The Scourge of the Steppe

Photo by Flash Parker

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 civilisation – that much I am sure of. I scratch my head and twist the corners of my moustache, 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 much 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 realise 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.

Top: Turkish children near Izmir, Turkey: Picked table grapes will be sent by truck to Europe’s fruit stands Bottom: Kaputas beach, between Kalkan and Kas,Anatolia, Turkey

Attila the Hun was wreaking havoc 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 tablecloth. Just as my waitress is nonplussed at the sight of my transgression, so too did Attila agitate 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 apologise 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 and 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.

Diyarbakır, Turkey: During its 3,000-year history, the ancient Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, with its warrens of cobblestone alleyways, has acquired a distinct timelessness

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 centralise 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 immediately sought 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.

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. Ultimately, Attila failed in spreading his bloodline deep into enemy territory and was unable to claim his Roman bride, markedly altering the course of Hunnic history.

Read the rest of this article in No.91 Issue 6/2012 of Asian Geographic magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.


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