Tong Yabghu Qaghan

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Tong Yabghu Qaghan
Died 628
Title khagan of the Western Turkic Khaganate (618–628)
Sassanian fortress in Derbent, built to protect against nomads from the north. Derbent played a vital role in Tong Yabghu's campaigns against Persia.

Tong Yabghu Qaghan (died 628[1]) (also known as Ziebel, T'ung Yabghu, Ton Yabghu, Tong Yabghu Khagan, Tun Yabghu, and Tong Yabğu, Traditional Chinese 統葉護可汗, Simplified Chinese: 统叶护可汗, pinyin Tǒngyèhù Kěhán, Wade-Giles: t'ung-yeh-hu k'o-han) was khagan of the Western Turkic Khaganate from 618 to 628 AD. His name is usually translated as "Tiger Yabgu" in Old Turkic.[2] Another interpretation of his name is "sufficiency" or "completeness".[3] He was the brother of Sheguy (r. 611-618), the previous khagan of the western Göktürks, and was a member of the Ashina clan.[4] Tong Yabghu's reign is generally regarded as the zenith of the Western Göktürk Khaganate.[5]


Gokturk khaganates at their height, c. 600 AD :
  Western Gokturk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence.
  Eastern Gokturk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence.

Tong Yabghu maintained close relations with the Tang Dynasty of China, and may have married into the Imperial family.[6] The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited the western Göktürk capital Suyab in modern Kyrgyzstan and left a description of the khagan. Scholars believe the khagan described by Xuanzang was Tong Yabghu.[7] Gao argues that the khagan Xuanzang met was his son Si Yabghu, rather than Tong Yabghu.[8] Xuanzang described the khagan as follows:

The khan wore a green satin robe; his hair, which was ten feet long, was free. A band of white silk wound round his forehead and hung down behind. The ministers of the presence,[9] numbering two hundred in number, all wearing embroidered robes, stood on his right and left. The rest of his military retinue [was] clothed in fur, serge and fine wool, the spears and standards and bows in order, and the riders of camels and horses stretched far out of [sight].[10]

According to the Book of Tang, Tong Yabghu's reign was once considered as the golden age of Western Göktürk Khaganate:

Tong Yehu Kaghan is a man of bravery and astuteness. He is good at art of war. Thus he controlled Tiele tribes to the north, confronted Persia to the west, connected with Kasmira (nowadays Kashmir) to the south. All countries are subjected to him. He controlled ten thousands of men with arrow and bow, establishing his power over the western region. He occupied the land of Wusun and moved his tent to Qianquan north of Tashkent. All of the princes of western region assumed the Turk office of Jielifa. Tong Yehu Kaghan also sent a Tutun to monitor them for imposition. The power of Western Turks had never reached such a state before".[11]

Campaigns against Persia[edit]

The 20-metre-high Gates of Alexander stretched between the Caspian seashore and the Caucasus for forty kilometers; they are still in existence.

Tong Yabghu's empire fought with the Sassanids of Iran. In the early 620's the khagan's nephew Böri Shad led a series of raids across the Caucasus Mountains into Persian territory. Many scholars have identified Tong Yabghu as the Ziebel mentioned in Byzantine sources as having (as khagan of the Khazars) campaigned with the Emperor Heraclius in the Caucasus against the Sassanid Persian Empire in 627-628.[12] A few scholars, including Chavannes, Uchida, Gao and Xue Zhongzeng assert that Tong Yabghu cannot be positively identified with Ziebel (or any Khazar ruler) and may actually have died as early as 626. These scholars point to discrepancies in the dates between Byzantine and Chinese sources and argue that definitively conflating Ziebel with Tong Yabghu is an exaggeration of the extant evidence.[8][13]

In 627, the Turks penetrated the Gates of Alexander and sacked the city of Derbent. Movses Kagankatvatsi describes the attack thus:

Like waves in the sea, the Turks fell on the town of Chora (Derbent) and destroyed it completely. Seeing the terrible threat posed by this vile, ugly, horde of attackers, with their slanting and lidless eyes, and their flowing hair like that of women, the inhabitants were seized by terror. Especially terrifying were the archers, who were skillful and powerful, and rained arrows down like hail then, like savage wolves, shamelessly threw themselves on the people and mercilessly cut them down in the streets and squares of the town. They did not even take pity on the children who hugged their slaughtered mothers, but sucked the children's blood like milk.[14]

The Derbent raid sparked panic all over the country. Aghvania forces withdrew to their capital, Partav, then headed into the Caucasus Mountains. The Göktürks and Khazars overtook them near the village of Kalankatuyk, where they were either slain or taken prisoner. The conquerors imposed upon Azerbaijan a heavy system of taxation, as reported by Movses:

The Lord of the North [one of the titles of the Göktürk Khagan) wreaked havoc all over the country. He sent his wardens to deal with artisans of all kind, especially those skilled in washing out gold, extraction of silver and iron, as well as making copper items. He imposed duties on fishers and goods from the great Kura and Aras rivers, in addition to the didrachma traditionally levied by the Persian authorities.[15]

Later that year, Tong Yabghu's army joined Heraclius in the siege of Tfilis. Heraclius and Tong Yabghu met under the walls of Narikala. The yabghu rode up to the emperor, kissed his shoulder and made a bow. In return, Heraclius hugged his ally, called him his son, and crowned him with his own diadem.[16] During the ensuing feast the Khazar leaders received ample gifts in the shape of earrings and clothes, while the yabghu was promised the hand of the emperor's daughter, Eudoxia Epiphania. Tong Yabghu placed an army of 40,000 Khazar horsemen at Heraclius' disposal.[17]

The initial siege of Tfilis was unsuccessful; both leaders were ridiculed by the Georgian defenders of the city. In 628 Heraclius struck southwards into Persia while Tong Yabghu's army again besieged Tfilis, this time successfully. Many of the defenders were executed, blinded, or mutilated.[18]


Tong Yabghu appointed governors or tuduns to manage the various tribes and people under his overlordship.[7] In all likelihood Tong Yabghu's nephew Böri Shad was the commander of the Khazars, the westernmost of the tribes owing allegiance to the Western Göktürks; this branch of the family may have provided the Khazars with their first khagans in the mid seventh century.[19]


In ca. 630 he was murdered by Külüg Sibir, his uncle and a partisan of Dula clan. Following the death of Tong Yabghu, the might of the Western Göktürks largely collapsed. Although the khaganate lingered for a few decades before falling to the Chinese Empire, many of the client tribes became independent and a number of successor states, including the Khazar Khaganate and Great Bulgaria, became independent.[20]


  1. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 193
  2. ^ Golden, Khazar Studies passim; Brook ch. 1;
  3. ^ Xue 284
  4. ^ Christian 260
  5. ^ Golden, Nomads 30.
  6. ^ Golden, Introduction 135. According to Chinese historical sources, the marriage was never carried out because of interference by the Eastern Göktürk Illig Qaghan, whose territory sat between his territory and Tang territory and who felt threatened by the proposed marriage. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 192.
  7. ^ a b Christian 260.
  8. ^ a b Gao 113.
  9. ^ "ta-Kuan"", probably tarkhan is intended; see Christian 260.
  10. ^ Adapted from Watters I:74,77.
  11. ^ Ying, Lin. Western Turks and Byzantine gold coins found in China - Transoxiana
  12. ^ The campaign is described in detail in the Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor. The identification of Ziebel as "Khagan of the Khazars" rather than of the Western Turks is likely because the Khazars, as Göktürk vassals, made up the largest contingent of the Göktürk army with whom the Greeks had contact. Klyashtorny 96-97; Golden, Introduction 135; Christian 260.
  13. ^ E.g., Xue 286-289.
  14. ^ Account taken from the chronicle of Moisei Kagankatvatsi, as cited in Artananov 147 and translated in Christian 283. Christian regards this account as exaggerated, calling it "hostile and formulaic." Ibid.
  15. ^ Movses 131.
  16. ^ Artamonov 57.
  17. ^ Ibidem; Gibbon ch. 46. Theophanes reports instead that Eudoxia was offered to Tong Yabghu's son, "a beardless boy." The marriage never occurred because of the Turkic ruler's death.
  18. ^ Christian 283.
  19. ^ Christian 283; Artamanov 170-180.
  20. ^ E.g., Christian 260-285.


Preceded by
Sheguy (She Kui)
Khan of the Western Turkic Khaganate (one rival line)
Succeeded by
Qulipiqie Khan (Ashina Moheduo)
Succeeded by
Siyehu Khan (Ashina Dieli)