Mesopatamia: The Mitanni (Naharin) Empire

The Mitanni (Naharin) Empire

The Mitanni were an Indo-European (Hurrian) people whose kingdom in northern Mesopotamia flourished from about 1600 (Second Intermediate Period) until it was conquered by the Hittite King Suppiluliumas during the reign of Akhenaten. At its peak, the empire stretched from Kirkuk (ancient Arrapkha) and the Zagros mountains in western Iran in the east, through Assyria to the Mediterranean sea in the west. Its center was in the region of the Khabur River, where its capital, Wassukkani was probably located. Under King Saustatar (contemporary with Tuthmosis III), the Mitanni empire included such cities as Alalakh in northern Syria, and Nuzi, Kurrukhanni, and Arrapkha in Mesopotamia. The northern boundary dividing the Mitanni from other Hurrian states and the Hittites was never clearly fixed.


The early years of the Mitanni empire were occupied in the struggle with Egypt, to whom they were known as the Naharin, for control of Syria. The greatest Mitanni king was Saustatar who reigned during the time of Tuthmosis III. He was said to have looted the Assyrian palace at Ashur. Under the reign of Tuthmosis IV, more friendly relations were established between the Egyptians and the Mitanni. The daughter of King Artatama was married to Tuthmosis IV, and the daughters of Shuttarna II (Gilukhipa) and Tushratta (Tadukhipa) were married to Amenhotep III.

Tushratta was the last independent monarch of the Mitanni. Weakened by internal strife and abandoned by their Egyptian allies under Akhenaten, the kingdom became a pawn in the power games of the Hittites and the Assyrians. During Tushratta's reign, Wassukkani was sacked by the Hittite king Suppiluliumas, and Tushratta was assassinated in the subsequent chaos. Artatama, his successor, gave up on Egyptian aid and made a treaty with the Assyrians instead. Suppiluliumas removed that threat by replacing Artatama with Mattiwaza, a son of Tushratta, who became king of the new vassal state of the Hittites, which was then called Hanigalbat. Soon afterward, however, it was captured by the Assyrian Adad-nirari I (probably during the reign of Horemheb) and later by Shalmaneser I (during the reign of Ramesses II), at which time the area east of the Euphrates was turned into an Assyrian province.


Originally the Mitanni were probably part of the Aryan people who finally settled in India, but it appears they, and some other of their race (including the Hurri), turned and settled in Mesopotamia instead. Their kingdom was a feudal state led by a Hurrian or Aryan warrior. The upper class in the cities consisted of a chariot-warrior caste, the maryannu, which bred horses on large country estates. The nobles received their land as an inalienable fief: land could not be sold. To get around this law, landowners arranged to sell land by "adopting" buyers for a prearranged sum of money. Sheep were raised for their wool, and the palace collected textiles to be exported to foreign markets. The social structure and legal system were well-organized and patterned after the Babylonian.

There have been few Mitanni settlements uncovered in Mesopotamia. There were large palaces for the ruling house even in small district capitals. These were decorated with frescoes. Small temples have also been found. The dead were probably buried outside of the towns. Small artifacts include seals that show Babylonian and Assyrian influence, especially in the naturalistic representation of the figures. Finely crafted ceramics were decorated in white on a dark background.