Yuezhi and Asii – pt 3 – From Sogdia to Balkans

In part 2 we saw the influence of Turks and Huns in Balkans between 4th – 7th century AD. They were probably the same people as Xiongnu of the Chinese sources. They reft Western China, following the silk road, and reached Bactria. From Bactria, they moved further to the east and brought the term “Balkan” to Europe. Namely, the original name of Bactria was Balkh, while there are still Balkan mountains in Turkmenistan nowadays.

However, the name is not the only thing that links Bactria and Balkans. In fact, substantial evidence indicates that connections are much more ancient than the 4th century.

From Daxia, Bactria to Dacia, Balkans

Dacia was an ancient land on the territory of modern-day Romania. To Greeks, its inhabitants were known as Getae. These Getae are often connected to the Massagetae of Asia (the great Getae). However, Greeks knew nothing of the ethnonym Dacia. The term “Dacian” appears only in Roman records. But there was another Daxia in the neighborhood of Massagetae. The last Dacian king was Decebalus. His name could mean just that – “Dacian king”, but only if we translate the second half with the Semitic title “baal” – lord.

A map of the Persian empire

Now, Daxia, was the main part of ancient Bactria. It included northern Afghanistan and parts of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its inhabitants were Tokharians. Chinese sources mention Daxia already in the 3rd century BC. In 126 BC it was a synonym for Bactria.

To summarize: From one side we have the term Daxia which relates to Bactria. The original name of Bactria was Balkh, reflected in the Balkan mountains of Turkmenistan. From the other, we have the land of Dacia, on the Balkans of south-eastern Europe.

But there is more… Some scholars believe that that the Chinese term Daxia is a result of the confusion of Bactria with the country of Dahae (south-east of the Caspian sea). This country is modern Dagestan. Its name comes from Turkish “dağ” – mountain, and the Persian “stan” – land/habitat.

Therefore, the original name of this tribe was probably Turkic and comes from the word for mountain – ie. land of highlanders. The original homeland of the Dahae tribe is officially Turkmenistan, in other words, Bactria.

Dahae from Dagestan and Dasas of Rigveda

Even the Sanskrit sources may speak of the Dahae. Some scholars consider them as the same as the Vedic Dasas (Sanskrit दास Dāsa). They were the “enemies of the Arya”.

And besides this eastern connection, scholars have also proposed the western one. Numerous authors wrote that the Dahae might relate to the Dacians of the Balkans. Just like the Getae of the Balkans might relate to the Massagetae, neighbors of the Dahae.

From Albania, Dagestan to Albania, Balkans

There are other links with the Balkans. Caucasian Albania corresponded to modern Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan. Wikipedia states that this Albania should not be confused with the one on the Balkans, as there is no connection between them.

The name of the Balkan Albania comes from the capital city of ancient Albanians – Albanopolis. The literal translation is “white city”, or in other words, Belgrade. The toponym “Belgrade” is Slavic and very common in Slavic lands, from Balkans to Ukraine and Russia.

Following the same logic, we can conclude that Albani meant “white”, in other words, “Aryans” or “Iranians”. And that is not all, on the territory of this Caucasian Albania, lived the Sarmatian tribe Serboi, whose name mirrors in modern-day Serbs. Of course, scholars will say that there is no connection between them.

From Derbent, Caucasian Albania to Derventa, Balkans

Derbent was one of the most important cities of Caucasian Albania. It is regarded as one of the oldest, and even Alexandar the Great had crossed his gates, on his campaign from Balkans. Apparently, its name comes from Persian “Darband” (lit. ‘Barred gate’, from dar “gate” + band “bar,”) Derventa is a town in the Republic of Srpska, Balkans. In Slavic language, this name sounds rather like an area rich in trees (dervo). But regardless of the etymology, could these names be related?

From Tashkent, Chach to Chachak, Serbia

Tashkent, or the “stone city” was one of the most important cities on the silk road. It lies in modern-day Uzbekistan and its origins are related to Kangju – Sogdians from Samarkand. Its older name was Chach.

In Serbia, there is a city of Chachak. Its etymology is unknown, but let us just say that the name could mean “little Chach”. Major Serbian linguists major Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Đuro Daničić, mention words čačak and the corresponding adjective čačkovit, meaning (lumps of) frozen or dried mud, or lumps of stone protruding from the ground.

Sogdia – the land of Scythians

Sogdiana was an ancient Iranian civilization that lied north of Bactria, and at different times included territory located in present-day Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The main city was Samarkand.

The etymology of Sogdia is very interesting. Scolars believe that Iranian names “Scythian – Skudra – Sogdian – Saka”, all come from the root. The zero-grade is *skud – meaning “to propel, shoot”, and the reconstructed Scythian name is *Skuda – archer.

Sogdiana was, therefore, the land of the Scythians (or simply “archers”). Pontic and Royal Scythians had the linguistic change in which “l” substitutes “d”, so we also get *Skula. This term mirrors the *Skoloti of Herodotus, another term for Scythians.

Sogdian, Wikipedia commons

From Sogdia to Skudra, and Shkodër, Albania

The Sogdians were famous for their distinctive caps, which look the same as the Phrygian hats of the ancient Balkans. But there is more. Skudra was a province of the Persian Empire between 510-479 BC. It included the territory of Thrace and Macedonia – in other words, the Balkans. Some scholars, like N. G. L. Hammond, suggested that the name of this Persian/Balkan province was initially a Phrygian label.

And even today, in this general region, there is a city of Shkodër. Ancient Greeks called it Scodra, and its inhabitants were Skodrians. The oldest inscriptions come from the 2nd century BC. But funny enough, the scholars state that the meaning of the name is “uncertain”.

Scodra’s first inhabitants were the Labeates and Ardiaei, the Illyrian tribes. Their dominion stretched from Albania to Croatia. Romans colonized the town in 168 BC. In 395 AD it was a part of the Diocese of Dacia.

After this short-lived Illyrian period, the city has almost a thousand-year Slavic history, which ends with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. In fact, even though it is nowadays located in modern-day Albania, there are no certain historical connections to Albanians whatsoever, in any period of history.

Scordisci – Celts or Scythians?

An alternative theory claims that the city of Shkoder was founded by Scordisci, an Iron Age Celtic tribe. Scordisci lived in modern-day Serbia, between the rivers Sava, Drava and Danube. They appeared on the historical stage around the 3rd century BC and disappeared around the 1st century AD when Romans occupied their lands. At their zenith, their territory stretched from Serbia to Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Scolars believe that the Scordisci were a Celtic, or rather Gallic military force, that stayed on the Serbian territory after the Gallic invasion of the Balkans. Here, they mixed with the local population. This is evident from their names, which show Illyrian and Thracian influence. Therefore, they were not a tribe per se, rather a political creation, a ruling military power.

However, not finding any Celtic/Gaulic etymologies of their name, scholars relate them to Scordus, or the Šar mountain. This is the mountain that lies above the city of Shkoder. It remains unclear why would the Celtic military group name themselves by some local, Balkan mountain. Especially if the heart of their territory was not there but in modern Serbia.

Indeed, these same Scordisci also get the credit for the foundation of Belgrade, capital of Serbia. They are regarded as Celts as their arrival matches the appearance of extensive La Tène type finds, of local production in Balkans. But perhaps before their arrival, the local population already referred to themselves as Skuda, Skudra, Skoder – or Scythian “archer”. From this label, they became Scordisci, or those who live among the Scythians?

The founding of Skadar / Shkoder

The founding of Skadar is one of the most famous Serbian epic poems. Officially, it dates to the 14th century or some period before that.

In short, this poem describes three brothers raising the foundation of the city of Shkoder. But whatever they build during the day, a fairy destroys in the night. They are advised to make a human sacrifice in order to appease the fairy. A dear maiden is the most appropriate. Each of them had a wife, so they agree to sacrifice the one that comes in the morning to bring them food. Of course, the deal was not to mention anything to their wives. But the two older brothers broke this deal, and the wife of the youngest and most honest brother ended up being sacrificed.

Now, most of the scholars believe that this poem is medieval. During the 18-19th century, the poem captured the attention of some famous westerners, including Jacob Grimm and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Grimm even translated the poem into German and called it “the most touching poems of all nations and all times”. For Goethe, who expressed admiration for other Serbian poems, this one was “superstitiously barbaric”.

Goethe’s remark is interesting. “Superstitiously barbaric” is quite an appropriate term for human sacrifice to the fairies, from the perspective of the 18th century. Even from the perspective of the 14th century, when Serbia had a kingdom that was in no way less civilized than that of Germans. On the contrary even…

But perhaps the poem is simply more ancient. Some Serbian scholars already suggested this theory. The fact that it speaks of the foundation of the city founded more than 2,000 years ago only reinforces this claim. In this case, I guess, we can’t see it as barbaric. At least no less than Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter to appease Artemis, or Abraham sacrificing his son. It is quite obvious that this ancient Serbian poem speaks the same language as these myths.

A quick summary of the facts

So far we have seen numerous connections between Central Asia and Balkans. They are especially strong when it comes to toponyms. Here is a quick summary:

  • Bactria (originally Balkh) and Balkan
  • Daxia and Dacia, Getae and Masagetae
  • Albania and Albania, Serboi and Serbs
  • Derbent and Derventa, Chach and Chachak
  • Sogdia (Skud) and Skoder – Scordisci

Obviously, this cannot be a coincidence. The most important toponyms of Central Asia mirror in some of the most important of the Balkans, from the time of recorded history.

Yuezhi, Asii, and Sogdians of the Balkans

Now it is time to go back to where we started. To the tribes of Yuezhi, Asii and Sogdia. Ad since this article is already way too long, I will leave you with a single image. It is a map of Balkans from Ptolemy’s Geography of the 2nd century AD.

Here we see:

  • Sogdians as Skoloti (remember, Skud-became Skul for Royal Scythians) They are located on the territory of Shkoder.
  • Alani as Asii. (Alani – another name for Ossetians.)
  • Yuezhi as Iaziges
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