Caucasian Albania: The origin of the Pashtuns?

Albania (Latin: Albānia, Greek: Albanía, in Old Armenian: Ałuankʿ (Aguank), Parthian: Ardhan, Middle Persian: Arran; Georgian: Rani); usually referred to as Caucasian Albania for disambiguation with the modern state of Albania, is a name for the historical region of the eastern Caucasus, that existed on the territory of present-day republic of Azerbaijan (where both of its capitals were located) and partially southern Dagestan. The kingdom’s capital during antquity was Qabala (Kapalak).

The name of the country in the language of the native population, the Caucasian Albanians, is not known. Aghuank (Old Armenian: Ałuankʿ, Modern Armenian: Aġvank’) is the Armenian and the most historically referenced name for Caucasian Albania.

Armenian authors mention that the name derived from the word “ału” («աղու») meaning amiable in Armenian. The term Aghuank is polysemous and is also used in Armenian sources to denote the region between the Kur and Araxes rivers as part of Armenia. In the latter case it is sometimes used in the form “Armenian Aghuank” or “Hay-Aghuank”.

The Armenian historian of the region, Movses Kaghankatvatsi, who left the only more or less complete historical account about the region, explains the name Aghvank as a derivation from the word ału (Armenian for sweet, soft, tender), which, he said, was the nickname of Caucasian Albania’s first governor Arran and referred to his lenient personality.

Movses Kaghankatvatsi and other ancient sources explain Arran or Arhan as the name of the legendary founder of Caucasian Albania (Aghvan) or even of the Iranian tribe known as Alans (Alani), who in some versions was a son of Noah’s son Yafet.

James Darmesteter, translator of the Avesta, compared Arran with Airyana Vaego which he also considered to have been in the Araxes-Ararat region, although modern theories tend to place this in the east of Iran.

In pre-Islamic times, Caucasian Albania/Arran was a wider concept than that of post-Islamic Arran. Ancient Arran covered all eastern Transcaucasia, which included most of the territory of modern day Azerbaijan Republic and part of the territory of Dagestan. However in post-Islamic times the geographic notion of Arran reduced to the territory between the rivers of Kura and Araks.

Around the first centuries BC and AD the land south of the Greater Caucasus and north of the Lesser Caucasus was divided between Kolchis in the west, Caucasian Iberia in the center and Caucasian Albania in the east. To the southwest was Armenia and to the southeast Atropatene.

Originally, at least some of the Caucasian Albanians probably spoke Lezgic languages close to those found in modern Daghestan; overall, though, as many as 26 different languages may have been spoken in Caucasian Albania.

After the Caucasian Albanians were Christianized in the 4th century, parts of the population was assimilated by the Armenians (who dominated in the provinces of Artsakh and Utik that were earlier detached from the Kingdom of Armenia) and Georgians (in the north), while the eastern parts of Caucasian Albania were Islamized and absorbed by Iranian and subsequently Turkic peoples (modern Azerbaijanis). Small remnants of this group continue to exist independently, and are known as the Udi people.

The pre-Islamic population of Caucasian Albania might have played a role in the ethnogenesis of a number of modern ethnicities, including the Azerbaijanis, the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh, the Georgians of Kakhetia, the Laks, the Lezgins and the Tsakhurs of Daghestan.

According to Armenian medieval historians Movses Khorenatsi, Movses Kaghankatvatsi and Koryun, the Caucasian Albanian (the Armenian name for the language is Aghvank, the native name of the language is unknown) alphabet was created by Mesrob Mashtots, the Armenian monk, theologian and translator who is also credited with creating the Armenian. This alphabet was used to write down the Udi language, which was probably the main language of the Caucasian Albanians.

Koryun, a pupil of Mesrob Mashtots, in his book The Life of Mashtots, wrote about how his tutor created the alphabet: Then there came and visited them an elderly man, an Albanian named Benjamin. And he (Mesrob Mashtots) inquired and examined the barbaric diction of the Albanian language, and then through his usual God-given keenness of mind invented an alphabet, which he, through the grace of Christ, successfully organized and put in order.

The Pashtun people (Pashto:‎ Pax̌tānə, Pakhtun in the northern dialects), historically known as Afghans (Persian:‎ Afġān), and Pathans in Hindi-Urdu (Paṭhān), are an Indo-European ethnicity from the subgroup of Eastern Iranians, with populations primarily in Afghanistan and northwestern and western parts of Pakistan.

They are typically characterised by the usage of the Pashto language, an Eastern Iranian language, and practice of Pashtunwali, which is a traditional set of ethics guiding individual and communal conduct.

Their origin is unclear but historians have come across references to various ancient peoples called Pakthas (Pactyans) between the 2nd and the 1st millennium BC, who may be the early ancestors of the Pashtun people.

Often characterised as a warrior and martial race, their history is mostly spread amongst various countries of South and Central Asia, centred on their traditional seat of power in medieval Afghanistan.

The ethnonym Afghan has been used in reference to Pashtuns. The name Afghanistan (Afghan + -stan) is a derivation from the ethnonym Afghan, originally in the loose meaning “land of the Pashtuns” and referred to the Pashtun tribal areas south of the Hindu Kush.

The name Afghānistān is believed to be as old as the ethnonym Afghan, which is documented in the 10th-century geography book Hudud ul-‘alam. The root name “Afghan” was used historically in reference to the Pashtun people, and the suffix “-stan” means “place of” in Sanskrit.

Therefore, Afghanistan translates to “land of the Afghans, originally an ill-defined territory which did not include many parts of the present state but did comprise large districts now within the boundary of Pakistan. The Constitution of Afghanistan states that “[t]he word Afghan shall apply to every citizen of Afghanistan.”

In the 3rd century, the Sassanids mention a tribe called Abgân, which is attested in its Arabic form (Afġān) in the 10th century Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam. It probably derives from a Sanskritic tribal name, Aśvaka, used in reference to the Kambojas in antiquity. Since the Middle Ages, the term Afghan has been used by various writers as a synonym for Pashtun.

The earliest mention of the name Afghan (Abgân) is by Shapur I of the Sassanid Empire during the 3rd century CE, which is later recorded in the 6th century in the form of “Avagānā” by the Indian astronomer Varāha Mihira in his Brihat-samhita. It was used to refer to a common legendary ancestor known as “Afghana”, grandson of King Saul of Israel.

The etymological view supported by numerous noted scholars is that the name Afghan evidently derives from Sanskrit Aśvakas, q.v. the Assakenoi of Arrian. This view was propounded by scholars like Christian Lassen, J. W. McCrindle, M. V. de Saint Martin, and É. Reclus, and has been supported by numerous modern scholars.

In Sanskrit, the word ashva (Iranian aspa, Prakrit assa) means “horse”, and ashvaka (Prakrit assaka) means “horseman”, “horse people”, “land of horses”, as well as “horse breeders”.

Pre-Christian times knew the people of the Hindukush region as Ashvakas (horsemen), since they raised a fine breed of horses and had a reputation for providing expert cavalrymen. The 5th-century-BCE Indian grammarian Pāṇini calls them Ashvakayana and Ashvayana.

Mahabharata mentions them as Ashvaka(na). Classical writers, however, use the respective equivalents Aspasioi (or Aspasii, Hippasii) and Assakenoi (or Assaceni/Assacani, Asscenus) etc.

The Aspasioi/Assakenoi (Ashvakas = Cavalrymen) is stated to be another name for the Kambojas of ancient texts because of their equestrian characteristics. Alexander Cunningham and a few other scholars identify these designations with the modern name Afghan.

The Indian epic Mahabharata speaks about Kambojas among the finest horsemen, and ancient Pali texts describe their lands as the land of horses. Kambojas spoke Avestan language and followed Zoroastrianism. Some scholars believe Zoroastrianism originated in land of Kambojas.

The former Aspins of Chitral and Ashkuns (Yashkuns) of Gilgit are identified as the modern representatives of the Pāṇinian Aśvakayanas (Greek: Assakenoi); and the Asip/Isap (cf. Aspa-zai > Yusufzai) in the Kabul valley (between the rivers Kabul and Indus) are believed to be modern representatives of the Pāṇinian Aśvayanas (Greek: Aspasioi) respectively.

I. W. Bellew, in his 1891 An Inquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, believes that the name Afghan comes from Alban which derives from the Latin term albus, meaning “white”, or “mountain”, as mountains are often white-capped with snow (cf. Alps); used by Armenians as Alvan or Alwan, which refers to mountaineers, and in the case of transliterated Armenian characters, would be pronounced as Aghvan or Aghwan. To the Persians, this would further be altered to Aoghan, Avghan, and Afghan as a reference to the eastern highlanders or “mountaineers”.

Michanovsky suggests the name Afghan derives from Sanskrit Avagana, which in turn derives from the ancient Sumerian word for Badakhshan – Ab-bar-Gan, or “high country”.

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