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Arabo-Persian form of the Central Asian title yabḡu. Although it is best known as a Turkish title of nobility, it was in use many centuries before the Turks appear in the historical record.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume XIV, Fascicle 3, pp. 314-317

JABḠUYA, Arabo-Persian form of the Central Asian title yabḡu.


Although yabḡu is best known as a Turkish title of nobility, it was in use many centuries before the Turks appear in the historical record. The earliest form of the word attested is the Chinese xihou (ancient i̯əp-g’u; Karlgren, pp. 675 q [and variants] + 113a, Early Middle Chinese xip-γəw), which is found as a title of various “barbarian” (Wusun, Yuezhi, etc.) rulers in texts referring to events from the 2nd century B.C.E. onwards. The title seems first to have been brought to the Iranian world by the Kushans. The Han shu, (chap. 96A, p. 3891), tells that the Yuezhi were ruled by five xihou, to which the Hou Han shu (chap. 88, p. 2921), adds an account of how Qiujiuque, the “Guishuang xihou,” that is Kujula Kadphises the “Kushan yabḡu,” obtained supremacy over the other four xihou and thus established the Kushan Empire (Chavannes, 1907, pp. 189-92; Hulsewé and Loewe, pp. 121-23). As is to be expected, the title is also attested on the coins of Kujula, where it written yavuga- or yaüa- in Prakrit and zaoou (genitive of *zaoos or *zaoēs) in Greek. The identity of these forms with the Chinese xihou was first recognized by Alfred von Gutschmid (p. 114). Another Prakrit variant, jaüva-, may be attested in an inscription from Taxila (see Konow, p. 27), but the context is not entirely clear. The Bactrian form iabgo is also attested in the Kushan period (Livshits and Kruglikova, p. 103); much later, probably at the end of the 5th century, it reappears as a Hephthalite title (Sims-Williams, 1999, p. 255). The personal name Yapǵu in the Kharoṣṭhī documents from Niya (e.g., Burrow, passim on pp. 92-95; cf. Lüders, p. 789) and the Tocharian B title *yapko (attested via the adjective yapkoñe; see Pinault, p. 12) are likely to derive from the Bactrian form. However, the supposed form iapgu in a Bactrian coin legend of the Turkish period (Ghirshman, p. 50) is a misreading, probably for tagino, that is, Turk. tegin “prince” (Davary, p. 98).

Among the Turks, the title yabḡu gained a new lease of life. In the Turkish inscriptions of Mongolia, it refers to a noble ranking immediately after the qaḡan, but in the West the title seems to have been used more generally of tribal chiefs, and was so characteristic that the Chinese came to refer to the Western Turks by expressions such as “the tribes of the yabḡu” (Chavannes, 1903, p. 95 n. 3). In Tang times, Turkish yabḡu was retranscribed into Chinese as yehu (archaic ḭäp-γuo, see Karlgren, nos. 633d + 784k, Late Middle Chinese jiap-xHuə!), showing that the equivalence with xihou was by then forgotten. In the Sogdian version of the Karabalgasun inscription, the Turkish title is transcribed as ypγw. In the 7th century, the spelling cpγw [ǰabγu] is attested on Sogdian coins of Chach (Shagalov and Kuznetsov, 2006, pp. 84-86). In a ninth-century colophon to a Manichean hymn-book, jβγw [žaβγu] is attested as the title of the ruler of Parvān (Āqsu) and the variant yβγw as part of a Turkish personal name (Müller, p. 11, ll. 77, 93; cf. also Bailey, 1985, p. 130, where Tibetan, Armenian, and Pahlavi forms are cited).

The ultimate origin of the word yabḡu has been much disputed. A useful survey of the older literature is provided by Richard Frye, pp. 356-58, who refers to suggested Altaic etymologies but himself favors an Iranian source. Two different Iranian etymologies were proposed by Harold W. Bailey (*yam-uka- “leader,” Bailey, 1958, p. 136, and *yāvuka- “troop-leader,” idem, 1985, pp. 32, 130), but the phonetic equivalence would not be close and both forms are quite hypothetical. A “Tocharian” origin has been suggested by several scholars (e.g., Pulleyblank, 1966, p. 28, who tentatively compares Toch. A ype, B yapoy “land, country”; Bosworth and Clauson, pp. 9-10), an idea which depends on the doubtful assumption that peoples such as the Wusun and Yuezhi were ethnically related to the speakers of what we now call Tocharian.

Although the title xihou is only borne by non-Chinese rulers and is invariably regarded by Sinologists as a transcription of a foreign form, Helmut Humbach (pp. 24-28) has argued that the word is in fact Chinese in origin, the syllable hou being a Chinese title often translated “marquis.” Elaborating on this view, Nicholas Sims-Williams (2002, p. 229) has proposed to interpret xihou as “allied prince.” Such an interpretation is particularly suited to some of the earliest attestations of xihou. According to the Shiji (chap. 19, p. 1021, and chap. 20, p. 1027), the title was bestowed twice by the Chinese emperor, in 147 B.C.E. on a Xiongnu prince and in 129 B.C.E. on a prince of the western barbarians (Hu), both of whom had allied themselves with the Han. However, the Han shu provides evidence for the even earlier use of this title: amongst the Wusun in the 170s B.C.E., a period before they were in direct contact with the Chinese (chap. 61, p. 2692; Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 215), and amongst the Yuezhi of Bactria, who had left Gansu or Turfan in the 170s B.C.E. and would therefore be unlikely to use a Chinese title of more recent origin (Han shu, chap. 96A, p. 3891; Hulsewé and Loewe, pp. 121-23). Moreover, xi “joined, harmonious, etc.” would not have been an obvious word to employ in the political sense “united” or “allied.” The earliest Chinese interpretation of xihou (already in the first century C.E., see the Han shu, chap. 17, pp. 640, 642) was “marquis of Xi,” Xi being understood as the name of a village in the Huang region (Henan). Although this association must be due to folk etymology or secondary association (cf. Hirth, p. 49), its mere existence is a clear indication that the syllable xi was not felt to be meaningful. Later commentators of the Tang period define xihou as a Wusun title for a high-ranking general. It seems most likely that this view is essentially correct and that xihou is a Chinese transcription of a title used by the Wusun and Yuezhi, peoples from the Gansu or Turfan regions, of whose languages hardly anything is known.


Chinese dynastic histories are quoted according to the pagination of the Zhonghua shuju edition, Beijing, 1972-.

Reconstructed Chinese forms are quoted according to Bernhard Karlgren (1957) and Edwin G. Pulleyblank, 1991.

Harold W. Bailey, “Languages of the Saka,” in Handbuch der Orientalistik I.IV.1, Leiden, 1958, pp. 131-54.

Idem, Khotanese Texts VII, Cambridge, 1985.

Clifford E. Bosworth and G. Clauson, “Al-Xwārazmī on the Peoples of Central Asia,” JRAS, 1965, pp. 2-12.

Thomas Burrow, A Translation of the Kharoṣṭhi Documents from Chinese Turkestan, London, 1940.

Édouard Chavannes, Documents sur les Tou-kiue (Turcs) occidentaux, St. Petersburg, 1903.

Idem, “Les pays d’occident d’après le Heou Han chou,” T’oung Pao, Series 2/8, 1907, pp. 149-234.

Gholam Djelani Davary, Baktrisch: Ein Wörterbuch auf Grund der Inschriften, Handschriften, Münzen und Siegelsteine, Heidelberg, 1982.

Richard Nelson Frye, “Some Early Iranian Titles,” Oriens 15, 1962, pp. 352-59.

Roman Ghirshman, Les Chionites-Hephtalites, Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan 13, Cairo, 1948.

Alfred von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarvölker von Alexander dem Grossen bis zum Untergang der Arsaciden, Tübingen, 1888.

F. Hirth, “Nachworte zur Inschrift von Tonjukuk,” in W. Radloff, ed., Die alttürkischen Inschriften der Mongolei, 2nd Series, St Petersburg, 1899.

Anthony F. P. Hulsewé and Michael A. N. Loewe, tr., China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 B.C.-A.D. 23, Leiden, 1979 (annotated tr. of chaps. 61 and 96 of “The history of the former Han Dynasty”).

Helmut Humbach, Baktrische Sprachdenkmäler I, Wiesbaden, 1966.

Bernhard Karlgren, “Grammata Serica Recensa,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 29, Stockholm, 1957.

Sten Konow, ed., Kharoshṭhī Inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, II, part 1, Calcutta, 1929.

V. A. Livshits and I. T. Kruglikova, “Fragmenty baktriĭskoĭ monumental’noĭ nadpisi iz Dil’berdzhina (Fragments of a Bactrian monumental inscription from Dilberjin),” in I. T. Kruglikova, ed., Drevnyaya Baktriya (Ancient Bactria) II, Moscow, 1979, pp. 98-112.

Heinrich Lüders, Philologica Indica, Göttingen, 1940.

Friedrich W. K. Müller, “Ein Doppelblatt aus einem manichäischen Hymnenbuch (Maḥrnâmag),” APAW, 1912, pp. 1-40.

Georges-Jean Pinault, “Economic and Administrative Documents in Tocharian B from the Berezovsky and Petrovsky Collections,” Manuscripta Orientalia 4/4, 1998, pp. 3-20.

Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “Chinese and Indo-Europeans,” JRAS, 1966, pp. 9-39.

Idem, Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin, Vancouver, 1991.

V. D. Shagalov and A. V. Kuznetsov, Katalog monet Chach III-VIII vv. (Catalogue of coins of Chach, III-VIII C.E.), Tashkent, 2006.

Nicholas Sims-Williams, “From the Kushan-shahs to the Arabs: New Bactrian Documents Dated in the Era of the Tochi Inscriptions,” in Michael Alram and Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, eds., Coins, Art and Chronology: Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, Vienna, 1999, pp. 245-58.

Idem, “Ancient Afghanistan and Its Invaders: Linguistic Evidence from the Bactrian Documents and Inscriptions,” in idem, ed., Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, Proceedings of the British Academy 116, Oxford, 2002, pp. 225-42.


The title, found in early Turkic languages from the 8th century (stone stellae in the Orkhon River in Mongolia) onward as yabḡu, appears as jabḡuya or jab(b)uya in early Islamic sources dealing with the Eastern Iranian fringes and the steppe lands beyond. Since these sources connect the title in the first place with the Oghuz (see ḠOZZ) and Qarluq tribes of the Turks, the initial sound change y > j of the form in Arabic presumably accords with the statement by Maḥmud Kāšḡari that the Oghuz and Qıpčaq change every initial yāʾ into alef or jim (Kāšḡari, I, p. 31; tr. Dankhoff and Kelly, I, p. 84).

In the old Turkic Empire, the Yabḡu was a close relative of the Qaḡan and, on the evidence of the Orkhon inscriptions, he held a high administrative rank (Clauson, p. 873). The title had also been borne by Turkic princes in the upper Oxus region in post-Hephthalite (see HEPHTHALITES) times, appearing on their coins (Ghirshman and Ghirshman, pp. 50-51), and it is at Qondoz in Ṭoḵārestān that the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hüen-Čuang located Šad, the eldest son of the Yabḡu of the Western Turks. At this time (7th century C.E.), the Yabḡus ruled over a principality to the south of the upper Oxus, and it is as opponents of the Arabs in Ṭoḵārestān that the Jabbuyas or Jabḡuyas appear in such Arabic sources as Yaʿqubi and Ṭabari (Gibb, pp. 8-11). The operations of Qotayba b. Moslem in the upper Oxus region in 90-91/708-10 against the Hephthalite chief Ṭarḵān Nizak involved the Jabbuya’s eventual deportation to Syria as a hostage by Qotayba after Nizak’s death (Ṭabari, III, pp. 1206-7, 1220-21, 1225; tr. Hinds, pp. 155, 166, 168, 172; cf. Gibb, pp. 37-38; Bosworth, 1986, pp. 541-42).

Subsequently, it is in connection with the relations of the Arab governors in Transoxania with the Turks of the adjacent regions that the Yabḡu of the Oghuz tribe is mentioned there. Thus in the early Abbasid period, the caliph al-Mahdi (r. 775-85) received the submission of various princes of the Transoxanian fringes and the lands beyond, including the Yabḡu of the Qarluq and the Ḵāqān of the Toghuz-Oghuz; and in 195/810-11, the caliph al-Maʾmun (r. 813-33), faced with a coming struggle for the caliphate with this brother al-Amin (r. 809-13), had to conciliate various rulers of the East who had fallen away in their nominal allegiance, including Jabḡuya, Ḵāqān, the ruler of Tibet, and the king of Kabul (Yaʿqubi, Taʾriḵ, II, p. 478; Ṭabari, III, pp. 815-16, tr. Fishbein, pp. 71-72; cf. Barthold, p. 202). In the early 10th century, geographical works mention Jabḡukaṯ, “the town of the Yabḡu,” located on the middle Syr Daryā in the neighborhood of Šāš (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 330; Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 461; Ebn Ḥawqal, tr. Wiet, p. 445; Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, p. 117; cf. Barthold, p. 173).

The title Yabḡu for the chiefs of the Oghuz and Qarluq is listed by Ḵvārazmi, who wrote ca. 366/977 and probably used a Samanid source for this (Bosworth and Clauson, p. 6). The Yabḡu, as the head of the Oghuz, who lived as nomads in the steppes between the lower Syr Daryā and the Aral Sea and the Ural River, is well-known from historical and geographical sources of the 10th and early 11th centuries. The caliphal envoy Aḥmad b. Fażlān (q.v.) traversed these lands in 309-10/921-23, and he describes the chief of the Oghuz as the Yabḡu (Togan, p. 33, tr. p. 28, Excursus 33a, pp. 140-41; Bosworth, The Ghaznavids, pp. 217-18).

The Oghuz in the proximity of Transoxania did not become Muslims until towards the end of the 10th century, and in the early 11th century we find the Yabḡu of the Oghuz ruling from Yengi-kent (‘new town’) on the lower Syr Daryā. It is also at this time that we learn of the hostility between the two branches of the Oghuz under the Yabḡu and the Saljuq family respectively. In the 1030s, Šāh-Malek b. ʿAli of Yengi-kent and Jand (q.v.) became the ally of the Ghaznavid (see GHAZNAVIDS) ruler Masʿud (r. 1031-40) in his struggle with the Saljuqs who were harrying Khorasan. He conquered Khwarazm for Masʿud in 432/1041, but by that time the latter was already dead; and very soon Šāh-Malek was dislodged by the victorious Saljuqs, who forced him to flee and then killed him (Pritsak, pp. 406-10; Bosworth, The Ghaznavids, p. 239).

The Saljuqs had already appropriated the title of Yabḡu for a member of their own family, Musā, but after the middle of the 11th century, with the constituting of the Saljuq state as a Perso-Islamic empire, this old Turkish title disappeared from use.


See Short References for Ebn Ḥawqal; EsÂṭaḵri; and Yaʿqubi, Taʿriḵ. W. W. Barthold, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, with additions, tr. T. Minorsky, ed. C. E. Bosworth, 3rd ed., London, 1968.

C. E. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran 944-1040, Edinburgh, 1963.

Idem, “Ḳutayba b. Muslim,” in EI2 V, 1986, pp. 541-42.

C. E. Bosworth and G. Clauson, “Al-Xwārazmī on the Peoples of Central Asia,” JRAS, 1965, pp. 2-12.

G. Clauson, An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish, Oxford, 1972.

R. N. Frye, The History of Bukhara, Cambridge, Mass., 1954.

H. A. R. Gibb, The Arab Conquests in Central Asia, London, 1923. R. Ghirshman and T. Ghirshman, Les Chionites-Hepthalites, Cairo, 1948.

Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam: ‘The Regions of the World,’ A Persian Geography 372 A.H.-982 A.D., tr. V. Minorsky, pref. by V. V. Barthold, ed. C. E. Bosworth, 2nd ed., London, 1970.

Maḥmud Kāšḡari, Divān loḡāt al-tork, ed. R. B. Kilisli, Istanbul, 1333/1917; tr. R. Dankoff and J. Kelly as Compendium of the Turkic Dialects (Dīwān Luγāt at-Turk), Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

O. Pritsak, “Der Untergang des Reiches des Oġuzischen Yabġu,” in 60. doğum yılı münasebetiyle Fuad Köprülü armağani. Mélanges Fuad Köprülü, Istanbul, 1953, pp. 397-410.

Ṭabari, Ketāb taʾriḵ al-rosol wa’l-moluk, ed. M. J. de Goeje et al., 15 vols., repr., Leiden, 1964; tr. M. Hinds as The Zenith of the Marwānid House, in The History of Tabari: an annotated translation, vol. 23, Albany, N.Y., 1990; tr. M. Fishbein as The War between Brothers, in The History of Tabari: an annotated translation, vol. 31, Albany, N.Y., 1992.

A. Z. V. Togan, Ibn Faḍlāns Reisebericht, Leipzig, 1939.

Cite this page
NICHOLAS SIMS-WILLIAMS, ÉTIENNE DE LA VAISSIERE and C. Edmund Bosworth, “JABḠUYA”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 19 July 2024 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_3769>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 20071215

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