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(photo found at Pinterest, Copyright: The Bulgarian School of horseback archery)

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By  Periklis    Deligiannis

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The vast Asiatic steppes from Manchuria to the Ural River had always been the cradle of nomadic peoples of intense mobility and warlike character. Dashing from this cradle, they used to debouche in order to gradually form nomadic “empires” (sometimes as far as the Hungarian plains) and invade the territories of sedentary peoples such as China, India, Iran, the Greco-Roman regions of the Mediterranean and later the Christian countries of Europe. The European World was equally exposed to the lethal hordes of these horseback warriors of the steppes, as well as the Chinese, the Indian and the Iranian World, paying a heavy toll in human lives and material damage, from the Early Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages. The Iranian Saka (Eastern Scythians) were perhaps the first nomadic people who formed a powerful tribal union (rather a confederation) in Central Asia, the “Great Horde of the Saka” (Ma-Saka-ta), whose name the ancient Greeks linguistically Hellenized and quoted in their writings as Massagetae. This tribal union was followed by other nomadic confederations of Tocharian, Turkic, Mongol, Tungusic, Yeniseic and other origins, such as the Wu Sun (Wusun), the Hsiung Nu (Xiongnu, the Huns?), the Yue Chih (Yuezhi), the Hsien-pi (Xianbei), until the emergence of the Juan Juan (Rouran, Avars).

The origins of the (known to the Europeans) Avars of Europe were in the steppes of Mongolia. The Avars of Europe were not a “compact” racial group with common origins and language: on the contrary they were a federation or confederation of tribes of various origins. The two main ethnic “ingredients” of the Avar tribal confederation were probably the Juan Juan and the Hephthalite Huns, both originated from the old tribal union of the Hsiung Nu. During the second century BC and the first century AD, the Hsiung Nu formed a nomadic “empire” and clashed in a series of bloody wars with the Chin and Han Empires of China. The tribal union or to be more accurate, the Khaganate of the Hsiung Nu at its peak extended in the vast steppes from the Jaxartes River of Central Asia in the west to the Manchurian grasslands in the east, and from the borders of China and Tibet in the south to the limits of the vast Siberian forest in the north. The supreme ruler (monarch) of the Hsiung Nu was called shan yu, a title which was later replaced by the title khan or khagan, introduced by the Juan Juan. It has been supposed that the former (and earlier) title was a Turkic term and that the latter (and later) title was a Mongol one but there are many doubts on this theory (including the view of this article’s author). The term Khanate or khaganate comes from the title khan or khagan.

From a military standpoint, the might of the Hsiung Nu army was based on their numerous horsemen, notably the famous horse-archers who fought using their characteristic nomadic composite bow; probably the most powerful bow in World History according to the opinion of many researchers. Other nomadic offensive weapons were the lance, the sword, the spear and the mace. The Chinese crossbow was not one of them. it has been supposed that the Chinese managed to keep the secrets of the crossbow only for themselves, but I believe that their nomad enemies just never became familiar with this sophisticated weapon which was rather not compatible to the nomadic warfare. Some of the Hsiung Nu noble cavalrymen were armored, thus forming a limited in number but heavy enough cavalry. The infantry had rather always been minimal, used mainly in skirmishes.

The  Khanate  (Khaganate)  of  the  Juan Juan

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The Chinese eventually succeeded in breaking the unity of the Hsiung Nu confederation, by winning over its southern tribes (ancestors of the Juan Juan and the Avars). Thus they destroyed the Khaganate of the Hsiung Nu, that were probably close relatives or kinsmen of the Huns who later became active in Iran, India and Europe (during the 4th to 10th centuries AD). The Later Hunnic group included many peoples, most important being the Black Huns (Attila’s Huns), the Juan Juan, the Sabirs (whose Khaganate of Sabir/Sibir in the Ural region gave its name to modern Siberia), the Kidarites or Chionites of Central Asia (whom some scholars identify with the Red Huns) and finally the White Huns or Hephthalites. The reputation of the notorious Hephthalites in southern Asia was similar to that of Attila’s Huns in Europe. Many modern researchers insist that these two tribes had no ethnic relation with the aforementioned Hsiung Nu of the Chinese written sources. During the third and the fourth centuries AD, five tribes of the Hsien-pi tribal union (which earlier had dominated  the Mongolian steppes by soundly defeating and expelling the Hsiung Nu) conquered northern China and founded various kingdoms there. The Khitan, possibly the main ancestors of the modern Mongolians, were the most important of the Hsien-pi tribes that remained in the steppes (in Manchuria and later in Mongolia). In the mid-fourth century, three Southern Hsiung Nu tribes of the Mongolian steppes founded a new tribal union, the Juan Juan (Rouran). The Juan Juan Khaganate gradually extended by the annexation of several wandering minor tribes. In 402 AD the Khaganate emerged as the strongest political entity in the region. In the Juan Juan tribal federation or confederation, the Mongol ethnic element outmatched the Turkic one, thereby the three founding tribes represented possibly the main Mongolian element of the former Hsiung Nu confederation. The Toba (T’o-ba), a Turkish tribe of the Hsien-pi confederation, which had already been dissolved, founded a kingdom of their own in a part of northern China. The warlike Toba annexed one by one all the barbarian kingdoms of northern China (430-439 AD), thus founding the Toba Wei Empire (or Northern Wei). The Toba Turks soon clashed with the Juan Juan in a series of bloody confrontations. In 429 a Toba army unleashed a blitzkrieg-type campaign to the mountains of Tien Shan, where it confronted the possibly surprised Juan Juan. The Toba won the day and returned to China with several thousands of captives. Despite their heavy defeat, the Juan Juan constantly expanded their Khaganate, essentially establishing again the old Hsiung Nu nomadic state. Around 500 AD, the Khaganate reached its peak by controlling all the steppes from the river Irtys in the west to Manchuria in the east.

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A nomadic stirrup of Central Asia.

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By the mid-sixth century, the empires of the Juan Juan and the Toba (Toba Wei) collapsed almost simultaneously. After 500, the Juan Juan gradually impoverished, but in 545 they managed to subdue the Tur(u)k tribe (Tujue in Chinese, later known as Göktürks, being the founders of the Proto-Turkic empire). These Turk or Tu-Jue tribe were a people of capable steelworkers (blacksmiths) of the Altai region. This is the first Turkish tribe that it was called “the Turks”. Later, because of the nomadic empire that they established (the Göktürk Empire), their tribal name spread to all the Turkic-speaking peoples. In 552 the Turks led a coalition of tribal insurgents against the Juan Juan which defeated them. In 555, after their victory against their former overlords, the Turks founded the Celestial (Gök) Khaganate as they called it, which later was extended from the Caspian Sea to the Manchurian grasslands. The political influence of the Celestial Turks was extended as far as the Black Sea where they made contacts of alliance with the Byzantine Empire. The Juan Juan empire collapsed and its main (master) tribes were forced to flee towards Central Asia and the West.

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Periklis Deligiannis

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SELECTIVE  BIBLIOGRAPHY

(1)         HISTORY  OF  CHINA,  vols.  2,  3, Cambridge University  Press.

(2)         HISTORY  OF IRAN,  Vol.  3, Cambridge University  Press.

(3)         Moravcsik  Gyula:  BYZANTINO-TURCICA,  2  Band.,  Berlin  1958  (2nd  edition).

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RELATED ARTICLE:  THE HEPHTHALITES (WHITE HUNS) AND THE GENESIS OF THE AVARS

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