FROM MESOPOTAMIA TO THE CAUCASUS



Anthony Endrey
(Excerpts)

The ancestors of the Hungarians were a Turanian people who probably lived in the area between the Tigris River and the Zagros mountains, known as Subartu in ancient times, during the fourth and third millennia BC. Their settlements may also have extended to the mountainous region of Upper Mesopotamia during this period.

The Hungarian language is a distant relative of the Finno-Ugrian and Turkic languages but not sufficiently close to either group to be classified as its member. It must be therefore regarded as an independent branch of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, standing on its own. Hungarian is a highly conservative language, having preserved virtually all its basic vocabulary, suffixes and grammatical structure over the last thousand years, and this fact, coupled with the absence of any known near relatives, indicates that the people speaking it must have led an independent existence for a very long time. This is also confirmed by the great antiquity of Hungarian words relating to state and political affairs and social and military organizations.

Whilst the proto-Hungarians were living in the Mesopotamian area, they were exposed to strong Sumerian linguistic and cultural influences, which have left many traces in their language and folklore. The Sumerians were also of Turanian origin and settled in Lower Mesopotamia around 3500 BC… It is likely that Sumerian ethnic elements overflowed into Subartu and intermarried with the proto-Hungarians. The Subarians were a proud and independent race. The ancestors of Hungarians were great horsemen even in this early period. We can be certain of this for several reasons. Firstly, the very use of the horse reached Mesopotamia from the general direction of Subartu and there are several archaeological finds indicating the existence of a culture based on extensive use of the horse in that region. Secondly, the Subarians manifested great mobility in their wars. Thirdly, there is the well-attested fact that the Hurrians (also a Turanian people) who were closely associated with the Subarians were fierce horsemen who introduced new methods of chariot warfare to the Near East and were buried with their horses when they died. This custom was still observed by the Hungarians in the tenth century AD. The Hurrians also used a prototype of the composite bow – made of laminated layers of bone and different kinds of timber -the powerful weapon of Hun, Avar and Magyar archers causing so much havoc in the West. We can therefore visualize the ancestors of the Hungarians during their Mesopotamian era as a proud warrior people, with a great love for the horse.

In the eighteenth century BC, the Hurrians whose main body had occupied the region of Lake Van in eastern Anatolia, suddenly exploded throughout the Near East, destroying Assyria, establishing a strong Hurrian state, called Mitanni, in Upper Mesopotamia, and setting up dominant Hurrian colonies. It is reasonable to assume that it was during the turbulence created by the Hurrians that the proto-Hungarians were dislodged from Subartu and were resettled in Transcaucasia, probably to act as frontier guardsmen for the Hurrian heartland. A millennium later, the Hungarians still live in Transcaucasia. Separated from their fellow-Subarians, they developed independently.

The independence of the Magyars during their association with Urartu is also confirmed by the Urartian source from 740 BC. This states that in one of his northern campaigns, the Urartian king, Sarduri II (c. 764-735 BC) … kept clear of the Magyars, most likely because he had a healthy respect for their independent spirit and military power.

With the destruction of Urartu by the Medes at the beginning of the sixth century BC the mighty Persian Empire began its expansion towards the Caucasian region and at the middle of the sixth century BC, we find the Magyars furnishing soldiers for the army of Cyrus in his western campaigns. It is on this occasion that the Hungarians appear under their present name for the first time. Reporting on the wars of the Persians against the Greeks, Herodotus refers repeatedly to a people called Makrones, living in the neighborhood of Colchis and Cappadocia. Allowing for the usual Greek distortion, the name of this people must have been Makor, or a name sounding like that to Greek ears, and this is confirmed by the fact that even at the present time, there is a local mountain called Makur Dagh (Mount Makur) in that part of Transcaucasia. Medieval Hungarian sources still refer to the mythical ancestor of the Magyars as Magor. Since the Makors appear in the same geographical area where the Gors or Gurs lived previously and where we find the Ugors at a later date, the conclusion that the Makrones of Herodotus were identical with the Magyars, is virtually inescapable.
(Read the article about the origins of the names UGOR and MAGOR.)

The Makrones are mentioned again in Xenophon’s Persian Expedition, written at the beginning of the fourth century BC. It is clear from the report that at that time they were a free and independent people with a substantial army capable of impeding the progress of the Greeks. They must have been therefore able to fend off the intrusions of the Persians and although they furnished auxiliary troops to the latter at times, they apparently managed to preserve their independence on the whole.

Some time in the second century BC, a branch of the Huns settled in the Caucasus. The Huns were a Turkic people who lived in western Mongolia and eastern Turkestan for many centuries before Christ. They are mentioned in Chinese sources under various names from the eighth century BC onward as fierce, nomadic tribesmen who formed huge empires with other Turkic peoples in that area and were constantly embattling the Chinese. However, the fortunes of war went against them at times. It was thus probably due partly to external defeats and partly to internal pressures that part of the Huns decided to strike out west and eventually reached the Caucasus, whilst their main body remained in their old home to the north of Chine for another five centuries.

Around the birth of Christ or perhaps even earlier, a substantial body of these Huns moved into Transcaucasia and their territory clearly overlapped the region occupied by the Magyars. During the third, fourth and fifth centuries AD, these southern Huns repeatedly intervened in the power struggles taking place in the Near East.

During the fourth century BC the main body of the Huns had arrived from the east and was pushing forward into Europe to build a new empire there.

During all these centuries, we hear only of Huns and no mention is made of the Magyars in any contemporary source. However, they were clearly present. As we can judge from the reappearance of the Magyars as a people of substantial size soon after the withdrawal of the Huns from the Caucasus, they were not only there all the time but also underwent cultural and ethnic changes whilst obscured by the Huns. When the Huns emerge on the northern side of the Caucasus, they are no longer designated as Huns in Byzantine and other sources but as Ugors, the specific name of Hungarians. Over the centuries, part of the Huns merged with the Magyars to form one people. This Hun-Magyar amalgam, which assumed the name of the original inhabitants, soon rose to a position of preeminence among the other Huns in the Caucasus and furnished leading classes for them. Thus, not only was this central kernel known as Ugors to their neighbors but other branches of the Caucasian Huns also adopted the name Ugor in a composite form, such as the Onogurs (ten Ugors) and the Saragurs (white Ugors – northern Magyars), suggesting that they, too, regarded themselves as Ugors. The identity of the Onogurs with the Huns of the Caucasus is proved conclusively by Byzantine writers who repeatedly refer to them as “Onogur Huns” and confirm their presence first in the southern and then in the northern Caucasus in the early centuries of the Christian era…

The amalgamation of Huns and Magyars must have been an essentially peaceful process, since the Hungarian national tradition has preserved no memory of any savage oppression or conquest; on the contrary, all early Hungarian sources proclaim the identity of Huns and Magyars…

After 375, when the main body of the Huns crossed the Volga under their king Balamber and set out on their conquest of Europe, this Caucasian Hun-Magyar amalgam became one of the constituent bodies of the new Hunnish empire centered on the Carpathian Basin and took part in its western campaigns. Indeed, part of the Hungarian people was resettled in Transylvania during this period where they later became known as the Szekelys. It was probably this depletion of the Caucasian area of its military potential, accentuated by the tremendous expansion of the western empire of the Huns under Atilla, which caused the Huns in the Caucasus and the surrounding region to fight a preventive war against both Persia and Byzantium in 450.

After the death of Atilla in 453, the empire of the Huns disintegrated and the Caucasian branch was no longer able to contain the attacks of the Persian and Byzantine Empires threatening them simultaneously. The Magyars, along with their Hun allies, therefore retreated to the north, leaving behind part of their people in the Kur valley where they came increasingly under Persian domination and ultimately disappeared in the thirteenth century.

Although the everyday life of the Huns and Magyar in their Caucasian homeland was largely based on animal husbandry, mainly horses, cattle and sheep, they also had a substantial agriculture, growing cereals and cultivating orchards, gardens and vineyards. They lived in permanent settlements and their major towns had strong fortifications the remains of which are mentioned by Byzantine travelers centuries later. The Magyars also had a highly developed metallurgy the roots of which probably went back to Mesopotamian times and the work of their silversmiths was widely sought. They also had their own alphabet, which was perfectly adapted to the Hungarian language, and kept written records. All this indicates that they must have had a thriving cultural life and that they had attained a high degree of civilization when they were uprooted by external forces and were compelled to depart for the north.

The Hungarians thus spent over two thousand years in the southern Caucasus during which time their ethnic composition was substantially changed. When they moved to the north, the unsettling influences, which dislodged them from their Caucasian homeland continued to operate in their area and new threats soon arrived on the horizon. The following centuries were therefore full of grave upheavals for them and they had to endure many trials until they were able to find a new permanent home.

(Anthony Endrey, Hungarian History Part One, The Hungarian Institute, Melbourne, 1982)

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