During the 18th century BCE the Hurrians were one of many tribes that lived along the borders of the Babylonian Empire, slowly absorbing elements of its culture. This empire entrenched the use of Akkadian as the international language of diplomacy and grew wealthy from the trade routes that it controlled. Almost immediately upon Hammurabi’s death around 1686 BCE the empire began to unravel. Then almost a century later, in one of the boldest military moves of the age, the Hittite king Mursili I marched his armies from Anatolia down the Euphrates and sacked the ancient city of Babylon, capital of the diminished empire.
The Hittites made no attempt to consolidate control outside of Anatolia at that time and the lands of Mesopotamia fell into a period of political chaos. Within a few generations two new peoples had emerged on the scene taking advantage of the fall of Babylonian authority. One group was known as the Kassites and they would move in from the eastern frontier and establish a new Babylonian dynasty in southern Iraq that would last nearly 600 years.
The other group that would take advantage of Mursili’s raid were the Hurrians. With a society built around a chariot warrior elite the Hurrians would for a time dominate the ancient Near East. During the Middle and Late Bronze Age much of Syria and Iraq came to be united under the rule of a Hurrian dynasty of kings known as the Mitanni. By controlling the trade routes of northern Mesopotamia the Mitanni kings had become a major power in the region.
However other than an idea that their origins lay in the mountains of northern Mesopotamia most of what is known about the Hurrian Kingdom of Mitanni has been derived from the records of their neighbors. Even the location of the capital, Washukanni, has never been positively identified although it is thought to have been somewhere near the head of the Habur River. Only a few examples of Hurrian texts have ever been found and none of those are from the Mitanni heartland of north central Mesopotamia. In addition to these few accounts a number of royal cylinder seals that list the kings dynastic lineage have been helpful in determining the sequence of rulers.
Early Hittite Records
Around 1560 BCE the Hittite King Hattushili I, Mursili’s father, marched his armies out of Anatolia to the southeast intent on expanding his control over the trade routes of Syria. As the Hittites took control of the city of Alalakh in western Syria a new force of Hurrians was uniting to the east of the Euphrates River. When the Hittites moved against the city of Urshu they were less successful. Although the Hittites laid siege to Urshu, the city’s allies, including the Hurrians, managed to keep the city supplied and eventually Hattushili was forced to withdraw.
This account in the Hittite records is the first mention of the Hurrians organized as a united people. It is possible that this time period can be connected with the doings of the legendary King Kirta. If this correlation can be made then the first King of Mitanni, Suttarna son of Kirta, can be placed as having ruled around 1550 BCE. Suttarna’s son Paratarma is thought to have consolidated Mitanni control over Syria between 1530 and 1480 BCE after Mursili’s raid on Babylon.
Mitanni versus Egypt
Paratarma had ruled for around 30 years when the Egyptian King Tuthmoses I (1506–1493 BCE) marched his armies northward into Syria. It is possible that Tuthmoses defeated the Mitanni army near the Euphrates River. However the Egyptians were unable to maintain control over central Syria and within a generation a new Mitanni King, Paratarma’s son, Saushtatar (1480-1430 BCE?) was busy rebuilding his kingdom. By 1470 BCE the Kingdom of Mitanni was at its height of power. King Suashtatar controlled territory from Kizzuwadna in southern Anatolia to the west and to the Zagros mountains in the East. Most of the minor kings in Canaan now looked to the Mitanni king as overlord as did the Assyrian king in Ashur on the banks of the Tigris.
In the year 1457 BCE an alliance of Canaanite and South Syrian rulers formed to contest the might of Egypt. Although nominally led by the King of Kadesh, it is likely that this alliance was orchestrated by the Mitanni Kingdom to the north. The struggle likely ensued as several minor kings chose to end their allegiance to the Egyptian pharaoh in the hopes of better opportunities under a Mitanni king. The alliance gathered a considerable chariot force at Megiddo but was never able to take further action.
The Egyptian pharaoh Tuthmoses III (1479-1425 BCE) upon hearing of the alliance arrayed against him marched with all possible speed and defeated his enemies in first Battle of Megiddo. The Mitanni vassals were routed and fled to behind the city walls. Tuthmoses III was decisive in his victory. Over a decade long period he conquered Canaan in a series of yearly campaigns. Tuthmoses was able to eventually conquer Kadesh in southern Syria opening the way for a direct confrontation with Mitanni.
It is possible that an aged Saushtatar may have still been King of Mitanni when the Egyptians under Tuthmoses III met and defeated the Mitanni army. After marching into central Syria the Egyptians were able cross over the Euphrates and raid the Mitanni heartland. The two armies came to battle at an unknown location called Juniper Hill. The victorious pharaoh collected tribute from numerous nations including the Hittites following this victory. Still, with their supply lines over-stretched, the Egyptians were unable to maintain effective control over conquered Mitanni territory beyond the Orontes valley and the region of Kadesh in south Syria.
Alliance With Egypt
By 1430 BCE a new Mitanni king named Artatarma was on the throne. It is possible that Artatarma was not Saushtatar’s son and he may have been a more distant relation. Within a few decades a long-term peace was finally reached with the Egyptians. It is likely that the growing strength of the Hittites to the north in Anatolia motivated this alliance.
Around the year 1400 BCE Artatarma’s son Shuttarna II became king of Mitanni. In an effort to firm up the alliance with Egypt one of Shuttarna’s daughters was sent to Egypt to marry the pharaoh Tuthmoses IV(1401-1391 BCE). Artatarma’s and Tuthmose’s heirs repeated this marriage alliance a generation later when Shuttarna II’s son Artashumara sent his daughter to wed the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III.
The Egyptian-Mitanni alliance saw a period of peace and prosperity that lasted for several generations as trade and diplomacy came to be preferred over war. This tranquility was disrupted after half a century by the assassination of the Mitanni king. With the death of the rightful ruler the kingdom would begin a slow fall into a chaos from which it could not emerge.
The Downfall of the Mitanni Dynasty
The internal strife within the Mitanni Kingdom would, for a time, undermine the relationship with Egypt. In the Amarna archive is a letter sent by King Tushratta of Mitanni (ca. 1372-1324 B.C.E.) to the pharaoh Akhenaten, (ca1353-1335 B.C.E.) attempting to rekindle his alliance with Egypt. This letter, Amarna Letter 17 (EA 17), can be dated to around 1350 BCE and is one of the only sources available that sheds any light on the inner workings of the Mitanni Kingdom in this period.
As revealed in the ancient text it was during the early years of the 14th century when Tushratta’s father, Shuttarna II (ca. 1415-1390 B.C.E.) had entered into a marriage alliance with Egypt . It was Tushratta’s elder brother, Artashumara, who first succeed his father to the throne, but he was soon toppled by an internal coup and assassinated. The villain, named UD-hi, then placed the young prince Tushratta on the throne.
According to Tushratta, UD-hi prevented him from “friendship with anyone who loved me.” This is an apparent reference to the diplomatic strictures that were now in place, given the illegal nature of the Mittani regime. Considering the intermarriage between the two royal households, it appears that Egypt would not tolerate the murdering of in-laws to the pharaoh. Commerce between the two kingdoms dried up along with diplomatic contact following the death of Artashumara. It is only after Tushratta came of age and UD-hi was dead that the young king once again communicated with Egypt.
The Mitanni Kingdom was on the verge of disaster when the young usurper to the throne, Tushratta, reached out to the kingdoms’ old ally for assistance. He claimed to have put the murderer of Artashumara to death and to have once again established a rightful kingship. However the reality on the ground was different. The maryannu, the kingdom’s professional chariot warriors, had begun to divide their allegiance between rival claimants to the throne. The Hittite king went so far as to make an alliance with Tushratta’s rival who was perhaps an older brother, of his named Aratarma. Meanwhile the vassal state of Assyria broke away from the kingdom and also began to undermine Tushratta’s claim to the throne with a pro-Assyrian faction developing among the ruling elite in Washukanni.
Tushratta Attempts To Renew An Alliance With Egypt
In his letter to Akhenaten, Tushratta writes to remind the pharaoh how, in the past, there had been a close friendship between the two kingdoms. The Mitanni king recalls that even now his sister resides in Egypt as a wife of the Pharaoh. Furthermore, the original purpose of the alliance had once again become relevant, since after a long time of remaining in Anatolia, the Hittites were once again on the move southward into Syria.
Tushratta writes telling the pharaoh that the year after he had restored legitimate rule to his land, the Hittites invaded. This encounter can either be read as an account of a minor raid by the Hittites or as a full scale invasion, the letter is unclear. Either way, Tushratta claim’s victory and announces to the Egyptian king that none of the enemy returned home alive. As a token of friendship with Egypt, and as proof of this account, Tushratta sends along with his letter a Hittite chariot, a team of horses and two slaves as a sample of his booty gained from the battle.
In the letter Tushratta continues by listing his “greeting gifts.” For the pharaoh he sends another five chariots and five teams of horses. As a way of making his point about the friendship between the two kingdom’s, Tushratta sends along several additional “greeting gifts” for his sister, the pharaoh’s wife Gildukhepa.
The presence of a man named Keliya, whom Tushratta identifies as his “Chief Minister”, as a member of the delegation sent to Egypt is a further sign of the Mitanni king’s commitment to this new alliance. Revealing his anxiousness for the success of this diplomatic mission, the Mitanni king requests that, following the presentation of the gifts to the pharaoh, that Keliya be returned to him with news of Egypt’s intent without delay.
This sense of urgency is not lost through the many centuries. If Tushratta feared his kingdom was at the brink of a serious war and needed strong allies, then he was correct. In the end, although Egypt would renew its friendship with Mitanni, it would not be enough to stop the kingdom’s destruction. Within a few decades of Tushratta’s having written to the Pharaoh, the Kingdom of Mitanni would be no more.
The kingdom’s downfall would be primarily due to the conquests of the Hittite king Suppililiuma. Over the period of a decade or more the Hittite king conducted a series of campaigns that at first diminished then toppled the Mitanni dynasty. He would then put Tushratta’s son Shattizawa on the throne of a new Hurrian vassal kingdom that the Hittite king envisioned as a buffer against the growing might of Assyria.
Around the year 1322 BCE Suppililiuma laid siege to the final Mitanni stronghold, the city of Karchemesh on the Euphrates. As the Hittite king oversaw the siege he received word that the pharaoh, king Tutankhamun had died without an heir. The young king’s widow requested that Suppililiuma send one of his son’s to become the new king of Egypt. At that moment king Suppililiuma had, it seemed, achieved mastery over the ancient Near East. But that is another story.
Bryce, Trevor, Kingdom of the Hittites, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)
Klengel, Horst. Syria: 3000 to 300 B.C. (Akademie Verlag.)
Moran, William, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)
Roaf, Michael, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, (Andromeda, Oxfordshire, 2004.)
McRoberts, Robert. The Maryannu, Questio, University of California Los Angeles, 2006.