Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Mitanni

Map of the Middle East in 1400 showing Mitanni kingdom
After the fall of Babylon to the Hittites, centralised power in Mesopotamia declined. Mursilis I, the king of the Hittites was assassinated and his successors did not consolidate his conquests. The Assyrian kings controlled the area around Asshur but were too weak to conquer areas far from their city. The Kassite tribes established themselves in Babylon but were engaged in subduing opposition from the southern dynasty of the Sealand kingdom (when Sealand was an actual kingdom and not a vanity micro-state off the coast of Britain). The Egyptians had not yet extended their empire into Palestine and would not establish true power in the region until after Tuthmosis I raided as far as the Euphrates around 1500BC. This left a power vacuum in what is now Syria, with isolated cities and tribes scattered across the plains of the Euphrates and Khabur rivers.

Into this vacuum came the Mitanni, whose kingdom was also referred to as Khanigalbat. They are (to me at least) the most mysterious of the ancient empires. They left few marks on the landscape: no gigantic buildings; no works of art. There are in fact few physical traces of their existence. However for a short period they were able to contend with the greatest powers of the era, clashing with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hittites and Assyrians before eventually disappearing.

Egyptian chariot with light-spoked wheels of the period
Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni
Manual on Training Horses, excavated from Khattusha


Warfare in the region changed around this time. Earlier civilisations, such as the Sumerians, had used chariots but their chariots were more like war-carts or war-wains. They had four heavy, solid wheels and were pulled by onagers or donkeys. These Sumerian “chariots” would have functioned as mobile battle platforms for archers and spear throwers if they were used in battle at all. With the onset of the Late Bronze Age the great powers began to use war horses to pull chariots that had two spoked, ultra-thin wheels; that could travel at great speeds, whirling elite troops from one side of the battle to the other, wheeling and firing barrages of arrows and charging down infantry as needed. It is unclear if the Mitanni were the innovators in this regard (I suspect that they were not, as the Hittites were also known as charioteers) but they were adept at the new style of warfare. The late Bronze Age was the golden age of chariot warfare, with Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mycenaeans and Mitanni all fielding elite units. After the Bronze Age Collapse chariots continued to be used but cavalry was favoured, as being more manoeuvrable.

A fascinating series of texts were excavated from Khattusha, the capital of the Hittite Empire, known as the Hittite horse texts. One of these is a copy of a text from the 1500’s BC, written by Kikkuli the Mitannian, which was preserved and recorded by the Hittite scribes, probably as a manual for training chariot horses for war. Many people have taken this to be a sign that the Mitanni invented or transmitted the secrets of chariotry to the region. However, all it proves is that there was at least one person from the Mitanni state who was deemed an expert.

Teshub, lord of heaven and earth, Sin and Shamash, lords of heaven and earth, Teshub, lord of Kurinni of Kapa, Nergal of Kurta, Teshub, lord of Uhushuman, Ea-sharri, lord of wisdom, Anu, Antum, Enlil and Ninlil, the gods Mitrashshil, the gods Uruwan- ashshil, the god Indar, the gods Nashatianna, Ellatsha, Shamanmin- uhi, Teshub, lord of Washshukkani, Teshub, lord of all of Irrite, Partahi of Shuta, Nabarwa, Shuruhi, Ashur, the star, Shala, Nin-egal, Dam- kina, Ishhara, the mountains and the rivers, the gods of heaven and the gods of earth, by the words of this treaty may they stand, and may they give ear. For they are the witnesses.
Treaty between Suppiluliuma I, King of the Hittites and Shattiwaza, King of the Mitanni showing Indo-European god names (Indar similar to Indra) amid the Mesopotamian and Hurrian gods called to witness the treaty

Amarna Letter
Linguistically the Mitanni kingdom is very interesting. The main population spoke a language called Hurrian, which is only related to one other language (Urartian), which makes their language fascinating in its own right. Some linguists have suggested that Hurrian is the basis that Tolkien used in creating the Black Speech of Mordor, as certain structures appear to be similar between the languages and Tolkien would certainly have been familiar with the recent translations of Hurrian.This is speculation however and was never confirmed in writing by Tolkien.


However, their ruling class seems to have had names that used a different language, a very antiquated form of Indo-Aryan, (referred to in academia (and Wikipedia) as the Indo-Aryan superstrate in Mitanni). It is unlikely that at the time of the Mitanni Empire that the rulers actually spoke this Indo-Aryan tongue but they preserved a number of words (particularly those relating to horses and gods) that used this language, rather like how fragments of Latin have survived in academic and legal use in English. Like the other societies of the time the Mitanni were fairly ecumenical with their gods and worshipped the gods of Mesopotamia, as well as the Hurrian gods but the ruling classes do seem to have retained a few of the gods of the Indo-European pantheon as well.

It’s easy to get overly carried away with speculations about what the Indo-Aryan words in Mitanni mean for linguistics and theories about where the Indo-European language originated. But it must be borne in mind that the Mitanni sources are very scarce. Nearly everything recorded of them comes from their neighbours who may have garbled the transmission. Until more information comes to light it would be best to withhold opinion.

In the early 1400’s BC the Mitanni were ruled by Shuttarna who had built a strong kingdom near the Khabur River. His son Parshatatar extended the kingdom significantly, taking Aleppo, controlling south-west Anatolia (known as Kizzuwatna) and raiding as far in the other direction to the east. Parshatatar may have fought with the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis I who led a raiding expedition as far as the Euphrates, although I think it more likely that the clash took place in the reign of Shuttarna. Oddly, as the Egyptians had never seen a major river that flowed southwards, they referred to the river found on this expedition as the river that flows backwards (Herodotus later said the same thing about the Nile in reverse). The clash between the Mitanni and the Egyptians was the first time Egypt had met another empire that could match it in combat (the Hyksos had invaded from outside Egypt and conquered it but the Hyksos had never been part of an empire). The clash between the two powers augured badly. At this point the Mitanni would have been stronger than the Hittites, Assyrians or Babylonians but would not have expected an attack from the south.

Tuthmosis I had raided as far as the Euphrates and even crossed it in a symbolic gesture but there had been no pitched battles or major engagements between the two powers and the cities that had supposedly were conquered by the Egyptians stopped acknowledging supremacy as soon as the armies were removed. His grandson Tuthmosis III would change this. Early in his reign he realised that the Canaanite kings were preparing to withstand Egypt. They were led by someone from Kadesh, a strategic city in southern Syria that was within the sphere of Mitanni influence. After winning a decisive victory against the Canaanite alliance at Megiddo, Tuthmosis received gifts from the kings of the Middle East, except the Mitanni.

Modern drawing of the Seal of Shaushtatar
"Year 23, first month of summer, day 16, (arrival) at the town of Yehem. His majesty ordered a consultation with his valiant army, saying: "That wretched foe of Kadesh has come and entered into Megiddo and is there at this moment. He has gathered to him the princes of all the foreign lands that had been loyal to Egypt, as well as those from as far as Nahrin, consisting of ---, Khor and Kedy, their horses, their armies, their people. And he says--it is reported--'I shall wait and fight his majesty here in Megiddo....'" 
Inscription of Tuthmosis III from the temple at Karnak describing the alliance that fought him at the Battle of Megiddo.

The Mitanni were not expecting an attack as their border cities were still untouched and the Pharaoh had no way of transporting a large army across the Euphrates. Tuthmosis III is sometimes called the Egyptian Napoleon but the Egyptian Hannibal would be appropriate as well. As at Megiddo, where Tuthmosis III had used forced marching over difficult terrain to gain tactical advantage over the Canaanites, he now stole a march on the Mitanni. Raiding a coastal city he captured a large amount of boats which he transported overland as part of his army before rapidly bypassing and capturing the cities between him and the Euphrates. Once across the River, with the Mitanni army unready for war, Tuthmosis III plundered wherever he pleased before retreating with large quantities of spoil.We must of course remember that these events are described only from Egyptian sources. Tuthmosis III was undoubtedly a great general but the Egyptian Pharaohs had a penchant for describing every battle as a great victory, even if it was a tactical or strategic defeat.

And my Majesty sailed to the northern border of Asia. My Majesty ordered that many ships be built of cedar from the mountains of God's Land in the neighbourhood of the Mistress of Byblos. They were placed on wagons towed by bulls. They travelled ahead of my Majesty to ferry across that river that is between this foreign land and Naharin - a king to be boasted of because of his two arms in melee, and who crossed the Euphrates after them who had attacked him, as the first of his army while seeking that miserable enemy in the foreign lands of Mitanni, while he fled for fear before His Majesty to another land, a far place.
Then my Majesty established my stele on that mountain of Naharin, as one extracted from the mountain on the western side of the Euphrates.

Napata Stele of Tuthmosis III describing the campaign against the Mitanni 

The probable king of the Mitanni at this period was Shaushtatar, who seems to have been a great general. He had attacked the city of Asshur and carried away the great ceremonial gates of the city, reducing Assyria to a mere vassal state. When Tuthmosis III had surprised the Mitanni before the armies may have been engaged to the east. Now awakened to the danger, the Mitanni garrisoned the west of their empire properly and further campaigns by Tuthmosis III in the region proved fruitless, with one “great victory” earning a paltry ten prisoners as captives. Tuthmosis III died and Shaushtatar prepared for war to carry the battle to the Egyptians, before dying himself.

Amarna Letter from Tushratta
Instead of the expected clash of superpowers something unexpected happened. Peace broke out. Amenhotep II of Egypt does not seem to have campaigned in Syria and his son, Tuthmosis IV and Artatama I of Mitanni made a peace treaty that included marriage alliances and Mitanni princesses becoming part of the Egyptian royal family. The two empires corresponded and their rulers addressed each other as “brother”. It was the beginning of the Bronze Age diplomacy that became famous with the discovery of the Amarna Letters. At this period the Hittites were beginning to threaten Mitanni again but the establishment of peace between Egypt and the Mitanni allowed the Mitanni kingdom to reach the height of its power under Shuttarna I.

... he asked for the daughter of my grandfather, the sister of my father. He wrote 5, 6 times, but he did not give her. When he wrote my grandfather 7 times, then only under such pressure, did he give her
Letter from Tushratta of Mitanni to Akhenaten of Egypt describing the marriage alliance between their royal houses.  

The prosperity of the Mitanni kingdom was short-lived. Shuttarna I was murdered and after a power struggle his son Tushratta was able to kill the murderer, his brother Artashumara. Tushratta was to be the last of the Great Kings of the Mitanni. He was a contemporary of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt, to whom he was related by marriage, and also contemporary with the greatest general of all the Hittite kings, Suppiluliuma I. In the chaos after the murder of Shuttarna, another Mitanni king, Artatama, had set up a rival kingdom. Suppiluliuma I supported Artatama and attacked the Mitanni three times, at one point apparently forcing Tushratta to abandon his capital.

You are the one who knows the words of Mimmuriya, your husband, but you have not sent me yet the gift of homage which Mimmuriya, your husband, has ordered to be sent to me. I have asked Mimmuriya, your husband, for massive gold statues ... But your son has sent gold-plated statues of wood. As the gold is like dust in the country of your son, why have they been the reason for such pain, that your son should not have given them to me? ... Neither has he given me what his father had been accustomed to give.
Letter from Tushratta, King of the Mitanni to Tiye (Queen Mother of Egypt and mother of Akhenaten)

Map of Middle East showing Khanigalbat (Mitanni)
being squeezed between Assyria and the Hittites
To make matters worse for the beleaguered empire, the Assyrians had cast off the Mitanni yoke and were supporting factions in the warring empire. In the face of these wars Tushratta fought back and won some successes but the armies of the Hittites were relentless. Tushratta sent a series of letters to Akhenaten asking for large quantities of gold. After the continual wars and Hittite conquests the Mitanni finances were probably not good. No help came from the Egyptians, who were involved in religious reforms and appeared unable to even control their vassals in Palestine and southern Syria. As later civilisations in Syria and Palestine would learn, Egypt was powerful but not necessarily a reliable ally. Tushratta was murdered, possibly by his brothers but probably by his sons, as Suppiluliuma I took the vital city of Carchemish on the Euphrates cutting the Mitanni off from their rich tribute cities on the Syrian coast.

A confused series of events follows, with Artatama II and Shuttarna III ruling as quick usurpers from within the royal family. Shuttarna III returned the great doors of Asshur to the Assyrians and called in Assyrian aid against the Hittites and his enemies within his family. The Assyrians came but ended up attacking the Mitanni capital before Suppiluliuma I attacked both forces and installed Shattiwaza, the brother of Tushratta, on the throne. Shattiwaza was installed, not as a Great King, who could address the Pharaoh of Egypt as an equal, but as a vassal of the Great King of the Hittites. At this point all the satellite states of the Mitanni had been lost to the Hittites and the Assyrians, leaving only the heartland remaining. The Kassite Babylonians were claiming that Asshur was their vassal city but the Assyrians were determined to be recognised as Great Kings in their own right.

Akhenaten: contemporary of Tushratta
and Suppiluliuma
Shattuara was installed as king of the Mitanni by the Assyrians but rebelled. His son Wasashatta also rebelled against the Assyrians and his revolt was ruthlessly crushed by Adad-Nirari I of Assyria. While Wasashatta may have escaped, the rest of the Mitanni royal family were captured and taken to Asshur. Their fate was probably not pleasant.

You continue to speak about [the defeat] of Wasa[shatta and the conquest?] of the land of Hurri. You indeed conquered by force of arms. And you conquered […] and have become a Great King. But why do you still continue to speak about brotherhood and about seeing Mount Amanus? What is this, brotherhood? And what is this, seeing Mount Amanus? For what reason should I write to you about brotherhood? Who customarily writes to someone about brotherhood? Do those who are not on good terms customarily write to one another about brotherhood? On what account should I write to you about brotherhood? Were you and I born from one mother? As [my grandfather] and my father did not write to the King of Assyria [about brotherhood], you shall not keep writing to me [about brotherhood] and Great Kingship. [It is not my] wish.
Letter from Mursilis II of the Hittites to Adad-Nirari I of the Assyrians

Mursilis II of the Hittites still treated the Assyrians as arrogant upstarts, possibly justified as Adad-Nirari I called himself not only a Great King but held the title King of the Four Corners (or King of the Universe). Mursilis II was overthrown by his uncle, the great general Hattusili III who had led the Hittite armies against Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. Hattusili III acknowledged Adad-Nirari I as a Great King and corresponded with him respectfully concerning their borders which now lay near the Euphrates River. The rich coastal cities that had been subject to the Mitanni were now subject to the Hittites, who now had made peace with the Egyptians after their strategic victory/stalemate at Kadesh. The Mitanni heartlands were held by the rising power of Assyria and were incorporated into Assyria proper. The old capital of Washukanni had been abandoned and the new capital of Taite had been turned into a wilderness by Adad-Nirari.

To the Sun my father say: thus says the king of [Ha]nigalbat (Mitanni) your son.
 Pe[ace] be with the Sun my father.
I trust the Sun my father. As for me, I thus say, like my father, let the Sun say […]
What sin did I commit against my father? ...
If a man has two judges], the one comes forth and the other does not c[ome forth]. Now the king of Ashur my enemy has asked, and, in accordance (with the words) of Adad my lord, he acted.  The Sun, my father, heard.  I am living in the city Sinamu and Ehli-sarruma has sent his message to me. He wrote the following: [….]
Letter from a king of the Mitanni (probably Shattuara II) to a king of the Hittites (probably Hattusili III)

A stele possibly showing
Adad-Nirari I, a destroyer of the
Mitanni kingdom
There was possibly another Mitanni king, Shattuara II who was in the dangerous situation of ruling almost nothing and yet being claimed as subject by two Great Kings. He seems to have written a letter to Hattusili III begging for assistance, writing as a powerless subject to a Great King. He was crushed by Adad-Nirari’s son, Shalmaneser I who was the first Assyrian king to practice deportations of conquered peoples. It is possible however that this episode was invented by Shalmaneser I after campaigns in the region, claiming the deeds of his father as his own. In any event, power held in the region was now held by Assyrian governors rather than Mitanni kings and thus the Mitanni disappear from history.

The Mitanni are not renowned in history. Their achievements are mainly depicted as negatives, recorded by their neighbours who were often enemies. They left no monuments or cities and little art; their language and substrate languages have vanished from the earth, leaving no literature or epics behind. We know that they were great charioteers and horsemen at a time when the chariot ruled the battlefield and horsemanship was vital to empires but we do not know if they were the developers of these techniques and technologies or if they simply excelled in the technologies of others.

One of the things that the Mitanni, or more strictly speaking, the Hurrians, left us is some of the earliest notated music, found in their tributary city of Ugarit near the Syrian coast. After thirty-three hundred years it still sounds, not bad at all. The video below gives an artists rendering of the Hymn known as Hurrian Hymn Six.



Their main legacy may be great power diplomacy. When the Mitanni and Egyptian kingdoms corresponded as respectful and powerful equals they laid the foundations for the diplomacy and trade of the Late Bronze Age, where Great Kings addressed each other as brother and tried to avoid confrontations. Diplomacy certainly predates the Mitanni but the idea of powerful kingdoms with smaller satellite states maintaining balance was new. Most diplomacy before this had simply been between city-states. Ironically the new diplomacy came into its own when the Mitanni had effectively been removed from the scene.

Even if we allow them a pivotal role in the development of Late Bronze Age diplomacy the Mitanni are still largely silent. But this may not always be the case. We know that they had at least two capitals; Washukanni and, at later periods, Taite. These have never been found but we do know that they lie somewhere near the Khabur River in Syria. There may well be archives of letters and literature lying beneath the ancient mounds that will one tell the tales of this empire to the world.

At present this land is controlled by Daesh, (or IS/ISIS/ISIL) who are barbarically destroying the heritage of the region. Even the items that they do not destroy but sell on the black market are a blow to humanity, as a looted item has no context and has lost most of its historical value. I hope that one day the cities of the Mitanni are discovered but while the thuggish barbarians still roam the land, wrecking the treasures they do not understand, perhaps it is best that they stay hidden.