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

Xionites, Chionites, or Chionitae (Middle Persian: Xiyōn or Hiyōn; Avestan: Xiiaona; Sogdian: xwn; Pahlavi: Huna), or Hunni, Yun or Xūn (獯), were a nomadic people who were prominent in Transoxania and Bactria.[1]


The Xionites (Chionitae) are first mentioned with Kushans (Cuseni) by Ammianus Marcellinus who spent the winter of 356-57 CE in their Balkh territory.[2] They arrived with the wave of immigration from Central Asia into Iran in late antiquity. They were influenced by the Kushan and Bactrian cultures, while patronizing the Eastern Iranian languages, and became a threat on the northeastern frontier of the Sassanid Empire.[1][3]

There seem to have been two subgroups of Xionites, which were known in the Iranian languages as the Karmir Xyon and Spet Xyon. The prefixes karmir ("red") and speta ("white") likely refer to Central Asian traditions in which particular colours are associated with cardinal points: red usually symbolises "south" and white "west". The Karmir Xyon were known in European sources as the Kermichiones or "Red Huns", and some scholars have identified them with the Kidarites and/or Alchon. The Spet Xyon or "White Huns" appear to have been the known in India by the cognate name Sveta-huna, and are often identified, controversially, with the Hephtalites.



Hephthalite horseman on British Museum bowl, 460-479 CE.[4]

It is difficult to determine the ethnic composition of the Xionites.[1] Simocatta, Menander, and Priscus provided evidence that the Xionites were somewhat different from the Hephthalites, whereas Richard Nelson Frye suggested that the Hepthalites may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Xionites.[5] Carlile Aylmer Macartney (1944) wrote: "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 4th 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 appeared afterwards in Europe. The Chionites appear to have attacked and conquered the Alans, then living between the Urals and the Volga about AD 360, while the first mention of the Chionites is dated AD 356".[6]

Sir Harold Walter Bailey (1932) wrote that the "Xyon" were mentioned in "Pahlavi and Avestan [Iranian] texts". They "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". Bailey added that "three divisions" of the "Xyon ... seem to be recognized": "the Turks, the Karmir (Red) Xyon, and the White Xyon."[7] Macartney also considered the question of the identity of the Karmir Xyon or Kermichiones.

(Macartney considered that the name of the Chionites was "replaced by that of the ... Kidarite Huns". He also claimed, erroneously, that "the Kidarites were ... identical with the Kushan", when the Central Asian empire of the Kushans had been destroyed by the Xionites and/or Hunas in the mid-4th Century.)

Frye wrote (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 tribesmen 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."[8]

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

According to A.S. Shahbazi (2005),[3] the Xionites were a "Hunnic" people who by the early 4th century had mixed with north Iranian elements in Transoxiana, adopted the Kushan-Bactrian language, and threatened Persia.

The Xionites followed animist religious beliefs,[citation needed] which mixed later with varieties of Buddhism[citation needed] and Shaivism.[citation needed]


The Armenian Catholicos John III Odzunetsi (c. 728) mentions an ancient town of Hunor's foundation (Hunoracerta) in the Utik region established in 215BC. The Armenian Agathangelus mentions also that there are North Caucasian Huns living among the peoples of the Caucasus in 227AD.

Conquest of BactriaEdit

Portrait of Kidarites king Kidara, circa 350-386 AD.[9]

Xionite 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.

They organised themselves into Northern "Black" (beyond the Jaxartes), Kidarites or Southern "Red" (in Hindu Kush south of the Oxus), Eastern "Blue" (in Tianshan), and Western Hephthalites or "White" (around Khiva) hordes. Artefacts found from the area they inhabited dating from their period indicate their totem animal seems to have been the (rein)deer. An inscription on the walls of the royal palace in Persepolis about Darius's empire calls them Hunae. It appears that a combination of both the Battle of Ikh Bayan and Ban Chao's efforts are responsible for their first appearance in the West. The Armenian historian Moses of Khorene (5th century), in his "History of Armenia," introduces the Hunni near the Sarmatians and goes on to describe how they captured the city of Balkh (Armenian "Kush") sometime between 194 and 214 which is why the Greeks called that city Hunuk.[10]

According to the Armenian sources their capital was at Balkh (Armenian: Kush). 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.[11]


Artificial cranial deformation of Alchon Huns, as seen on a portrait of king Khingila c. 430 - 490 AD.[12]

Alchon or Alχon (Uarkhon)[dubious ] became the new name of the Xionites in 460,[citation needed] when Khingila I united the Uar with the Xionites under his Hephthalite ruling élite.[citation needed]

At the end of the 5th century the Alchon invaded northern India where they became known as the Huna.[citation needed] In India the Alchon were not distinguished from their immediate Hephthalite predecessors,[citation needed] and both are known as Sveta-Hunas there.[citation needed] Perhaps complimenting this term, Procopius (527-565) wrote that they were white skinned,[citation needed] had an organized kingship, and that their life was not wild/nomadic but that they lived in cities.

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, where they became known as the Avars.[citation needed]

The Alchon were called Varkhon or Varkunites[dubious ] (Ouar-Khonitai) by Menander Protector (538-582),[citation needed] 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[which?] tribes. He wrote that: "the Barsilt, the Unogurs and the Sabirs were struck with horror ... and honoured the newcomers with brilliant gifts...",[13] when the Avars first arrived in their lands in 555AD.


Alchon Huns refers to a tribe which minted coins in Bactria in the 5th and 6th centuries. The name Khigi, inscribed in Bactrian script on one of the coins, and Narendra on another, have led some scholars[who?] to believe that the Hephthalite Khagans Khingila and Narana were of the AlChoNo tribe.[vague][citation needed] 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).[citation needed]

The earliest coins of Alchon Huns have several distinctive features: 1) the king’s head is presented in an elongated form to reflect the Alchon practice of head binding; 2) The characteristic bull/lunar tamgha of the Alchon is represented on the obverse of the coins.[14]

Red Huns and White HunsEdit

Portrait of Nezak Huns ruler, circa 460-560 CE.

The name Xyon is found in Avestan and Pahlavi texts.[citation needed] 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 century)[15] have been identified by Harold Walter Bailey as the Kermichiones or Ermechiones.[1] According to Bailey[16] 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.[7] 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 alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Felix, Wolfgang. "CHIONITES". Encyclopædia Iranica Online Edition. Retrieved 2012-09-03. 
  2. ^ Original reports on the "Chionitae" by Ammianus Marcellinus:
    Mention with the Euseni/ Cuseni : 16.9.4.
    Mention with the Gelani: 17.5.1.
    Mention with Shapur II: 18.7.21
    Mention at the siege of Amida: 19.2.3 and 19.1.7-19.2.1
  3. ^ British Museum notice
  4. ^ Richard Nelson Frye; "Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history"
  5. ^ Macartney, C. A. (1944). "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. School of Oriental and African Studies. 11 (2): 266–75. ISSN 1474-0699. JSTOR 609313 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  6. ^ a b Harold Walter Bailey, Iranian Studies, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London. BSOAS, vol. 6, No. 4 (1932)
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ CNG Coins
  9. ^ Chinese
  10. ^ Nomads of the Steppe Archived October 13, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila, Michael Maas p.286
  12. ^ Theophilactus Simocatta, Historiae, -Ed. C. deBoor. Lipsiae, 1887, ps.251, 258
  13. ^ Notes on the Evolution of Alchon Coins, Pankaj Tandon,
  14. ^ "BAHMAN YAŠT" in Encyclopædia Iranica by W. Sundermann
  15. ^ (Bailey, 1954, pp.12-16; 1932, p. 945),

External linksEdit