Iranian “Huns”

The “Iranian Huns” (die Iranische Hunnen) is the name given by the Austrian numismatist, Robert Göbl to the successive waves of nomadic migrants into the area of Central Asia, Bactria, and Gandhara. This general term, as well as the division among the various ruling groups of the “Iranian Huns” is based largely on the numismatic finds, to date our most reliable primary sources for the reconstruction of the history of these groups.

Our previous knowledge of the existence of the Iranian Huns was based on thr Roman/Byzantine textual evidence, as well as Chinese sources, both of which tend to be extremely confusing. A mention by Ammianus Marcellinus (XVI. 9.4) of the presence of a leader of the Chionites (presumably a group of the Huns) named Grumbates as an ally of Shapur II during the siege of Amida forms an important part of our understanding of the chronology of the Huns in Eastern Iran. Chinese sources also occasionally mention the presence of various Hunnic envoys at the Chinese court, although the names they use are also quite confusing and the descriptions vague.

Consequently, coins make up our most reliable primary sources for the study of the history of the Iranian Huns. In  recent years, probably as a condition of the changing political environment of Central Asia and Afghanistan, the number of available coins and hoards has increased manifold, making it possible for us to better understand the history of these regions during late antiquity. Additionally, a group of documents dubbed the Bactrian Economic Documents, relating a segment of the history of southern Bactria during late antiquity, have also been discovered which add much to our knowledge of the history of the region.

The basic division of the Iranian Hunnic groups was established by Göbl in 1967 and still hold largely reliable. New studied on the recently discovered coins, undertaken by a group in the Austrian Academy of Sciences led by Michael Alram, is currently attempting to complete and expand our basic picture of the Iranian Hunnic history laid down by Göbl.

Four waves of Hunnic migrations were basically recognized by Göbl, although at present, it is suggested that the migrations did not happen in several waves, rather in one large wave, consisting of many groups, sometimes between 350-370 CE. The four most recognizable groups, identified by their coinage types and legends, are the Kidarites, the Alkhans (Göbl: Alchon), the Nēzaks, and the Hephthalites. Here we should concentrate on the first three, leaving the more extensive history of the Hephthalites for a separate chapter.

Kidarites are recognizable as the first wave of the migrant Hunnic tribes from their early coins, minted in Sogdiana and bearing the legend kdry. This name, commonly read Kidāra appears on the coins and perhaps was initially an individual name, later used as the clan name for the rulers of the Kidarite line. Upon entering Bactria and crossing the Hindu-Kush, the Kidarites took over the legacy of the Kushans and Kushano-Sasanians in minting the golden scyphate dinar in the Kapisa/Kabul mint. A hoard find near Kabul establishes the beginning of the Kidarite coinage in 380’s CE, while the numismatic evidence from Gandhara shows the end of their rule in that region to date before 450 CE. Nonetheless, Chinese literary sources talk about the presence of Kidarite envoys as late as 477 CE.

Probably following on the immediate footsteps of the Kidarites, another Hunnic group, the Alchons or the Alkhans, reached the Kapisa area sometimes at the end of the fourth century. They pushed the Kidarites further west to Gandhara, taking over the mint in Kapisa and using the existing Sasanian dies, they minted coins resembling those of Shapur II, with an obverse legend of Bactrian αλχαννο to establish their presence. Via the same route through Kapisa, the Alkhans under the leadership of Khingila reached Gandhara around 440 and pushed the Kidarites out of their way, occupying most of northwest India. At this time, their coinage became more sophisticated and less in the style of Sasanian imitations, most significantly by adding the bust of the king with a deformed skull to the obverse of the coins. The Alkhans, lead by Khingila, followed by Toramana (ca. 490-515 CE) and Mihirakula (515-528) made further advances into India and defeated the Gupta emperors in several occasions. However, upon the death of Mihirakula, the Alkhan power quickly waned, forcing the later Alkhans to head westwards back to Kapisa, under the leadership of their later leader, Narandra. This last king issued coins with the bull-head diadem of another Hunnic group they encountered in Kapisa, that of the Nēzaks.

This third group of the Iranian Huns, called the Nēzak kings, probably reached Kapisa following the Alkhan departure to Gandhara, sometimes in the middle of the fifth century. Recognized from the obverse legend of their coins, previously wrongly read as Napki Malka, the Nēzak Shahs continued to issue silver dirhams of the Sasanian type from Kapisa, distinguished by a bull-head diadem. The Nēzaks probably survived south of the Hindu-Kush throughout the sixth century and even to the early Islamic period and continued to mint coins. Their relationship with the Nēzak Tarxāns of the Tokharestan region, who came to a conflict with the conquering Muslim armies is not well understood.



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______. “Alchon und Nēzak: Zur Geschichte der iranischen Hunnen in Mittelasien.” In La Persia e l’Asia Centrale da Alessandro al X secolo, 517-554. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1996.

———. “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,

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

Alram, Michael, and D. E. Klimburg-Salter, eds. Coins, Art, and Chronology: Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands. Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999.

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

Frye, Richard N. “Tarxun-Turxun and Central Asian History.” harvard Journal of Asiatic History 14 (1951): 105-129.

­­­­­_______. “Napki Malka and the Kushano-Sasanians.” In Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy, and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, and Dikran K, Kouymjian (ed.). Beirut, 1974.

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

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.

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

———. “Die anonymen Clanchefs: Der Beginn der Alchon-Prägung.” Numismatische Zeitschrift (2005): 243–258.


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