Shahnameh as a Historical Source, 1: The Türk and the Hephthalites
The study of Ferdowsi’s epic work occupies an important position within the entire field of Iranian studies and forms the pinnacle of research on Classical (New) Persian literature. As a literary source, the Shahnameh’s importance has been discussed and debated by some of the most important scholars of Persian literature and its place as the most important monument of Classical Persian is well established.
In historical research, the study of the Shahnameh’s historical value, as well as its context, goes back to the 19th century and Theodor Nöldeke’s groundbreaking study (Nöldeke 1896/1920). Similar studies built up on Nöldeke’s work and include Monchi-Zadeh’s 1975 investigation into the geographical aspects of the Shahnameh. A great part of this research is devoted to the issue of the sources of Ferdowsi, including the existence or absence of a prepared prose text that was turned into verse by Ferdowsi and the written or oral sources of the entire epic. In the current contribution, dedicated to Olga Davidson for her own work in the Shahnameh, I shall discuss some other approach to the use of the Shahnameh as a historical source, particularly as it concerns the areas of northeast Iran that formed the local setting for Ferdowsi and his work.
The Shahnameh and History
For its composer and his contemporary audience – and even the later audiences up to the introduction of new historiography to Iran – the entire Shahnameh represented a narrative of ‘real history’ – indeed ‘historical facts’. Its common division to Mythical (Peshdadids), Epic (Kayanids), and Historical (Alexander and the Sasanians) segments is thus a new concept, reflecting modern scholarship and popular sensibilities onto what constituted a historical narrative at its conception. Notwithstanding this fact, one can argue that the section of the Shahnameh dedicated to the Sasanian dynasty still preserves the most historically verifiable information, at least as ‘history’ is understood today.
Considering this, it is often a surprise that little attention has been paid to this text as a historical source. In essence, its narrative is not widely different from works of ‘serious history’ such as al-Tabari’s history, based on which our present understanding of the basic narrative of Sasanian history, aided by Nöldeke’s copious commentary, is formed. In fact, certain parts of the Shahnameh seem to provide excellent primary material about the events of which we have little detailed information otherwise. In a previous contribution (Rezakhani 2017: 194-198), I pointed to the close geographical proximity of Ferdowsi to East Iran and Transoxiana and how this makes his narrative an excellent source for details of certain local events. This is quite similar to the case of Bal‘ami, whose ‘translation’ of parts of al-Tabari’s work in fact provides much details in certain episodes and enriches al-Tabari’s narrative. A particular example is the story of Bahram Chobin, where Bal’ami seems to be taking advantage of the now lost Bahram Chobin-Nameh romance and perhaps some surviving local traditions regarding the Sasanian general, who indeed ended his days in East Iran.
Another example of such a section is Ferdowsi’s account of the Battle of Bukhara between the forces of the Hephthalites and those of the “Khaghan of China” under the rule of Sinjibē (Gk. Silziboulos). This episode is presented with much detail in Ferdowsi’s account, providing motivations for the attack of Sinjibē, the destruction of the Hephthalite forces, the installment of a Hephthalite puppet king, and the peace treaty between the Khaghan and the Sasanian king of Kings, Khsrow I Anušēruwān. While the episode is reported in the context of Sasanian moves against the Hephthalites in the 570’s, nowhere can one find such detailed information as presented in Ferdowsi’s account, starting with the name of the Western Türk base, Galzaryūn.
In this short paper I shall thus provide an outline of the story as told by Ferdowsi and remark on their importance in understanding the fall of the Hephthalites, the rising Sasanian power in the northeast in the last century of their rule, and the entry of the Western Türk Khaghanate into the affairs of Transoxiana and East Iran. Considering the much misunderstood status of the Hephthalite “Empire” and its later fragmented kingdoms, the account of Ferdowsi can be quite crucial in understanding the political world of the late sixth and early seventh century Transoxiana and Tokharistan. Furthermore, the power balance in the region is central to the late Sasanian-early Islamic transitional period and the dynamics of the early Islamic rule in Central Asia and the involvement of Central Asians in events such as the Revolt of Abu-Muslim and the Abbasid Revolution of 750-751.
The story of the conflict between the Hephthalites and the Türk (rendered initially as the “Chinese” but later interchangeable with the Turk/ Türk) is placed within the tale of the reign of Khosrow I Anusheruwan (Ferdowsi’s Nūšīnrūwān). The story starts with the attempt of the Khaghan of China, identified as Senjeh in line 1790, to open relations with the Sasanian Empire. Ferdowsi tells us that since there was no-one on the same level as the Khaghan in the world, save Kisra (Khosrow I), the Khaghan wished to strike friendship with the great Sasanian king. He is said to be based in Galzaryūn, which is identified as “on the other side of Chach” a location which throughout the story appears to be a central gathering point for the various Turkic forces. The Khaghan then prepares a great set of presents to be sent to Khosrow and along with an embassy and a letter written with the help of a well-travelled man (خردمند و گشته به گرد جهان, ln. 1771), sends them to the Sasanian king of kings.
It is clear from the story that the embassy has to pass through the territory of the Hephthalites, identified either as Sughd or Kavarestan in Ferdowsi’s tale, and this naturally alarms the Hephthalite. Ghātfar, the king of the Hephthalites (Heytāl/Heptāl Shah, ln. 1775), along with his court and his army based in “Sughd, to the borders of Jeyhun (the Oxus),” assesses the situation as unfavourable to the Hephthalite interests. Their understanding is that if the great Khaghan of China (the Khaghan of the Türk) and the Sasanian king of kings become allies, the situation would indeed become hard for the Hephthalites. This tacit threat of a Sasanian involvement in war against the Hephthalites, is in fact the only mention we have of any Sasanian engagement in the war, contrary to the common assumption that the fall of the Hephthalites was caused by a Sasanian attack. As we shall see later, the initial inclination of Khosrow after hearing of the Hephthalite defeat is to provide protection for the defeated contingents of the Hephthalite army.
Ferdowsi’s narrative is the only one providing a reason for the Türk campaign the Hephthalites. In their council, Ghātfar and his courtiers decide on a massacre of the Türk embassy when it comes to pass through their territory in order to disrupt its goal of creating an alliance with the Sasanians. This was achieved by decapitating the ambassador and killing the entire embassy: “the Ambassador’s head was cut humiliatingly/from among the Chinese Türk, not a single knight managed to escape” (ln. 1785).
The result, naturally, enraged the Khaghan, who is described as “the kinsman of Arjāsp and Afrāsiāb” (ln. 1788) and is thus put within the Shahnameh’s historical cosmology of the Turanians. The great gathering of Khaghan’s army alerted the Hephtalite army, and with Ghātfar’s orders, a great army from as far south as Samangan and Khuttalan were gathered in Bukhara, the army base of the Hephthalites (ln. 1800). The resulting battle was a disaster for the Hephthalites, leading to the destruction of their army, a “story to be repeated for many years to come” (ln. 1813). The defeated army, or their elite, decided to take refuge with Khosrow, saying that if Ghātfar refuses to follow suit, they shall appoint a new leader from the lineage of Khushnawaz (sic, Akhshunwar), the famed Hephthalite king of the fifth century (ln. 1829). Presumably, Ghātfar did refuse the proposal, resulting in the appointment of a “hero from Ghaghanian” whose name was Fagγānīš, “from the seed of Khushnawaz,” and whose appointment was received warmly by the Khaghan as well (lns. 1835-1838).
The news of the defeat of the Hephthalites was received in the Sasanian court with different reactions from the king, Khosrow I, and his courtiers. Khosrow himself was concerned with the increasing power of the Türk Khaghan, and at the same time, critical of Ghātfar’s mismanagement of his army. He also seems interested in the fact that a new king, from Chaghanian and “from the lineage of Wahram (V) Gur” (the Sasanian king of kings, 420-438) has occupied the Hephthalite throne. But his assertion that the land of Kavarestan, the areas under the Türk rule, belongs to him and that its people are now suffering shows the extent of Sasanian claims to the region (lns. 1945-1863). Khosrow’s courtiers, however, are happy about the destruction of the evil and bedeviled Hephthalites, and encourage him to make peace with the Khaghan. Their claim is that the Hephthalites were the ones who killed Pēroz, the kings grandfather, in 484 and that their demise should be welcomed, although it comes at the cost of rising Türk power. Additionally, they warn Khosrow that if he departs for the east, the Romans would use the occasion to wage a new war against the Sasanians.
This warning is opposed by Khosrow who declares that his courtiers have gone soft: “Spoilt by luxury and revelry, the battlefield bears on you painfully” (ln. 1890). He then pledges to go to Khurasan (the Sasanian kust of Khwarāsān; Gyselen 2001) with warriors gathered from all his lands and put an end to both the Hephthalites and the Türks. This of course caused a panic in the court, most of whose members then change course and admit their guilt, expressing that they are ready to fight alongside the king of kings.
The rest of the tale is devoted to a description of Khosrow’s campaign in the northeast and his camping in the area of Gurgan/Hyrcania. A significant event is the letter sent to the Khaghan in which Khosrow “praised Fagγānīš” as well, in the process lending legitimacy to the new king and the Khaghan’s support of him. The reaction of the Khaghan, ‘sitting in Sughd’, is to consider Khosrow weak and boast about his plans to destroy Iran and even “bring the Arabs to order”. His decision, however, is curtailed by the news of Khosrow’s arrival in Gurgan, and instead of an outright war, and embassy is sent to the Sasanian king of kings. In several lines, Ferdowsi describes the show of glory and force put together by Khosrow and the effect it has on them, leading to a decision by the Khaghan to sue for peace, including a famous episode of offering his daughter for marriage to Khosrow. The most significant latter episode is the conclusion of the treaty in which Transoxiana becomes part of Khaghan’s territories (or is “given to him by Khosrow” as Ferdowsi puts it) in exchange for a large payment which is the brought to Ctesiphon, via the Ganzak/Adur-Gushnasp fire temple, amidst much fanfare. Significantly, the head of the Türk delegation bringing the presents is none other than Fagγānīš who appears to be get an additional approval to rule the region from Khosrow (ln. 2327).
The most significant aspect of Ferdowsi’s report is his detailed explanation of the reasons for the West Türk attack against the Hephthalites. Unlike other narrative sources, Ferdowsi does not rely on assumption that the Hephthalites are a common enemy of the Türk and the Sasanians and that their destruction is simply to the benefit of both powers. Instead, he describes a clear case of provocation for the campaign of the Khaghan.
Also significantly, in Ferdowsi’s narrative, the entire campaign is credited to the Khaghan and the Sasanians only appear at the scene following the destruction of the Hephthalite power and the fall of Ghātfar. This is in direct opposition to the opinion of many scholars who, evidently basing their understanding on one of al-Tabari’s two main narratives, and the one preferred by Balʿami, who considers the campaign to have been a joint Sasanian-Türk effort. In fact, the Sasanian reaction, as mentioned above, seems to be one of fear about the Hephthalites and their state, perhaps acting as a buffer zone between the Sasanians and the Türk. This is perhaps the reason why the courtiers tell Khosrow not to worry about the destruction of the Hephthalites, as they are all bedeviled Barbarians whose destruction should be celebrated and considered to be a revenge for their killing of Khosrow’s grandfather, Peroz.
The date of the events under consideration are also of much significance. ADH Bivar suggested that the fall of the Hephthalites was caused as a result of the rebuilding of the Sasanian power under Khosrow I and a joint Türk-Sasanian action, “between 558-691” (Bivar 2003, 199). Grenet (2002: 213-214) suggest 560 as the date of these events, dividing the Hephthalite history to “Imperial Hephthalites” and “Later Hephthalites” at this date. A newer commentary on the subject, based on the embassy of the Western Türk to the emperor Justin in 568, suggests “either 563 or 564” as the dates of the events, following the embassy of the Avars to Byzantium in 562 (Jackson Bonner 2011: 100). However, there is an interesting reference in the negotiations between the Byzantines and the Sasanians in late 561 (Greatrex and Lieu 2005: 131) that led to the Treaty of 562. Here, the Sasanian ambassador Zikh boasts that his king, Khosrow, “had destroyed the power of the Ephthalites,” ὅτι τὴν τῶν Ἐφθαλιτῶν κατεστρέψατο δύναμιν (Manander frg 6.1, page 65). This, naturally, is to be treated as a boast by Zikh and Khosrow, but at the same time, as a report of an event that had already taken place. As such, a terminus ante quem of AD 562, most probably way before that, has to be assumed for this event. In this sense, the respite between the general armistice of 557 (Agathias IV.30.7-10 in Greatrex and Lieu 2005: 130-131) and the disputes and negotiations over Siunia seems a reasonable timeframe for Khosrow’s campaign in the northeast. Considering the initial warning of the courtiers against the campaign, lest the absence of the king in Khurasan allows the Romans to attack, it seems plausible that the event should be comfortably after the precarious armistice of 557 to still justify Khosrow’s determination to undertake the campaign. Perhaps the freshness of the events was also the reason why Zikh used it as a means of boasting Khosrow’s power and possibly to dictate the narrative of the war as a victory of the Sasanians, which is how it is depicted in later histories as well. Consequently, I am more inclined to take a date around 559-560 as the date of the Battle of Bukhara and the subsequent events.
The record of the correspondence between the Khaghan and Khosrow I and the ensuing peace treaty and exchange of gifts, and possible marriage, sheds an interesting light on the narrative of the events in other sources. In Ferdowsi’s story, the Khaghan’s initial inclination after hearing of Khosrow’s campaign in Khurasan is to threaten a conquest of Iran and even as far as the land of the Arabs (Tāziān). However, Ferdowsi tells us that he was dissuaded of this after he was told of Khosrow’s might and decided to send ambassadors to the King of Kings while he was camping in Gurgan. Here, the ambassadors are awed by Khosrow’s show of force and grandiose court, including a personal combat by the King of Kings himself (Ferdowsi, lns. 1992-2004). Presumably, the ambassadors resided at the royal camp for a month and were entertained and allowed to observe Khosrow’s superior power before being sent to the Khaghan, telling him of Khosrow’s invincibility and advising him to sue for peace.
This narrative is perhaps partially corrected by al-Tabari who tells us that after the Khaghan’s threat of conquering Iran, Khosrow dismissed all of his demands and stood firm, relying on his superior fortifications in Ṣul. This in turn resulted in the Khaghan’s withdrawal since the fortifications made the Gurgan area impregnable (al-Tabari I. 896). However, the version of the events narrated by Maniakh, the Sogdian ambassador of the Khaghan Sizabul to Justin II, provides a much more menacing tale. According to the ambassador, the Türk held great enmity against the Persians, since “because of the untrustworthy nature of the Scythians, it was completely against Persian interest to establish friendly relations with the Turks” (Menander frg. 10.1, Blockley/Menander 1985: 113). As a result of this, Khosrow, encouraged by his Hephthalite advisor Katulph, had mixed deadly poison with the meals of the ambassadors and killed most of them. The event was presented as the inability of the ambassadors to deal with the dry weather in Iran. This event was in turn seen as the cause of the enmity between the Türk and the Sasanians and the reason for the former to seek a new alliance against the Sasanians with Byzantium. Consequently then, Ferdowsi’s narrative preserves the memory of an embassy arriving at the court of Khosrow, and returning without achieving any goals, but without a mention of the poisoning plot. The plot then justifies the Khaghan’s anger and determination to conquer Iran, as told by al-Tabari. The peace treaty and the meeting on the Oxus, as told by Ferdowsi, is then a more detailed narrative of what al-Tabari simply reports as the Khaghan giving up his desire to conquer Iran when faced with the Great Wall of Gurgan.
Our simple understanding of Sasanian history is based on the modern commentaries on classical Islamic historical texts – mainly the History of al-Tabari – which are largely assumed to be translations and renditions of the Sasanian khwadāynāmeh. The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, despite presenting a similar type of narrative, at times provides a vantage point missing in other sources of Sasanian history, particularly from a local, Central Asian point of view. In regard to the events of the region of Khurasan and Transoxiana, the Shahnameh in a way acts the same way as Balʿmi’s translation of al-Tabari functions. This is the inclusion of much local material, missing in the traditional sources such as al-Tabari, and provision of details relation to regional history.
The story of the defeat and demise of the Hephthalite “Empire” (to quote Frantz Grenet) at the hand of the Western Türk empire is a great example of Shahnameh’s local focus. Written from the point of view of Khurasan and perhaps in Tūs, Ferdowsi’s hometown located very close to cities like Bukhara and Marv and the River Oxus and the scene of these events, the narrative of Ferdowsi provides surprising details. Aside from romanticizing the affairs and giving much attention to the human relations between the actors, the narrative of Ferdowsi provides useful historical details and corrects many of our misunderstandings about the events of the late sixth century AD. In particular, the portrayal of the Hephthalites as those related to the Sasanian royal family through Wahram V, and the framing of the Western Türk as the kinsmen of “Arjasb and Afrasiab” betrays a less than hostile local attitude toward these populations and reveals the efforts to comprehend them within an Iranian, and particularly Sasanian, world view. A careful investigation of the Shahnameh and its historical content would thus lead us to better understanding of this epic work not only as a monument of literary achievements, but also as a reflection of the Sasanian historiography and historical attitudes.
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 The references would simply be too many to mention. The newest, and the most comprehensive, set of commentary is the independent notes accompanying the definitive critical edition of the Shahnameh by Djalal Khaleghi Motlagh (Khaleghi-Motlagh/Ferdowsi, 1987-2007). These are published as Notes on the Shahnameh and I will be referring to Volume 10 (Khaleghi-Motlagh 1389/2010) throughout this paper.
 See Davis 1996 for both a survey and a discussion.
 See the debate between Davidson 1994 & 1998 and Omidsalar 1996.
 However, see the excellent work done on the subject by Farzin Ghaffouri (Ghaffouri 2007, 2008, 2015), particularly on the reign of Khosrow I.
 See Nöldeke/Tabari 1879 as well as Bosworth/Tabari 1999 and Shahbazi/Tabari 1389/2010.
 This is the usual form reference to the ruler of the Western Türk Empire (see below) in Persian sources. The actual ruler of China, or the Türk overlord, is referred to as Faghfūr (from Bact. βαυεποορ “god’s son”) which was the known title of the Kushans (Sims-Williams 1998: 86 n. 14f).
 This is Silziboulos of the Greek sources (Menander Protector frg. 4.2; Blockley/Menander 1985: 45). This ruler is now understood to be Istämi, the Khaghan of the Western Türk and the younger brother of the Eastern Türk leader, Bumin of the Ashinas clan (Blockley/Menander 1985: 262 n. 112; Sinor 1990). However, I would like to posit that the Khaghan Sinjibu/Sinjibē, known as Silziboulos and Sizaboul in Byzantine sources is different than Ishtämi and perhaps is a deputy. An argument is surprisingly provided by Ferdowsi who, in a letter from Sinjibē to Khosrow, talks about the Faghfūr of China who “considers me great in the world, who has given me his daughter, and who asks for my counsel in all affairs of his land.” (Lns. 1959-1960). Throughout the story, Ferdowsi refers to Sinjibē and his Western Türk army as “Chinese”. There is no reason to assume that this reference to the Faghfūr of China is anything different than a reference to the ruler of the Türk, a superior of Sinjibē/Sizaboulos, and possibly the person of Ishtämi who might have acted as the overlord of Sinjibē.
 In order to avoid the confusion between the terms Turk/Turkish/Turkic as a general ethnonym and the actual entity of the Western Türk or Göktürk Khaghanate, I have chosen the spelling Türk as opposed to Turk to refer to the political entity that dominated Inner Eurasia in the latter half of the sixth and the first half of the seventh centuries AD. This should in no way be interpreted as a commentary on modern debates about Turkish/Turkic identity.
 This is invariably either the name of a city or another local name for the river Jaxartes (Le Strange 1905: 476 with a reference to Mostowfi Qazvini without any citation); also see Farzin Ghaffouri (forthcoming). I would tend to agree with the idea that it was also the name of a city, much like Balkh which in addition to the city, also referred to the section of Oxus that passed by it; see Borhan under Gul-Zariyun. Menander Protector tells us that the city of the Türk was called “Ektag, which is ‘Golden Mountain’ (χρυσοῦν ὄρος)” in Greek. Ektag of course means ‘White Mountain’ and not golden. However, in Sogdian, Golden Mountain would be γari-zyrn which might lie behind Ferdowsi’s Gul-Zarriyun/Galzariyun, possibly a misreading of Gari-zyrin گرزورن.
 For a very interesting survey of the archaeological material from the region and fascinating details of the Hephthalite Empire and its aftermath, see Grenet 2002.
 Line 1756 in the volume 7 of Khaleghi-Motlagh/Ferdowsi.
 See note 7 above.
 This is modern Tashkent on the banks of River Jaxartes, alternatively known as the Chach River (Le Strange 1905: 476).
 Bivar 2003, 199 among others.
 Ghātfar is assumed in most modern studies (e.g. Bivar 2003) to be the refugee Hephthalite advisor of Khosrow I, knowns as Katulph, mentioned by Menander frg. 10.1 (Blockley/Menander 1985: 113). However, I very much doubt this, as Menander clearly mentions that Katulph was someone who escaped the Hephthalite court because the king had raped his wife, and that he betrayed his nation to the Turk. There is no mention of Katulph being a king or even an army leader of the Hephthalites, putting him in a similar position to Ghātfar.
 Khaleghi-Motlagh, ln. 1794, reads شِنگان Šengān which is not really mentioned in any geographical works. Based on its germination with Balkh, I suggest amending this to Samangān, immediately to the south and east of Balkh and the scene of many events in the Shahnameh’s earlier sections.
 This is perhaps a reference to the recent wars with Justinian which had resulted in an unstable armistice in 557; see Greatrex and Lieu 2005: 115-134 and further below.
 I have taken the dīn in همان تازیان را به دین آوریم “also bring the Arabs to dīn” to refer to a sort of order and Türk suzerainty, not religion, as prior to this, there has been no expression of a religion or religious interest of the Türks. Khaleghi-Motlagh 1389: 304, B. 1920 says that “dīn here can be understood as both ‘direction, order and custom’ and ‘religion and belief’…” But he concludes that the second meaning here is meant, since “from the point of view of the Iranians who have put these words in the mouths of the Turks, both Turks and Arabs are without religion or follow the wrong religion.” I respectfully disagree and think that we should not go a roundabout way to interpret a line which seems to clearly suggest that the Khaghan, who is everywhere else presented as a reasonable man, should be understood as so corrupt to desire to corrupt others. It rather simply points out the fact that he wants to conquer Iran and force even the distant Arabs to accept his imperial authority.
 Khosrow probably took residence in his fortification in the region, as mentioned in al-Tabari I-896 as the fortifications of Jurjan and the land of the Ṣul, known today as Sadd-e Eskandar. This forms one of the most impressive defensive construction in history; see Sauer 2013.
 This is one of the highlights of the event in most other versions of this tale told by al-Tabari, Dinawari, and Balʿami.
 It might be worth noting that the same reason is provided, a few hundred years later, in Juwayni 1912: 58-66, about the murder of merchants protected by Chingiz Khan at the hand of the ruler of Otrar, giving the Mongol conqueror a legitimate reason to attack the Khwarazmshahid kingdom.
 For example, Bivar 2003: 1999; compare with al-Tabari I-895 where Khaghan Sinjibu is “the one who attacked W.r.z (?) the king of the Hephthalites” (Bosworth-Tabari, 152).
 Peroz, in fact, was killed by Akhshunwar (Khushnawaz in Ferdowsi), the ancestor of Fagγānīš who replaced Ghātfar as the king of the Hephthalites and was confirmed both by the Khaghan and Khosrow himself: al-Tabari, I-879 and a discussion in Rezakhani 2017: 126-128.
 The fact that the Sasanian instrumentality in the events was not believed by the Byzantines is confirmed by the audience of the Maniakh, the Sogdian ambassador of the Khaghan Sizabul, with Justin II. When he visits Justin in the fourth reign of his reign (late 568-early 569; Blockley/Menander 1985: 262, n. 110), the emperor quizzes Maniakh about the truth of the Hephthalite defeat and demise at the hand of the Western Türk (Menander, frg. 110, Blockley/Menander 1985: 115), suggesting that the truth by that time had reached the Byzantines.
 Classical studies are Nöldeke 1896 and Rozen 1895. A comprehensive survey and exhaustive discussion is provided in Khaleghi-Motlagh 1385; Jackson Bonner 2011 provides a rather conservative view that assumes the existence of written Khuday-nama texts.