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Title: Hephthalites  
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Hephthalite Empire
Nomadic confederation






The Hephthalites (green), c. 500.
Capital Kunduz (Badian)
Balkh (Baktra)
Sialkot (Sakala)
Languages Official language:
Regional languages:
Gandhari (Gandhara),
Sogdian (Sogdiana),
Chorasmian, Tocharian, Turkic, Saka dialects
Liturgical language:
Religion Mostly Buddhism and Hinduism[1]
Political structure Nomadic confederation
 -  430/440 – ≈490 Khingila
 -  490/500 – 515 Toramana
 -  515–528 Mihirakula
Historical era Late antiquity
 -  Established 408
 -  Disestablished 670
Today part of  Afghanistan

The Hephthalites (or Ephthalites), also known as the White Huns, were a nomadic confederation in Central Asia during the late antiquity period. The Hephthalite Empire, at the height of its power (in the first half of the 6th century), was located in the territories of present-day Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India and China. The stronghold of the Hephthalite power was Tokharistan on the northern slopes of the Hindukush, present-day northeastern Afghanistan. By 479, the Hephthalites had conquered Sogdiana and driven the Kidarites westwards, and by 493 they had captured areas of present-day northwestern China (Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin). By the end of the 5th century, the Hephthalites overthrew the Indian Gupta Empire to their southeast and conquered northern and central India.[2] But later they were defeated and driven out of India by the Indian kings Yasodharman and Narasimhagupta in the 6th century.

In Chinese chronicles, the Hephthalites are called Yanda or Ye-ti-i-li-do, while older Chinese sources of c. 125 AD call them Hoa or Hoa-tun and describe them as a tribe living beyond the Great Wall in Dzungaria.[4] Elsewhere they were called the "White Huns", known to the Greeks as Ephthalite, Abdel or Avdel, to the Indians as Sveta Huna ("white Huns"), Chionite or Turushka,[5] to the Armenians as Haital, and to the Persians and Arabs as Haytal or Hayatila, while their Bactrian name is ηβοδαλο (Ebodalo).[2] According to most specialist scholars, the spoken language of the Hephthalites was an East Iranian language but different from the Bactrian language that was utilized as the "official language" and minted on coins.[6][7][8] They may be the eponymous ancestors of the modern Pashtun tribal union of the Abdali, the largest tribal union in Afghanistan.


Although the Hephtalite Empire was known in China as Yanda (嚈噠), Chinese chroniclers recognized this designated the leaders of the empire. The same sources document that the main tribe called themselves Uar (滑).[9] The modern Chinese variation Yanda has been given various Latinised renderings such as "Yeda", although the corresponding Cantonese and Korean pronunciation Yiptat and Yeoptal (엽달) is more compatible with the Greek Hephthalite.

According to B.A. Litvinsky, the names of the Hephtalite rulers used in the Shahnameh are Iranian.[10] According to Xavier Tremblay, one of the Hephthalite rulers was named "Khingila", which has the same root as the Sogdian word xnγr and the Wakhi word xiŋgār, meaning "sword". The name "Mihirakula" is thought to be derived from mithra-kula which is Iranian for "the Sun family", with kula having the same root as Pashto kul, "family". "Toramāna" is also considered to have an Iranian origin. Accordingly, 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.[11] Janos Harmatta gives the translation "Mithra's Begotten" and also supports the Iranian theory.[12]


There are several theories regarding the origins of the White Huns, with the Iranian[13][14][15] and Turkic[16][17] theories being the most prominent.

For many years, scholars suggested that they were of Turkic stock,[17] and it seems likely that at least some groups amongst the Hephthalites were Turkic-speakers.[16] 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.[6] Richard Frye is cautiously accepting of Enoki's hypothesis, while at the same time stressing that the Hephthalites "were probably a mixed horde".[18] 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.[7]

According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica and Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Hephthalites possibly originated in what is today eastern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.[19][20] They apparently had no direct connection with the European Huns, but may have been causally related with their movement. It is noteworthy that the tribes in question deliberately called themselves Huns in order to frighten their enemies.[21]

Some White Huns may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Chionites. According to Richard Nelson Frye:

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 Hephtalites 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.[22]


The 6th-century Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (Book I. ch. 3), related them to the Huns in Europe:

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.[23]

Scholars believe that the name Hun is used to denote very different nomadic confederations. Ancient Chinese chroniclers, as well as Procopius, wrote various theories about the origins of the people:

  • They were descendants of the Yuezhi or Tocharian tribes who remained behind after the rest of the people fled the Xiongnu;
  • They were descendants of the Kangju;
  • They were a branch of the Tiele; or
  • They were a branch of the Uar.

They were first mentioned by the Chinese, who described them as living in Dzungaria around AD 125. 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 (厌带夷栗陁, or more briefly Ye-tha 嚈噠),[24] after their royal family, which descended from one of the five Yuezhi families which also included the Kushan.

They displaced the Scythians and conquered Sogdiana and Khorasan before AD 425. After that, they crossed the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and invaded Persian lands. In Persia, they were initially held off by Bahram Gur but around AD 483–85, they succeeded in making Persia a tributary state by defeating the Sassanid forces at the Battle of Herat where they killed the Sassanid king, Peroz I.[25] After a series of wars in the period AD 503–513, they were driven out of Persia and completely defeated in AD 557 by Khosrau I. Their polity thereafter came under the Göktürks and subsequent Western Turkic Khaganate.

They also invaded the regions Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan, succeeding in extending their domain to the Punjab region.

The Hephthalites were a vassal Rouran Khaganate until the beginning of the 5th century.[26]

Procopius claims that the White Huns lived in a prosperous territory, and that they were the only Huns with fair complexions. According to him, they did not live as nomads, did acknowledge a single king, observed a well-regulated constitution, and behaved justly towards neighboring states. He also describes the burial of their nobles in tumuli, accompanied by their closest associates. This practice contrasts with evidence of cremation among the Chionites in Ammianus and with remains found by excavators of the European Huns and remains in some deposits ascribed to the Chionites in Central Asia. Scholars believe that the Hephthalites constituted a second "Hunnish" wave who entered Bactria early in the fifth century AD, and who seem to have driven the Kidarites into Gandhara.[20]

Newly discovered ancient writings found in Afghanistan reveal that the Middle Iranian Bactrian language written in Greek script was not brought there by the Hephthalites, but was already present from Kushan times as the traditional language of administration in this region. There is also evidence of the use of a Turkic language under the White Huns. The Bactrian documents also attest several Turkic royal titles (such as Khagan), indicating an important influence of Turkic people on White Huns, although these could also be explained by later Turkic infiltration south of the Oxus.[20]

According to Simokattes, they were Chionites who united under the Hephthalites as the "(Wusun) vultures descended on the people" around AD 460.


According to Song Yun, the Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the Hephthalite territory in 540 AD and "provides accurate accounts of the people, their clothing, the empresses and court procedures and traditions of the people and he states the Hepthalites did not recognize the Buddhist religion and they preached pseudo gods, and killed animals for their meat."[1] It is reported that some Hephtalites often destroyed Buddhist monasteries but 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.[27]

"Interestingly in the Hephthalite dominion Buddhism and Hinduism was predominant but there was also a religious sediment of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism."[3] Balkh had some 100 Buddhist monasteries and 30,000 monks. Outside the town was a large Buddhist monastery, later known as Naubahar.[27] Termez had 10 sangharamas (monasteries) and perhaps 1,000 monks.[27]

White Huns in Southern Central Asia

Main article: Hunas

In the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, the Hephtalites were not distinguished from their immediate Chionite predecessors and are known by the same name as Huna (Sanskrit: Sveta-Hūna, White Huns). The Huna had already established themselves in Afghanistan and the modern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan by the first half of the fifth century, and the Gupta emperor Skandagupta had repelled a Hūna invasion in 455 before the Hephthalite clan came along.

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.[2] The Hephthalites continued the pressure on ancient India's northwest frontier and broke east by the end of the fifth 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.


The last Hephthalite King, Yudhishthira, ruled until about 670, when he was replaced by the Kabul Shahi dynasty.[28]

Hephthalites are believed to be among the ancestors of modern-day Pashtuns and in particular of the Abdali Pashtun tribe.[29] According to the academic Yu. V. Gankovsky,

"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."[30]

The Hephthalites could also have been ancestors of the Abdal tribe which has assimilated into the Turkmens and Kazakhs.[2] In India, the Rajputs formed as a result of merging of the Hephthalites and the Gurjars with population from northwestern India,[31]

Contemporary literature

Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino makes reference to the "White Huns", portrayed as a fearsome warrior race.

Eric Flint's Belisarius series makes frequent reference to Ye Tai warriors.

See also


External links

  • Columbia Encyclopedia: Hephthalites
  • Hephthalite coins
  • Hephthalite History and Coins of the Kashmir Smast Kingdom- Waleed Ziad
  • The Hephthalites of Central Asia - by Richard Heli (long article with a timeline)
  • The Hephthalites Article archived from the University of Washington's Silk Road exhibition - has a slightly adapted form of the Richard Heli timeline.
  • (pdf) The Ethnonym Apar in the Turkish Inscriptions of the VIII. Century and Armenian Manuscripts - Mehmet Tezcan
  • [5] iranicaonline hephthalites
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