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Hurrians › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 15 February 2018
Hurrian Lion, Urkesh (TKLouvre)

The Hurrians (aka Hurri or Khurri) were a Bronze Age people who flourished across the Near East from the 4th millennium BCE to the 1st millennium BCE. Hurrian is also the name of the language these people spoke and, indeed, is the one constant and identifying feature of the culture over time and geography. Hurrians formed the principal cultural element of the Bronze Age Mitanni kingdom and blended with the culture of the neighbouring, and then conquering, Hittites. By the late Bronze Age, the Hurrians had been assimilated into surrounding cultures in the Near East but many of their gods and myths would live on in later cultures, notably the Urartu civilization, and even inspire elements of myth found in Archaic Greece.


The difficulties in precisely identifying who the Hurrians were and when they existed in various locations are here summarised in the relevant entry of the Encyclopedia of Ancient History :
Probably Hurri was originally the designation borne by the population group, which was then applied to the land they inhabited and the language they spoke. However, that population and that land were not precisely delimited in genealogical terms; only the Hurrian language, which anyone could acquire, was a distinct and constant feature. (3345)
In addition, the language itself also presents difficulties of interpretation. Hurrian has only one other related ancient language, Urartian, and their connection to any living languages is uncertain. The Hurrian language was written using the cuneiformscript, although some surviving texts from Ugarit use the Ugaritic alphabet.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History gives the following concise description of the features of the Hurrian language:
Typologically, Hurrian is an agglutinating language with ergative grammar, unlike Indo-European and Semitic languages but like the Sumerian language. Notwithstanding their lack of genealogical relationship, Hurrian and other ancient Near Eastern languages shared onomastic patterns as well as numerous lexemes. (3345)
For the moment, the Hurrians and their language remain one of the most enigmatic cultures of the ancient world, as here summarised succinctly by the historian Professor Holger Gzellar, "the origin of the Hurrians…is unknown, just like much of their culture and society" (in Steiner, 26). Greater information and clarity are to be hoped for from ongoing excavations at Hurrian cities such as Urkesh in northeast Syria, and it is, at least, possible to piece together a limited history from an examination of the Hurrians' neighbouring and contemporary cultures.
Map of the Akkadian Empire

Map of the Akkadian Empire

Finally, the Hurrians have been caught up in the controversial “ Aryan question” - that is the proposal that Aryans from central Asia invaded and settled in the Near East - but there is little evidence besides a few linguistic terms of Indo-Aryan origin (which were, in any case, Hurrianised) to positively identify the presence of Aryans in Mitanni (see below) or the Near East in general.Nor is the argument that horses and chariots were introduced by Aryan migrants convincing as both were already present in the region before such a migration is proposed. A very few foreign gods in the Hurrian pantheon have names of Indic origin, but they are of such a small percentage that they form a weak argument for a cultural invasion, especially as, when they do appear, it is in treaties arranged during the later stages of the Mitanni Empire when it was in decline and not, as might be expected, during its foundation.


4th-3rd millennium BCE
Hurrian speakers inhabited a core area, that is the upper Habur and Tigris rivers up to the Taurus and Zagros mountains, especially around Lake Van. Textual evidence of the Hurrians dates to the mid-3rd millennium BCE but, based on archaeological evidence, it is likely the culture at least stretched back to the mid-4th millennium BCE. Generally known in ancient sources as the Hurri, the culture and language may also be referred to as the Subartu or Subareans, while in biblical texts they are the Horites (strictly speaking the descendants of the Hurrians in Canaan ).
Mesopotamian Incense Container

Mesopotamian Incense Container

One of the earliest and most important Hurrian sites was Urkesh, and it is from here that the earliest known inscriptions of the language were discovered. Other Mesopotamian city -states with evidence of the worship of Hurrian gods and personal names include Kharbe and Nagar. Starting from the 4th millennium BCE, then, the Hurrians thrived and expanded across Upper Mesopotamia. And here the culture presents yet another difficulty in definition and identification, as explained by the historian Professor WJ Hamblin:
It was likely that the Hurrian conquest of that region was a complex phenomenon including peaceful migration, infiltration by mercenary bands in the pay of local city-states, followed by the rise of to power of mercenary warlords…culminating in the eventual full-scale migration of Hurrian herding tribes out of the mountains into the more fertile river valleys. (304)
Further, the Hurrians often seem to have adopted the culture of the city-states they conquered, making them less visible than ever in the historical record. For example, "we have no evidence of a distinctive Hurrian military system" (ibid). It seems that if ever there were a people who were both everywhere and nowhere, it was the Hurrians.
Akkadian Ruler

Akkadian Ruler

Their expansion was sometimes halted by other regional powers, especially Assyria. During the reigns of Sargon the Great(r. 2334-2279 BCE) and Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BCE), in particular, the rulers of Akkad waged a successful war of expansion in northern Mesopotamia which likely saw them defeat several Hurrian city-states, among them Nagar, which was made an Akkadian regional capital.


2190-1900 BCE
When the kingdom of Akkad fell c. 2190 BCE, the Hurrians (and others) exploited the consequent power vacuum in Mesopotamia. There was no Hurrian Empire as such but some of the independent city-states ruled by Hurrian kings may well have formed together in a loose confederation. Still others were in conflict with each other. Urkesh and Nagar continued to be important Hurrian centres in this period, which is known only through scattered fragments of inscriptions. In the last century of the 3rd millennium BCE, Hurrian cities were attacked and conquered by Sumer, particularly during the reign of kings Utuhegal of Uruk (r. 2117-2111 BCE) and Shulgi of Ur (r. 2029-1982 BCE). Despite this new threat, the Hurrian heartlands and their capital Urkesh remained untouched. Indeed, under the king Tish-atal (rc 2010), Nineveh was under Hurrian control, perhaps even Harhar in western Iran, too.
1900-1200 BCE
By the second quarter of the 2nd millennium BCE, the Hurrians were migrating into northern Syria and eastern Anatolia as they moved westwards and southwards. Once again, military conquest was mixed with the peaceful migration of Hurrian merchants, farmers, artisans, and nomads. The Hanigalbat, an area of upper Mesopotamia, became the heartland of the Mitanni kingdom (c. 1500-1240 BCE) which was predominantly Hurrian in culture.
Map of Mesopotamia, c. 1400 BCE

Map of Mesopotamia, c. 1400 BCE

From the 16th-15th century BCE, there was increasing antagonism between the Hittite Empire (c. 1700-1200 BCE) and Mitanni. This was a continuation of the hostilities between Hittites and Hurrians which had been going on in the 17th century BCE - Syria being a particular bone of contention. Although a consequence of Hittite expansion was that, as more Hurrians came under Hittite rule, there was a further spreading of Hurrian cultural elements westwards, especially deities, which were borrowed and loaned between the two cultures and others in the region. For example, the Hurrian storm god Tessub became identified with the Anatolian god of the same function, Tarhunza. Once more, the Hurrian culture was being assimilated by both friend and foe across the region.
Following the conquest and division of Mitanni by Assyria and Hatti in the mid-13th century BCE, the Hurrian language and culture continued under the political control of the Hittites and Assyrians. By the 1st millennium BCE, the Hurrians had been absorbed into other cultures of the region but, as previously, elements of their culture became intermixed with that of their successors. For example, the god Tessub became Teisheba in the religion of the Urartu civilization which spread across ancient eastern Turkey, Armenia, and western Iran from the 9th to 6th century BCE. Similarly, elements of Hurrian mythology and literature would be translated and preserved by Hittite scribes which would then eventually cross the Aegeanand inspire elements of the mythology of Archaic Greece.
This article was made possible with generous support from the National Association for Armenian Studies and Researchand the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies.

Urartu Civilization › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 08 February 2018
Bronze Bull Head from Urartu (Jehosua)

Urartu, also known as the Kingdom of Urartu or the Kingdom of Van, was a civilization which developed in the Bronze and Iron Age of ancient Armenia, eastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran from the 9th century BCE. Controlling territories through military might and the construction of fortresses, the kingdom boasted a lively production in the arts, especially metalwork.Surviving only two centuries, the kingdom mysteriously disappeared in the 6th century BCE and was only rediscovered as a distinct and recognisable ancient culture by excavations carried out in the 19th century CE.
The history of Urartu remains fragmentary due to a lack of extended written sources and an overreliance on potentially biased sources from contemporary enemy states such as Assyria. Nevertheless, surviving inscriptions, architecture, and artefacts, together with ongoing archaeological investigations have helped re-create a sufficiently detailed history to indicate the undoubted importance of one of the region's most influential ancient cultures.


'Urartu' comes from urashtu, the Assyrian word for the kingdom, and signifies “high place”, possibly referring to either the mountainous region or the culture's common practice of building fortifications on rock promontories. To the Babylonians they were uruatri, and to the Hebrews the kingdom was known as A rarat. The Urartians called themselves Biaina and their state Biainili (or Land of the Nairi ).



Urartu sprang from a confederation of kingdoms which had developed from the 14th or 13th century BCE onwards. A recognisable and independent state known as Urartu developed from the 9th century BCE which combined these smaller kingdoms, probably in response to an external threat from Assyria. The culture prospered thanks to settlement on the extensive fertile plateau which was well-supplied by rivers. Crops included wheat, barley, millet, rye, sesame, and flax.Viticulture was also important, wine-making in the region perhaps being the earliest anywhere. Remains of fruit found at Urartu sites include plums, apples, cherries, quinces, and pomegranates.
Animal husbandry prospered thanks to excellent mountain pastures, and sheep, goats, cattle, and horses were all bred.Mineral deposits in the area included gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin. The location on the trade routes between the ancient Mediterranean and Asian and Anatolian cultures was another source of prosperity. Although protected by mountains in the north and south, defence was perpetually necessary against attackers from the east and west eager to capitalise on the region's wealth.



The government of Urartu functioned around a centralised monarchy with a close circle of advisers and a much larger group of civil administrators who supervised temples and such construction projects as fortresses, roads, and canals. The fortress capital, Tushpa, was built on a limestone promontory on the eastern shores of Lake Van in the highlands. Tushpa would later be called Van and perhaps had a population as high as 50,000 at its peak. The capital also had a royal necropolis composed of chambers cut into the mountain on which the city was built. Other surviving remains include an open-air shrine with smooth walls and many inscriptions made into the rock. Regional governors represented the king in the provinces, administered justice, and collected taxes in kind, which were channelled back to the capital.
The kingdom's first known monarch was Arame who reigned c. 860-840 BCE. Assyrian sources mention that the kingdom first rose to prominence from c. 830 BCE under the king Sarduri I (rc 835-825 BCE) whose descendants would rule for the next two centuries. In 776 BCE, Argishti I (rc 785-760 BCE) would found a new city, Argishtihinili, on the Plain of Ararat, later to become the second city of the kingdom and renamed Armavir. Then, c. 685 BCE, king Rusa II (rc 685-645 BCE) founded the important northern city of Teishebaini (modern Yerevan), also on the Ararat plain. Other important Urartu centres were Bastam, Karmir Blur, Adilcevaz, and Ayanis.


The state controlled large areas of agricultural production thanks to annual campaigns by its army and a network of fortresses.The policy of rulers towards weaker neighbouring tribes was sometimes one of confederation and the extraction of tribute in the form of goods and slaves rather than conquest. However, there are notable cases of the seizure of slaves such as Argishti I's campaigns against the Hatti and Dsopk in the 780s BCE when he was said to have captured 320,000 slaves. By the 7th century BCE, Urartu thus controlled territory which stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Upper Euphrates (east to west) and the Caucasus mountains in the north to the Taurus Range in the south.


All Urartu kings seem to have led their armies in battle. Weapons, as indicated by those dedicated at temples, included iron and bronze swords, spears, and javelins, as well as bows. Heavy shields were used which had large central bosses decorated with images of mythical creatures, bulls, and lions. There is also evidence of helmets and metal scale armour, at least worn by the elite. The chief adversary was the Neo-Assyrian Empire, although there is also evidence of trade relations between the two states. Given the use of chariots by the Assyrians, it would seem reasonable to suppose that their adversary also employed them, especially given the Urartians fame for horse breeding. Urartu did enjoy some victories in the mid-8th century BCE, but the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE) was more aggressive than his predecessors and he laid siege to Tushpa. Another significant conflict between the two states was during the campaign of Sargon II (722-705 BCE) in 714 BCE. Other enemies of Urartu included the Cimmerians, Scythians, and finally the Medes.


Offerings of food, weapons, and precious goods, libations of wine, and animal sacrifices were all made to the gods in dedicated outdoor ritual spaces and at false doorways carved into rock faces which were known as “Gates to the Gods”. The pantheon of the Urartu religion contains a mix of unique and Hurrian gods such as the god of storms and thunder Teisheba, from the Hurrian Teshub. The mid-9th century BCE king Ishpuini promoted Haldi (Khaldi) to the head of the gods, a deity of foreign origin, although his role and function are obscure besides that he was associated with warfare. Haldi is often portrayed as a man standing on a bull or lion, symbolic of his power.
Bas Relief of Khaldi
Bas Relief of Khaldi
Haldi, in particular, had temples built in his honour, which have distinctive square towers with reinforced corners. So important was this god that the Urartians were sometimes called the Haldians or “children of Haldi”. The ruling king was known as the “servant of Haldi” and all wars were carried out in his name.
Another important deity was Shivani, the Sun god who, given his representation with a winged solar disk, was likely inspired by the Egyptian god of the same association, Ra. The consort of Haldi, Arubani, was the most important female goddess; Sielardi was the moon goddess, and Sardi a star goddess. Urartu art includes the Tree of Life symbol common to Mesopotamian cultures and is usually shown with a figure stood either side making offerings.


The Urartians were innovative and ambitious architects. Significant construction projects include the 80-kilometre long stone-lined canal which brought fresh water from the Artos mountains to the capital. The structure was built by king Menua (rc 810-785 BCE) and allowed the proliferation of vineyards and orchards resulting in Tushpa gaining a reputation as a garden city.
Although few structures survive today, an example of an Urartu temple can be seen in a relief in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon. The relief shows the temple of Haldi at Ardini before it was sacked by the Assyrians in 714 BCE. The building has a hexastyle portico (six-columned facade) and triangular pediment, shields hang from the exterior walls and a great urn stands either side of the entrance.
Although little remains of Urartu fortifications, one of the most significant and best-preserved fortresses is at Erebuni near today's capital of Armenia, Yerevan. Built during the reign of king Argishti I, impressive sections of the fortification walls still stand today. Typical features of Urartu fortifications are massive walls supported by stone foundations made of large square blocks and buttressed with towers. In Assyrian reliefs of Urartu fortifications, these towers are crenellated and have windows.Their survival since antiquity is a testimony to the building skills of the Urartians, especially considering the region is subject to frequent and powerful earthquakes.
Ruins of Erebuni Fortress

Ruins of Erebuni Fortress

Palace buildings are composed of multiple chambers and larger halls, the former usually with the roof supported by a centrally placed wooden column and the latter by multiple rows of columns. Other features are open courtyards and storerooms where large pottery jars were sunk into the floor to hold foodstuffs, wine, and beer. The larger examples of these sunken jars have a capacity of around 750 litres (200 gallons) each. Structures located away from residential buildings, probably because of the fire risk, include potteries and smelting kilns.


Materials used include large “cyclopean” blocks placed together without mortar, worked stone blocks, and mud bricks. Roofing was made using wooden beams or barrel vaults of adobe bricks. Flooring was of stone in the more prestigious buildings with surviving examples having either large basalt slabs or even large-stone polychrome mosaics with geometric designs. Interior walls could carry frescoes, and sometimes they also had cavities cut into them into which were placed decorative bronze plaques or cut stone slabs in red, white, or black. Doors were made from thick planks of wood and locked using a hinged bronze latch.


The wealth and prosperity of Urartu is attested by ample surviving evidence of its material culture, notably pottery, objects utilised as religious dedications, and examples of bronze-working. No large-scale stone sculptures survive except in fragments. Excavations have revealed both public and private buildings in Urartian cities with interior wall paintings. Painted on plaster, surviving fragments show scenes with animals, mythical creatures, processions of gods, and scenes from everyday life such as agriculture and hunting. Backgrounds are usually white, outlines are drawn in black, and blue and red are the most commonly used colours.
Urartian Horse Mural Fragment

Urartian Horse Mural Fragment

Metalworking has a long history in the region, dating back to the 10th millennium BCE. Artisans in the Urartu kingdom produced such goods as jewellery, horse bits, helmets, buckles, and candelabra in bronze and copper. Large bronze cauldrons with animal or human heads around the rim were produced in numbers. Metal goods were cast, embossed, inlaid with gold or etched with designs. Urartu art is best seen in bronze sculptures made in the round which show an influence from Assyria, particularly in the choice of subjects - lions, bulls, mythological creatures such as griffins and centaurs, and military themes, especially horse riders. Religious art includes bronze figurines of prominent gods such as Haldi, Teisheba, and Shivani. Some deities are unidentified such as a female goddess rendered in bone and hybrid figures of a fish-man, bird-man, and scorpion-man. Those bronze items belonging to the royal household are so identified by inscriptions which have also helped to identify Urartu works found outside Asia such as in Etruscan tombs in central Italy. Other materials used in Urartu art include ivory, semi-precious stones, and stag horns.
Early Urartu writing used simple pictograms, but cuneiform was adopted and adapted from neighbouring contemporary Mesopotamian cultures. Surviving cuneiform inscriptions from the kingdom, of which there are some 400 examples, show that the Urartian language was related to Hurrian, with the two languages probably sharing a common ancestor language dating to the 3rd or 2nd millennium BCE.


In the 7th century BCE, the Urartu kingdom came to a mysterious but violent end when sometime between c. 640 and c. 590 BCE their cities were destroyed. The state was probably weakened by decades of battles with the Assyrians, and it may have been too overstretched to control its own empire. The perpetrators are not known but the Scythians are one candidate, the Cimmerians another, and even possibly forces from within the territories administered by the Urartu kings.
Finds of three-pronged arrowheads, typical of Scythian archers, found at the destroyed site of Teishebaini are suggestive. The destruction of the city by fire sometime between 594 and 590 BCE seems to have been unexpected, with granaries recently filled and weapons and precious belongings seemingly abandoned in a hurry. It is likely that the various cities of Urartu succumbed at different times to different peoples over a period of two or three decades.
The territories the Urartu kingdom had once occupied were ultimately taken over by the Medes from c. 585 BCE onwards and then incorporated into the Achaemenian Empire of Cyrus the Great in the mid-6th century BCE. The Urartian language, however, would survive into the Hellenistic period. Many Urartian towns would become the location of important settlements throughout antiquity, and many of their Urartu names survive today. Unrecorded and unknown to ancient Greek historians, Urartu would have to wait until archaeological excavations in the 19th century CE to take its place as an important regional Bronze Age culture.
This article was made possible with generous support from the National Association for Armenian Studies and Researchand the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies.



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