VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE
This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.
VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE
How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 2
By Flash Parker
THE SCOURGE OF THE STEPPE
With an exasperated sigh I set down my notebook on the edge of the table and look out over the Turkish countryside. I have failed to shed a drop of the tiger’s blood, and now the scent has left the air. The tiger is not descended from a lost Turkic civilization – that much I am sure of. I scratch my head and twist the corners of my mustache, hoping to come to some sort of revelation. If the tiger’s blood were in some way connected to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, or Sargon, I would have no problem finding the blood link. History has a way of remembering merciless despot warrior kings, after all. Is it possible that Ark Raider is making an erroneous link between his tiger and the Great Khan? It wouldn’t be a stretch; as many as eight-percent of men currently living in former Mongol territories share Y-chromosome similarities with the Ghengis line.
I decide to eavesdrop on Ark Raider for clues. “The tiger is already fierce,” he says. “Powerful, ambitious, and hungry.” His friend considers this for a moment. “But ambition left unchecked can quickly become prejudicial,” the friend says, “especially when the tiger does not get his way. Then the tiger may become the scourge of the steppe, bloodthirsty and angry.”
I slap my hands together so hard I’m sure goats six towns over are having heart attacks. Why didn’t I see the link before? Why did it take until now to realize that Ark Raider was talking about the man whose legend made Genghis quake in his boots? The scourge of the steppe must be another name for the Scourge of God – the one and only Attila the Hun.
Attila the Hun was kicking ass on the steppe long before the mighty Genghis was even a glint on papa Khan’s bloodstained sword. Attila’s vast armies spread across the countryside the way my spilled coffee spreads across the white linen table cloth. Just as my waitress is nonplussed at the sight of my transgression, so too did Attila piss off just about every man and woman he happened across. Being Attila the Hun, he didn’t put up with much gruff; disrespect or dissent was likely to be met with a yak-hide boot to the chops, while more serious contraventions met with more serious punishments: some legends hold that Attila trained his horses to eat human flesh, and he would feed them the still-beating hearts of his enemies. Historians reluctantly concede that Attila’s nomadic Hun’s were forbearers of the Turkic people, despite genealogical claims from every corner of the globe. If I could get away with it, I too would claim Hun ancestry, though my ineptitude with a sword would certainly give me away. Suddenly I feel as though I’m on the right track this time.
I apologize to my waitress, tear the ancient history from my notebook, and begin looking deep into the tiger’s past. I consider pricking my finger and writing this chapter in my own blood – it seems like something Attila might do.
I understand that claiming a direct link between the tiger and Attila is presumptuous; historians have been making the same concerted efforts for hundreds of years. Chasing a single drop of blood through history is a daunting task, even if that blood belongs to a historical juggernaut like Attila the Hun. His DNA was never harvested by a mosquito and then locked in an amber marble, so it seems unlikely that scientists will ever unlock the secret code to his genome and populate a remote island with snarling, sword wielding proto-Turks. Yet there are some clues as to how the Huns may have contributed to the modern-day Turkish gene pool. Sorting out who tossed a chlorinated DNA tablet into the deep end is another matter entirely.
The Huns descended from a line of ancient nomads who ruled the Mongolian steppe, coexisting with the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE – 220 CE; these nomads were known as the Xiongnu, and they were a force to be reckoned with long before Attila appeared on the scene. In fact, the Xiongnu were so ferocious that they terrified the Chinese into building the first sections of the Great Wall. When the Han Chinese finally mustered the courage to launch an all-out assault on the Xiongnu, some Xiongnu clans headed west, pillaging and plundering along the way. One particularly battle-hardy clan landed in Scythia, and proceeded to pummel all adversaries into submission. The Scythian tribes that were not obliterated joined forces with this new power, and the Huns were born.
When Attila was born in 406 CE, the Huns were a scattered alliance of nomadic herders. Each clan had a separate king, and clans frequently warred with one another over territory, livestock, and tributes. The Roman Empire pitted clans against one another to serve their own purposes, such as when they needed mercenaries to dispatch hostile nomads from distant territories. Sometime after 420 CE, Attila’s uncle Rua brought the Hun clans together by killing these feuding kings; Rua subsequently united the Hun clans against the common Roman enemy, and demanded tribute payments in exchange for keeping the peace – and the odd freelance mercenary assignment. With the tribute gold received from the Eastern Romans in Constantinople, the Huns were able to transition from relying on a pastoral economy to one based on currency and the exchange of goods; this allowed the Huns to build cities and centralize their government, as they were no longer required to follow herds of livestock across the steppe.
When Rua died, his nephews Attila and Bleda took power, and sough immediately to expand the Hunnic Empire. The Huns waged war for a time in Persian territories, but a defeat at the hands of the Sassanian Empire forced them to turn their attention – and their bloodlust – on the Romans. Bleda and Attila ran roughshod through a number of Eastern Roman cities before Constantinople again bought a measure of peace – for a price so steep that the Huns were able to build great cities of their own, and pay for thunderous campaigns Attila would soon launch against his enemies.
A BARBARIAN LOVE STORY
Attila took control of the Hunnic Empire upon Belda’s death in 445 CE; again Attila attacked the Eastern Romans, this time taking the Balkans, and steadily marched on Constantinople. The Romans paid the Huns for their trouble yet again, saving their great city in a last-gasp effort. The intervening years would see Attila mount a series of campaigns against the Romans and other enemies, while the Romans attempted desperately to assassinate the leader of the Huns in an effort to exert a measure of control over the steppe.
A watershed moment in the history of the Huns occurred in 450 CE. Attila had formed an uneasy alliance with Emperor Valentinian III of the Western Roman Empire, joining forces to sack Toulouse, at the time a part of the Visigoth kingdom. Attila had previously assisted the Western Romans in their campaigns against the Bagaudae and the Goths, and he enjoyed a good relationship with the powerful Roman general Flavius Aëtius.
Shortly before attacking Toulouse, Attila received an entreaty from the Roman princess Honoria (sister of Valentinian III): Honoria had been betrothed to a man she feared, and she begged Attila to rescue her. Attila interpreted Honoria’s entreaty as a marriage proposal – she had sent a ring to the king of the Huns, after all – and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian III refused, and Attila promptly marched his great army into France and Germany, pillaging and plundering his way to claiming his new wife.
Attila met his old friend Aëtius on the battlefields of Catalaunia. With the assistance of numerous vassal states the Romans were able to keep Attila from riding roughshod through all the European territories – and wiping Christian Europe from the face of the earth in the process. Attila had failed in spreading his bloodline deep into enemy territory, and was unable to claim his Roman bride, markedly altering the course of Hunnic history.
Infuriated at his defeat in France, Attila turned his attention to Rome. Italy had been devastated by a famine in 452 CE, and Attila saw an opportunity to lay waste to the Roman Empire once and for all – he also saw this as an opportunity to take Honoria as his bride. If Attila couldn’t wipe out the Romans, he would reign as their Emperor instead. The Huns sacked Milan with ease, but did not anticipate the effects of the famine on their own warriors. Subsequently, they were forced to retreat from Italy, as the Pope sighed with no small measure of relief.
Attila died soon after, and his death rocked his empire. His sons quarreled for control, again splitting the Huns into feuding clans. Attila’s oldest son Ellac eventually won control of the throne, but not before the Huns lost most of their own important vassal states. The Huns were forced out of major strategic posts in Europe, Ellac was killed, and another son, Dengizich, took control of the crumbling empire. The ambitious Dengizich deigned to reign supreme as his father had, and looked to exert power over the Eastern Romans once again. The young Hun demanded tribute from Constantinople, but in the process lost the support of his brother, Attila’s third son, Ernakh; Ernakh turned his back on his brother, and left Dengizich to face the Romans with a relatively small band of warriors. Dengizich was defeated by the Byzantines; the few warriors that remained after the slaughter joined Ernakh’s ranks, and integrated with the Bulgars – precursors to today’s modern Bulgarians. The Huns, as they had been known, were finished.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARDS
The Bulgars make the most substantial claim to the line of the Huns, through their connection to Attila’s sons, yet while they were of Turkic blood, they were never wholly Hunnic; the Bulgars were from the beginning a mix of Scythians, Iranics, Finnos, Suars, and numerous other ethnic bloodlines. The Bulgars thrived in the power vacuum created by the demise of the Huns, and established a modest kingdom on the Pontic steppe, as well as the Islamic state of Volga Bulgaria.
The Bulgar king Kubrat was the nephew of Ernakh, son of Attila. Kubrat was educated in Constantinople, and raised a Christian; he used religion as a tool to unite many Bulgar tribes, and established the kingdom of Great Bulgaria. Great Bulgaria expanded to encompass lands from the Danube to the Volga River, and enjoyed friendly relations with the Byzantine Empire. Kubrat’s death saw his sons seize command of various outposts, engage in numerous expansion battles, and influence bloodlines through Europe and the Near East forever.
Great Bulgaria was eventually annexed by the Khazar Empire, leading to the establishment of the Bulgarian Empire; Kubrat’s son Asparuh ruled the Bulgarian Empire and mounted campaigns against the Byzantines that earned him great respect among his brothers and contemporary clans. When Asparuh signed a treaty with Constantine IV in 681 CE, modern Bulgaria was established. Asparuh’s branch of the Bulgar tree was broken when his people were assimilated by Slavic peoples in the 10th Century.
Kubrat’s son Batbayan’s control over Black Sea territories was likewise stripped by the Khazars, and his Bulgar clans were converted to Judaism. They spread throughout the Balkans and are considered ancestors of the Balkars.
Volgar Bulgaria, ruled by son Kotrag, converted to Islam in the 10th Century, and built great cities that controlled trade throughout the region prior to the Crusades. Volgar Bulgaria stood until Ghengis Khan’s army took the capital of Bolghar in the 13th Century. Bolghar became an integral part of the Golden Horde, but Bulgar culture endured; the people that remained after the Mongol invasion are now considered the ancestors of the modern Tatarstans and Chuvashia peoples, of southeastern and central European Russia, respectively.
Kubrat’s sons Alcek and Kuber settled their Bulgar clans in Italy and Macedonia. These clans were extremely multi-ethnic, and splintered often through history; historians have in general failed to link these ancient bloodlines with any contemporary peoples.
Looking back through history and down the line of the Bulgars, through the Huns, and all the way back to the Xiongnu, it quickly becomes evident that making a real, substantial link to the house of Attila is difficult, if not impossible. I see no end to this odyssey, no end to my frustrating search. For every solid line I discover, ten crooked tangents shoot off in another direction. A kingdom fell here, and a people flourished there – clans rise, tribes fall; some kings procreate, and some great lines turn to dust. One book convinces me that the Chuvashia are the true descendants of Attila, while another persuades me to believe that the Magyars, also known as the Hungarians, have the persuasive power of popular ethnogenesis on their side. Academic journals ask me not to forget about the Khazars, while the Székelys merit some attention for slipping in through Transylvania’s backdoor and claiming Hun ancestry as the gatekeepers to the Carpathians. There is no dearth of claims to be made on Attila’s misshapen crown; even Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula was based in part on a nonfictional Székely lord. It’s frightening to think that even Dracula himself drew the blood of Attila the Hun.
Suddenly, my blood runs cold. A chill races down my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. What if I’m wrong about Attila? What if it is possible to trace his bloodline through the ages? When Ark Raider’s friend made mention of the blood-thirsty tiger, perhaps he was doing so in the most literal sense imaginable. I lower my head, pull my jacked up nice and snug around my neck (one can never be too careful), and slink low into my char. I need to know whether or not the Anatolian Tiger is a descendant of Dracula, and I need to know it now.