Tamga of the Hephthalites
The Hephthalites (green), c. 500.
|Historical era||Late Antiquity|
The Hephthalites (or Ephthalites), sometimes called the White Huns, were a people who lived in Central Asia during the 5th to 8th centuries. Militarily important during 450 to 560, they were based in Bactria and expanded east to the Tarim Basin, west to Sogdia and south through Afghanistan to northern India. They were a tribal confederation and included both nomadic and settled urban communities. They were part of the four major states known collectively as Xyon (Xionites) or Huna, being preceded by the Kidarites, and succeeded by the Alkhon and lastly the Nezak. All of these peoples have often been linked to the Huns who invaded Eastern Europe during the same period, and/or have been referred to as "Huns", but there is no consensus among scholars about such a connection.
The stronghold of the Hephthalites was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, in what is present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Sogdia and driven the Kidarites westwards, and by 493 they had captured parts of present-day Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin in what is now Northwest China. They expanded into northwestern India as well.
The sources for Hephthalite history are poor and historians' opinions differ. There is no king-list and historians are not sure how they arose or what language they spoke. The Sveta Huna who invaded northern India are probably the Hephthalites, but the exact relation is not clear. They seem to have called themselves Ebodalo (?, hence Hephthal), often abbreviated Eb (), a name they wrote in the Bactrian script on some of their coins. The origin of the name "Hephthalites" is unknown, possibly from either a Khotanese word *Hitala meaning "Strong" or from postulated Middle Persian *haft ?l "the Seven".
The name Hephthalites originated with Ancient Greek sources, which also referred to them as Ephthalite, Abdel or Avdel.
In Chinese chronicles, the Hephthalites are usually called Ye-tha-i-li-to (pinyin: Yàndàiyílìtuó), or the more usual modern and abbreviated form Yada (pinyin: Yèd?). The latter name has been given various Latinised renderings, including Yeda, Ye-ta, Ye-tha; Ye-d? and Yanda. The corresponding Cantonese and Korean names Yipdaat and Yeoptal (Korean: ), which preserve aspects of the Middle Chinese pronunciation (roughly yep-daht, [?j?pd?t]) better than the modern Mandarin pronunciation, are more consistent with the Greek Hephthalite. Some Chinese chroniclers suggest that the root Hephtha- (as in Ye-ta-i-li-to or Yada) was technically a title equivalent to "emperor", while Hua was the name of the dominant tribe.
In Ancient India, names such as Hephthalite were unknown. The Hephthalites were apparently part of, or offshoots of, people known in India as Hunas or Turushkas, although these names may have referred to broader groups or neighbouring peoples. Ancient Sanskrit text Pravishyasutra mentions a group of people named Havitaras but it is unclear whether the term denotes Hephthalites.
According to most specialist scholars, the spoken language of the Hephthalites was an Eastern Iranian language, but different from the Bactrian language written in the Greek alphabet that was used as their "official language" and minted on coins, as was done under the preceding Kushan Empire.
According to Xavier Tremblay, one of the Hephthalite rulers was named "Khingila", which has the same root as the Sogdian word xn?r and the Wakhi word xi?g?r, meaning "sword". The name Mihirakula is thought to be derived from mithra-kula which is Iranian for "the Sun family". Toram?na, Mihirakula's father, is also considered to have an Iranian origin. In Sanskrit, mihira-kula would mean the kul "family" of mihira "Sun", although mihira is not purely Sanskrit but is a borrowing from Middle Iranian mihr. Janos Harmatta gives the translation "Mithra's Begotten" and also supports the Iranian theory.
For many years scholars suggested that they were of Turkic stock. Some have claimed that some groups amongst the Hephthalites were Turkic-speakers. Today, however, the Hephthalites are generally held to have been an Eastern Iranian people speaking an East Iranian language. The Hephthalites inscribed their coins in the Bactrian (Iranian) script, held Iranian titles, the names of Hephthalite rulers given in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh are Iranian, and gem inscriptions and other evidence shows that the official language of the Hephthalite elite was East Iranian. In 1959, Kazuo Enoki proposed that the Hephthalites were probably Indo-European (East) Iranians as some sources indicated that they were originally from Bactria, which is known to have been inhabited by Indo-Iranian people in antiquity. Richard Frye is cautiously accepting of Enoki's hypothesis, while at the same time stressing that the Hephthalites "were probably a mixed horde". More recently Xavier Tremblay's detailed examination of surviving Hephthalite personal names has indicated that Enoki's hypothesis that they were East Iranian may well be correct, but the matter remains unresolved in academic circles.
According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica and Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Hephthalites possibly originated in what is today Afghanistan. They apparently had no direct connection with the European Huns, but may have been causally related with their movement. The tribes in question deliberately called themselves "Huns" in order to frighten their enemies.
Just as later nomadic empires were confederations of many peoples, we may tentatively propose that the ruling groups of these invaders were, or at least included, Turkic-speaking tribesmen from the east and north. Although most probably the bulk of the people in the confederation of Chionites and then Hephhtalites spoke an Iranian language... this was the last time in the history of Central Asia that Iranian-speaking nomads played any role; hereafter all nomads would speak Turkic languages and the millennium-old division between settled Tajik and nomadic Turk would obtain.
The Ephthalitae Huns, who are called White Huns [...] The Ephthalitae are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name, however 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 [...] They are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but for a long period have been established in a goodly land... They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly. It is also true that their manner of living is unlike that of their kinsmen, nor do they live a savage life as they do; but they are ruled by one king, and since they possess a lawful constitution, they observe right and justice in their dealings both with one another and with their neighbours, in no degree less than the Romans and the Persians
As an illustration of how little we know of the Hephthalites, Kurbanov surveyed the literature and found these opinions: They were named after a king Eftalan or Hephtal. They lived in the Eftali valley (location not given). They called themselves War or Jabula or Alkhon. They were a political rather than ethnic unit. They, the Xionites and Kidarites were the same people or three different peoples. They were the ruling class of the Xionites. They were not Xionites. They were not the "White Huns". They were natives of Bactria, or the Pamirs, or the Kundu Kush. They began as the Hua who were subjects of the Rouran in the Turfan area. They were a branch of the Yuezhi in the Altai area who merged with the Dinglings, defeated the Yueban and moved south. They arose near the Aral Sea from a fusion of Massagetae and Alans and moved southeast under the name of Xionites. They were partly Tibetan or Mongol or Tokharian or Huns who returned east after the fall of Attila. Kurbanov gives a few other theories and makes no attempt to reconcile them.
Ancient Chinese chroniclers, as well as Procopius, wrote various theories about the origins of the people:
Older Chinese sources (c. 125) refer to them as Hua (? Huá) or Hudun, and describe the Hephthalites as a tribe living beyond the Great Wall, in Dzungaria. Chinese chronicles state that they were originally a tribe of the Yuezhi, living to the north of the Great Wall, and subject to the Rouran (Jwen-Jwen), as were some Turkic peoples at the time. Their original name was Hoa or Hoa-tun; subsequently they named themselves Ye-tha-i-li-to (, or more briefly Ye-tha ), after their royal family, which descended from one of the five Yuezhi families which also included the Kushan.
The Hephthalite was a vassal state to the Rouran Khaganate until the beginning of the 5th century. Between Hephthalites and Rourans were also close contacts, although they had different languages and cultures, and Hephthalites borrowed much of their political organization from Rourans. In particular, the title "Khan", which according to McGovern was original to the Rourans, was borrowed by the Hephthalite rulers. The reason for the migration of the Hephthalites southeast was to avoid a pressure of the Rourans. Further, the Hephthalites defeated the Yuezhi in Bactria and their leader Kidara led the Yuezhi to the south.
The Hephthalites formed in Bactria around 450, or sometime before. In 442 their tribes were fighting the Persians. Around 451 they pushed southeast to Gandhara. In 456 a Hephthalite embassy arrived in China. By 458 they were strong enough to intervene in Persia.
Probably in the late fifth century they took the western Tarim Basin (Kashgar and Khotan) and in 479 they took the east end (Turfan). In 497-509, they pushed north of Turfan to the Urumchi region. In 509 they took 'Sughd' (the capital of Sogdiana).
The Hephthalites were originally vassals of the Rouran Khaganate but split from their overlords in the early fifth century. The next time they were mentioned was in Persian sources as foes of Yazdegerd II (435-457), who from 442, fought 'tribes of the Hephthalites', according to the Armenian Elisee Vardaped.
In 453, Yazdegerd moved his court east to deal with the Hephthalites or related groups.
The Hephthalites may have also helped the Sasanians to eliminate another Hunnic tribe, the Kidarites: by 467, Peroz I, with Hephthalite aid, reportedly managed to capture Balaam and put an end to Kidarite rule in Transoxiana once and for all. The weakened Kidarites had to take refuge in the area of Gandhara.
Later however, Peroz I fought three wars with his former allies the Hephthalites. In the first two he himself was captured and ransomed. In the third, at the Battle of Herat (484), he was killed, and for the next two years the Hephthalites plundered parts of Persia.
With the Sasanian Empire paying tribute to the Hephthalites, from 474, the Hephthalites themselves adopted the winged, triple-crescent crown of Peroz I to crown their effigy in their own coinage. They thus expressed symbolically that they had become the legitimate rulers of Iran.
From 484 until the middle of the sixth century, Persia paid tribute to the Hephthalites.
In 488, Kavadh I (488-496, 498-531) made himself king of Persia with Hephthalite help. (He overthrew his uncle, the brother of Peroz).
The period c. 498-555 is almost blank in the standard English sources. In 552, the Göktürks took over Mongolia, and by 558 reached the Volga. By 581 or before, the western part separated and became the Western Turkic Khaganate.
Circa 555-567, the Turks and the Persians allied against the Hephthalites and defeated them after an eight-day battle near Qarshi, the Battle of Bukhara, perhaps in 557. The allies then fought each other and c. 571 drew a border along the Oxus. After the battle, the Hephthalites withdrew to Bactria and replaced king Gatfar with Faghanish, the ruler of Chaghaniyan. What happened in the Tarim Basin is not clear.
Circa 600, the Hephthalites were raiding the Sasanian Empire as far as Spahan in central Iran. The Hephthalites issued numerous coins imitating the coinage of Khosrow II, adding on the obverse a Hephthalite signature in Sogdian and Tamgha symbol. In ca. 606/607, Khosrow recalled Smbat IV Bagratuni from Persian Armenia and sent him to Iran to repel the Hephthalites. Smbat, with the aid of a Persian prince named Datoyean, repelled the Hephthalites from Persia, and plundered their domains in eastern Khorasan, where Smbat is said to have killed their king in single combat. Khosrow then gave Smbat the honorific title Khosrow Shun ("the Joy or Satisfaction of Khosrow"), while his son Varaztirots II Bagratuni received the honorific name Javitean Khosrow ("Eternal Khosrow").
Small Hephthalite states remained, paying tribute either to the Turks or the Persians. They are reported in the Zarafshan valley, Chaghaniyan, Khuttal, Termez, Balkh, Badghis, Herat and Kabul. Circa 651, during the Arab conquest, the ruler of Badghis was involved in the fall of the last Sassanian Shah Yazdegerd III. Circa 705, the Hephthalite rulers of Badghis and Chaghaniyan surrendered to the Arabs under Qutaiba ibn Muslim.
They were said to practice polyandry and artificial cranial deformation. Chinese sources said they worshiped 'foreign gods', 'demons', the 'heaven god' or the 'fire god'. The Gokturks told the Byzantines that they had walled cities. Some Chinese sources said that they had no cities and lived in tents. Litvinsky tries to resolve this by saying that they were nomads who moved into the cities they had conquered. There were some government officials but central control was weak and local dynasties paid tribute.
According to Song Yun, the Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the Hephthalite territory in 540 and "provides accurate accounts of the people, their clothing, the empresses and court procedures and traditions of the people and he states the Hephthalites did not recognize the Buddhist religion and they preached pseudo gods, and killed animals for their meat." It is reported that some Hephthalites often destroyed Buddhist monasteries but these were rebuilt by others. According to Xuanzang, the third Chinese pilgrim who visited the same areas as Song Yun about 100 years later, the capital of Chaghaniyan had five monasteries.
According to historian André Wink, "...in the Hephthalite dominion Buddhism was predominant but there was also a religious sediment of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism."Balkh had some 100 Buddhist monasteries and 30,000 monks. Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar.
It is not clear whether the people called Hunas, or Sveta Huna (White Huns) in Sanskrit were the Hephthalites or a related people, the Xionites. In the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, the Hephthalites were not distinguished from their immediate Chionite predecessors; both are known as Huna (Sanskrit: Sveta-H?na, White Huns). In Ancient India, names such as Hephthalite were unknown. The Hephthalites were apparently part of, or offshoots of, people known in India as Hunas or Turushkas.
Historians such as Beckwith, referring to Étienne de la Vaissière, say that the Hephthalites were not necessarily one and the same as the Hunas (Sveta Huna). According to de la Vaissiere, the Hephthalites are not directly identified in classical sources alongside that of the Hunas.
The Huna had already established themselves in Afghanistan and the modern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan by the first half of the 5th century, and the Gupta emperor Skandagupta had repelled a H?na invasion in 455 before the Hephthalite clan came along. These attacks on the Guptas were therefore probably made by the predecessors of the Hephthalites, the Kidarites.
India was invaded during the 5th century by a people known in the Indian Subcontinent as the Hunas - including the Alchon Huns and possibly an alliance broader than the Hephthalites and/or Xionites. The Hunas were initially defeated by Emperor Skandagupta of the Gupta Empire. By the end of the 5th century, however, the Hunas had overrun the part of the Gupta Empire that was to their southeast and had conquered Central and North India. Gupta Emperor Bhanugupta defeated the Hunas under Toramana in 510. The Hunas were driven out of India by the kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta, during the early 6th century.
The Hephthalites had their capital at Badian, modern Kunduz, but the emperor lived in the capital city for just three winter months, and for the rest of the year, the government seat would move from one locality to another like a camp. The Hephthalites continued the pressure on ancient India's northwest frontier and broke east by the end of the 5th century, hastening the disintegration of the Gupta Empire. They made their capital at the city of Sakala, modern Sialkot in Pakistan, under their Emperor Mihirakula. But later the Huns were defeated and driven out of India by the Indian kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta in the 6th century.
A number of groups in Afghanistan may have descended from the Hephthalites.
The Pashtuns began as a union of largely East-Iranian tribes which became the initial ethnic stratum of the Pashtun ethnogenesis, dates from the middle of the first millennium CE and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite (White Huns) confederacy. ... Of the contribution of the Epthalites (White Huns) to the ethnogenesis of the Pashtuns we find evidence in the ethnonym of the largest of the Pashtun tribe unions, the Abdali (Durrani after 1747) associated with the ethnic name of the Epthalites -- Abdal. The Siah-posh, the Kafirs (Nuristanis) of the Hindu Kush, called all Pashtuns by a general name of Abdal still at the beginning of the 19th century.
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"The relative abundance of data norwithstanding, we have but a very fragmentary picture of Hephthalite civilization.There is no consensus con- cerning the Hephthalite language, though most scholars seem to think that it was Iranian.The Pei shih at least clearly states that the language of the Hephthalites differs from those of the High Chariots, of the Juan-juan and of the "various Hu a rather vague term which, in this context, probably refers to some Iranian peoples... According to the Liang shu the Hephthalites worshiped Heaven and also fire a clear reference to Zoroastrianism."
"Concerning the Hephthalites, Enoki Kazuo stresses that their place of origin was to the north of the Hindu Kush mountain range and that they were of Iranian stock he rejects the view that they were of Altaic origin, with Turkish connections."
"One cannot go into details here about that dark period of Central Asian history from the time of the Kushans down the coming of the Arabs, but one may suggest that the beginning of this period saw the last waves of Iranian-speaking nomads moving to the south, to be replaced by the Turkic-speaking nomads beginning in the late fourth century.... but our information about them, known in Classical and Islamic sources as the Chionites and Hephthalites, is so meager that much confusion has reigned regarding their origins and nature.Just as later nomadic empires were confederations of many peoples, we may tentatively propose that the ruling groups of these were, or at least included, Turkic-speaking tribesmen from the east and north, although most probably the bulk of the people in the confederation ofChionites and then Hephthalites spoke an Iranian language.In this case, as normal, the nomads adopted the written language, institutions, and culture of the settled folk.To call them "Iranian Huns" as Gobl has done is not infelicitous, for surely the bulk of the population ruled by the Chionites and Hephthalites was lranian (Gobl 1967:ix). But this was the last time in the history ofCentral Asia that Iranian-speaking nomads played any role; hereafter all nomads would speak Turkic languages and the millennium-old division between settled Tajik and nomadic Turk would obtain."
Malgré tous les auteurs qui, depuis KLAPROTH jusqu' ALTHEIM in SuC, p113 sq et HAUSSIG, Die Geschichte Zentralasiens und der Seidenstrasse in vorislamischer Zeit, Darmstadt, 1983 (cf. n.7), ont vu dans les Huns Blancs des Turcs, l'explication de leurs noms par le turc ne s'impose jamais, est parfois impossible et n'est appuyée par aucun fait historique (aucune trace de la religion turque ancienne), celle par l'iranien est toujours possible, parfois évidente, surtout dans les noms longs comme Mihirakula, Toramana ou qui sont bien plus probants qu' - en ?. Or l'iranien des noms des Huns Blancs n'est pas du bactrien et n'est donc pas imputable à leur installation en Bactriane [...] Une telle accumulation de probabilités suffit à conclure que, jusqu'à preuve du contraire, les Hepthalites étaient des Iraniens orientaux, mais non des Sogdiens.; also available at http://www.azargoshnasp.net/history/Hephtalites/Hephtalites.htm