History Of A Nation: Mitanni

c. 1500 – 1300 BC

Going back a bit from the Late Bronze Age collapse, I want to ensure I’ve talked at least a bit about every major state and the Mitanni comprised of quite a major state in the geopolitical Middle East about three and a half thousand years ago. It was short-lived but it made a big impact on the surrounding region and they were, for a while, Egypt’s big ally in the Middle East. They helped them make short work of the Syrian towns and cities with less of a central government and helped balance against the dangerous Hittite empire. They also serve as an intermediary point between the Old Assyrian Empire and the Middle Assyrian Empire, as the Assyrians were mostly subdued by the Mitanni.


Sitting uncomfortably in the very middle of the middle east, the Mitanni’s name beginning with an English accepted prefix for ‘middle’, ‘Mi’, is quite apt and coincidental, as they were surrounded by other powers and spent much of their history fighting and allying with them. This is going to be quite a geopolitical piece. Which is cool, I love geopolitics, which is why I’m doing all of this in the first place. They were situated in southern Turkey, northern Syria and western Iraq in modern terms, so pretty much over the land of the Kurdish people now, extending a bit beyond that. They were also called the Naharin by the Egyptians, which means ‘river’ in Assyrian and they were situated in the uplands of many rivers.


And the interesting thing about the Mitanni is that as far as we can tell, they were multicultural. Or at least, they had a different ruling class to the people who lived there, and we can tell that by language. The kings of the Mitanni had names that indicate a more Indo-European (in fact, very early Indo-European, probably a bit more Aryan or Iranian than European in that bracket, in fact, one theory is that these kings were of early Aryan extraction as that language group spread out over Eurasia)  origin. Most prominently it’s their deities which show some Aryan influence, with quite a few being very similar to Hindu deities, Nasatya and Indra and Varuna, as well as an early form of the Zoroastriaan and Roman god Mithras). They ruled over a kingdom of Hurrians, a people group who have been lost to time, at least there is little mention of them after Mitanni fell. The elites survived with their culture, their peassants did not. Though I must stress it seems as though this class of foreign elites did still speak in Hurrian and use it for a day to day language, they were just rulers of apparently non-Hurrian ethnicity.

We have no native sources for Mitanni unfortunately so this is all pieced together from other sources. The Hurrian peoples of the region, who had been disunited after living there for a few centuries, ever since the heyday of Akkad, seem to have brought themselves together in an apparent state of utter panic as conquests of Yamhad by the Hittites and Babylon by the Kassites indicated that it just wasn’t really safe anymore in the Middle East. Is it ever? But apparently these Hurrians turned to one dynasty of people to unite them and protect them against these threats and from that, Mitanni was born. There’s a legendary founder called Kirta who we know nothing about, but he was apparently the one to bring together Mitanni.

The first major incident that Mitanni was involved in was when Pharoah Thutmose III fought an alliance of Mitanni lords at Megiddo. While the Egyptians won that fight, King Barattarna was doing good at convincing rulers of local city states to come under him, bringing Alalakh and Kizzuwatna (early Cicilians) under the rule of the Mitanni. Following Barttarna, King Shaushatar won victories against a weak Assyria and made the city a vassal state of Mitanni, hence why I’ve made Assyria so small compared to how I normally make it on these maps, I almost put it in the Mitanni territory with no explanation but it serves the same effective purpose, they were tributaries of the Mitanni at this point. The Assyrians kept their king, at least that’s how we rationalise it to make sense of the fact that no Mitanni names appear in the Assyrian king lists, but they were subservient to the Mitanni. By this point Aleppo and Nuzi and Nairi were all part of the empire and Mitanni had reached a height.

Artatama I and Shuttarna II, kings of Mitanni in the following years, made alliances with Egypt and ended the early hostilities. We know that the daughter of the latter was married to Amenhotep III of Egypt, again, the only way we know when this was is the Pharoahs they were around at the same time, so this happens in the early 14th century BC. Again, like with the way Mitanni was founded, this alliance may have been because the Mitanni were really scared of the Hittite threat and needed Egyptian protection more than they needed pride.

The son of Shuttarna II was murdered through a palace plot that ended up putting another sibling, Tushratta on the throne, originally perhaps to serve the murderer’s ends through the veneer of legitimacy. Tushratta was not a strong king, indeed, he was quite the demanding child and we have letters, in the Amarna letters that involve him causing a diplomatic incident with Egypt over a gold statue. This followed unrest and city states underneath Mitanni’s rule betrayed them to the Hittites, causing Mitanni to lose control over its western regions. There was another Mitanni king, Artatama II at this point and so power was divided, Assyria was starting to stir from its slumber and Mitanni didn’t really have control of it at this point thanks to the sons and otherwise relatives of Shuttarna II squabbling. And this was resulted in the downfall of Mitanni.

One of the next generation, Shattiwaza was forced to flee by his brother, Shuttarna III, son of Tushratta, who somehow managed to survive his apparent stupidity into old age to pass on the crown. Shattiwaza wandered around the area for a bit but ended up at the court of the Hittites, who at this point were ruled by the great king Suppiluliuma I. This must have been towards the end of his reign as Suppi was active against Tushratta too. But Shattiwaza became Suppi’s son-in-law, they outed Shuttarna and made Mitanni, once one of the cornerstone powers of the Middle East, into a vassal of the Hittite Empire. By this point, the Assyrians had reasserted themselves and Mitanni could never really recover. Split between the Hittites and the Assyrians, kings of the Mitanni line continued for a few generations with the odd attempt to rebel in between, but none succeeded and this Hurrian state ended up lasting for a mere two centuries as a proper force. Which is very short-lived for the time period I’m covering. Mitanni may have been just way too fragile of a state considering how completely surrounded it was.


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