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The Hephthalites were a tribal association with an unclear, possibly predominantly Indo-European origin, which founded an empire in Central Asia around the middle of the 5th century , which existed until around 560. As an alternative designations are from the Chinese " yedA ", from the Middle Persian "Heftal" and from the Arab " Haital " (other name forms: Hayātela or Hayātila ) are known. In late ancient Greek sources there is mostly mention of Ephthalitai , more rarely Hephthalitai .

Hephthalite Empire, around 500 AD

An alternative name for the people, especially in Greek sources, is the white Huns , although, according to modern research, they were not directly related to the European " Huns " advancing westward around 375 . The Romans (or Eastern Romans / Byzantines ) nevertheless called them "Huns", for example the Eastern Roman historian Prokopios of Caesarea , although this term probably did not serve as an ethnic definition. It is unclear whether the Hephthalites saw themselves as Huns. The Indians also used the term (Sveta) Hunas , although it is not certain here whether the Hephthalites or (which is often considered more likely) another group, the so-called Alchon , is meant . Modern research also distinguishes between the European and the so-called Iranian Huns ; the term Iranian Huns goes back to the numismatic research of Robert Göbl .


The common name Hephthaliten comes from the Pers. Hayatheliten or Heftal . It is possible that the name indicates a dynasty whose "state people" were recruited from Central Asian (Huns?) And Indo-European tribal groups ( Chionites , Varhunni , Tocharians , Sogdians, etc.) and therefore included nomadic and sedentary elements. The Chinese designation of the Hephthalites ( 嚈 噠  /  嚈 哒 , Yèdá or Yàndá , Middle Chinese pronunciation about [ʔjɛpdɑt] or [ʔjɛmdɑt]) comes very close to the Greek term Ephthalitai in the (archaic) Korean Yeoptal (엽달) .

Coin of the late Hephthalite king Napki Malka


The ethnic and linguistic origin of the Hephthalites has not been adequately researched. The current doctrinal opinion assumes that the Hephthalites were at least in their decisive parts quite closely related to the Tocharians and / or Iranians . But they can also be attributed a share of Turkic Congolian and Hunnic influences, for example from the Altai region and Central Asia. What is certain is that a strong Iranian element is recognizable among the Hephthalites, which the administrative language used ( Bactrian language ), title (also of Bactrian origin) and traditional names make clear.

A distinction must be made between the Huns , who broke into Eastern Europe around 375, and the "Hunnic tribes" in late ancient Central Asia , who operated on the northeast border of the Sassanid Empire (see Iranian Huns ), especially since both groups were probably not related. The name Huns (in the various forms of name in Latin, Greek and Middle Persian) is often used more generally in the various sources : It probably served as a "prestige and transference name" that could designate different groups, so that Huns did not have an exact ethnic designation depicted.

The late ancient Greek historian Prokopios of Caesarea mentions the Hephthalites around 550 AD as a sub-tribe of the Huns. At the same time, he notices that they are very different from the rest of the Huns. According to him, like the Persians and Bactrians, they had an "oriental" appearance. They probably also had distinctly different traditions and ways of life than the "European" Hun tribes (more familiar to late antique historians). Accordingly, they lived in a rich area where the nomadic Huns did not live, and were not nomads themselves, but owned cities. They had a king and maintained good contacts with their neighboring states. According to Prokopios, they also had a well-regulated legal system and were very well organized, much like the Persians and Romans. Prokopios then also describes how they buried their respected dead (together with their followers) in tumuli.

Hephthalites are assigned to the predominantly Indo-European Yüe-chi by the Chinese chronicles (in the course of the frequent change of legation with the Northern Wei ) . The Chinese originally called the Hephtalites Hua , Hoa and Hoa-tun . It is possible that all of the tribes later adopted the name of the leading tribe, Ye-tha-i-li-to. There are many indications that the Hephthalites (very similar to many other groups of the Great Migration Period ) emerged in the course of ethnogenesis from members of very different peoples, to which Hunnic as well as Turkish, Mongolian and Indo-European elements may have belonged. However, concrete statements are hardly possible.

According to Richard Nelson Frye, some groups of the Hephthalites may have been prominent tribes of the Chionites . So he writes:

“Just like the later nomadic invaders and empires, founded on the basis of a confederation of different peoples / tribes, one can tentatively suggest that among the leading groups of these invaders were also Turkish tribes or at least Turkish-speaking tribes from the East and the North came although the majority of the tribes may have belonged to the Chionite Confederation and later the Hephthalites, who had an Iranian language; and that was the last time in Central Asian history that Iranian-speaking nomads played a role. According to them, all nomads belonged to the Turkish language community or only spoke Turkish. "



The Hephthalites emerged as a new wave of invasions in the north-eastern Iranian border area in the second half of the 5th century. It was partly assumed that the Persian king Bahram V (421–438 AD) had already fought and triumphed against them, so that the time around 425 was often assumed for the first appearance of the Hephthalites. However, an exact identification of the invaders defeated by Bahram is very problematic, as the few sources do not provide any concrete statements and the chronology of the events is difficult to reconstruct. But it is more likely that Bahram V still fought against the Chionites or the Kidarites . It is very likely that the Hephthalites did not appear until later, around the middle of the 5th century, as Peroz I still fought against the Kidarites in the 460s and probably only in the 470s against the Hephthalites. Kidarites and Hephthalites belong together with the Alchon and the Nezak to the group of the so-called " Iranian Huns " (since the research of the numismatist Robert Göbl ) . However, Göbl's (purely numismatic) categorization can be modified, since he left out the written sources and, for example, the Chionites mentioned above do not appear in him.

In any case, the Hephthalites waged war against the Sassanid Empire several times , with the aforementioned Sassanid king Peroz I being killed by them in 484, which was strongly echoed in the written sources. The city of Gorgo is said to have been a center of their empire ; According to other sources, however, Gorgon belonged to the Persian Empire. Some time later, the interference in the Sassanid throne disputes followed (498/99), whereby the Sassanid king Kavadh I came back to the throne with their help. At this time the Sassanid Empire was even subject to tribute and the Hephthalites represented a permanent threat to the north-eastern border of Persia. This danger lasted until the reign of Chosraus I (r. 531-579), when the Hephthalites were defeated (see below) . This eternal war between Persia and the Hephthalites forms the important background story of the Persian book of kings " Shāhnāme ", the life's work of the poet Ferdousi .

The "Huna (s)" in India

After the Kidarites were annihilated, some groups of the Iranian Huns moved to India in the early 6th century . However, it is unclear to what extent the Hephthalites in Transoxania are connected to those who undertook the invasion of northern India, especially since the Indian sources do not strictly differentiate between the Hephthalites and other groups; both were simply referred to as Huna (s) .

In the more recent research it is assumed that the "actual Hephthalites" mentioned in Prokopios are not to be equated with the groups advancing into India. These “Hunnish” attackers ( Hunas ) were more likely to be the so-called Alchon group, the second wave of Iranian Huns. They originally ruled in what is now Kabul and shifted their domain to India at the beginning of the 6th century.

These Hunas (the Alchon group) attacked the Gupta Empire in northern India as early as the 5th century , but were initially repulsed by Kumaragupta I. Under Toramana, however, the Hunas were victorious at Eran (Madhya Pradesh) in 510: The Gupta aspirant to the throne, Bhanugupta (r. Approx. 503-530) was defeated, and his general Goparaja was killed in battle. The Indian, Chinese and some Western sources (such as Kosmas Indicopleustes ) offer a consistent description of cruelty and oppression. Bhanugupta withdrew to Bengal.

After Toramana's unexpected death in Benares , he was followed around 515 by his son Mihirakula , who ruled an empire between Persia , Khotan in Central Asia and probably part of the Ganges plain with the capital Sakala ( Sialkot ). It was not until 528 that Mihirakula suffered a defeat against the Indian prince Yashodharman of Malwa and was allegedly briefly imprisoned by the Gupta. After these setbacks, he had to retreat to Kashmir , where he engaged in elephant hunting and Buddhist persecution and died a few years later. The last Indian "Hun ruler" seems to have died before 600.

The fall of the Hephthalites

The Hephthalite Empire in Transoxania was destroyed between 557 and 561 by an alliance between Gök Turks (under Sizabulos / Istämi († 576)) and Sassanids (under Chosrau I ). The decisive battle at Bukhara (560 or 563; the earlier dating suggests that Persian envoys to Emperor Justinian I already boasted in 561 that the Hephthalite Empire had been destroyed) is said to have lasted eight days. Remnants of the Hephthalites remained in the north Indian border area for several decades (cf. Harsha ) and were probably gradually absorbed by the East Iranian and Indian folk classes. It must be mentioned here, however, that the Turkish-born Hephtalites, unlike their Iranian brothers, were still patriarchal nomads and served the king of the empire as mercenaries. This gave them a certain independence. As mercenaries and vassals of the king, they were primarily used against the Sassanid Empire. These tribes were defeated in the decisive battle. Many survivors and their tribes fled via the Hindu Kush to today's Pakistan, where they are mentioned by Vihara Mira in the 7th century and added to a larger group of nomads into which they were probably accepted. With the defeat of the Hephtalites an aggressive danger was averted. For the Persians, however, the smashing of the Hephthalite Empire did not bring the hoped-for relief on the northeast border, as the Turks soon took their place.

In the area of ​​today's Afghanistan , in the Kabul valley eastwards to Peshawar, remnants of the Hephthalite rule persisted. They were probably allies of the Indian Hephtalites, who had founded their own empire from Peshawar, Kashmir to north-west India and supported Kabulistan, because in the Kabul Valley the Kuschano-Hephthalites continued to oppose the Muslim Arabs , who lived around the middle of the 7th century had smashed the Sassanid Empire (see Islamic Expansion ). They experienced a final defeat when the local dynasty of the Persian Saffarids conquered Kabul and Islamized the population. The royal family fled to Kashmir, where they found shelter with the Raja of the local Hephtalite dynasty.

People and way of life

According to Prokopios of Caesarea (6th century), the Hephthalites differed significantly from the “European Huns ” in their way of life, appearance and customs, as mentioned , but he nevertheless saw them as “Huns”. So they buried z. B. their dead, which their predecessors did not. They are said to have had a lighter skin than the other Huns and apparently did not live nomadically - at least part of the population lived in permanent settlements. In addition, their empire was apparently a monarchy. According to Chinese travel reports from the 6th century , there were no external differences (in terms of physical appearance) between Hephthalites and their Indo-European neighbors.

In recent research it is therefore often assumed that the Hephthalites only adorned themselves with the prestigious name of the Huns, without, however, having a concrete relationship with other Hunnic groups. The “Hun name” should not be understood as an exclusively ethnic designation, because recent research has shown that names could “wander” without the groups so designated being related.

In a religious sense, the Chinese Liang-shu mentions the worship of heaven and fire (probably Zoroastrianism ). According to the pilgrim monks Sung-Yün and Hui Sheng (around 520), the Hephthalites were not Buddhists , but archaeological evidence suggests the existence of followers of this religion as well. Both Prokopios and the Chinese Chronicle Zhou Shu (Linghu Defen, 636 AD) claim that the Hephthalites practiced polyandry . This claim is confirmed in the recently discovered scrolls of Bactria , which were examined by the Iranist and Bactria expert Nicholas Sims-Williams , and could possibly be evidence of their (predominantly) Indo-European origin, as polyandry was widespread in Iranian areas.

According to the Encyclopaedia of Islam , the Hephthalites may have originated from a “strong Eastern Iranian element”, but it is also conceivable that they merely assimilated the dominant civilization of the region - the late ancient Persian - similar to how the European Huns were oriented towards Rome and often spoke Latin and Greek.

Language and writing

From the language of the Hephthalites only a few terms, mainly titles of nobility and names of rulers, have survived, which make their reconstruction impossible at the present time.


Not much is known about the language of the Hephtalites. There are two main hypotheses: an " Indo-European hypothesis" and an " Altaic hypothesis". It should be noted that these two theses are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that the said languages ​​could have coexisted in a heterogeneous, semi-nomadic tribal confederation, which was not atypical for the Central Asian peoples of that time. It should also be noted that the language of the ruling class (only weak sources exist for these) need not necessarily be identical to the vernacular .

The Chinese chronicler Pei-shih narrates that the Hephtalites were linguistically neither Shou-shan nor Huns. The Chinese monk Xuanzang is even more precise in this regard and describes that the Hephthalites spoke neither “ Turkish ” nor a “related language” (possibly Mongolian ?) - but this statement is most likely only related to sedentary Hephtalites. At least one can assume that their language could be clearly distinguished from the Altaic languages.

It is therefore more probable that the Hephthalites - or at least a significant proportion of them - spoke an Indo-European language, either from the Tocharian or from the Eastern Iranian language group . The documents found in Bactria also seem to confirm such a thesis, but refute the old theory that the Hephthalites spoke the Eastern Iranian Bactrian . According to Nicholas Sims-Williams , who examined the Bactrian scrolls, Bactrian was traditionally the administrative language of the Hephthalite Empire, but not that of the Hephthalites themselves. At least the dominant role of ancient Iranian culture and way of life is confirmed by excavated finds and texts.

Interestingly, there is also poor evidence of the use of Turkish dialects (or languages ​​related to them). At least the use of some titles of nobility (e.g. “Khagan”) is certain, but this could only have found its way into the Bactrian documents after the influx of Turkish nomads into the Hephthalite area. In addition, titles of nobility are not necessarily evidence of a spoken language. Should the “Turkish hypothesis” prove to be true, the Chalaji , which is still spoken today and which broke away from the other Turkic languages ​​very early, could be a direct descendant of this language. A possible relationship to the former possibly Turkic-speaking, so-called Child skiing (Central Asian invaders who once in Khorasan invaded and later even a dynasty founded in India) has been of al-Biruni analyzed. A relationship to the current Ghilzai Pashtuns (also pronounced Childschi in some dialects ; historically possibly related to the above-mentioned Childschi ) is also discussed. Whether there is actually a relationship between these tribes and languages ​​is not certain and also hardly verifiable.

In the following explanations, it is important to note that the rulers named here (Khingila, Toramana and Mihirakula) are regarded as alchons and not as hephthalites in the narrower sense on the basis of recent numismatic research . In any case, the few words and names that have survived are interpreted and classified very differently in research. For example, while ADH Bivar derives the name “ Mihirakula ” from the Sanskritized Turkish word mihr-qul (“ Mithras slave ”), according to Boris A. Litvinsky, the names of the Hephtalite rulers are demonstrably Iranian. Xavier Tremblay takes up the latter thesis and derives the etymology of the ruler's name "Khingila" from the Sogdic word xnγr or the Sakian word xiŋgār ("sword"). He derives the name “ Toramana ” from the Iranian tarua-manah and “Mihirakula” from the Iranian miθra-kula . The latter would mean "worshiping Mithras" or "follower of Mithras". The Hungarian linguist Janos Harmatta also confirms this thesis. In doing so, they support the theory put forward by the Japanese linguist Kazuo Enoki in 1959 that the Hephthalites were an Indo-European (Eastern Iranian) group.


According to the pilgrim monks Songyun and Hui Sheng, the Hephtalites had no script, according to the Liang-shu no letters. The inscriptions on the coins in Greek italics are therefore more likely to be classified as administrative or propaganda measures, something that was also used by the Kushan .


  • Michael Alram et al. a. (Ed.): The face of the stranger. The coinage of the Huns and Western Turks in Central Asia and India. Publishing house of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 2016.
  • Franz Altheim : The Hephthalites in Iran . de Gruyter, Berlin 1960 ( History of the Huns 2) [largely out of date].
  • ADH Bivar: HEPHTHALITES . In: Ehsan Yarshater (ed.): Encyclopædia Iranica . Volume 12 (2), para. 2036, as of December 15, 2003, accessed on June 9, 2011 (English, including references)
  • Robert L. Canfield (Ed.): Turko-Persia in historical perspective . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1991. ISBN 0-521-39094-X ( School of American Research advanced seminar series. A School of American Research book ).
  • David Christian: A History of Russia, Inner Asia and Mongolia . Blackwell, Oxford 1998 - running, ISBN 978-0-631-20814-3 ( The Blackwell history of the world ).
  • Kazuo Enoki: On the Nationality of the Ephthalites . In: Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tokyo Bunko , 1959, 18, ISSN  0082-562X , pp. 1-59 text here .
  • Kazuo Enoki: The Liang shih-kung-t'u on the origin and migration of the Hua or Ephthalites . In: Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia 7, 1970, H 1-2, ISSN  0030-5340 , pp 37-45.
  • Robert Göbl : Documents on the history of the Iranian Huns in Bactria and India . 4 volumes. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1967.
  • Frantz Grenet: Regional interaction in Central Asia and Northwest India in the Kidarite and Hephthalite periods . In: Nicholas Sims-Williams (Ed.), Indo-Iranian Languages ​​and Peoples . Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002, ISBN 0-19-726285-6 , ( Proceedings of the British Academy 116), ISSN  0068-1202 , pp. 203-224.
  • Aydogdy Kurbanov: The Archeology and History of the Hephthalites . Habelt, Bonn 2013 (as dissertation: The Hephthalites: archaeological and historical analysis. Freie Universität Berlin 2010)
  • Boris A. Litvinsky: The Hephthalite Empire . In: Boris A. Litvinsky (Ed.): The crossroads of civilizations. AD 250 to 750 . Unesco, Paris 1996, ISBN 92-3-103211-9 ( History of Civilizations of Central Asia 3) [see also other related articles in the same volume].
  • Daniel T. Potts: Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 2014, p. 133ff.
  • Khodadad Rezakhani: ReOrienting the Sasanians. East Iran in Late Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2017, pp. 125ff.
  • Martin Schottky: Huns . In: Ehsan Yarshater (Ed.): Encyclopædia Iranica , as of December 15, 2004, viewed on June 9, 2011 (English, including references) [general article on the Huns with consideration of the "Iranian Huns"]
  • Xavier Tremblay: Pour une histoire de la Sérinde. Le manichéisme parmi les peuples et religions d'Asie Centrale d'après les sources primaires . Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 2001, ISBN 3-7001-3034-1 ( Meeting reports, Philosophical-Historical Class 690, ISSN  1012-487X ), ( Publications of the Commission for Iranian Studies 28).

Web links

Commons : Hephthalites  - Collection of images, videos, and audio files


  1. Mirella Ferrera: People of the World. Vercelli 2003; Upendra Thakur: The Hunas (Huns) in India, Varanasi 1967; Denzil Ibbetson: Punjab Castes, Lahore 1916.
  2. See for example Timo Stickler: The Huns . Munich 2007, p. 26ff.
  3. Martin Schottky: Huns . In: Ehsan Yarshater (Ed.): Encyclopædia Iranica , as of December 15, 2004, accessed on June 9, 2011 (English, including references)
  4. ^ Robert Göbl: Documents on the history of the Iranian Huns in Bactria and India. 4 volumes. Wiesbaden 1967.
  5. See Boris A. Litvinsky: The Hephthalite Empire. In: Boris A. Litvinsky (Ed.): The crossroads of civilizations. AD 250 to 750. Paris 1996, here p. 135.
  6. See Walter Pohl: Die Völkerwanderung. 2nd edition Stuttgart 2005, pp. 104-106; Timo Stickler: The Huns. Munich 2007, pp. 24–26.
  7. Procopius, histories I 3.2 to 7.
  8. Richard Nelson Frye , Pre-Islamic and early Islamic cultures in Central Asia , in Turko-Persia in historical perspective , ed. Robert L. Canfield, Cambridge University Press, 1991. p. 49
  9. See Daniel T. Potts: Nomadism in Iran. From Antiquity to the Modern Era. Oxford et al. a. 2014, p. 133ff.
  10. See Daniel T. Potts: Nomadism in Iran. From Antiquity to the Modern Era. Oxford et al. a. 2014, p. 134f .; Nikolaus Schindel: Wahram V. In: Nikolaus Schindel (Ed.): Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum . Vol. 3/1. Vienna 2004, p. 365f.
  11. See Stickler, Die Hunnen , p. 29ff.
  12. ^ Upendra Thakur: The Hunas in India. Varanasi 1967.
  13. ^ Matthias Pfisterer: Huns in India. The coins of the Kidarites and Alkhan from the Bern Historical Museum and the Jean-Pierre Righetti Collection. Vienna 2014.
  14. Michael Alram: The history of Eastern Iran from the Greek kings in Bactria and India to the Iranian Huns (250 BC-700 AD). In: Wilfried Seipel (Hrsg.): Weihrauch und Silk. Ancient cultures on the Silk Road. Vienna 1996, ISBN 3-900325-53-7 , pp. 119–140, here p. 138.
  15. See Timo Stickler: The Huns . Munich 2007, p. 21ff.
  16. EG Ambros, PA Andrews, et al .: Turks . In: The Encyclopaedia of Islam . New Edition. Brill, suffering. Digital CD version: "[Hephthalites], whose origins, for long discussed, probably sprang from a strong Eastern Iranian element."
  17. For the current state of numismatic research see Matthias Pfisterer: Hunnen in India. The coins of the Kidarites and Alkhan from the Bern Historical Museum and the Jean-Pierre Righetti Collection. Vienna 2014.
  18. ADH Bivar: HEPHTHALITES . In: Ehsan Yarshater (ed.): Encyclopædia Iranica . Volume 12 (2), para. 2036, as of December 15, 2003, accessed on June 9, 2011 (English, including references)
  19. ^ Xavier Tremblay Pour une histoire de la Sérinde. Le manichéisme parmi les peuples et religions d'Asie Centrale d'aprés les sources primaires , Vienna, 2001, Appendix D: "Notes Sur L'Origine Des Hephtalites", pp. 183-88 «Malgré tous les auteurs qui, depuis KLAPROTH jusqu 'ALTHEIM in SuC, p113 sq et HAUSSIG , The history of Central Asia and the Silk Road in pre-Islamic times, Darmstadt, 1983 (cf. n.7), ont vu dans les Hephthalites 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 γοβοζοκο qui sont bien plus probants qu 'αλ- en Αλχαννο. Or l'iranien des noms des Hephtalites 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 Sogdia. " ( LINK )
  20. Kazuo Enoki: On the Nationality of the Ephthalites. In: Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tokyo Bunko, 1959, No. 18, p. 56 ( LINK )