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The Usuns & The Huns

The Usuns

At the end of the third century ВС, a new political amalgamation was emerging, headed by a people known as the Usuns. In 160 ВС, the Usuns, of possible Turkic origin from the East, appeared in the Jeti-Su - that is the land of the Seven Rivers - and defeated the Sak army. The Usuns were quick to spread their authority and were the first on Kazakh territory to establish a hierarchy of clan leaders. Such leaders reported to the Great Beg, or Gunmo, whose office was hereditary.

The territory of the Usun union stretched from Lake Balkhash in the north to Lake Issyk-Kul in the south and from the Tien Shan Mountains in the east to the Talas river (now close to present-day Taraz). Their capital was sited on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, at Chiguchen (the City of the Red Vale). We know from Chinese sources - as researched by Kazakh historian, Nygmet Mynzhan - that the population of the Usuns reached 630,000 at its zenith, in approximately the fourth century AD.

Ancient Chinese Emperors were apparently on good terms with the Great Beg. They sustained ambassadorial links with the ruler until the weakening of the Usun realm at the end of the third century, as a new invasion force was looming east of the mountains that border the great central Asian steppe.

The Huns

These were the Huns. They had been present in parts of the Steppe from as early as the third century ВС. Their reputation was barbarous and warlike. Now, in the fifth century AD, under the Attila ('little father') from east of the Tien Shan, they were to assert their power. With Attila to lead them they swept across central Asia leaving a trail of devastation, eventually to make an equally dramatic impact on Europe and the faltering civilisation of Rome.

The very first mention (in Chinese records) of people named Hun dates from 822 ВС. They emerged from the plateau north of Tibet. Chinese sources claim that, at the turn of the third century ВС, the Huns brought pressure to bear eastwards on Han territory, obliging the Chinese emperors to build the Great Wall.

In 209 ВС, the Hun leader Mode pronounced himself Sengir ('the highest') and energetically started to build a Hun state, uniting twenty-four tribes. The wars between China and the Huns, exhausting and seemingly endless, persisted until 188 ВС. Mode was at the height of his power. As a result, the Chinese dynasty, under the Han, was in a state of vassalage to the Hun Empire. China dutifully paid an annual tribute to its aggressive neighbour. After 59 ВС a series of savage conflicts resulted -twelve years later - in the division of the Hun dynasty into two. The northern pan reverted to the full authority of the (Han) Chinese empire, while the southern remained independent - and Hunnic.

The Huns' Sengir was further entitled 'the one born of Heaven and Earth, and placed on the earth by the sun and the moon'. His was absolute power. He was responsible for the military, for diplomacy, and was himself an object of worship. Succession to the throne was determined by the Sengirs choice, yet most often was passed to the eldest son. Blood relations of the Sengir sustained or comprised the elite of the Hun regime. The bureaucracy was complex. The legal system evolved a 'Code of Laws' by which evasion of military duty warranted a death penalty. The Huns also pioneered a feudal land system. They introduced taxes and spread literacy, using an orthography of their own devising.

By the beginning of the first millennium AD, the Huns had reached the land between the Volga, the Don and the Aral Sea, having evidently spread north of the territory dominated by Saks and Usuns. There was intermarriage and the absorption of dominated peoples, including Alans and Kangars. By 375 AD they had crossed the Don and broken the defences of the Eastern Goths. All this had initiated a surge of migration in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It was only when Attila had gained power (by killing his older brother, his father's heir) that the Huns formalised their authority throughout much of the Steppe. 

Attila's death in 453 AD led to the unravelling of the Hunnic empire.

The Huns' own style of nomadism engendered a re-design of the yurt. A framework of iron tubes, circulating warm air and placed inside the felt of the walls of the yurt, provided a heating system. The Huns used leather for clothing and also wove cloth of cotton and wool, while buying Chinese silk for the nobility's formal attire.

By the later fifth century AD, the Huns had been eliminated - or, at least, their power was gone.

Upon this fragmentation of a once formidable empire, the Huns were apparently pushed south across the Syrdarya by the western Turks (a branch of the so-called Kok - or 'Blue' Turks) who, in 559 AD, allied with the Sassanids of Persia.

Thus were the Huns ousted, plunging the Steppes of Kazakhstan into another era: the early mediaeval years of competing Turkic speaking groups among which may be discerned what scholars define as the Proto-Kipchak dialect, a significant Iinguistic ingredient of the Kazakh tongue of today.