Chionites in Ancient Balkh and Their Activities

  January 23, 2024   Read time 6 min
Chionites in Ancient Balkh and Their Activities
Whereas the earlier Sasanian Kushanshahs had minted at Balkh (written Bax/o on the coins), as well as at an unnamed mint that was probably in the Kabul valley, it appears that Varahran II Kushanshah, the contemporary of the Chionites, issued few coins at Balkh. The conclusion is that the Chionites, pressing down from the north, had already overrun.

Shortly after A.D. 360, when the reign of Varahran II Kushanshah came to an end, the next ruler to issue coins of Kushano-Sasanian fabric was the enigmatic figure of Kidara. This personage was no doubt a Hun, to judge by the phrase " Kidarite Huns " used by the historian Priscus in a later context. Probably Kidara was a successor of Grumbates as ruler over the Chionites, who because of his leadership would have come to be known by his name. According to the Chinese sources followed by McGovern, a new wave of Hunnish invaders known as the Hephthalites fell upon Bactria towards the end of the 4th century, and drove the Kidarites into Gandhara. However, according to the thesis of Ghirshman, Chionites, Kidarites and Hephthalites were merely different names used at various periods for the same tribal group. The Chionites may indeed have been substantially identical with the later Kidarites, but there is support for the view that the Hephthalites were distinct in the passage of Procopius (Wars, 1. 3) which describes the customs of the Hephthalites. Procopius claims that though Huns by name and race, the Hephthalites did not live as nomads; that they were of fair complexion and regular features; and that they practised inhumation of their dead, up to twenty of his boon companions being buried with each of their chiefs. In respect of their funeral rites, therefore, the customs of the Hephthalites contrast with those of the Chionites, and suggest that these two groups were wholly distinct.

As to the language of the eastern Huns, just as in the case of the European Huns, no specimen survives, and scholars have disagreed in their theories as to the linguistic and racial background of this people. Ghirshman and Enoki,1 on the basis of certain coin legends in cursive Greek script, maintained the hypothesis that the language of the Hephthalites was an Iranian dialect. However, this view seems to have been overtaken by the discovery of the inscriptions of Surkh Kotal (see above, p. 199), which show that the Iranian language in question was in fact the local dialect of Bactria, and not the language of the Huns themselves. The view of Minorsky, that the language of the Hephthalites was a Turkish dialect, therefore holds the field at present.2 The case in its favour is much strengthened by the suggestion of Bosworth,3 that the personage called in Islamic texts "Subkarl" (a prominent Khaljl Mamluk of the Saffarid Ya'qub), in fact bore the Turkish name of Sebiik-eri "beloved man", formed similarly to that of the later Ghaznavid prince Sebiiktigin "beloved prince". The name "Subkari" also appears on coins of Fars, where he gained control during fighting following the decline of the Saffarids, on dirhams of the Hijri years 296-8.4 The only specimen so far reproduced is, however, one of the 'Uman mint in a Baghdad collection,5 where the editor is, possibly mistaken in reading the poorly preserved date as A.H. 308 (rather than 298), since it is known from the Tdrikh-i Sistdn passage that this dangerous freelance was imprisoned by the caliph al-Muqtadir in Jumada II 299/23 March-21 April 912, and is unlikely to have been restored to liberty.

Whether any linguistic difference existed between the Chionites, Kidarites and Hephthalites is quite uncertain, but Bailey has shown that their Persian and Indian neighbours distinguished between different groups as the Red Huns and White Huns respectively During the 5 th century A.D. the Hephthalites became an important power in the territories of eastern Iran. It was to them that the Sasanian prince Peroz applied for assistance to recover the throne of Iran from his brother Hormizd III in A.D. 457. With the help of his Hephthalite auxiliaries he was successful, but later he went to war with his erstwhile allies, and was captured and defeated by their king, called Akhshunwar by Tabari, or Khushnavaz by Firdausl. On this occasion Peroz obtained his release by leaving his son Kavad as a hostage; but later, after ransoming Kavad he returned to the attack, and charged his cavalry into a hidden ditch, to perish with all his men.

During the 5th and early 6th centuries A.D. Indian sources record a series of incursions into the Punjab and western India by a people known as the Hunas. These were evidently a branch of the eastern Huns, though the nature of their connection with the Hephthalites of Bactria is not entirely clear. Their coin legends often give the rulers of these Indian Huns the title "king of Zabul", Zabul being apparently the name of a tribal grouping which was preserved in the toponymy of the Muslim period by the name of the district of Zabulistan, near Ghazna. In A.D. 458 the Gupta emperor of India, Skandagupta, had to resist an invasion of India by the Huns. However, after his death the Gupta empire disintegrated, and in A.D. 510 the Huna chief Toramana established his rule over much of western India. His son and successor was the notorious Mihirakula, who ruled most of the Punjab in about A.D. 525, and when later repulsed from the Indian plains, continued to maintain himself in Kashmir. Mihirakula was succeeded by other Huna kings, among whom were Khingila Narendraditya and Lakhana Udayaditya, besides a certain Purvaditya whose personal name is unknown. These reigns fell in the second half of the 6th century A.D., but though a recently discovered inscription now at Kabul1 confirms that Khingila reigned for at least eight years, their exact dates are not recorded. The capitals of these later Zabulite kings are likely to have been in the territory of modern Afghanistan, perhaps either at Kabul, Ghazna or Gardiz.

Meanwhile the Sasanian emperor Khusrau I Anushirvan (A.D. 5 31-79) had resolved to end the menace to Iran of the Hephthalites and their incursions. He built lines of fortification on the Gurgan plain; one was the wall known today as Sadd-i Iskandar "Alexander's barrier", on the steppe north of Bandar-i Shah and Gunbad-i Qabus; the second runs from the mountains to the sea near Bandar-i Gaz, and covers the eastward approach to Mazandaran. At the same time a branch of the Turkish nation had arrived on the Jaxartes steppes from their original home in Mongolia. Khusrau made an alliance with the Turkish Khan - called in the western sources Sinjibu or Silzibul - to crush the Hephthalites. Soon after A.D. 557 a fierce battle was fought between the confederates and the Hephthalites, the latter being totally defeated and dispersed. The lands of the Hephthalites were partitioned along the line of the Oxus, those to the north passing to the Turks, while those to the south of the river were retained by the Sasanians.

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