Sun May 27 13:37:12 MDT 2007

(It may also be helpful to view this map from Silk Road Foundation and this one from Silk Road Seattle.)

A Western student's first encounter with the mysterious Ephthalites, or Hephthalites, or White Huns of Central Asia, is probably via the writings of Procopius, that contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and fierce polemicist against his sovereign and the Empress Theodora. Procopius recorded the observations of an ambassador traveling east with Byzantium's sometime enemies, the Persians, who had chosen for a time, and from the Byzantine perspective very fortunately, to war against their eastern neighbors for a change, the Ephthalites: "The Ephthalites 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.... They are the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly." [Procopius]

Thus, even in their very first appearance, the question of the origins of this people comes into doubt. For if they are Huns, how is it that the appearance of these "White Huns" differs so markedly from that of the Huns proper? This question was not one which Procopius, so far from the Ephthalites, was in any position to determine. That modern researchers can do better is largely due to the survival of writings on the other end of the Central Asian wasteland, by those who were closer to the point of origin and encountered this group early in its history, that is, the Chinese.

To the Chinese, they were the Ye-ti-i-li-do or Yeda, even though the Chinese chroniclers seem to realize that the people called themselves the people of Hua (the similarity to Hun may help explain the origin of "White Hun") and that the Chinese terms came actually from the name of the Hua leader. Like Procopius, contemporary Chinese chroniclers had their own theories about Ephthalite origins. One thought that were related in some way to the Visha (Indo-Europeans known to the Chinese as the "Yueh Chih" (Yuezhi)), another, a branch of the Kao-ch`ê, a third, descendants of the general Pahua, a fourth descendants of Kang Chu and a fifth admits that he cannot make clear their origins at all. This should not discourage as it is not in the theories of such writers that we may find value, but rather in their factual observations which may lead to the answer.

Japanese researcher Kazuo Enoki takes on the theories of both the ancient and the modern writers, including the redoubtable Stein, knocking the legs out from one after another. Theories which are based on coincidence of name, e.g. Pahua and Hua, are unlikely in this part of the world which exhibits so many languages and so much linguistic adaptation and orthographic variation, he points out, and should not be upheld if other sorts of evidence do not support the reasoning. Stein's contention that the Ephthalites were of the Hunnish tribe and therefore of Turkish origin is dismissed largely on this basis. On the other hand, J. Marquart finds similarities between the terms for the Ephthalites in India and words in the Mongolian language, but this theory requires so many leaps between tongues that it remains quite unconvincing. Finally, there is a whole school of researchers attempting to prove this tribe a Turkish, albeit non-Hun, one. These too must rely only on flimsy name evidence. Instead, Enoki makes a convincing case that the Ephthalites are actually an Iranian group. His theory, it must be admitted, does not explain all, but there seems little against it. More importantly, it relies first on data which is generally agreed upon, namely, ancient observations of Ephthalite geographical movements and culture.

For Enoki, Ephthalite origins may be determined by considering where they were not, as well as by where their conquests drove their enemies. They were not previously north of the Tien Shan, thus they did not stem from that region. They drove the Kidarites out of Balkh to the west, thus they came originally from the east. By such reasoning, the Ephthalites are thought to have originated at Hsi-mo-ta-lo (southwest of Badakhshan and near the Hindu Kush), which tantalizingly, stands for Himtala, "snow plain", which may be the Sanskritized form of Hephthal.

Turning to the elements of Ephthalite culture, Enoki notes that Procopius' comments on their appearance while not decisive, are in favor of an Iranian theory. Similarly, the seventh century travels of Hsuan Chwang show that he found no physical difference between the descendants of the Ephthalites and their known Iranian neighbors. As for their language, commentators made clear that it was neither Turkish nor Mongol, which also seems to support an Iranian origin.

Iranian customs also are common in the Ephthalite world. For example, the practice of several husbands to one wife, or polyandry, was always the rule, which is agreed on by all commentators. That this was plain was evidenced by the custom among the women of wearing a hat containing a number of horns, one for each of the subsequent husbands, all of whom were also brothers to the husband. Indeed, if a husband had no natural brothers, he would adopt another man to be his brother so that he would be allowed to marry. Conjugal rights were traded off and children were assigned in turn with the oldest husband receiving the first and so on. Tellingly, polyandry has never been associated with any Hun tribe, but is known of several Central Asian ones, including the Aryans in India, other Indo-Europeans and probably in prehistoric Iran.

In their religious beliefs, the Ephthalites are said to have worshipped fire and sun gods. While either one is not unusual in any early culture around the world, both together is likely to indicate a Persian origin. In Persia, such beliefs were later to culminate in Zoroastrianism.

As part of their religious observance, the Ephthalites did not cremate, but as is reported by all commentators including Procopius, always buried their dead, either by constructing a tomb or under the ground. This is not consistent with the Zoroastrian practice of leaving the body in the open, but is clearly at odds with Turkish nomadic groups. The practice of inhumation then may simply indicate an Iranian group which had been sundered from the main branch at an early date and had adopted local Central Asian burial customs.

The rocketlike political career of the Ephthalites may be traced in Appendix A. It may be seen that its enormous rapid successes came not only out of ferocity in battle, but also from shrewd diplomacy. Like the Arabs, the Vikings and others in the parade of history, they seem to appear virtually out of nowhere and amass for themselves a huge area. Of their language, only four words are known including "Ephthalite" itself, and these dubious. Their coins are putative at best, their arts, wholly unknown.

Despite their apparent talents for war and diplomacy, however, they appear to have been harsh rulers disliked by rebellious subjects and thus their legacy is brief. Persian Emperor Chosroes, faced with the choice of war against the Turks or conquest of the Ephthalites, hardly needed a moment to opt for the latter -- ironic if the Ephthalites truly had an Iranian origin. But such nationalistic ideas were not the rule in those times. Not much has been written about their dramatic story since 1966, but Enoki hints that from the translation and study of possible Ephthalite documents unearthed at Lou Lan, we may someday learn more about this mysterious and fascinating people. Let us hope it will be so.

Appendix A: Approximate Timeline. [Enoki, McGovern]
420-427Ephthalites raid Persia as far west as modern Tehran.
427 Ephthalites suffer overwhelming defeat in Persia.
437 Chinese embassy to Tokharistan (area around Balkh) and Gandhara finds no sign of Ephthalites.
454 Ephthalites revenge earlier loss to Sassanid Persians.
456 Ephthalites send their first embassy to the Chinese.
457 Firuz (Peroz), former king of Persia, requests Ephthalite assistance.
459Firuz regains Persian throne with help of Ephthalite armies.
464-475Wars between the former allies resolved with Persian tribute in 475.
465-470Ephthalites conquer Gandhara, set up a Tegin (a viceroy).
470-480War between Tegin of Gandhara and Gupta Empire of India.
473-479Ephthalites conquer Sogdiana, driving the Kidarites westwards. Next conquering Khotan and Kashgar (in the Tarim Basin).
480-500Gupta empire collapses. Tegin is overlord of North & Central India.
484Firuz initiates new war against the Ephthalites which fails miserably.
486Firuz' heir Kubad takes refuge with Ephthalites following a coup.
488Kubad regains the throne with Ephthalite assistance.
493-508Ephthalites extend power as far as Zungaria, then Turfan and Karashar (in modern China).
497Kubad deposed and escapes to a second refuge with the Ephthalites.
500Ephthalites place Kubad on Sassanid throne a second time (dies 531).
503-513Kubad makes war on the Ephthalites. Peace in 513 lasts.
522 Apex of Ephthalite power. Chief of the Juan-Juan nomads flees to the Ephthalites for protection. Ephthalites dominate north and south of the Tien Shan range. Control as far as Tieh-lo in the south, Ci`ih-le^ (Kao-ch`e^) in the north, at least to Khotan in the east probably more, and up to Persia in the west. A separate Ephthalite Empire controls much of India. Forty countries (including Sassanid Persia) are in tribute. Ephthalite centers are at Ghur, Balkh, Warwaliz (north of today's Kunduz near the source of the Oxus) and Hsi-mo-ta-lo. The entire empire probably comprises fifty to sixty thousand individuals.
531Chosroes succeeds his father Kubad in Persia.
532Revolts in India; Ephthalites lose most of East & Central India.
532-542Fleeing ruler conquers the Kashmir for a short reign.
552Turks overthrow Avars and begin petty conflicts with Ephthalites.
c. 565 Turks and Chosroes (Khusrau) of Persia ally to capture and divide Ephthalite empire.
c. 570 Ephthalite rule overthrown in India.

Richard Heli
February 19, 1996

On May 24, 2007 I was privileged to attend a talk by Professor Paul Harrison of Stanford University who is involved in the study of ancient manuscripts of Afghanistan. He discussed a copper scroll which has just recently been translated and has only been published within the past month. This scroll, dated 492-493 AD is from the Hephthalite period, reveals that they were patrons of Buddhism and that their names were Iranian. The scroll mentions about a dozen names, including that of their king. So it appears that the long mystery has at last been solved and the Iranian origins of the Hephthalites has been confirmed, much as Enoki thought.

To learn more, look for volume III of Buddhist Manuscripts by Jens Braarvig, Paul Harrison, Jens-Uwe Hartmann, et. al. At present this item is not yet in, but here is a link to Buddhist Manuscripts, volume II. For more background on these scripts, consult this Wikipedia article.

Appendix B: Bibliography.

Also ...

Richard Heli