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Asia in 400 AD, showing the Chionites and their neighbors.

Chionites, Chionitae or Xionites (Chinese: Xiōng (匈) or Xīróng (西戎) meaning "Western Barbarians", Middle Persian: Xiyon, (Hiun/Hion), Avestan: Xiiaona) were a nomadic tribe prominent in Transoxania and Bactria.[1]

The Chionites arrived in the mid-4th century with the wave of immigration from Central Asia into Iran in late antiquity. They had been influenced by the Kushan and Bactrian cultures, and became a threat on the northeastern frontier of the Sassanid Empire.[1][2]



It is difficult to determine the ethnic composition of the Chionites.[1] In addition, there is no evidence that the Chionites were different from the Hephthalites. In other words, the Hepthalites may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Chionites.[3]

In 1932 Sir Harold Walter Bailey wrote:[4]

Xyon. This name is familiar in Pahlavi and Avestan texts. It would appear to be a name of an enemy of the Iranian people in Avestan times, transferred later to the Huns owing to similarity of sound, as Tur was adapted to Turk in Pahlavi. In the present passage (a passage from the Pahlavi book of Bahman Yasht) three divisions of this people seem to be recognized, the Xyon with the Turks, the Karmir (Red) Xyon, and the White Xyon.

In 1944 Carlile Aylmer Macartney wrote:[5]

We must consider briefly a third nation playing a role in our sources: the Kermichiones. Who were these people? They cannot have been the Turks-Toue-Kioue, since their embassy reached Constantinople while the Avars were still negotiating with Rome for settlement inside the frontier-probably, therefore, as early as A.D. 558, whereas the true Turks appeared there first in 568; further, their ruler's name was `Aσκήλτ or Scultor, while the Khagan of the Turks at that time was Silzabul, Dizabul, or Istämi. Neither can they have been the Juan Juan, as Marquart suggests; nor the Epthalites, who were well known to the Byzantines and would not have been described in this way. Moreover, the Epthalites were known as White Huns, and Mr. Bailey has pointed out that the word Karmir xyon, meaning Red Chyon, occurs in a Pahlavi text in juxtaposition with SpEt xyon, White Chyon. The name Chyon, originally that of some other race, was "transferred later to the Huns owing to the similarity of sound". The nation can hardly be other than that which appears in the fourth century, under the name of Chionits, in the steppes on the north-west frontier of Persia. These Chionites were probably a branch of the Huns, the other branch of which afterwards appeared in Europe, the latter appear to have attacked and conquered by the Alans, then living between the Urals and the Volga about A.D.360, while the first mention of the Chionites is dated A.D.356. In the fifth century the name is replaced by that of the Kushan or of the Kidarite Huns, who are clearly identical with the Kushan.

A more recent specialist, Richard Nelson Frye[6] wrote in 1991:

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 tribesman 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.

In 1992 Wolfgang Felix [1] considered the Chionites a tribe of probable Iranian origin that was prominent in Bactria and Transoxania in late antiquity.

According to A.S. Shahbazi (2005)[2], the Chionites were a "Hunnic" people who by the early fourth century had mixed with north Iranian elements in Transoxiana, adopted the Kushan-Bactrian language, and threatened Persia.



Early history

"Barbarians" according to Chinese cosmology of Han dynasty. Those in the east were called Dongyi (東夷), those in the west Xirong (西戎), those in the south Nanman (南蠻), and those in the north Beidi (北狄).

In the earliest periods, the Chionites (Xiōng (匈) were more of a concern to the Chinese than to the Persians. They dominated the smaller Donghu nations beyond Tianshan in the East Asian steppes who were known as the Xiong (匈)'s Serfs until the Xionites hold over them was broken by the Chinese by the end of the Sino-Xiongnu War. Chionite campaigns are better documented in connection with the history of Central Asia, particularly during the second half of the 4th century AD until the mid 5th century AD. Their most famous rulers were called the Kidarites.

At the end of the 4th century AD, a new wave of Hunnic tribes (Alchon) invaded Bactria, pushing the Kidarites into Gandhara.[7]


Alchon or Alχon (Uarkhon) became the new name of the Chionites in 460 when Khingila I united the Uar with the Chionites under his Hephthal ruling élite. In India the Alchon were not distinguished from their immediate White Huns predecessors and both are known as Sveta-Hunas there. Perhaps complimenting this term, Procopius (527-565) wrote that they were white skinned, had an organized kingship, and that their life was not wild/nomadic but that they lived in cities. The Alchon were called Varkhon or Varkunites (Ouar-Khonitai) by Menander Protector (538-582) literally referring to the Uar and Hunnoi. Around 630, Theophylact Simocatta wrote that the European "Avars" were initially composed of two nations, the Uar and the Hunnoi tribes. He wrote that: "...the Barsilt, the Unogurs and the Sabirs were struck with horror... and honoured the newcomers with brilliant gifts..."[8] when the Avars first arrived in their lands in 555AD.

Although the power of the Alchon in Bactria was shattered in the 560's by a combination of Sassanid and proto-Turkic forces, the last Hephthal king Narana/Narendra managed to maintain some kind of rule between 570 and 600 AD over the 'nspk' or 'napki' or 'nezak' tribes that remained after most of the Alchon had fled to the west.


Alchon Huns refers to a tribe which minted coins in Bactria in the 5th & 6th centuries. The name Khigi on one of the coins and Narendra on another has led some scholars of the area to believe that the Hephthalite Khagans Khingila and Narana were of the AlChoNo tribe inscribed in Bactrian script on the coins in question. They imitated the earlier style of their Hephthalite predecessors, the Kidarite Hun successors to the Kushans. In particular the Alchon style imitates the coins of Kidarite Varhran I (syn. Kushan Varhran IV).[9]

Red Huns and White Huns

The name Xyon is found in Avestan and Pahlavi texts.[10] In the Avestan tradition (Yts. 9.30-31, 19.87) the Xiiaona were characterized as enemies of Vishtaspa, the patron of Zoroaster.[1] In the later Pahlavi tradition, the Red Huns (Karmir Xyon) and White Huns (Spet Xyon) are mentioned.[1] The Red Huns of the Pahlavi tradition (7th C.)[11] have been identified by Harold Walter Bailey as the Kermichiones or Ermechiones.[1] According to Bailey [12] the Hara Huna of Indian sources are to be identified with the Karmir Xyon of the Avesta. Similarly he identifies the Sveta Huna of Indian sources with the Spet Xyon of the Avesta. Bailey argues that the name Xyon was transferred to the Huna owing to similarity of sound, as Tur was adapted to Turk in Pahlavi tradition.[4] It is necessary therefore to differentiate between "Kermichiones/Ermechiones", "Red Huns" or "Hara Huna", identified with the Kidarite dynasty, and "Xionites" "White Huns" or "Sveta Huna", identified with the Hephthalite dynasty.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Wolgang Felix in Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Chionites". (LINK to Online Edition 2006)
  2. ^ Richard Nelson Frye; "Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history"
  3. ^ a b Harold Walter Bailey, Iranian Studies, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. BSOAS, vol. 6, No. 4 (1932)
  4. ^ Carlile Aylmer Macartney, "On the Greek Sources for the History of the Turks in the Sixth Century" Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 11, No. 2. (1944), pp. 266-275.
  5. ^ Richard Nelson Frye, "Pre-Islamic and early Islamic cultures in Central Asia" in "Turko-Persia in historical perspective", edited by Robert L. Canfield, Cambridge University Press, 1991. pg 49.
  6. ^ Nomads of the Steppe
  7. ^ Theophilactus Simocatta, Historiae, -Ed. C. deBoor. Lipsiae, 1887, ps.251, 258
  8. ^ Alchon Huns
  9. ^ H. W. Bailey Iranian Studies
  10. ^ "Bahman Yasht" in Encyclopedia Iranica by W. Sundermann
  11. ^ (Bailey, 1954, pp.12-16; 1932, p. 945),

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