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For the prehistory of the region of modern-day Hungary, see History of Hungary before the Hungarian Conquest.

Hungarian prehistory (Hungarian: magyar őstörténet) refers to the prehistoric Magyars (Hungarians), from the time when they separated from Common Ugric (estimated to correspond to the early 1st millennium BC) until their conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century (known as Honfoglalás "Landtaking" in Hungarian historiography).[1] The poorly documented 10th-century Principality of Hungary is included by some historians as part of Hungarian prehistory.[1] The terms "ancient history", and "early history"[2] are also used by different sources to describe this same period of Hungarian history.

The formation of the Magyar people

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Emergence from the Ugric speakers

The Hungarian language is traditionally classified in a Ugric branch of the Uralic languages,[1][3][4] though the Ugric similarities may be due to an areal influence that also included Samoyedic.[5] The Uralic languages may have separated sometime around 4000 to 2000 BC.[3][4]

Climate changes around 1300 BC resulted in the northward expansion of the steppes which compelled several groups within the proto-Ugric people to turn to the nomadic lifestyle.[3][4][6] This change was strengthened by the several proto-Iranian groups living south of them who had been practicing pastoral nomadism and whose influence on the proto-Ugric people can be proven by several loanwords[7] in their languages.[3][4][8] The formation of the Hungarian language occurred around this time (between 1000 BC and 500 BC) and can be localized to the southern regions of the Ural Mountains.[1]

Following a further climate change around 800 BC that caused the expansion of the taiga, the nomadic proto-Ugric groups (probably the ancestors of the Magyars) had to move southward; thus they separated from the ancestors of the Khanty and Mansi peoples.[1][3]

The Hungarian Urheimat

The Hungarian Urheimat (Hungarian: magyar őshaza) is the theoretical original homeland of the Magyars. The term urheimat comes from linguistics and tends to be reserved for discussion about language origin. As applied to national origin, it refers to the area where ancestors of the Magyars formed an ethnic unity, speaking a language ancestral to Hungarian, and practising Nomadic pastoralism. There is a consensus that the Hungarian urheimat in this ethnogenetic sense must have been located somewhere in the steppe zone south of the Ural Mountains.[1][3]

  • One view[9] states that the Magyar Urheimat is the same as the Ugric language group's urheimat on the western side of the Ural Mountains.[10] The territory of Yugra tends to be identified as the Ob-Ugric languages urheimat and not the earlier Ugric period; and thus the western side of the Urals in the vicinity of the Kama river is considered to be the Ugric language urheimat.[11] It is believed that the Magyars emerged from this western Ural Urheimat, based upon early language influence from Permic peoples.[10] Herodotus in the 5th century BC probably depicted the ancestors of Hungarians when mentioning the Yugra people living west of the Urals.[12]
  • Another view claims that the urheimat is roughly the same area as Yugra to the east of the Ural Mountains, where the Khanty and Mansi peoples live today. The time when the proto-Magyars moved westwards from the regions east of the Ural Mountains and settled down in Bashkiria (around the region where the Kama River joins the Volga) is still under debate.[4] Their movement may have been caused by new migrations of peoples in the 4th century AD, but it may have also connected to the appearance of a new archaeological culture (Kushnarenkovo culture) in the region in the 6th century AD.[4]
  • Approaches based on "map-stratification" have compared burial sites, ornamental motifs (tulips, cranes), leather and felt garments, mythological images, sacrificial cauldrons, folk poetry, folk music, lullabies, together with written documents and genetic findings to narrow down the most likely Magyar urheimat to the grassy land surrounded by four freshwater lakes (Caspian, Aral, Balkhash, and Baikal). From this land the migration of proto-Magyars progressed west, probably by more than one route, mainly via the Yekaterinburg-gap of the South-Ural mountains (indicated by cemeteries), to Levedia and later to Etelköz where they became the allies of the Khazars. Genetic evidence has linked early Magyars eastward as well to the Ujghurs, living in East-Eurasia around the town of Ürümqi (today in China).[13]

Nevertheless some authors emphasize that the urheimat concept is outdated since the development of a people is continuous.[14]


Main article: Name of the Hungarians

The origin of the "Magyar" expression (the self-definition of the Hungarians) could prove the period when the separation of the proto-Hungarians and the groups speaking proto-Ob-Ugric languages took place, but there are several theories on its origins; the word may be composed of two parts (magy and ar)[1] or it may have been borrowed from a proto-Iranian language.[15]

Words similar to the proposed magy element of the word are also used by the Khanty and Mansi peoples (referring to one of their groups /mos/ or to themselves /mansi/ respectively) which suggest that it is of Ugric origin and it possibly means "those who speak".[1] The assumed ar element of the word may be either of Ugric or Turkic origin and it probably means "man".[1][3] Those who assume that the expression ar originated from a Turkic language, also think that it may refer to a Turkic tribe that joined to a group of the proto-Ugric peoples and thus the two groups formed the Magyar people.[3]

Foreign primary sources use several names when referring to the Magyars (Hungarians).[16]

  • In sources written in Arabic, the Magyars are mentioned as Madjfarīyah or Madjgharīyah (e.g., by Ahmad ibn Rustah), Badjghird or Bazkirda (e.g., by al-Mas’udi, possibly confused here with the Bashkirs), Unkalī (e.g., by al-Tartushi), and Turk (e.g., by Ibn Hayyan).[16][17]
  • In Byzantine sources, the Magyars are referred to as Οΰγγροι /Ungroi/, Τουρκοι /Turkoi/ (e.g., by the Emperor Leo the Wise), and Σάβαρτοι άσφαλοι /Sawartoi asfaloi/ (e.g., by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos).[18]
  • When mentioning the Magyars, the medieval sources written in the Latin language usually use the terms Ungri, Hungri, Ungari, and Hungari, but some of the sources refer to the Magyars as Avari or Huni.[19]
    This Latin name for the Magyars, variously spelled Ungri, Hungri, Ungari, Hungari, along with its many derivatives including English Hungarians, must have derived from the Slavic form of the name of the Onogurs, a federation of (mainly) Turkic tribes in the 5th-8th centuries.[1][19]

First records on the Magyars

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus’ described a people called Іϋρκαι /Iurkai/ who were equestrian hunters and lived around the rivers Kama and Belaya; some authors suggest that his record may have been the first reference to the ancestors of the Magyars.[18] The people mentioned by Strabo as Οΰγρου /Ugroi/ might also be identified with the ancient Hungarians, although it is more plausible that he referred to one of the tribes of the Sarmatians.[18]

Based on the ancient name Σάβαρτοι άσφαλοι /Sawartoi asfaloi/ of the Magyars recorded by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos, some scholars assume that the Byzantine, Muslim and Armenian sources, that referred to a people called Σάβιροι /Sawiroi/, Σεβορτιοι /Sewortioi/, Siyāwardiya, and Sevordi, recorded the presence of the ancient Magyars north of the Caucasus Mountains in the 5th-10th centuries.[18] On the other hand, other authors point out that this identification is highly disputable based on linguistic arguments.[18]

The Byzantine author who continued Georgius Monachus' work mentions that around 837, the Bulgarian Empire sought the alliance of a pagan people called Ungri, Turc or Hun against the former inhabitants of Macedonia theme who rebelled against the Bulgarians, but the rebels defeated the pagans and returned to the Byzantine Empire.[18][20] The pagan people are identified with the ancient Hungarians and thus this is the first reference to the Magyars whose credibility has not been questioned by modern scholars.[20]

The Annales Bertiniani records that in 839, the Byzantine Emperor Teophilos asked the Emperor Louis the Pious to assist the Rus delegates, who had visited Constantinople, in returning to their country, because "barbarian and wild peoples" would endanger their journey backwards on the road they had come to Constantinople.[4] However, the identification of the “barbarian and wild peoples” with the Magyars has not been generally accepted.[20]

Constantine Porphyrogenitus records in his work “On Administering the Empire” that the Khagan and the Bek of the Khazars asked the Emperor Teophilos to have the fortress of Sarkel built for them.[20] His record is connected to the Magyars on the basis that the new fortress must have become necessary because of the appearance of a new enemy of the Khazars, and other peoples could not be taken into account as the Khazars’ enemies at that time.[20] In the 10th century, Ahmad ibn Rustah also mentioned that
earlier, the Khazars entrenched themselves against the attacks of the Magyars and other peoples
—Ahmad ibn Rustah[20]


Very specific areas are named and connected with the migration of the Magyars from an original homeland area to modern day Hungary. Each area is detailed below.

Magna Hungaria

Based on documents written in the 12th-13th centuries and mentioning Ungaria maior or Ungaria magna, modern authors use the name Magna Hungaria (literally “Great Hungary”) when referring to the territory where the ancestors of the Magyars used to live.[1][20] In 1235, Friar Julian located this land directly east of the capital of Volga Bulgaria.[1]

One theory[21] states that the Magyars moved to this area from a northerly urheimat before migrating further to the southwest.[20] In Bashkiria, gravesites confirm the Hungarians' ancestors' dwelling there and a significant burial place with 150 graves in the Volga–Kama territory was used by them in the 8th-9th centuries.[3]

Linguistic researches[22] and toponyms also suggest that in the Volga–Kama region, the Magyars came into contact with the Volga Bulgarians, who were migrating northward following the 670s AD.[4] Other authors suggest that the Magyars may have come into contact with Turkic peoples already in the 5th century AD and thus their southward migration from Magna Hungaria occurred around that period.[3]

The Magyars organized themselves into tribes probably in the region, because the name of one of their tribes (Gyarmat) may have been reserved as a clan's name among the Bashkirs.[4] The name of several Magyar tribes is of Oghur origin which may prove that Oghur tribes also joined to the Magyars.[1]

The ancient Magyars were separated into two groups between 750 and 830; and afterwards, the two groups existed separately: one of them stayed in Magna Hungaria until the 1240s, while the other group (the ancestors of the future Hungarians) moved southwards.[4] However, the southward migration of the ancestors of the Hungarians may have occurred already in the 7th century (or even earlier), or the two groups of the Magyars may have separated only in the 9th century.[3][20]

The Don-Kuban area

Some scholars[23][24] suggest that from Magna Hungaria, the ancient Magyars moved to the region north of the Caucasus Mountains, around the rivers Don and Kuban.[3][10] They emphasize that several Hungarian words connected to viticulture[25] must have been borrowed from a Turkic language on that territories, and several loanwords[26] may have been borrowed from the Alans living north of the Caucasus Mountains.[3][20] The characteristic features of the Magyars’ clothing may also have developed around that time.[3]

On the other hand, other scholars point out that the evidence for the Magyars’ habitation on the territory around the rivers Don and Kuban is tenuous.[4]


The Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus names a place where the early Magyars used to live and calls it Levedia after Magyar voivode Levedi.[20] He also reports that a river, called Chidmas or Chingilous, flows through the land; the most widely accepted theory identifies the Chidmas with the river Kodyma and the Chingilous with the river Inhul (both are tributaries of the river Southern Bug).[1] Doubt has also been cast upon the existence of Levedia, because the name itself suggest that it was a territory where only one of the Magyar tribes (i.e., the one led by the voivode Levedi) lived and thus it could not be the name of the whole territory where the federation of the Magyar tribes settled down.[3][10]

According to the Emperor's work, the Magyars struggled together with the Khazars, which suggest that the Magyar tribes were under Khazar suzerainty.[3][20] The length of the period when the Magyar tribes were subdued to the Khazar empire is under debate: Constantine Porphyrogenitus records that they lived there only three years, while some modern authors assume a 300-year-long period.[3][20] Other scholars suggest that the Khazar suzerainty over the Magyars may have started around 840 when references to a people distinct from the Khazars disappeared from the written sources.[4]

Around 850, the Pechenegs, who had suffered a defeat from the Khazars, invaded Levedia and defeated the Magyars who, led by the Voivode Levedi, fled west.[4] A group of the Magyars, however, fled over the Caucasus Mountains and settled down there and their descendants lived in the region until the 13th century.[4] On the other hand, some modern scholars suggest that the Magyars moved west already in the 7th century when Great Bulgaria disintegrated under Khazar pressure and the Bulgars left the territory north of the Black Sea.[3]


Following their defeat from the Pechenegs (or following the disintegration of Great Bulgaria), the seven Magyar tribes (Hungarian: Hétmagyar) that moved west settled down on the territory that Constantine Porphyrogenitus calls Etelküzü (or Etel and Küzü).[3][20] The Etelköz was the first known Hungarian principality, established around 830.[30] The territory was located around the rivers Dnieper, Southern Bug, Dniester, Prut and Siret.[1]

Shortly afterwards, as the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus recorded, the Khagan of the Khazars sent envoys to Voivode Levedi suggesting that he should be elevated to grand prince.[1] Levedi, however, rejected the Khagan's offer and proposed instead Álmos or his son Árpád; the Khagan accepted his proposal.[1] Although, according to the Byzantine Emperor, the heads of the seven Magyar tribes preferred Árpád, modern authors usually believe that Álmos was proclaimed the first Grand Prince of the Magyars (his title is recorded as megas Turkias arkhon in the "On Administering the Empire").[1] Some scholars,[31] however, debate the credibility of the Emperor’s accounts and see the story as a legitimizing explanation invented by the Árpáds for a regime change.[3][10]

According to Ahmad ibn Rustah’s work, the leadership of the Magyar tribal federation was divided between a spiritual ruler and an administrative and military leader – similar to the Khazar practise.[1][20] Ahmad ibn Rustah also recorded that the nominal leader of the tribal federation Hétmagyar was styled kende, but its military leader was the gyula.[20] In the Khazar empire, the holder of the third dignity (following its military leader) was styled kündür, which suggests that the Khazar Khagan granted this title to the newly elected head of the Magyar tribal federation.[4]
The Magyars are a race of Turks and their leader rides out with 20,000 horsemen and this king is called k.nd.h and this name denotes their king, for the name of the man who is actually king over them is ĝ.l.h and all the Magyars accept the orders of their ĝ.l.h in the matter of war and defense and the like.
—Ahmad ibn Rustah[32]

In 860–861, Magyar soldiers attacked Saint Cyril's convoy,[33] who was traveling to the Khagan, around Chersonesos that had been captured by the Khazars.

The Hétmagyar federation may have seceded from the Khazar empire around 862, when the Magyars (Ungri) pillaged East Francia:[3][4]
enemies, proviously unknown for the nations, called Ungri, devastate his /Louis the German's/ country.
Annales Bertiniani[16]
Muslim geographers recorded that the Magyars regularly attacked the neighboring East Slavic tribes and they sold their captives to the Byzantine Empire.[4] They also mentioned that
These Magyars are a handsome people and of good appearance and their clothes are of silk brocade and their weapons are of silver and are encrusted with pearls.
—Ahmad ibn Rusta[32]
Before 881, the Hétmagyar federation was even strengthened when the three tribes of the Kabars, who had rebelled against the Khazars, joined the Magyars.[3][4]
The so-called Kabaroi were of the race of the Chazars. Now, it fell out that a secession was made by them to their government, and when a civil war broke out their first government prevailed, and some of them were slain, but others escaped and came and settled with the Turks in the land of the Pechenegs, and they made friends with one another, and were called 'Kabaroi'.
—Constantine Porphyrogenitus: On Administering the Empire[16]

Thenceforward, the Kabars were regarded as military auxiliaries of the Magyars and they provided the advance and rear guards to their hosts.[16] In 881, the Magyars and the Kabars invaded East Francia, and they fought two battles, the former (Ungari) at Wenia (probably Vienna) and the latter (Cowari) at Culmite (possibly Kulmberg or Kollmitz in Austria).[3][20]

The Magyars were occasionally hired by the rulers of the neighboring territories to intervene in their struggles.[4] According to the Annales Fuldenses, in 892, King Arnulf of East Francia invaded Great Moravia and the Magyars joined to his troops.[20] In 894, the Magyars invaded Pannonia already in alliance with King Svatopluk I of Moravia.[4][20]

At the end of the Hungarian prehistory, around 895, the Hungarians began to carry out "the Hungarian landtaking" in the Carpathian Basin where they established their new homeland.

See also

Hungary portal



  • Bóna, István: A magyarok és Európa a 9-10. században (The Hungarians and Europe in the 9th-10th centuries); História - MTA Történettudományi Intézete, 2000, Budapest; ISBN 963-8312-67-X.
  • Csorba, Csaba: Árpád népe (Árpád’s people); Kulturtrade, 1997, Budapest; ISBN 963-9069-20-5.
  • Bagossy László (General Editor): Encyclopaedia Hungarica I-III.; Hungarian Ethnic Lexicon Foundation, 1992, 1994, 1996, Calgary.
  • Fine, John V. A.: The Early Medieval Balkans - A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century; The University of Michigan Press, 1994; ISBN 0-472-08149-7.
  • Győrffy, György (General Editor) - Kovács, László (Editor) - Veszprémy, László (Editor): Honfoglalás és nyelvészet (“The Occupation of Our county” and Linguistics); Balassi Kiadó, 1997, Budapest; ISBN 963-506-108-0:
    • Elter, István: A magyarok elnevezései Arab forrásokban (The Names of the Magyars in Arabic Sources) (article);
    • Gulya, János: A magyarok önelnevezésének eredete (The Origin of the Self-definition of the Hungarians) (article);
    • Harmatta, János: Iráni nyelvek hatása az ősmagyar nyelvre (The Influence of Iranian Languages on the Ancient Hungarian Language) (article);
    • Harmatta, János: A magyarok nevei görög nyelvű forrásokban (The Names of the Magyars in Sources Written in Greek) (article);
    • Király, Péter: A magyarok elnevezése a korai európai forrásokban (The Names of the Magyars in Early European Sources) (article);
  • Köpeczi, Béla (General Editor) - Makkai, László - Mócsy, András - Szász, Zoltán (Editors) - Barta, Gábor (Assistant Editor): History of Transylvania, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1994, Budapest; [1] (the full text in English).
  • Kristó, Gyula (General Editor) - Engel, Pál (Editor) - Makk, Ferenc (Editor): Korai Magyar Történeti Lexikon (9-14. század) (Encyclopedia of the Early Hungarian History - 9-14th centuries); Akadémiai Kiadó, 1994, Budapest; ISBN 963-05-6722-9.
  • Kristó, Gyula: A Kárpát-medence és a magyarság régmultja (1301-ig) (The ancient history of the Carpathian Basin and the Hungarians - till 1301); Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, 1993, Szeged; ISBN 963-04-2914-4.
  • Kristó, Gyula: Hungarian History in the Ninth Century; Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, 1996, Szeged; ISBN 963-482-113-8.
  • László, Gyula: The Magyars - Their life and Civilisation; Corvina, 1996, Budapest; ISBN 963-13-4226-3.
  • Makk, Ferenc: A turulmadártól a kettős keresztig (From the Turul Bird to the Double Cross); Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, 1998, Szeged; ISBN 963-05-6722-9.
  • Róna-Tas, András: Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages - An Introduction to Early Hungarian History; CEU Press, 1994, Budapest / New York; ISBN 963-9116-48-3.
  • Tóth, Sándor László: Levediától a Kárpát-medencéig (From Levedia to the Carpathian Basin); Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, 1998, Szeged; ISBN 963-482-175-8.

External links

de:Magna Hungaria

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