The Alans Tribe: A Dominant Force Among the Sarmatians


Get an insight into the history of the ancient Iranian pastoralists-the Alans, who fought many fierce battles.

The Alans were a nomadic people of ancient and medieval times. These Iranian pastoralists roamed the rugged terrain of the North Caucasus and were considered part of the Sarmatian group, possibly related to the fearsome Massagetae. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the 1st century CE, recounted in his book “Jewish Wars” (book 7, ch. 7.4) how the Alans, who he refers to as a tribe from the Scythians civilization and resided close to the Sea of Azov, invaded for loot in 72 CE. They were able to conquer the armies of Pacorus, the king of Media, and Tiridates, the king of Armenia, who were both siblings of Vologeses I.

The Alans were not a solitary people, as historical evidence suggests that they had connections to the Central Asian Yancai of Chinese lore and the Aorsi mentioned in Roman chronicles. As they migrated westward, the Alans emerged as the dominant force among the Sarmatians on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, where they came to the attention of the Romans in the 1st century CE.

With a reputation for ferocity, the Alans settled in the region north of the Black Sea and raided the Parthian Empire and the Roman Empire’s Caucasian provinces. But their power was soon to be challenged when the Goths defeated them on the Pontic Steppe between 215-250 CE.

However, the Alans were not ones to be kept down for long. In the aftermath of the Huns’ defeat of the Goths in 375 CE, many Alans migrated westward alongside various Germanic tribes. Crossing the mighty Rhine in 406 CE, they settled in Orléans and Valence before joining the Vandals and Suebi in an epic journey across the Pyrenees and into the Iberian Peninsula around 409 CE. They made Lusitania and Hispania Carthaginensis their homes, but their happiness was short-lived.

The Visigoths, a powerful tribe, clashed with the Iberian Alans in 418 CE, and the latter had to bow down to the mighty Hasdingi Vandals. The Vandals and Alans then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and established a kingdom in North Africa in 428 CE, which endured for over a century until the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I conquered it in 534 CE.

However, not all Alans fled westward with the Germanic tribes. Some remained under the rule of the Huns and later founded the kingdom of Alania in the North Caucasus in the 9th century. This kingdom held its ground until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century CE.

Fascinatingly, the Alans spoke an Eastern Iranian language that evolved from Scytho-Sarmatian and eventually gave birth to the modern Ossetian language. It’s said that the name “Alan” is an Iranian dialectal form of “Aryan.” Some Ossetian scholars even consider the Alans to be the forefathers of modern Ossetians.

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Archaeological Sites: Alans Tribe in the North Caucasus Region

Archaeological Sites of the Alans. The Alans Tribe: A Dominant Force Among the Sarmatians
Kislovodsk basin. Source: Ivan Andreevich via Wikimedia Commons.

The North Caucasus region boasts a plethora of archaeological sites, ranging from massive fort hills to burial grounds and catacomb graves. These graves, categorized into the barrow and flat graves, date back from the first century to the fourteenth century. Notably, the Kislovodsk basin in the region stands out due to its high concentration of flat graves and over 900 archaeological sites. Among these, there are approximately 150 early medieval Alan settlements that bear witness to the existence of this ancient Iranian civilization.

The Kislovodsk basin’s primary sites, dating back to the early Middle Ages, consisting of numerous small fortified hills with fortified stone structures, with flat catacomb graves nearby. The presence of agriculture, as evidenced by artificial terraces and ridges showing signs of controlled erosion, suggests that the Alans had a well-developed agrarian society. The archaeological finds from these sites include ceramics from the late Bronze and early Iron Ages, providing valuable insight into the Alans’ material culture.

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