The Hurrians

The Rise of the Hurrians

Robert Antonio 

The Hurrians enter the orbit of ancient Middle Eastern civilization toward the end of the 3rd millennium BC. They arrived in Mesopotamia from the north or the east, but it is not known how long they had lived in the peripheral regions. There is a brief inscription in Hurrian language from the end of the period of Akkad, while that of King Arishen (or Atalshen) of Urkish and Nawar is written in Akkadian. The language of the Hurrians must have belonged to a widespread group of ancient Middle Eastern languages. The relationship between Hurrian and Subarean has already been mentioned, and the language of the Urartians, who played an important role from the end of the 2nd millennium to the 8th century BC, is likewise closely related to Hurrian. According to the Soviet scholars Igor M. Diakonov and Sergei A. Starostin, the Eastern Caucasian languages are an offshoot of the Hurrian-Urartian group.

It is not known whether the migrations of the Hurrians ever took the form of aggressive invasion; 18th-century-BC texts from Mari speak of battles with the Hurrian tribe of Turukku south of Lake Urmia (some 150 miles from the Caspian Sea's southwest corner), but these were mountain campaigns, not the warding off of an offensive. Proper names in cuneiform texts, their frequency increasing in the period of Ur III, constitute the chief evidence for the presence of Hurrians. Nevertheless, there is no clear indication that the Hurrians had already advanced west of the Tigris at that time. An entirely different picture results from the 18th-century palace archives of Mari and from texts originating near the upper Khabur River. Northern Mesopotamia, west of the Tigris, and Syria appear settled by a population that is mainly Amorite and Hurrian; and the latter had already reached the Mediterranean littoral, as shown by texts from Alalakh on the Orontes. In Mari, literary texts in Hurrian also have been found, indicating that Hurrian had by then become a fully developed written language as well.

The high point of the Hurrian period was not reached until about the middle of the 2nd millennium. In the 15th century, Alalakh was heavily Hurrianized; and in the empire of Mitanni the Hurrians represented the leading and perhaps the most numerous population group.

The Hurrians were one of a people important in the history and culture of the Middle East during the 2nd millennium BC. The earliest recorded presence of Hurrian personal and place names is in Mesopotamian records of the late 3rd millennium; these point to the area east of the Tigris River and the mountain region of Zagros as the Hurrian habitat. From then on, and especially during the early 2nd millennium, there is scattered evidence of a westward spread of Hurrians. An even greater westward migration, probably set in motion by the intrusion of Indo-Iranians from the north, seems to have taken place after 1700 BC, apparently issuing from the area between Lake Van and the Zagros. Evidence indicates that the Hurrians overthrew the Assyrian rulers and subsequently dominated the area. East of the Tigris the flourishing commercial centre of Nuzu was a basically Hurrian community, and Hurrian influence prevailed in many communities of Syria. Hurrians likewise occupied large sections of eastern Anatolia, thereby becoming eastern neighbours and, later, partial dependents of the Hittites.

Yet the Hurrian heartland during this period was northern Mesopotamia, the country then known as Hurri, where the political units were dominated by dynasts of Indo-Iranian origin. In the 15th century BC the Hurrian area ranging from the Iranian mountains to Syria was united into a state called Mitanni. In the middle of the 14th century, the resurgent Hittite Empire under Suppiluliumas I defeated Mitanni and reduced its king, Mattiwaza, to vassalage, while Assyria seized the opportunity to reassert its independence.

Despite political subjection, the continued Hurrian ethnic and cultural presence in Syria and the Cilician region (Kizzuwadna) strongly influenced the Hittites. The carvings at Yazlkaya, for instance, suggest that the official pantheon of the Hittite Empire was thoroughly Hurrianized; Hittite queens had Hurrian names; and Hurrian mythology appears in Hittite epic poems.Except for the principality of Hayasha in the Armenian mountains, the Hurrians appear to have lost all ethnic identity by the last part of the 2nd millennium BC. 

Language 

In earlier stages of research, the terms Mitanni language and Subarian were used as designations for Hurrian. In Hittite cuneiform texts, hurlili "language of the Hurrian" is used. In the last centuries of the 3rd millennium BC, Hurrians were already present in the Mardin region, which, from a geographical point of view, belongs to the North Mesopotamian plain. In Mesopotamian texts (from the time of the Akkad dynasty) some Hurrian personal names and glosses have been found. The customary assumption is that this non-Semitic and also non-Indo-European ethnic group had come from the Armenian mountains. During the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the Hurrians apparently spread over larger parts of southeast Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. Still later, during the intermediary "Dark Age," they are supposed to have infiltrated into Cilicia and the adjacent Taurus and Antitaurus regions (Kizzuwatna in 2nd millennium texts). Before the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, an Indo-Aryan ruling caste wielded some type of authority over parts of Hurrian territory. Some names and words in ancient Near Eastern texts bear witness to their presence. Among these words are a group of technical terms related to the training of horses that found its way into Hittite treatises on that subject; they are most important from a historical point of view. After Sumerian, Akkadian, Hattic, Palaic, and Luwian, Hurrian and these Indo-Aryan glosses constitute the sixth and seventh additional languages of the Hittite archives.

Hurrian texts have been found in Urkish (Mardin region, c. 2300 BC), Mari (on the middle Euphrates, 18th century BC), Amarna (Egypt, c. 1400 BC), Bogazk÷y-Hattusa (Empire period), and Ugarit (on the coastline of northern Syria, 14th century). Amarna yielded the most important Hurrian document, a political letter sent to Pharaoh Amenhotep III. From Mari came a small number of religious texts; from Bogazk÷y-Hattusa, literary and religious texts; and from Ugarit, vocabularies belonging to the more "scholarly literature" described above and Hurrian religious texts in Ugaritic alphabetic script. Hurrian personal names, found in texts from many sites (Bogazk÷y-Hattusa, Alalakh, Ugarit, and especially Nuzu), constitute a second linguistic source of major importance.

The research on Hurrian started in the 1890s with simultaneous contributions by several scholars. Subsequently, Bedrich Hroznř (1920) and Emil Forrer (1919, 1922) discovered the presence of Hurrian material in the Bogazk÷y-Hattusa archives.

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