdiana (and therefore Kangju). The recent rise of the Sassanids in Iran and the subsequent eclipsing of the Kushans may have something to do with this.

These letters show the existence of a large network of merchants from the cities of Sogd (Sogdiana) now in the Tarim Basin (home of the Tocharians) and beyond. With the removal of the Kushans, Sogdians have been able to force their way into the trade routes which have already been established between India and China via the Tarim Basin.

441 - 457

A Kidarite conquest of at least part of Sogdiana, and perhaps the 'state of Kang' which is recorded by the Chinese, seems to be safely attested by coins from Samarkand, bearing on the obverse the schematised portrait of a ruler with the Sogdian legend kyδr.

Kidarite coins
The Kidarites swept into eastern Iran and Tokharistan in the mid-fifth century AD, and by the end of the century they and the other Xionite groups were heavily involved in conquering areas of north-western India, which is where this Kidarite bronze obol with a scorpion was found (in the Kashmir Smast caves)

On typological and metrological grounds these coins can be assigned to the fifth century. Similar coins also begin to be issued from nearby Bukhara. A series of principalities subsequently emerges in Post-Greek Sogdiana which do not include mention of the Kangju name.

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