The Pannonian Avars /ˈævɑːrz/ also known as the Obri (in Ruthenian chronicles), the Abaroi and Varchonitai (Warhonits) (in Byzantine sources), and the "Pseudo-Avars" and Varchonites (by the Göktürks), were a group of Eurasian nomads of unknown origin during the early Middle Ages. The name Pannonian Avars (after the area in which they eventually settled), is used to distinguish them from the Avars of the Caucasus – who may or may not have been an unrelated people.
They established the Avar Khaganate, which spanned the Pannonian Basin and considerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe from the late 6th to the early 9th century. They were ruled by a khagan, who was assisted by an entourage of professional warriors.
Although the name Avar first appeared in the mid-5th century, the Pannonian Avars entered the historical scene in the mid-6th century, on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, as a band of a North-Tungusic clan and warriors who wished to escape the rule of the Göktürks.
The language or languages spoken by the Avars are now unknown. Denis Sinor states that most of the Avar words used in contemporaneous Latin or Greek texts, appear to have their origins in Siberian languages, especially Tungusic languages and Mongolian. According to Sinor, many of the titles and ranks used by the Pannonian Avars were also used by the Turks, Proto-Bulgars, Uighurs and/or Mongols, including khagan (or kagan), khan, kapkhan, tudun, tarkhan, and khatun. There is also evidence, however, that ruling and subject clans spoke a variety of languages. Proposals by scholars include Caucasian, Iranian, Tungusic, Hungarian and Turkic. A few scholars suggest that Proto-Slavic became the lingua franca of the Avar Khaganate. According to Gyula László, the late 9th century Pannonian Avars spoke a variety of Old Hungarian, thereby forming an Avar-Hungarian continuity with then newly arrived Hungarians.
According to some scholars the Pannonian Avars originated from a confederation formed in the Aral Sea region, by the Uar, also known as the Var or Warr (who were probably a Uralic people) and the Xūn or Xionites (also known as the Chionitae, Chunni, Hunni, Yun and similar names); the Xionites were most likely Iranian-speaking. A third tribe affiliated previously to the Uar and Xionites, the Hephthalites, had remained in Central and South Asia. In some transliterations, the term Var is rendered Hua, which is an alternate Chinese term for the Hephthalites. (While one of the cities most significant to the Hephthalites was Walwalij or Varvaliz, this may also be an Iranian term for "upper fortress".) The Pannonian Avars were also known by names including Uarkhon or Varchonites – which may have been portmanteau words combining Var and Chunni.
The 18th century historian Joseph de Guignes postulates a link between the Avars of European history with the Rouran (Ju-juan) of Inner Asia based on a coincidence between Tardan Khan’s letter to Constantinople and events recorded in Chinese sources, notably the Wei-shi and Pei-shi. Chinese sources state that Bumin Qaghan (T’u-men khan), founder of the Turkic Khaganate defeated the Rouran, some of whom fled and joined the Western Wei. Later – according to another Chinese source – Muqan Qaghan (Mu-han khan), Bumin's successor, defeated the Hephthalites (Chinese name: I-ta) as well as the Turkic Tiele (Tieh-le). Superficially these victories over the Tiele, Rouran and Hephthalites echo a narrative in the Theophylact, boasting of Tardan’s victories over the Hephthalites, Avars and Oghurs. However, the two series of events are not synonymous: the events of the letter took place during Tardan’s rule, c. 580–599, whilst Chinese sources referring to the Turk defeat of the Rouran and other Central Asian peoples occurred 50 years earlier, at the founding of the Turk khanate by Bumen. It is for this reason that the linguist Janos Harmatta rejects the identification of the Avars with the Rouran. According to Edwin G. Pulleyblank the name Avar is the same as the prestigious name Wuhuan in the Chinese sources.
Contemporary scholars are less inclined to view the tribal groupings mentioned in historical texts as monolithic and long-lived 'nations', but were rather volatile and fluid political formations whose dynamic depended on the sedentary civilizations they bordered as well as internal power struggles within the barbarian lands.
In 2003, Walter Pohl summarized the formation of nomadic empires:
1. Many steppe empires were founded by groups who had been defeated in previous power struggles but had fled from the dominion of the stronger group. The Avars were likely a losing faction previously subordinate to the (legitimate) Ashina clan in the Western Turkic Khaganate, and they fled west of the Dnieper.
2. These groups usually were of mixed origin, and each of its components was part of a previous group.
3. Crucial in the process was the elevation of a khagan, which signified a claim to independent power and an expansionist strategy. This group also needed a new name that would give all of its initial followers a sense of identity.
4. The name for a new group of steppe riders was often taken from a repertoire of prestigious names which did not necessarily denote any direct affiliation to or descent from groups of the same name; in the Early Middle Ages, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Ogurs, or names connected with -(o)gur (Kutrigurs, Utigurs, Onogurs, etc.), were most important. In the process of name-giving, both perceptions by outsiders and self-designation played a role. These names were also connected with prestigious traditions that directly expressed political pretensions and programmes, and had to be endorsed by success. In the world of the steppe, where agglomerations of groups were rather fluid, it was vital to know how to deal with a newly-emergent power. The symbolical hierarchy of prestige expressed through names provided some orientation for friend and foe alike
Such views are mirrored by Csanád Bálint. "The ethnogenesis of early medieval peoples of steppe origin cannot be conceived in a single linear fashion due to their great and constant mobility", with no ethnogenetic "point zero", theoretical "proto-people" or proto-language.
Moreover, Avar identity was strongly linked to Avar political institutions. Groups who rebelled or fled from the Avar realm could never be called "Avars", but were rather termed "Bulgars". Similarly, with the final demise of Avar power in the early 9th century, Avar identity disappeared almost instantaneously.
Anthropological research has revealed few skeletons with Mongoloid-type features, although there was continuing cultural influence from the Eurasian nomadic steppe. The late Avar period shows more hybridization, resulting in higher frequencies of Euro-Mongoloids. Mongoloid and Euro-Mongoloid types compose about one-third of the total population of the Avar graves of the eighth century. According to Pál Lipták the early Avar anthropological material was almost exclusively Europoid in the 7th century, while grave-goods indicated Central Asian and North-East-Asian parallels. On the other hand, cemeteries dated for the 8th century contained Mongoloid elements among others. He analysed population of the Danube-Tisza midland region in the Avar period and found that 79% of them showed Europoid characteristics. The "Turanid" was most common Europoid type among the Avars graves. Pál Lipták (1955) the "Turanid" type is a "Caucasoid" type with significant Mongoloid admixture, arising from the mixture of the Andronovo type of Europoid features and the Oriental (Mongoloid). Avars are sometimes depicted as mounted archers riding backwards on their horses
The Carpathian basin was the centre of the Avar power-base. The Avars re-settled captives from the peripheries of their empire to more central regions. Avar material culture is found south to Macedonia. However, to the east of the Carpathians, there are next to no Avar archaeological finds, suggesting that they lived mainly in the western Balkans. Scholars propose that a highly structured and hierarchical Avar society existed, having complex interactions with other "barbarian" groups. The khagan was the paramount figure, surrounded by a minority of nomadic aristocracy.
A few exceptionally rich burials have been uncovered, confirming that power was limited to the khagan and a close-knit class of "elite warriors". In addition to hoards of gold coins that accompanied the burials, the men were often buried with symbols of rank, such as decorated belts, weapons, stirrups resembling those found in central Asia, as well as their horse. The Avar army was composed from numerous other groups: Slavic, Gepidic and Bulgar military units. There also appeared to have existed semi-independent "client" (predominantly Slavic) tribes which served strategic roles, such as engaging in diversionary attacks and guarding the Avars' western borders abutting the Frankish Empire.
Initially, the Avars and their subjects lived separately, except for Slavic and Germanic women who married Avar men. Eventually, the Germanic and Slavic peoples were included in the Avaric social order and culture, itself Persian-Byzantine in fashion. Scholars have identified a fused, Avar-Slavic culture, characterized by ornaments such as half-moon-shaped earrings, Byzantine-styled buckles, beads, and bracelets with horn-shaped ends. Paul Fouracre notes, "[T]here appears in the seventh century a mixed Slavic-Avar material culture, interpreted as peaceful and harmonious relationships between Avar warriors and Slavic peasants. It is thought possible that at least some of the leaders of the Slavic tribes could have become part of the Avar aristocracy". Apart from the assimilated Gepids, a few graves of west Germanic (Carolingian) peoples have been found in the Avar lands. They perhaps served as mercenaries.
The ethnolinguistic affiliation of the Avars is uncertain. Although there is sparse knowledge about the Avar language, scholars have suggested that the Avars could have spoken Iranian, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Turkic. A few historians influenced by panslavism suggest that over time Slavic became the lingua franca of the Avars.
Gyula László, a Hungarian archaeologist suggests that late Avars, arriving to the qaganate in A.D 670 in great numbers lived through the time between the destruction and plunder of the Avar state by the Franks during 791–795 and the arrival of the Magyars in 895. László points out that the settlements of the Hungarians (Magyars) did not replace but complement those of the Avars. Avars remained on the plough fields, good for agriculture while Hungarians took the river banks and river flats, suitable for pastoring. He points that meanwhile the Hungarian graveyards consist 40–50 graves in average, the Avars contains 600–1000. According to this findings the Avars not just survived the end of the Avar polity but lived in great masses and far outnumbered the Hungarian conquerors of Árpád. He also shows that Hungarian occupied only the centre of the Carpathian-basin, but Avars lived in a larger territory. Looking at those territories where only the Avars lived one can find Hungarian geographical names, neither Slavic, nor Turkic. This is also an evidence for the Avar-Hungarian continuity. Names of the Hungarian tribes, chieftains and the words used for the leaders etc. suggest that at least the leaders of the Hungarian conquerors were Turkic speaking. But today's Hungarian is not a Turkic tongue, so they must have assimilated by the Avars that outnumbered them. László's Avar-Hungarian continuity theory states that Hungarians speak Avar.