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Who were the Mitannians?

In this video, Dr Glenn Godenho explains how much we know about the Mitannians, and how much we still need to find out.
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What we need to do in this section is talk about how the Mittanians communicated, and that’s easier said than done. In actual fact, we don’t know nearly enough about the Mittanians, not as much as we should do, anyway. The reason I say that is because, in its heyday, the height of its power, which is the period that we are interested in, in this course, they controlled a huge amount of territory– Syria and northern Mesopotamia– and Mesopotamia being the Fertile Crescent, defined by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. So despite this huge area of influence, we don’t know much about them. We don’t even know where their capital cities were, exactly.
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So they’ve not been discovered, and presumably that’s where we’ll find some nice information that talks, from their point of view, about who they are in terms of material culture, and texts, as well. But we have no lists of kings, we have no huge libraries of literature– that stuff doesn’t exist to us. What we do have to understand who the Mittanians are, is to look at other cultures, like the Egyptians. We know the Egyptians, of course, were very keen on documenting their interactions with other superpowers– committing them in hieroglyphs to stone temple walls. And symbols as well, so we can decipher and read those texts. And that’s what a lot of our history narrative is based on.
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But there are a few interesting things that we can look at to further divine who these Mittanians are. So the first thing is the Egyptians refer to the Mittanian territory as Naharin. So that’s what they called the territory that the Mittanians controlled. The Hittites also referred to the Mittanians, and the Hittites referred to the Mittanians, interestingly, as Hurrians. Now Hurrian is the language that the Mittanians spoke. So all of a sudden we’ve got an anchor. We’ve got something that we can look at to see if we can track where these people come from, and how they formed themselves into a state in the Near East. And that’s what scholars have done.
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The Hurrian language is known– written in cuneiform, surviving from clay tablets in the ancient Near East. And if you look for those Hurrian names, which are quite distinctive, you find that they’re spread not just in the Mittanian region– but also all the way east, to the Zagros Mountains. So it seems that the Hurrians, which were then to become the Mittanians when they form a state, actually came originally from the modern day Armenia region, across the Zagros Mountains and into the Near East. I suppose the question then is, how did they form themselves into a state?
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And one good suggestion is that Hurrian warring tribes that came into the Near East were taking advantage of a power vacuum that had been created, because of other warring states contracting and then retracting. So once one of these pockets, or these power vacuums, emerges, and the Hurrians are there, they can establish a base. And from there, they can grow into the Mittanian state. There’s one more piece to the puzzle though, in analysing who these people are and how they formed the Mittanian state. And that’s alongside these Hurrian names in the Near East, we have Indo-Aryan names as well. They refer to people from South Asia.
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So we’ve got another type of person, another group of people, mixing with the Hurrians around the time the Mittanian state is forming. So you can play with suggestion. Some suggestions have been the Indo-Aryans are the ruling elite, and they’re the ones that put the state together and ruled the state. All we really know for sure is, by the time we’re interested by the time we have the Mittanian state, we’re not speaking Indo-Aryan anymore. There are just traces in the literature that we see across the Near East. It appears to be a largely Hurrian speaking population for the Mittanian state itself. As you’ve heard, we’ve got a lot that we don’t understand and know about the Mittanians, even now.
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So our task is really to have a good search around and see if we can find evidence to add some meat to the bones that I’ve just given to you, in order to understand better who these people were. What did their material culture, their pottery, their architecture, look like? Was it homogeneous? Or did it vary across the Mittanian state? I provided some guides to places for you to look, and I think it’ll be an interesting discussion to have, to see where we can go.
The Mitannians are perhaps one of the most enigmatic Near Eastern Superpowers. Despite their impressive empire, we know remarkably little about them, especially compared to the Egyptians or the Hittites. In this section, we’ll try to build a picture of who they were and what they accomplished.
At the end of the video, I ask if we can collaborate to better understand who the Mitannians were. In particular, can we search the internet to see what their material culture looked like? In order to help with this, look at this week’s interactive map. Try to find information on the web concerning Mitannians at the locations that I have highlighted. I have provided some weblinks, but you needn’t feel limited to them. Hopefully, we can get a flavour for what Mitannian culture looked like. Good luck!
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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

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