The Hephthalites are to be counted among the major group called the “Iranian Huns” by R. Göbl in his study of the general history of the nomadic populations of late antique eastern Iran. They are, however, different in several aspects from the other Hunnic groups, including the fact that they never crossed the Hindu-Kush and instead established their power in Bactria/Tokharestan and eastern Khorasan. They are also distinguished from the rest of the Iranian Huns in the challenge they offered the Sasanian Empire.

The Hephthalites are often called the White Huns by many ancient sources, while a possible orthographic issue introduced them as Haytal to the Arab-Persian Islamic sources. However, based on our new understanding of the name through both numismatic and primary textual sources, we now know that this name was to be pronounced Evdal (Bact. εβοδαλο).

Establishing themselves north of the Hindu-Kush in the early to mid fifth century CE, the Hephthalites first came to the attention of the Sasanian emperors Wahram V (421-438) and Yazdgerd II (438-457). In their early history, their relations with the Sasanians seem to have been peaceful, at times even tributary. However, during the reign of Pēroz (457-484), the Sasanian relations with the Hephthalites became quite strained. According to later Islamic sources, Pēroz was provoked by the Hephthalite king (called Khushnawāz in the Shahnameh, but also Akšunwār in other texts) and attacked the Hephthalites in 471.

This first campaign was a disaster, resulting in the defeat of Pēroz who had to leave his son, the future Kavād I as a hostage with the Hephthalites and paid them a large sum. This is thus the beginning of the independent Hephthaite coin issues which are basically imitations of the coinage of Pēroz. Among the most prominent and numerous of these issues is one that follows the third crown type of Pēroz and bears the obverse legend of ēb (denoting ēbdāl: “Hephthalite”). The reverse of these coins also carries the mint mark of baxlo: “Balkh” confirming their issue in the capital city of Bactria/Tokharistan. However, archaeological evidence of the major urban centers in Bactria suggest that Qunduz during this time was the most populous city of the region and might have occupied the position of the capital for the Hephthalites. This is further confirmed by the finds of a major Hephthalite population center on the plain of Qunduz.

After recuperating his army in the early 480’s, Pēroz launched a second campaign against the Hephthalites. This second campaign was equally disastrous, resulting in the death of Pēroz himself (484) and the capture of Kavad. It also ended any Sasanian control of Bactria and put the region at both sides of the Oxus under the firm control of the Hephthalites. This must have been the height of Hephthalite power, similarly evident in the increasing output of their coinage.

The Hephthalite power continued to dominate Bactria and Central Asia in the early to mid sixth century. Evidence from the Bactria Economic Documents shows us the wide-reaching influence of the Hephthalites and their administrative and financial control. A “yabγū of the Hephthal” is among the prominent officials in some of the Bactrian contracts, while several sale contracts mention the presence of a “Hephthalite tax”. Their coinage, now both independent and those struck with their countermark and imported from other regions, including Sasanian ones, also show the extent of their power.

In the second half of the sixth century, however, the advanced of the Western Turks through the Central Asia steppe brought them in close contact with the Hephthalites. Deeming the opportunity to be ripe, the Sasanian Emperor Khosrow I Anušerūwān (531-579) concluded an alliance with the Western Turks against the Hephthalites. In 567, the combined Sasanian and Turkic forces attacked the Hephthalites from north and west and destroyed their power. The territory in Sogdiana and Ustrushana seems to have gone to the Western Turks, while the Sasanians came to dominate Bactria.

This, however, does not seem to have been a definite end of the Hephthalite presence in Bactria. Despite having lost their dominance of the region, various Hephthalite petty kingdoms seem to have continued ruling and issuing coins in Bactria. Several archaeological sites can be attributed to the Hephthalites, while little recognized coins of the local kings marked with the sign ēb (denoting their Hephthalite identity) continued to be produced until the early Islamic period. A particularly prominent character in the early Islamic history, mentioned in Tārīx e Sīstān as Rutbil and considered to be the king of Zavulistan (the Ghazni region) was probably a Hephthalite ruler of the region whose name is actually a metathesis of the Turko-Hephthalite title, ilitbär (Bact. Docs. Hilitber). Archaeological evidence further confirm the survival of Hephthalite population centers in regions such as the plain of Baghlan and eastern Tokharistan, probably surviving until the 10th century before dissolving into the larger population.

Further Reading

Alram, Michael. “Ein Schatzfund Hephthalitischer Drachmen aus Baktrien.” In The Role of Samarkand in the History of World Civilization, Materials of the International Scientific Symposium devoted to the 2750th Anniversary of the City of Samarkand, 139-146. Tashkent/Samarkand, 2007.

———. “Hunnic Coinage.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 9 August 2009, http://www.iranicaonline.org.

———. “Huns and Western Turks in Central Asia and Northwest India.” In A Survey of Numismatic Research 2002-2007. Glasgow, 2009.

Alram, Michael, and C. Lo Muzio. “A New Coin Type of the Khalaj?” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 1 (2006): 129-133.

Callieri, P. “the Bactrian Seal of Khingila.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 8 (2002): 121-141.

———. “Hephthalites in Margiana? New Evidence from the Buddhist Relics in Merv.” In La Persia e l’Asia Centrale: sa Alessandro al X Secolo, 391-400. Roma: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

Errington, E., and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. From Persepolis to the Punjab, Exploring Ancient Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. London, 2007.

Göbl, R. Dokumente zur Geschichte der iranischen Hunnen in Baktrien und Indien. Wiesbaden, 1967.

Grenet, Frantz. “Crise et sortie de crise en Bactriane-Sogdiane aux IVe-Ve siecles.” In La Persia e l’Asia centrale da Alessandro al X secolo. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1996.

———. “Regional Interaction in Central Asia and Northwest India in the Kidarite and Hephthalite Period.” In Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, edited by Nicholas Sims-Williams, 203-224. Oxford: The British Academy/Oxford University Press, 2002.

Grenet, Frantz, and P. Riboud. “A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire: The Biographical Narrative in the Reliefs of the Tomb of the Sabo Wirkak (494-579).” Bulletin of the Asia Institute (2003/2007): 133-143.

Kuwayama, S. “The Hephthalites in Tokhatistan and Northwest India.” Zinbun, Annals of the Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University 24 (1989): 89-134.

la Vaissière, Étienne de. “Is there a “nationality” of the Hephthalites?” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 17 (2003/2007): 119-132.

Melzer, G. “A Copper Scroll Inscription from the Time of the Alchon Huns.” In Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, Buddhist Manuscripts, edited by J. Braarvig, 251-314. Oslo, 2006.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas. “Ancient Afghanistan and Its Invaders.” In Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, edited by Nicholas Sims-Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

———. “Ancient Afghanistan and Its Invaders: Linguistic Evidence from the Bactrian Documents and Inscriptions.” In Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, edited by Nicholas Sims-Williams, 225-242. Oxford: The British Academy/Oxford University Press, 2002.

———. Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan II: Letters and Buddhist Texts. London: The Khalili Family Trust, 2007.

———, ed. Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan: I: Legal and Economic Documents: Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.

Vondrovec, Klaus. “Coins from Gharwal.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 17 (2003/2007): 159-175.

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