Anthony Endrey



The Byzantine writer Priscus Rhetor reports that in 463 the Saragurs, Ugors and Onogurs were looking for a new country… Since we know that the Sabirs occupied the eastern Caucasus and the area around the Caspian Sea about that time and that the Akatsirs were living in the vicinity of the Sea of Azov, we can fix the location of the Saragurs, Ugors and Onogurs at the time referred to by Priscus as the region north of the Caucasus and east of the Black Sea. They appear to have been successful in establishing themselves in the area referred to, for archaeological finds and subsequent historical records testify to the continuous presence of Magyars (who then comprised both the Ugors and the Saragurs) and Onogurs in that region over the succeeding centuries. Their settlements extended from the northern Caucasus to the mouth of the Don and the lower Volga.


In 520, Byzantine writers recorded the story of a king of the ‘Huns’ living in the vicinity of the Straits of Kerch whose name was Gord (formed possibly from Ugor, or its previous form of Gor, with the addition of the old Hungarian suffix “–d”). Gord embraced Christianity and became an ally of the Byzantine Emperor but was killed by his people who elected his brother Muager in his place. Considering the eastern custom of naming children of royal families after the peoples destined to be ruled by them, the names of the two brothers suggest that they were Magyars, each bearing the name of his people in a different form. If so, the territory of the Hungarians must have extended to the Sea of Azov at that time.


In 561, Ugors, Onogurs and Saragurs are again mentioned by Zacharias Rhetor as related peoples inhabiting the South Russian steppes with ten other nations of Turkic origin. Zacharias states, ‘these thirteen peoples are tent-dwellers and make their living from the meat of cattle, fishing, wild animals and from arms.’ Whilst this description is a superficial one, ignoring the substantial industries and agricultural activities of the Magyars, reported in Arab sources, it indicates that after leaving their Caucasian homeland, the Magyars and the Huns associated with them were forced to lead a rather unsettled existence, without secure borders. Even so, they had a major city called Madzar or Magyar near Derbent in the northern Caucasus in this period, which had many fine buildings constructed of bricks and stone, the ruins of which survived well into the nineteenth century. This suggests that the Magyars still preferred permanent settlements to a nomadic way of life and only resorted to tents under the pressure of external circumstances.


In 569, a Byzantine envoy named Zemarchos is reported crossing the territory of the Ugors between the Lower Volga and the Kuban rivers. These were friendly to him and his entourage… At about the same time, another Byzantine historian, Theophylactes Simocatta, refers to a people called Ogur, which is ‘most powerful in numbers and military experience’ and lives near the lower Volga. He also describes how other peoples originated from this people and called themselves Avars… The Byzantine reports indicate that the Magyars were a powerful nation at that time, superior in standing to other peoples in the area.  It is now established by archaeological studies and other researches that a substantial body of Huns and Magyars went west with the Avars (who were a Turkic people related to the Huns) and settled in the Carpathian Basin from 568 onwards. This process appears to have been reinforced by a further wave of Hungarian settlers around 670, which coincided with substantial political changes in the area between the lower Volga and the northern Caucasus. There were, therefore successive movement of population from what was then Hungarian territory to the empire of the Avars in the west, increasing the Hungarian element in the latter. The result may well have been that towards the end of Avar rule in the Carpathian Basin (which lasted from 568 till 803), extensive parts of that area were populated by ethnic Hungarians.


In 620, an Onogur ruler named Kovrat united his people and the Magyars and having previously secured the alliance of Byzantium by becoming baptized, shook off the overlordship of the Turks. Around 630, he extended his rule to the Bulgars who emerged about a hundred and fifty years earlier as an offshoot of the Onogurs and were now reunited with them. Kovrat’s kingdom was essentially a joint Onogur-Magyar condominium which sought to gather together the various Hunnish an Turkic factions in the area delimited by the Don-mouth, the lower Volga, the Sea of Azov, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus proper. Under Kovrat’s reign, part of the Magyars and Onogurs embraced Christianity. Through the stability ensured by Kovrat’s firm rule and enhanced by the long period of peace with the Byzantines, prosperity returned to the entire region. As he grew old, however, the Khazars, who also made themselves independent of the Turks around 630 and were slowly gathering strength thereafter, began to emerge as a rival power in the area. When Kovrat died in the late 670’s, his kingdom was divided between his five sons and almost simultaneously, the Khazars attacked. The disunited Onogur-Hungarian confederation soon crumbled under the onslaught of the better-organized Khazars who annexed most of the territory of Kovrat’s former kingdom and set up their own empire in its place.


The collapse of the Onogur-Hungarian kingdom led to very substantial movements of populations. Part of the Bulgars struck out west, settling in present-day Bulgaria where they subjugated the local Slavonic tribes and established a powerful kingdom. Another part of the Bulgars moved to the middle Volga where their descendants still live under the name of Chuvash. The northern branch of Hungarians, the Saragurs, went with them and settled to the north of them in the neighborhood of the Bashkirs. They were still there, maintaining their ethnic identity, when the Hungarian monk Julian found them in 1237 but were soon after destroyed by the invading Mongols. Another wave of Hungarians settled in the Carpathian Basin around this time. Some of the Onogurs remained in the northern Caucasus under the rule of Kovrat’s son, Bayan, but they, too, were annexed by the Khazars in 680. The main body of the Magyars apparently stayed in their previous location between the Kuban River and the Don, but had to acknowledge the overlordship of the Khazar emperor.


We hear nothing of the Magyars for the first hundred years of Khazar rule. The collapse of Kovrat’s Onogur-Hungarian kingdom and the severe ethnic losses resulting from the migrations of part of the people to the Carpathian Basin, accompanied by the departure of the northern branch of Magyars to Bashkiria, must have left the Hungarians in a considerably weakened position and they probably used the ensuing hundred years to gather strength again. The Magyars began to rise again in numbers and power and gradually increased their authority within the framework of the Khazar Empire.


By 800, the Magyars were organized into seven tribes, functioning autonomously, and although they were not unified under a supreme ruler of their own, they were clearly flexing their muscle, for contemporary Arab sources describe them as ‘a great nation, able to protect themselves, whose jurisdiction extends a great distance.’ The weakening of the Khazar empire and the rising power of the Hungarians is also demonstrated by the fact, confirmed by several Arab reports, that in this period, the emperor of the Khazars went into battle with ten thousand soldiers, whereas the leader of the Magyars ‘rode with twenty thousand men.’ This number, of course does not indicate the entire military strength of the Hungarians but merely the number they contributed to the campaigns of the Khazars. The total armed strength of the Magyars must have been closer to fifty thousand.


For some reason the Hungarians moved to the north towards the beginning of the ninth century and settled around the mouth of the Don. They must have decided to look for a new homeland and so they expanded into the South Russian steppes, impinging on the home territory of the Khazars. The latter clearly must have felt threatened, as they had a fortified city, Sarkel, built on the lower Don with the help of Byzantine architects in 833-35, mainly as a defense against the Magyars. At this time, the Magyars, completely independent and master of their own destiny, began to undertake independent military campaigns on a substantial scale, ranging far towards the west. In 836, they appeared on the north bank of the Danube, near its mouth, and attacked the Byzantine fleet in alliance with the Danube Bulgars. This event shows not only that the Hungarians were able to cover tremendous distances, traversing the territories of other peoples with complete impunity, but also that they had extensive diplomatic relations as far away as the Balkans.


The Magyars continued to be active on the South Russian steppes. Towards the middle of the ninth century, large areas occupied by Slavs in Southern Russia were under Hungarian overlordship. In 862, a Hungarian army raided the Eastern Frankish Empire. The purpose of this campaign was probably to explore the Carpathian Basin where large groups of ethnic Hungarians and related peoples remained following the collapse of the Avar Empire in 803 and to relieve the pressure of the Franks on these relatives by establishing a Hungarian military presence there.


Around 890, the Magyars evacuated their settlements on the Don and moved further to the west, to the region between the Dnieper, Bug, Sereth and Pruth rivers, which they called “Etelköz” (“between the rivers”), probably to take up a better strategic position for the eventual occupation of the Carpathian Basin. That this was a well-organized, disciplined withdrawal in which the Magyars were complete master of the situation, is witnessed by the fact that three Khazar tribes who revolted against their emperor, also went with the Magyars and accompanied them to their new home. These Khazars probably came from territories adjoining the previous homeland of the Hungarians near the mouth of the Don and the ease with which they seceded from their own country indicates that prior to the move to “Etelköz”, portions of the Khazar Empire were under Hungarian hegemony. There is certainly no evidence of any attempt on the part of the Khazars to prevent these rebels from joining the Hungarians on their westward journey.


On their arrival in Etelköz, the Hungarians sized up the situation. The task ahead of them was formidable: the final homeland where they wanted to settle was partitioned among powerful adversaries and their temporary home where they had to leave their families and possessions whilst engaged in a major war in the west, was an ill-defined country with virtually indefensible borders and exposed to attack from all directions… The conquest of the Carpathian Basin was no minor exercise either.


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

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