The Iranian "Alans" (Sarmatians/Scythians) of Europe & West Asia

In Antiquity, the steppes were ruled by horse lords speaking
an Indo-Iranian tongue, often labeled as Scythians. These "Scythians" could be categorized in the actual Scythians, who lived in western steppes north of the Black Sea, the Sarmatians, who gradualy pushed westwards during the second century BC to eventually replace the Scythians, and the Saka, the eastern Scythians living north-east of the Aral Sea. Their reign of the steppe gradually came to an end with the Huns, a people of Mongol or Turk origin. Until the 4th century AD the Sarmatians were either killed, subjugated or forced to migrate west- or southwards. A faction of these Scythians were the Alans, formerly part of the Sarmatian confederation. Some of them moved westwards, either settling on the Crimean peninsular or actively participating in the downfall of the Western Roman Empire by raiding its territory and eventually founding two post-Roman kingdoms: One short-lived kingdom north of the Loire River in modern France and an other, more famous and successful one in North Africa, where they would share their rule with the Germanic Vandals. On the long run though, all Alans who migrated westwards were assimilated fairly quickly. As dramatic their appearance was, as quickly were they forgotten, now appearing as not much more than a footnote in history, interesting only to those with a passion for late Antiquity. 

But this is not their whole story, not even close. The branch of the Alans that did not migrate to west, but to the south, was about to see a much different fate. They migrated to the steppes near the Caucasus, roughly corresponding to the modern "North Caucasus Federal district" (Leaving out Dagestan). As attested by archaeology, the Alans started to migrate in this area from the fifth to the sixth century in large numbers, where they, despite their nomadic origins, would settle immediately. It appears that the relations to the Eastern Roman Empire were quite friendly from the very beginning. Some of them, like Ardabur and his son Aspar (5th century), reached high ranks in the Eastern Roman army.

Roughly one century later sources mention an Alan king for the first time, named Sarosius and described as friend of the Byzantine Empire. He and his warriors are described as very active against the Persians in the Caucasus. It seems likely that Sarosius was the king of the western Alans, living near the Kuban River. The eastern Alans, who settled near the Terek River, were probably in closer proximity to Persia. 

Why the Alans could consolidate themselves that fast must be explained with a new branch of the Silk Road developing after the 6th century, leading through passes controlled by the Alans. The Alans would obviously greatly benefit from the taxes and luxury goods travelling through that road. Since the Byzantine Empire, western Alanias most important ally, was mostly at war with Sasanid Persia the Caucasian road was a welcome alternative to supply the markets with precious far eastern goods. The safety of the road would be granted by a myriad of fortresses how they are proven for this and even more so the following time.

Moving forward in time, we are reaching the mid 7th century, when not only the Arabs conquered Persia and large parts of the Byzantine Empire, but a new power has risen in the steppes as well: The Khazar Khanate, located on the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea. Mentioned in 586 for the first time, it quickly became one of the mightiest states of its time. Expanding Islam reached the khanate in 642, resulting in a war lasting a decade. However, the Khazars were one of the few nations who managed to defeat the Arabs decisively. It had now time to erect its hegemony over the western steppes, degrading the Alans to a tributary status until the mid-8th century. Promoted by an influx of Turkic settlers, perhaps Bulgars, the Alans also underwent a process of “soft” Turkization, visible for example in the replacement of the classical Scythian longswords by sightly curved sabres.

It was also a time when many new fortresses were constructed, serving the protection of the frontier zone with the Caliphate. Indeed, this era was one of titanic struggles, marked by the wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Umayyad and later Abbasid caliphate. The Khazars mainly tried to remain neutral in these conflicts, instead focusing on its role as trading empire. Nevertheless, it was again dragged into war with the Muslim Caliphates in the 8thcentury. This time the odds were against the Khazars, and Alania became the mentioned frontier zone. However, after the 8th century the Khazar-Arab relations remained mostly peaceful.
After those conflicts the Khazars wanted to ensure once and for all that they would never to be dropped into the Byzantine-Arab sruggles. They made a revolutionary decision: The conversion to Judaism in the 9th century. As far as we can tell, this decision did not affect the Alans very much. They remained predominantly pagan, adhering the archaic Sarmatian religion and folklore of old. Yet.

The Alan independence and eventual formation of the high Medieval Alan kingdom was rendered possible by the decline of the Khazar Khanate, which started in the later 9th century. This time marked a) the rise of the Kievan Rus, a direct economical competitor b) the decay of Khazar-Byzantine relations, perhaps due to the conversion of the Khazars. Both would have dramatic consequences: The Kievan Rus would eventually not just hurt the Khazars economically, but would they attack them as well. The Rus would finally destroy the Khanate in 968, but did the Alans already obtained significant autonomy before. In fact, they were recorded to be hostile towards the Khazars already in the early 10th century. Instead, they prefered to maintain friendly relations with the Byzantines.

The Byzantine influence, coming from Abkhazia, ultimately resulted in the baptizement of the Alan king during the time of patriarch Nicholas the Mystic (901-907), followed by the establishment of the Alan diocese with its seat in the Alan capital, which was called Magas in the Arabic sources. The location of Magas is still disputed, but it is generally assumed to be identical with Arkhyz, albeit some others note that there are no signs for a royal palace there, instead suggesting modern Kiafar, which is located further west. In this early era, Christianity was limited to the ruling class only. Ibn Rustah wrote in his "Book of precious ornaments" (c. 903-913), that the king of the Alans is "Christian at heart, but all people who inhabit his kingdom are heathens worshipping idols". Part of this pagan faith was the worship of the god Apasty, the patron of the hunt. Later on he was reinterpreted to the Christian saint St. Eustace. 
Despite this, many churches were constructed throughout the country. Even though the Mongol and especially Timurid invasions caused great destruction, several dozen churches and chapel remain to this day and some, like the Zelenchuk and Nuzal churches, even contain fragmentarily preserved murals, although most are gone by now. Both the architecture ("Cross-in-square") and murals reflect the Byzantine influence.

The spread of Christianity in the Alan lands suffered a temporary blow, when the Alans abjured the Christian faith, as to al-Masudi, in 931/2. According to the "Schechter Letter" ("Cambrigde Document"), a Jewish document from the 10th century, this abjuration was the result of a lost war between Alania and the Khazars, a conflict provoked by Byzantium. The Alans then expelled the Byzantine priests and destroyed at least some of the churches, as can be attested by traces of destruction in a couple of excavated churches dating to this period. They were later repaired however and Byzantine sources show that by the mid 10th century, but after 940, the Alan king was Christian yet again. Until the fall of the Alan kingdom the Christian faith managed to spread among the common people, albeit the bishop Theodor, who wrote right before the Mongol invasion, records that the Alans were Christians "only by name". 

Al-Masudi, who died in 956, left the most detailed Arabic report on the Alan kingdom. He mentions that the Alans were allied with the Avar kingdom of Sarir via marriages, where the both kings married the sister of the other. 

That the Alans and Avars of Sarir were allies is also attested by Ahmed Lutfullah (Died in 1702), who, while relying on older sources, mentions a raid of Alans and Avars in 1032, targeting Shirvan and Yazidiyah in what is now eastern Azerbaijan. Indeed this period seemed to have been one of great aggression against the Muslim parts of the Caucasus. Except of the Alan-Avar alliance the Alans also allied with the Rus for an other raid, but were both parties defeated. This was appareantly also the end of the Rus presence in the Caucasus. Nevertheless did the Alan aggression continue. 29 years later they initiated yet an other invasion towards central Azerbaijan, capturing more than 20.000 persons.

The Alans placed a great emphasis on alliances via intermarriages with their neighbours. We already mentioned the Avars of Sarir, but did the Alan royal family also maintain relations with those of Byzantium and Georgia. After the tedious wars with the Arabs, both became increasingly influential in the region and would eventually even rival each other.

As we have seen were the Byzantines in close contact with Alania since the latter converted to Christianity. Marriage relations between the royal houses are attested since the 11th century and probably came to a close with the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, when the Byzantine empire was reduced to a local kingdom with no over-regional influence. These marriages could be like the marriage of Irene to the sebastokrator Isaac Kommenos, who was said to be the daughter of an Alan king, or be of a more passive nature, like the marriage of the famous Maria / Martha "of Alania" to Michael VII and subsequently Nicephoros III, who was infact a semi-Alan. These martial ties allowed the Byzantine empire to get access to Alan warriors. One source states at one occasion, the empire hired Alan mercenaries directly in Alania. These Alan mercenaries, repeatedly praised for their high value in battle, were an essential part of Byzantine warfare, first mentioned during the aftermath of the battle of Manzikert in 1071, while the last mention comes from the early 14th century. Some Alans even settled in the Byzantine empire. For example we know about a strong community in Thessalonici (12th century).

Now to come to the Alan-Georgian relations: The mentioned empress Maria was the daughter of the Georgian king Bagrat IV (r. 1027-1072) and his Alan wife Borena. Borena was the second attested Alan women of royal Alan pedigree that was married off to a Georgian king after Alda, which was married off to king Giorgi I (r. 1014-1027). Alda was said to be the daugther of an Alan king, while Borena was the sister of king Dorgolel (r.c. 1030-1060). Perhaps Dorgolel was the successor of Urdure, who was said to invade the autonomous Georgian kingdom of Kakheti during the 1020's, where he was killed. Under Dorgolel there was yet again an invasion, but this time under the souverainity of the Georgian crown. In around 1060, he led an army of around 40.000 men to the Muslim emirate of Ganja, causing great devastation.

So we see that especially in the 11th century, Alania was very active in the south-eastern Caucasus. Perhaps it was under the mentioned Dorgolel, known in the Georgian chronicles as "The great king of the Alans", that the kingdom reached its ultimate peak. It was in the prime of its urbanization: Arab sources speak of "uninterrupted series of settlements, so close that, when the cocks crow, they reply to each other from one side of the kingdom the other". Archaeology attests that the presumed capital Arkhyz, ie. Magas, was prospering.

However, at the turn to the 12th century, we see some signs of decline, since Geogrian chronicles start to speak of Alanian kings ruling simultaneously, perhaps indicating the (temporary?) reemergence of the west-east fragmentation of ancient times. Perhaps due to this fracture the Georgians looked for new, more powerful allies in the north, which they eventually found in the Cumans. After taking control of the steppes north of the Black Sea in around 1060, they started to push southwards until they reached the Kuban basin and therefore Alan territory. Eventually, the Georgian king David III married the daugther of khan Sharukan. Cumans started to settle in Georgia, first as fighters, later, under Khan Otrok, with their families, numbering more than 40.000 people. Since the Cumans and Alans were at the war, the Georgian mediated a peace between them, therefore ensuring the save passage of the Cumans through Darial.

Despite this recruitment of a new, powerful ally in Alanias stead, it seems that the Georgian royal family was still interested in maintaining its links with the Alan one. This interest should prove to bring fruitful results: In the mid 12th century, the Georgian king Demetre I married off his son Giorgi, later known as Giorgi III, to Burduxan, daughter of the Alan king Xuddan. They got a daugther named Tamar, who, after the death of her father, became the queen of Georgia. Her reign is considered to be the absolute peak of the Georgias golden Age. It is recorded that she tried to tie dynastic relations with the Rus by marrying a prince from Novgorod, but he after two years he rebelled and in his stead she married an Alan named Davit Soslan, who was either a king or a prince.

Nevertheless, Alania was in decline. Apart of the mentioned Cumans pushing towards Alan territory, there would have been other responsible events. One blow might have been the fall of the Cosntantinople in 1204, drastically weakening its long time ally. Ultimately however, the renown historian Kuznetsov concludes that the Alan kingdom failed because it was an enforcement of Byzantine administration and religion on a people that was heavily clan-oriented. This failure proved fatal even more, considering that it occured on the eve of the Mongol conquest. 

The Mongols first arrived in the northern Caucasus in 1222. The historian Ibn Altir describes how the Alans allied with the Cumans to face the Mongol danger, and while not able to defeat them they could keep the Status Quo. That's why the Mongols bribed the Cumans to agree with a non-agression pact, leading to the Cuman withdrawal. Now left just on their own, the Alans got crushed and the Mongols pillaged their lands. As much as Alania was already decaying, this raid must have led to anarchy. The Hungarian monk Julien states that in 1236, the land was caught in a steady war "chief versus chief, village versus village". Murder was commonplace.

The nail in the coffin was the Mongol invasion of 1238/39. In his quest for dominating the world, Khan Ogodei sent armies to destroy and subjugate the kingdoms of Russia and the Caucasus. Now a large arrmy entered Alania, equipped with siege engines for taking care of the numerous fortified villages and, finally, Magas itself. The Chinese "History of Yuan" mentions how some Alans sided with the Mongols in that siege, one of them even commanding the vanguard. This just proves how the Mongols knew how to make use of Alanias warring chiefs. In the end, Magas was conquered and the Alan kingdom, or what was left of it, destroyed, even though resistance against the Mongol occupation continued for some years.

The Mongol invasions caused an Alan exodus, similiar to the one the Huns caused over 800 years ago. Some fled to Hungary, which they probably entered together with the Cumans. Together with the Cumans the Alans, which became known as Jasz, settled in eastern Hungary. They kept their Orthodox-Caucasian culture until the 15th century and their language until the 16th century, but remain a distinct people to this very day. More Alans poured into the Balkans during the early 14th century, offering their service to the local kingdoms as mercenaries. They dissappeared from the sources fairly quickly however, probably due to assimilation.

Others were forced to fight for the Mongols. They are attested in the Golden Horde, where they appareantly converted to Islam, but, interestingly, were an often-employed force of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China too! According to Peregrine of Castello, who wrote in the early 14th century, they numbered 30.000 men, exluding their families. Even after the Mongols were pushed out of China the Asud, as the Alans were called, are testified to have remained in Mongol service until the 16th century.

Back to Alania: The Mongol invasion and the forced recruitment of Alans into the Mongol army left the lands depopulated. Since the second half of the 13th century the Alans started to migrate into Georgia, triggered perhaps by an inner-Mongol conflict between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate, which devastated the region even further. The Alans started to wage war against Georgia under a chief who was named Paredjan in the Georgian sources, eventually even conquering Gori. His successor was Os Bagatar, who is still celebrated as an Ossetian hero. However, until 1326 the Alans were expulsed from Gori and with it Georgia.
The definite end of medieval Alania came in the 14th century. Tamerlane, a conquerer from what is now Uzbekistan, was on his quest to create a new, Islamic Mongol empire. In 1395 his armies entered Alania, defeating the warring Alan princes. He ordered brutal massacres and enslavements with no other goal than to eradicate Christianity. The few that survived had to flee to the mountains, to what would be known as Ossetia, land of the Os (Georgian designation for "Alans"). The steppe territory that was left behind was settled by Karbadians and Turks, who would later turn to the Karachays and Balkars. Locked in the mountains, the Alans turned to the Ossetians, divided into two subgroups, the Digor and the Iron. Despite the regional church infrastructure crumbling (Last mention of the diocese of Alania in 1590), they would remain one of the last (nominally) Christian groups of the Caucasus. The arrival of Russia in the late 18th century marked the beginning of the modern era in the region and with it for Ossetia-Alania. 
Not much is known about the Alan army and its structure. According to al-Masudi, the Alans could muster 30.000 men, while one century later, at it's presumable peak under king Dorgolel, the Alans could muster 40.000 thousand man, which is, even if we consider that these numbers might be exaggerrated to some extend, fairly respectable for a kingdom of its size. The army was probably multi-ethnical. Except of the ruling Alans there were Turks, Slavs and other local Caucasus people, like the Dvals, that lived within the borders of the kingdom and were therefore probably enscribed into the army as well. 

The mentioned 30.000 soldiers were described as horsemen, implying that the Alans were still an equestrial society despite having settled down. The average Alan warrior would fight as a horse archer using a composite bow and a sabre or an axe for melee. During antiquity, the Alans used to fight as cataphracts, but are there no sources implying that they still did in the Middle Ages: Numerous amulets of stylized horsemen have been found, but none appears to depict horse armour. Even lances were not very popular anymore, albeit there is the mention of a "light lance" used by an Alan mercenary shortly after the battle of Manzikert, which he used in combination with bow and arrow. 

For defense there were used small round shields, armours and helmets. The most impeccably proven type of armour is mail armour, since it is attested both by the written sources and by archaelogy. These armours would have been manufactured on a high niveau, as Friar William of Rubrick, Laonicus Chalcocondyles and others attest. Furthermore, it is possible that, due to the Georgian influence, some Georgian-Byzantinoid armours might have found their way to the noblemen. A mural from a Zelenchuk church might depict stylized lamellar armour, though it's possible that the painter was not Alanian. Same for the armour of St. Eustace from the Nuzal church. 
Concerning helmets, we know about two types: The Os-Bagatar helmet, which belongs to the Georgian "Wawel"-type and became increasingly popular in Georgia from 1200 onwards and some simple conical helmet how they are most probably depicted on two Medieval statues from Karachai-Cherkessia. The Os-Bagatar helmet had an aventail while the conical helmets have either an aventail or were put over a coif. 

Finally, the Alans / Ossetians were also said to manufacture a "kind of bronze weapon, the so-called "Alanica" (Laonicus Chalcocondyles, 15th century). Perhaps the author talks about a gunpowder weapon?

For recognizability on the battlefield, the Alans in Byzantine service used flags, as stated by the 14th century chronicler Ramon Muntaner. While these might have been Byzantine flags, a relief from Kiafar attests that the Alans also used flags on their own. Perhaps these flags were decorated with clan symbols.

The Alans were famous for their skill and ferocity in battle. In the 12th century, Nicephoros Basilaces writes that the Alans are "the most warlike race among the Caucasians; if you see their host, you will look for bravery nowhere else; if you notice their valour in war, you will not mind facing a myriad of enemies." At the battle of Philippolis in 1189, against the German emperor Barbarossa, it were only the Alans that fought (and died) against the Germans, while the rest of the Byzantine army fled before the battle even started. Even in the 15th century, when the Alans were already transforming to the Ossetians, they were still considered to be "the best warriors in combat by far" (Laonicus Chalcocondyles). The fact that even the Mongols valued the Alan warriors for centures is only a further testament for their skill and courage. A courage which is probably explained with that the Alans were fairly obsessed with honour, the honour of the motherland and all Alans. To display cowardness was to dishonour your whole people. An other aspect of honour was the blood revenge. For example it were mostly Alans who hunted down the remnants of an Sicilian army after the latter had conquered Thessalonici in 1189, in an attempt to avenge the Alans who died in that siege. For the Ossetians, blood revenge would remain common until fairly recently.

All in all, the Alans would have been a full-blown warrior society.
Here you have a compilation of Medieval Alan names, based on sources from the 11th-15th century. Sources are the Georgian and Byzantine chronicles and a couple of names clustered together from different sources. I only considered the Medieval ones, even if some antique ones are etymologically explainable with modern Ossetian words. 



*Agusti Alemany (2001): "Sources on the Alans. A critical compilation"
*Irina Arzhantseva (2002): "The Christianization of North Caucasus (Religious Dualism among the Alans)"
*Irina Arzhantseva (?): "Alans: between Bzantium and Khazaria"
*Irina Arzhantseva, Irina Turova, Maria Bronnikova and Elia Zazovskaya (2001): "Alan settlements of the first millennium in the Kislovodsk Basin, Russia"
*Vladimir Kuznetsov & Jaroslav lebedynsky (2005): "Les Alains. Cavaliers des steppes, seigneurs du Caucase. Ier - XVe si├Ęcles apr. J.-C."


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