The Eb

Procopius praises them for being unlike other Huns, less like savage animals, more like civilized men with white bodies and laws to obey. Menander Protector, citing Peter the Patrician, asserts that they were in fact those Huns who decided to return to the east after the fall of Attila. Joshua the Stylite describes their military tactic as being "like that of other Huns; they pretend to flee and then turn upon their pursuers killing them mercilessly with long bows and short knives".

Despite all that, there persisted a rumour among common people, something one would hear at a bazaar or in a tavern, saying that they were no Huns at all. That they were just calling themselves so to instill fear in their enemies.

And then there was yet another rumour, whispered in the corridors of the patrikioi. It claimed that the tavern story was in fact a fabrication planted by the Huns themselves to make them appear weak and to lure their prey into a deadly trap.

Among themselves they've called themselves Eb and if we are to believe Chinese chroniclers they once lived north of the Great Wall and paid tribute to the Jou-jan.

Whatever their true origin, Eliseus (the Armenian one) reports that they've appeared in Central Asia by the middle of 5th century and attacked Sasanian empire from the north. Peroz I fought them thrice. Twice he was captured and ransomed. The third time he was killed. The Eb have then plundered eastern Khorasan for years. Ibn Miskawayh notes how they've enjoyed burning down places of worship and then, on a whim, rebuilding them again.

By the end of the century the Eb conquered most of Sogdiana and finally, in 509, took Sughd itself.

We have almost no information about what was going on at the beginning of the 6th century. The only source, however unreliable, is John of Pannonia.

Interested, as he were, only in things Christian, he recounts a story of one of their kings who converted to Christianity. On his death bed he got serious doubts whether he'll be admitted to heaven. The priests failed to persuade him of the merits of wearing prickly goat hair underwear as a way to elicit Lord's infinite mercy. And so finally, just before his death, he ordered mass murdering of the Khorasan Christians so that, in the ensuing chaos, he could sneak more easily through the tall gate of heaven.

Elsewhere John writes that the Eb valued bravery above all other things. Their god was iron Xnyr. They considered old people, as they grew more peaceful with age, to be weak and cowardly and therefore despicable. And indeed, in Zarafshan valley one can still find Eb clay figures depicting old people as rabbits or dung beetles (Frazer).

Eb warrior considered the old version of himself to be an enemy to be subdued. He would hire a criminal from a low caste, so called "old man's spur", to watch his future self and keep him in check. If the old man grew too peaceful, the spur was supposed to kill him.

The system of spurs, John of Pannonia explains, was the reason behind the fabled military efficacy of the Eb. It was also, given their inability to compromise, the eventual reason of their fall.

One has to note that this story can't possibly be true because spur (the riding tool) was unknown in the region until much later.

In any case, in 557 Persians allied with Blue Turks and pushed the Eb back to Bactria. In 606, they were finally defeated by Smbat Bagratuni.

Still, several small Eb kingdoms remained scattered at various places in Central Asia. How they've survived Islamic conquest we don't know. Today, nothing much is preserved but a list of names in Shahnameh and an occasional stupa from the period of decline. (And maybe one small ceremonial shovel in the repository of National Museum of Iran.)

Author's note 1: ISAF mediators who participated in the talks between general Dostum and Atta Mohammed Nur in early 2000s reported meeting a group of people who referred to themselves as Eb and were said to come to Balkh from one of the valleys in the east.

Author's note 2: N. Leonberger reminds me that this story is probably based on the conversation we had in 1999. Nico was, at the time, an exchange student at Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava. I was doing my civil service at the same place, taking care of computer lab equipped with computers that would, today, make a great addition to the collection of the Museum of Computer History in Mountain View, California. One hot summer night — the temperature must have been above 30 degrees Celsius — we were sitting in front of Fascists' cafe at Venturska street watching the usual crowd of young people rubbing against each other in a sweaty, Caribbean frenzy. I've somehow got ranting about Oscar Wilde being a master of superficiality. I've demonstrated my thesis on the example of Dorian Gray, whose essence, throughout the book, is not affected in any meaningful way. The book is all about his physical appearance. Nico said that the book would be much more fun if Dorian was able to delegate the unpleasant moments of his life to the portrait. At some point, the portrait would have the haunted look of a man whose entire life consists of waiting in queues, listening to boring speeches and undergoing tooth drilling. I have noted that we don't even need a magical portrait for that. We are doing it each time we postpone an unpleasant duty and leave it to be done by that old stranger we'll become one day. Nico, amused, replied that we finally discovered the reason for the existence of death. It gives us a cheap way to escape all the toil accumulated in previous life. Transhumanists, who dream of abolishing death, he remarked, may be heading for an unpleasant surprise.

August 31th, 2018

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