In the course of time, the term "Huns" has been used to refer to different groups of people, from those who precipitated the building of the Great Wall of China as a defensive measure against them to the confederations under the leadership of King Attila (d. 453 CE) that ravished Europe. However, this is overall a relatively short episode. The Huns were significantly more influential for the history, culture and also the coinage of Central Asia and North India, as this exhibition will show.
The great migration of the Huns westward from the Altai mountains in Central Asia began during the 4th century. Around 375 CE a group of Huns later under Attila had already crossed the Volga River and continued into Europe. Other groups turned south and entered the historical region Sogdiana (in modern Uzbekistan), crossed the Oxus River (Amu Darya) and settled in Bactria (present-day North Afghanistan). From there their path led across the Hindu Kush mountains into the regions of Gandhara, Uddiyana (Swat Valley), and Punjab (in present-day Pakistan) and further into Northwest India.
There was no love lost between contemporary Greek and Roman historians and the Huns. They are described as "two-legged beasts", ugly and brutal, and the Hunnic riders were feared for their harrying blows against Roman and Persian troops. Indian historians also had nothing good to say about the Huns, who even took the blame for the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and other religious establishments. However, we know today that this is not the case. Not only does the coinage of the Huns in Central Asia and India incorporate various Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian religious symbols in its imagery, also numerous other archaeological remains identify the Huns as donors of Buddhist sanctuaries and sponsors of indigenous religions. While no individual coinage of the “European Huns” has been passed down, the minting activity of their "Iranian" relatives blossomed, providing unique evidence for the history of Central Asia and Northwest India in late Antiquity. These coins offer unexpected insights into the self-image of the ruling Huns and reveal the manifold political, economic and cultural influences on them.
The dominant power in the region were the Persian Sasanians (showcase 2), who unceasingly strove to demonstrate their presence in Central Asia and Northwest India. At the middle of the 3rd century CE the Sasanians had already conquered parts of the crumbling Kushan Empire in Central Asia, and as of the mid-4th century they were in constant conflict with the Huns, who threatened their northeastern border. As the Huns encroached upon India, it came to confrontation with the rulers of the mighty Gupta dynasty, who also attempted to stop the Hunnic advance (showcase 5 and 6).
Despite this resistance the Huns managed to assert themselves in the core regions of their domain, which stretched from Bactria to Punjab. However, one should not imagine the Hunnic Empire as a homogenous entity like the Roman Empire; rather it was composed of numerous larger and smaller dominions, which were ruled by kings of different clan alliances, who went to war next to, and also against, each other. This situation is reflected in the coinage, which reveals a dense network of relations between the individual coin issues and the rulers who struck them.
Also the influences documented in the imagery of Hunnic coins are manifold. Among the insignia of rule the Sasanian crown plays a dominant role; it is copied in diverse ways and enriched with new elements. Kushan influences are prevalent in Bactria, while in Gandhara and Punjab there are Indian influences, such as those from Buddhism and Hinduism. In addition, genuine Hunnic forms of expression are apparent such as artificial cranial deformation, which, especially among the Alkhan Huns, was regarded as a particular sign of group affiliation and expression of royal dignity (showcase 6, 7, 8, 9).
For the inscriptions of their coins, the Huns used the local idioms of the region: on the coins struck in Bactria one finds largely Bactrian, an East Iranian language written in a slightly modified Greek alphabet, while south of the Hindu Kush in Kabulistan, Gandhara and Punjab, Bactrian as well as Sasanian Middle Persian (Pehlevi) and Indian Sanskrit (written in Brahmi script) were used. Often these coins contain inscriptions in two languages, a custom common in this region since the Indo-Greek kings of the 2nd century BCE.
Kidarites, Alkhan, Nezak, Hephthalites
The coins show that four large clans were active in these regions. The first is the Kidarites, who (possibly with the acceptance of the Sasanians) settled in Bactria and as of 370 CE overtook the administration there from the Sasanian governors. They were also found north of the Oxus River in Sogdiana, and they also struck coins south of the Hindu Kush in Gandhara, Uddiyana and Punjab (showcase 4 and 5).
The second Hunnic power, the Alkhan, overtook a Sasanian mint in Kabulistan (called Kapisi in contemporary sources) as of 380 CE and from their spread eastward over the Khyber Pass into Gandhara, Uddiyana and Punjab. Here they met against the Kidarites, whom they successively displaced (showcase 6, 7, 8, 9).
At the end of the 5th century the third group, the Nezak, consolidated themselves in Zabulistan (the region around Ghazni, South Afghanistan) and ultimately took control of Kabulistan at their northern border (showcase 11).
The Hephthalites (showcase 10), the fourth group, gained power over Bactria in 484 CE with their victory over the Sasanian king Peroz (457–484), and they even took the Sasanian garrison town Merv (in modern Turkmenistan). Yet the Hephthalites never traversed the Hindu Kush.
The year 560 CE represents a turning point in the history of the Hunnic peoples, when the Hephthalites suffered a devastating defeat against the Sasanian King of Kings Khurso I (539–571 CE). Khurso had forged an alliance with the Western Turks, the earliest considerable Turkish group who themselves were ready to break the dominance of the Hephthalites in Central Asia. Shortly before, the Alkhan king in India, Mihirakula, had been defeated by a group of Indian princes, causing the entire Hunnic Empire to began to totter.
As an immediate consequence of the Hephthalite defeat, Bactria was reincorporated into the Sasanian Empire at least for a while, and also Zabulistan that had been ruled by the Nezak fell in Sasanian hands. Only Kabulistan (Kapisi) remained under the rule of the Nezak kings. With the defeat of Mihirakula the Huns had lost the majority of their Indian possessions, and some of the Alkhan retreated to Kabulistan. There they mixed with the Nezak, and at the end of the 6th century they succeeded in again pushing the Sasanians out of Zabulistan (showcase 11 and 12).
The power of the Western Turks, who had risen as the undisputed rulers of Central Asia following the defeat of the Hephthalites around 560 CE, reached its height at the beginning of the 7th century under their leader Tong Yabgu Qagan, who built his residence north of Chach (today Tashkent, Uzbekistan). All of Western Central Asia from the borders of Persia to China were under his control; the kings of these lands received the title iltäbär and owed him tribute. After the death of Tong Yabgu Qagan China was able to weaken the Western Turks decisively and between 658 and 661 CE bring the entire "Western Regions" under their control. The vast area between Khotan and Persia was now established as the Chinese protectorate Anxi, which was divided into 16 “Area Commands”, one of which being the kingdom Kapisi (Kabulistan). China consequently became the most important protector state of the Central Asian kingdoms in the struggle against the Arabs until 751 CE when the Chinese forces were defeated by the Abbasid troops at the battle on the river Talas (in present-day Kazakhstan).
Returning to the Western Turks, it is unclear when they became active in events around the Hindu Kush. The first Turk Shahi to bring Zabulistan, Kabulistan and Gandhara under his rule was supposedly Barha Tegin, who assumed rule over the Nezak kings in 661 CE (showcase 12 and 13). Barha Tegin descended from a Turkic dynasty that had long been settled in Northern Zabulistan in the border area with Kapisi (the Chinese monk Xuanzang calls this region Fulijistana).
Already ten years prior, the powerful Sasanian Empire had fallen to the storm of the Muslim Arabs, who continued to push into East Iran and Central Asia (showcase 16). The Arabs plundered Kabul for the first time in 665 CE, but the Kabul Shah was quickly able to regain the upper hand. Barha Tegin’s successor to the throne of Kabul was Wusan teqin sa, as he is know in Chinese sources; on his coins he used the title "Tegin, King of Khorasan" or "King of the East" (showcase 14). Together with the ruler of Zabulistan – known in Persian and Arabic sources with the title "Rutbil" – he spearheaded the defensive campaign against the Arabs. As an old man in 738/9 CE Wusan teqin sa abdicated in favor of his son Phrom Kesar, who continued successfully to strike back against the Arabs (showcase 15).
The local sovereigns in Bactria and Sogdiana were also involved in a tough defensive battle against the Arab invaders. Some of them eventually accepted Arab superiority without a fight and converted to Islam.
Around the middle of the 9th century the Turkic dynasty of the Kabul Shahs was displaced by the so-called Hindu Shahi (showcase 16). Around 870/1 CE Kabul was conquered by Yaqub bin Laith, called al-Saffari (the coppersmith), and the Hindu Shahis were forced to retreat to Gandhara. However, the rule of the Saffarids was short, and it seems that the Hindu Shahis managed to regain possession of Kabulistan shortly after Yaqub's death in 879 CE. This was even more significant since the rich silver mines of the Panjshir Valley (150 km north of Kabul) were the primary source of the extensive silver coinage of the Hindu Shahi. The end of the Hindu Shahis in Kabulistan came with the Samanids (874–1005 CE), who from their capital in Bukhara brought all of Khorasan and East Iran under their control. The first known Samanid dirhem struck in silver from the Panjshir Valley is dated to 293 AH (=905 CE). During the period of the Samanids and the Ghaznavids (977–1186 CE) Kabulistan was ultimately islamicized, opening a new chapter in the changeful history of Afghanistan.