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The Hurrians (also Khurrites; cuneiform ) were a people of the Ancient Near East who lived in Northern Mesopotamia and areas to the immediate east and west, beginning approximately 2500 BC. They probably originated in the Caucasus and entered Mesopotamia from the north, but this is not certain. Their known homeland was centred in Subartu, the Khabur River valley, and later they established themselves as rulers of small kingdoms throughout northern Mesopotamia and Syriamarker. The largest and most influential Hurrian nation was the kingdom of Mitanni.

The Hurrians played a substantial part in the History of the Hittites.


The Hurrians, inhabiting largely the area of northern Mesopotamia, spread widely to many parts of the Ancient Near East long before the second millennium BC. The area later occupied by Hurrians was the centre of the Chalcolithic Halafmarker culture, and Hurrians are thought to have also been the Khirbet Kerak culture of Syro-Palestine. However, in most parts the Hurrians made up only a minority of the population. A Hurrian population majority existed only in the Khabur River Valley and in the kingdom of Arrapha. By the first millennium BC the Hurrians had been assimilated with other peoples, except perhaps in the kingdom of Urartu. It was generally believed that they came from the Armenian Mountains


The Hurrians spoke an ergative-agglutinative language, conventionally called Hurrian, unrelated to neighboring Semitic or Indo-European languages, but clearly related to Urartian — a language spoken about a millennium later in northeastern Anatoliamarker and Armenian mountainsmarker — and distantly, to the present-day Northeast Caucasian languages. Some scholars relate the Hurrian language also to Georgian and its associated South Caucasian or Kartvelian languages. Similarities to Hurrian words have also been found in neighboring languages such as Armenian. It is believed by some scholars that the Hurrians arrived in the Caucasus around 2700 BC.

The Hurrians adopted the Akkadian cuneiform script for their own language about 2000 BC. This has enabled scholars to read the Hurrian language. Because the number of Hurrian texts discovered is small, and because many Sumerian logograms are used, masking the phonetic shapes of the Hurrian words they represent, understanding of the Hurrian language is far from complete and many words are missing from their vocabulary.

Texts in the Hurrian language have been found at Hattusamarker, Ugaritmarker (Ras Shamra), as well as one of the longest of the Amarna letters, written by King Tushratta of Mitanni to Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was the only long Hurrian text known until a multi-tablet collection of literature in Hurrian with a Hittite translation was discovered at Hattusas in 1983.


Like most aspects of Hurrian society, their origins are still a mystery. By about 2400 BC, the Hurrians may have expanded from the foothills of the Caucasus. In the following centuries, Hurrian names occur sporadically in northern Mesopotamia and the area of Kirkukmarker in modern Iraqmarker. Their presence was attested at Nuzimarker, Urkeshmarker and other sites. They eventually infiltrated and occupied a broad arc of fertile farmland stretching from the Khabur River valley to the foothills of the Zagros Mountainsmarker.

The city state of Urkesh

The Khabur River valley became the heart of the Hurrian lands for a millennium. The first known Hurrian kingdom emerged around the city of Urkeshmarker (modern Tell Mozan) during the third millennium BC. There is evidence that they were allied with the Akkadian Empiremarker indicating they had a firm hold on the area by the reign of Naram-Suen of Akkad. This region hosted other rich cultures (see Tell Halafmarker and Tell Brakmarker).

The city state of Urkesh had some powerful neighbors. At some point in the early second millennium BC, the Amorite kingdom of Marimarker to the south subdued Urkesh into a vassal state. In the continuous power struggles over Mesopotamia, another Amorite dynasty made themselves masters over Mari in the eighteenth century BC. The capital of this Old Assyrian kingdom called Shubat-Enlilmarker was founded some distance from Urkesh at another Hurrian settlement in the Khabur River valley, modern Tell Leilan.

The kingdom of Yamhad

The Hurrians also migrated west in this period. By 1725 BC they are found also in parts of northern Syriamarker, such as Alalakhmarker. The Amoritic-Hurrian kingdom of Yamhad is recorded as struggling for this area with the early Hittite king Hattusilis I around 1600 BC. Hurrians also settled in the coastal region of Adaniya in the country of Kizzuwatna. Yamhad eventually weakened to the powerful Hittites, but this also opened Anatoliamarker for Hurrian cultural influences. The Hittites were influenced by the Hurrian culture over the course of several centuries.

The emergence of Mitanni

The Hittites continued expanding south after the defeat of Yamhad. The army of the Hittite king Mursili I made its way down to Babylonmarker and sacked the city. The destruction of the Babylonian kingdom, as well as the kingdom of Yamhad, helped the rise of another Hurrian dynasty. The first ruler was a legendary king called Kirta who founded the kingdom of Mitanni around 1500 BC. Mitanni gradually grew from the region around Khabur valley and became the most powerful kingdom of the Near East in c.1450-1350 BC.

The state of Arrapha

Another Hurrian kingdom also benefited from the demise of Babylonian power in sixteenth century BC. Hurrians had inhabited the region northeast of river Tigrismarker, around the modern Kirkukmarker. This was the kingdom of Arrapha. Excavations at Yorgan Tepe, ancient Nuzimarker, proved to be one of the most important sites for our knowledge about the Hurrians. Hurrian kings such as Ithi-Teshup and Ithiya ruled over Arrapha, yet by the mid-fifteenth century BC they had become vassals of the Great King of Mitanni. Arrapha itself was destroyed by the Assyrians in the fourteenth century BC.

The fall of the Hurrians

By the thirteenth century BC all of the Hurrian states had been vanquished by other peoples. The heart of the Hurrian lands, the Khabur river valley, became an Assyrian province. It is not clear what happened to the Hurrian people at the end of the Bronze Age. Some scholars have suggested Hurrians lived on in the country of Subartu north of Assyria during the early Iron Age.

The Hurrian population of Syria in the following centuries seems to have given up their language in favor of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian or, more likely, Aramaic. This was around the same time that an aristocracy speaking Urartian, similar to old Hurrian, seems to have first imposed itself on the population around Lake Van, and formed the Kingdom of Urartu.

The Indo-Aryan connection

The question of Indo-Aryan cultural influences, or even a ruling aristocracy, among the Hurrians is an ambiguous issue. Early scholars (Belardi, Burrow, Kammenhuber, Lesný) were convinced the Hurrians were dominated by an elite of foreign rulers. These foreigners spoke an Indo-Iranian language from Central Asia related to Avestan and even more closely related to Vedic Sanskrit (for example, the word for "one" in this language was aika, similar to Sanskrit eka vs. Avestan aeva). The presence of an Indo-Aryan people among the Hurrians was put in doubt by Manfred Mayrhofer (1966), and called in question by Gernot Wilhelm (1982).

They introduced the cremation of their dead, and introduced the use of the horse and chariot in the battlefield — a situation that has obvious similarities to the events in northern Indiamarker at about the same time. While this foreign aristocracy eventually abandoned their language in favor of that of their Hurrian subjects, they retained Indo-Iranian names, they invoked Vedic gods in some of their treaties, and some words from their Indo-Iranian language survived as loanwords in Hurrian, particularly technical terms related to horses and their training (Mayrhofer, 1974).

Particularly the state of Mitanni, itself believed to be an Indo-Aryan word, was connected with the Indo-Aryan culture. Most rulers of Mitanni seem to have had Indo-Aryan names, and the ruling aristocracy was called maryanni, meaning "young warrior" in Sanskrit marya.

Culture and society

Knowledge of Hurrian culture relies on archaeological excavations at sites such as Nuzimarker and Alalakhmarker as well as on cuneiform tablets, primarily from Hattusasmarker (Boghazköy), the capital of the Hittites, whose civilization was greatly influenced by the Hurrians. Tablets from Nuzimarker, Alalakhmarker, and other cities with Hurrian populations (as shown by personal names) reveal Hurrian cultural features even though they were written in Akkadian. Hurrian cylinder seals were carefully carved and often portrayed mythological motifs. They are a key to the understanding of Hurrian culture and history.

Ceramic ware

The Hurrians were masterful ceramists. Their pottery is commonly found in Mesopotamia and in the lands west of the Euphrates; it was highly valued in distant Egypt, by the time of the New Kingdom. Archaeologists use the terms Khabur ware and Nuzi ware for two types of wheel-made pottery used by the Hurrians. Khabur ware is characterized by reddish painted lines with a geometric triangular pattern and dots, while Nuzi ware has very distinctive forms, and are painted in brown or black.


The Hurrians had a reputation in metallurgy. The Sumerians borrowed their copper terminology from the Hurrian vocabulary. Copper was traded south to Mesopotamia from the highlands of Anatoliamarker. The Khabur River Valley had a central position in the metal trade, and copper, silver and even tin were accessible from the Hurrian-dominated countries Kizzuwatna and Ishuwa situated in the Anatolian highland. Gold was in short supply, and the Amarna letters inform us that it was acquired from Egypt. Not many examples of Hurrian metal work have survived, except from the later Urartu. Some small fine bronze lion figurines were discovered at Urkeshmarker.

The horse

The Hurrians were closely associated with horses. They might actually have introduced the horse into the Near East from Central Asia around 2000 BC. The name of the country of Ishuwa, which might have had a substantial Hurrian population, meant “horse-land”. A famous text discovered at Hattusamarker deals with the training of horses. The man who was responsible for the horse-training was a Hurrian called Kikkuli. The terminology used in connection with horses contains many Indo-Aryan loan-words (Mayrhofer, 1974).


Among the Hurrian texts from Ugaritmarker are the oldest known instances of written music, dating from c.1800 BC. A reconstruction by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin of the only substantially complete hymn may be heard at the Urkesh webpage, though this is only one of at least five "rival decipherments of the notation, each yielding entirely different results". Amongst these fragments are found the names of four Hurrian composers, Tapšiẖuni, Puẖiya(na), Urẖiya, and Ammiya.


The Hurrian culture made a great impact on the religion of the Hittites. From the Hurrian cult centre at Kummanni in Kizzuwatna Hurrian religion spread to the Hittite people. Syncretism merged the Old Hittite and Hurrian religions. Hurrian religion spread to Syria, where Baal became the counterpart of Teshub. The later kingdom of Urartu also venerated gods of Hurrian origin. The Hurrian religion, in different forms, influenced the entire ancient Near East, except ancient Egypt and southern Mesopotamia.

The main gods in the Hurrian pantheon were:
  • Teshub, Teshup; the mighty weathergod.
  • Hebat, Hepa; his wife, the mother goddess, regarded as the Sun goddess among the Hittites.
  • Sharruma, or Sarruma, Šarruma; their son.
  • Kumarbi; the ancient father of Teshub; his home as described in mythology is the city of Urkeshmarker.
  • Shaushka, or Shawushka, Šauska; was the Hurrian counterpart of Assyrian Ishtar, and a goddess of healing.
  • Shimegi, Šimegi; the sun god.
  • Kushuh, Kušuh; the moon god. Symbols of the sun and the crescent moon appear joined together in the Hurrian iconography.
  • Nergal; a Babylonian deity of the netherworld, whose Hurrian name is unknown.
  • Ea; was also Babylonian in origin, and may have influenced Canaanite El, and also Yam, God of the Sea and River.

Names of Indo-Aryan gods Mitra and Varuna especially, from the Vedic religion have survived in texts and personal names, but it is not known if any religious centers actually existed.

Hurrian cylinder seals often depict mythological creatures such as winged humans or animals, dragons and other monsters. The interpretation of these depictions of gods and demons is uncertain. They may have been both protective and evil spirits. Some is reminiscent of the Assyrian shedu.

The Hurrian gods do not appear to have had particular "home temples", like in the Mesopotamian religion or Ancient Egyptian religion. Some important cult centres were Kummanni in Kizzuwatna, and Hittite Yazilikayamarker. Harranmarker was at least later a religious centre for the moon god, and Shauskha had an important temple in Ninevemarker, when the city was under Hurrian rule. A temple of Nergal was built in Urkeshmarker in the late third millennium BC. The town of Kahatmarker was a religious centre in the kingdom of Mitanni.

The Hurrian myth “The Songs of Ullikummi”, preserved among the Hittites, is a parallel to Hesiod's Theogony; the castration of Uranus by Cronus may be derived from the castration of Anu by Kumarbi, while Zeus's overthrow of Cronus and Cronus's regurgitation of the swallowed gods is like the Hurrian myth of Teshub and Kumarbi. It has been argued that the worship of Attis drew on Hurrian myth. The Phrygian goddess Cybele would then be the counterpart of the Hurrian goddess Hebat.


The Hurrian urban culture was not represented by a large number of cities. Urkeshmarker was the only Hurrian city in the third millennium BC. In the second millennium BC we know a number of Hurrian cities, such as Arrapha, Harranmarker, Kahatmarker, Nuzimarker, Taidu and Washukanni – the capital of Mitanni. Although the site of Washukanni, alleged to be at Tell Fakhariya, is not known for certain, no tell (city mound) in the Khabur River Valley much exceeds the size of 1 square kilometer (250 acres), and the majority of sites are much smaller. The Hurrian urban culture appears to have been quite different from the centralized state administrations of Assyria and ancient Egypt. An explanation could be that the feudal organization of the Hurrian kingdoms did not allow large palace or temple estates to develop.


Hurrian settlements are distributed over three modern countries, Iraqmarker, Syriamarker and Turkeymarker. The heart of the Hurrian world is dissected by the modern border between Syria and Turkey. Several sites are situated within the border zone, making access for excavations problematic. A threat to the ancient sites are the dam projects in the Euphrates, Tigrismarker and Khabur river. Several rescue operations have already been undertaken when the construction of dams put entire river valleys under water.

The first major excavations of Hurrian sites in Iraq and Syria began in the 1920s and 1930s. They were led by the American archaeologist Edward Chiera at Yorghan Tepe (Nuzi), and the British archaeologist Max Mallowan at Chagar Bazarmarker and Tell Brak. Recent excavations and surveys in progress are conducted by American, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, French, German and Italian teams of archaeologists, with international participants, in cooperation with the Syrian Department of Antiquities. The tells, or city mounds, often reveal a long occupation beginning in the Neolithic and ending in the Roman period or later. The characteristic Hurrian pottery, the Khabur ware, is helpful in determining the different strata of occupation within the mounds. The Hurrian settlements are usually identified from the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the Late Bronze Age, with Tell Mozanmarker (Urkesh) being the main exception.

Important sites

The list includes some important ancient sites from the area dominated by the Hurrians. Excavation reports and images are found at the websites linked. As noted above, important discoveries of Hurrian culture and history were also made at Alalakhmarker, Amarnamarker, Hattusamarker and Ugaritmarker.

Connections and origin theories

I. J. Gelb & E. A. Speiser believed Subarians had been the linguistic and ethnic substratum of northern Mesopotamia since earliest times, while Hurrians were merely late arrivals.

Tolstov identified the Hurrians as the founders of Khwarezmia, which he explained as meaning Hurri-Land.

In the past, Bible scholars sometimes identified them as the Biblical Horites, Hivites and Jebusites, though there is little factual basis for such a connection.

Several other ancient peoples of the region, including the Kesedim, Subarians, Gutians, Kassites and Lullubi have all been described at one time or another as Hurrian peoples. Recently, with the discovery of the Tikunani Prism, there has been growing support for the theory that the Habiru, who were for a time believed to be the ancient Hebrews, may have been Hurrian speakers.

See also



  • Asimov, Isaac. The Near East: 10,000 Years of History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
  • Chahin, M. The Kingdom of Armenia. London and New York: Croom Helm, 1987. Reprint, New York: Dorset Press, 1991. Second, revised edition, as The Kingdom of Armenia: A History. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001. ISBN 0700714529
  • Diakonov, Igor M., and Sergei Starostin. Hurro-Urartian as an Eastern Caucasian Language. Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft. Munich: R. Kitzinger, 1986. ISBN 3920645391
  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle. A Hurrian Musical Score from Ugarit: The Discovery of Mesopotamian Music. Sources from the ancient near east, vol. 2, fasc. 2. Malibu, CA: Undena Publications, 1984. ISBN 0-89003-158-4
  • Gelb, Ignace J. Hurrians and Subarians, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization No. 22. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944.
  • Gurney, O. R. "The Beginning of Civilization," .
  • Güterbock, Hans Gustav. "Musical Notation in Ugarit". Revue d'Assyriologie 64 (1970): 45–52.
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta, "The First Great Civilizations" .
  • Ivanov, Vyacheslav V., and Thomas Gamkrelidze. "The Early History of Indo-­European Languages". Scientific American 262, no. 3, 110­116, (March 1990):
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. "The Discovery of an Ancient Mesopotamian Theory of Music". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 115, no. 2 (April 1971): 131–49.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. "The Cult Song with Music from Ancient Ugarit: Another Interpretation". Revue d'Assyriologie 68 (1974): 69–82.
  • Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, Richard L. Crocker, and Robert R. Brown. Sounds from Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music. Berkeley: Bit Enki Publications, 1976. (booklet and LP record, Bit Enki Records BTNK 101, reissued [s.d.] with CD).
  • Kurkjian, Vahan M. A History of Armenia. New York: Armenian General Benevolent Union, 1958.
  • Mayrhofer, Manfred. Die Arier im Vorderen Orient—ein Mythos?. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischer Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1974.
  • Movsisyan, Artak Erjaniki. The Sacred Highlands: Armenia in the Spiritual Geography of the Ancient Near East. Yerevan: Yerevan University Publishers, 2004. ISBN 5808405866
  • Nersessian, Hovick. Highlands of Armenia. Los Angeles, 2000.
  • Speiser, E. A. "Introduction to Hurrians," .
  • Speiser, E. A. "Hurrians and Subarians," .
  • Vitale, Raoul. "La Musique suméro-accadienne: gamme et notation musicale". Ugarit-Forschungen 14 (1982): 241–63.
  • Wilhelm, Gernot. The Hurrians. Aris & Philips Warminster, 1989.
  • Wilhelm, Gernot (ed.). Nuzi at seventy-five (Studies in the Civilization and Culture of Nuzi and the Hurrians). Bethesda: Capital Decisions, Ltd., 1999.
  • Wegner, Ilse. Einführung in die hurritische Sprache, 2. überarbeitete Aufl. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007. ISBN 3447053941
  • West, M[artin] L[itchfield]. "The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts". Music and Letters 75, no. 2 (May 1994): 161–79.
  • Wulstan, David. "The Tuning of the Babylonian Harp", Iraq 30 (1968): 215–28.

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