How Did the Mitanni Kingdom Rise to Power?

Map of the Mitanni Empire in Relation to the Other Late Bronze Age Great Powers: the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Babylonians

The Kingdom of Mitanni was a short-lived, yet powerful and influential Late Bronze Age Near Eastern empire that was dominant in its subregion from about 1500 to 1350 BC. Texts and archaeological evidence shows that the Mitanni kings built a sizable empire in western Syria, northern Mesopotamia, and into Anatolia, challenging the other major kingdoms of the period. The cuneiform Amarna Letters, along with primarily Egyptian and Hittite texts, demonstrate that the Mitanni were equals and members of the so-called Great Powers club, along with the Egyptians, Hittites, and Kassite Babylonians. The Mitanni kings traded with and sometimes went to war against the other powers over colonies in the northern Levant and Anatolia and although this is well-documented, the formation of the Mitanni is much less so due to the nature of the Mitanni Kingdom.

Mitanni royal inscriptions are scarce, there are no extant Mitanni king-lists, and the Mitanni capital cities have yet to be definitely located, which has made understanding the emergence of this somewhat enigmatic state difficult. With that said, an examination of the Amarna Letters and other texts, along with the available archaeological evidence, reveals that the Mitanni Empire came about through a process that involved military conquests combined with plenty of diplomacy. The unique, decentralized nature of the Mitanni Empire also may have been an impetus for growth at an early point in its history.

The Mitanni Origins

A Hurrian Language Foundation Tablet from the City of Urkish, c, 2000 BC

Mitanni’s borders were a bit amorphous and indistinct, which as will be discussed later, may have played a role in its rise to power. Most of its population was in northern Mesopotamia and western Syria, with parts of the mountainous region of southeastern Anatolia also being claimed. “Mitanni” was actually the name of the kingdom, not the people, although the Babylonians and Assyrians referred to the kingdom and people as “Hanigalbat” and the Egyptians called Mitanni “Nahrina.” [1]

In terms of Mitanni’s ethnic composition, it was somewhat mixed, although an ethnic group known as the Hurrians comprised the majority of the population. The Hurrian language was identified among the cache of cuneiform tablets known as the “Amarna Letters” that were discovered near the village of Amarna, Egypt in 1887. Later, Hurrian language texts written in the cuneiform script were discovered in the ruins of the Hittite capital city of Hattusa, which helped modern scholars unlock the mysteries of the language and the people. After years of study and analysis, it was determined that Hurrian was a language from the Caucasian language group, setting it apart from the Semitic and Indo-European languages that were more common in the region during the Bronze Age. [2] Discovering the family of the Hurrians’ language helped scholars determine their ethnicity, but it raised more questions concerning their origins and how they came to the region.

Many modern scholars once believed that the Hurrians were foreign invaders who came to the Near East from the Caucus Mountains region, although more recently others have suggested they may have been for the most part native to the region of northern Mesopotamia that stretched in an arc from the Tigris River to the Taurus Mountains. [3] Hurrian material culture in Syria and northern Mesopotamia is not attested before the Akkadian Empire (c. 2340-2198), although many scholars equate them with the biblical Horites, who according to Numbers 2:12 were driven out of Edom by the Edomites. The Hurrians certainly played a major role in the formation and function of the Mitanni Empire, but the sources also indicate that Indo-Europeans were a major factor behind its origins.

The Indo-European influence in the Mitanni Empire is borne out in a number of different elements its language and culture. First, although the commonly known names of the kings were Hurrian, their throne names were Indo-Aryan, as was the name of their capital city, Washukanni, which was similar to the Indic word Vasu-khani, or “wealth mine.” [4]

The most striking Indo-European connection found in Mitanni culture is in a text of an oath taken by one of their last kings, Shattiwaza (ruled c. early 1300s BC), to the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I (reigned c. 1344-1322 BC). The Mitanni king swore his allegiance on the names of gods that correspond almost exactly with the Aryan gods Indra, Mitra, Nasatya, and Varuna. [5] The manner in which these Indo-Aryans came to rule a kingdom in the Near East is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate, but it is likely that their warrior skills, particularly chariotry, got them a foothold in the region as mercenaries, [6] which they then used to build a kingdom along with local Hurrians.

Mitanni Wars of Conquest

By the year 1,500 BC the Mitanni state had probably been in existence for several decades, but it was around that time when the Mitanni King Parrattarna (ruled. C. early 1400s BC) embarked on a campaign of conquest. One of Parrattarna’s most important conquests was of the Syrian kingdom of Alalah, which is recounted in an inscription on a statue of its leader, Idrimi.

“However, for seven years, Barattarna, the mighty king, the king of the Hurrian warriors, treated me as an enemy. In the seventh year, I sent Anuanda (as messenger) to King Barattarna, the king of the (Hurrian) warriors, and told (him) about the services of my forefathers when my forefathers had been in their (the kings’) service and (when) what we had said was pleasing to the kings of the Hurrian warriors, and (that) they had made an alliance based on a solemn oath among themselves. The mighty king heard of our former services and of the oath they had sworn to each other – they had read the wording of the oath to him, word by word as well as (the list of) our services. He accepted my messenger (lit.: my greeting). I increased the gifts indicating my loyalty, which were heavy, and returned to him (his) lost household. I swore him a mighty oath as to my status as a loyal vassal. And (so) I became king in charge of Alalakh.” [7]

Parrattarna followed that notable conquest up by wresting control of the important city of Nuzi in the east and Terqa in the south. [8] The activities of Parrattarna’s three immediate successors are not clear, but it is known that King Saushtatar (reigned c. mid to late 1400s BC) also pursued an active military program.

Saushtatar significantly expanded the borders of the Mitanni Empire by conquering most of Assyria, including the city of Ashur. Although Assyria was not as wealthy as the Mitanni possessions in Syria and the Levant, the usually bellicose Assyrians were temporarily subdued by the conquest, which allowed the Mitanni to focus on the more lucrative areas of the Levant. Suashtatar was able to take the wealthy Levantine coastal city of Ugarit and Anatolian kingdom of Kizzuwadna, which served as a buffer state between Mitanni and Hatti. [9] The conquests of Parrattarna and Saushtatar certainly extended Mitanni’s physical reach and influence in the Near East, but its imperial administration also played a role in the kingdom’s early rise to power.

The Nature of the Mitanni State

Understanding the nature and composition of the Mitanni state is important to understanding how Mitanni rose and ultimately fell among the other Great Powers of the Near East. Many scholars believe that Mitanni was essentially a federation of predominantly Hurrian kingdoms, with the as of yet unlocated cities of Washukanni and Taide as the capitals. The city of Nuzi was a regional capital of the principality of Arrapha in northern Iraq, which was ruled by a semi-autonomous governor when Shaushatar was the Mitanni king. [10] Although the written texts recovered from Nuzi were primarily in Akkadian, the names of the scribes were Hurrian, indicating that a cultural affinity may have at least partially tied it to Mitanni. The principality of Alalah discussed earlier was also ethnically Hurrian and as the text of Idrimi shows, the local dynasty was allowed to keep some autonomy after it was incorporated into the Mitanni Empire. [11]

This loose control by the Mitanni kings, along with a shared ethnic background with the Hurrian principalities, may have helped them better control the outlying provinces. The size of the Mitanni Empire and the close proximity to other major kingdoms meant that the semi-autonomous Hurrian kingdoms had other choices of overlords, but as is usually the case, they chose the lighter rule of the Mitanni over the potentially more heavy handed approach of other empires.

Mitanni Diplomacy

Letter of Mitanni King Tushratta to an Egyptian King

The Mitanni kings may have expanded their borders through conquest and held their federation together through a policy of tolerant rule, but it was their diplomatic program that established them as equals with the other Great Powers of the Near East. The Mitanni kings had already been in contact with the Kassite rulers of Babylon and the Hittites in Anatolia when the Egyptian King Thutmose III (reigned c. 1490-1436 BC) came storming into the northern Levant on several expeditions of conquest. The expeditions eventually brought them into contact and conflict with Mitanni, which continued until Amenhotep II (ruled c. 1438-1412 BC) made peace with Saushtatar, thereby joining the Great Powers Club. A text from Egypt states:

“How when the Prince of Naharin, the Prince of Hatti, and the Prince of Shanhar heard of the great victory which I had made, each one vied with his fellow in making offerings, while they said in their hearts to the father of their fathers, in order to beg peace from his majesty, seeking that there be given to them the breath of life: “We are under thy sway, for thy palace, O Son of Re: Amen-hotep-the-God-Ruler-of-Heliopolis, ruler of rulers, raging lion in . . . this land forever.” [12]

Although the text exhibits some hyperbole from the Egyptian perspective, it was the point at which Mitanni and Egypt opened diplomatic channels and began exchanging goods, which usually consisted of the Mitanni sending their royal women in exchange for Egyptian gold.

The tradition began when Mitanni King Artatama I (reigned c. late 1400s BC) sent his daughter to marry the Egyptian King Thutmose IV (ruled c. 1412-1403 BC). Most of Artatama I’s successors followed up with a similar policy, but none were more documented than the exchanges between the Mitanni King Tushratta (reigned c. mid-1300s BC) and the Egyptian King Akhenaten (ruled c. 1364-1347 BC). According to one letter, a pact of friendship between the two kingdoms was sealed when Tushratta send his former sister-in-law to wed the Egyptian king.

“Within six months, I will send Keliya, my messenger, and Mane my brother’s mes[senger]. I will deli[ver] my brother’s wife and they will bring her to my brother. May Šauška, my mistress, the mi[stress of all lands and of m]y [brother], and Aman, the god of my brother, make her the ima[ge] of [my brother’s desire].” [13]

The exchange of goods and princesses between Egypt and Mitanni continued throughout Tushratta’s reign and only ended when internal chaos began to plague the Mitanni Empire.


Due to a combination of a lack of monuments and historiographical material, the Mitanni Empire is often overlooked as one of the great empires of the Bronze Age Near East. Mitanni was, though, one of the Great Powers of the Near East, which it accomplished through a three-pronged approach to geopolitics: conquest, a decentralized government, and sophisticated diplomacy. Perhaps future studies will uncover more details about this powerful Bronze Age Empire.


  1. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. Second Edition. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 150
  2. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), pgs. 283-4
  3. Kuhrt, p. 288
  4. Anthony, David. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 150
  5. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 135
  6. Anthony, p. 50
  7. Pritchard, James B, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third Edition. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 557
  8. Mieroop, p. 150
  9. Kuhrt, pgs. 293-6
  10. Merrillees, Robert S. “Political Conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age.” Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1986) p. 50
  11. Kuhrt, p. 287
  12. Pritchard, p. 247
  13. Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 47, EA 20