How History Discovered the Hurrians

Throughout the Bronze Age, the Hurrian people thrived across Northern Mesopotamia, then disappeared from history for nearly 3,000 years.

A Lost People

The Hurrians, once a powerful people in the ancient Near East, were lost to history for centuries until a letter was discovered in Egypt that had been written in an unknown language. This letter was part of the Amarna Archive, a library of documents found in the ruined city of Tel el Amarna, which contained records of diplomatic correspondence from Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. At first this unknown language was labeled “Mittani” after its kingdom of origin, but scholars soon began to unravel clues that connected this language to others from throughout the ancient Near East.

The first clue came when Archibalb Sayce, while working to translate these records, realized that notations in another Amarna Letter, this one written in Akkadian, where references to words that were in the “Mittani” letter. Further study showed that these words also appeared in many Old and Middle Babylonian names. Then,with the unearthing of the Hittite archives at Hattusha, even more documents in the hitherto unknown language emerged.

Origins Of The Hurrian Language

This “new” language was then connected to references made in Akkadian documents of the Old Babylonian Period, to the “Land of the Harri.” It was then realized that the second half of the word had been mistranslated, and the name Hurri, and thus Hurrians, came into use. The similarity between “Harri” and “Aryan” lead to theories that connected these two ancient peoples, but these theories had to be abandoned in light of new contradictory evidence. Yet some older texts do readily, albeit seemingly incorrectly, associate Hurrians and Aryans as related peoples.

At first, the “new” language itself was nearly named “Subarian”, because the name of the Northern Mesopotamian region in question had been called Subartu in ancient times. The continued efforts of E.A. Speiser, who wrote the definitive grammar of the language in 1941, eventually standardized the name Hurrian as a descriptive of both the language and the people who spoke it.

After the realization that a previously unknown group of people, with their own distinctive language, existed during the Late Bronze Age, modern scholars were able to associate new and existing archeological evidence with the Hurrians. Before long, a vibrant Hurrian culture was identified ranging from the foothills of to Zagros Mountains to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Locations such as Nuzi, Alalakh, and Ugarit have provided items ranging from cylinder seals to palatial rooms which have further illuminated this nearly lost people.

Hurrian Technologocal Contributions

In ancient times, the kingdom of Mittani was a cosmopolitan center, and its population a mixture of many different cultures from throughout the region. The Hurrians are now understood to have been central components of this civilization. This Kingdom was organized around a population of elite chariot warriors known as the Maryannu. Records from the period show a society structured to support these warriors. These chariots, with heavily armored archers, were the most effective weapons of the era, analogous to modern day battle tanks.

From the records found in Hattusha, it is clear that the Hittites placed a great deal of faith in Hurrian technology. One account of a siege tells how a Hittite king ordered the construction of a “Hurrian Ram” to batter down a gate. Another ancient text reveals that that the Hittites followed horse training techniques learned from the Hurrians.

Although the Hurrians northern neighbors, the Hittites, once also missing from history, have gained an entire discipline of Hittitology, no such fortune has befallen these ancient folk. They Hurrians are usually studied as a footnote to Hittite, Assyrian or Egyptian Studies. Even though they are often overlooked, their role in history has proven to be a vital one.

Situated as they were across Norther Mesopotamia and the Levant, the Hurrians seem to have been a conduit for knowledge being passed from Babylonia in southern Iraq to the Hittites in Anatolia. From Anatolia, legends and myths eventually found there way to Europe. Today, some of the oldest Greek Myths, those pillars of western culture, can be traced back to influences from the East and the nearly forgotten Hurrians.

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