Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Giulia Torri (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The Hurrian language: typology and definition

The Hurrian language was spoken from the end of the third to the end of the second millennium by a population of unknown origin, the Hurrians, mostly settled in the northern Mesopotamia and south-eastern Turkey. Literary texts written in Hurrian have been found at Ugarit, Emar, and most of all, Hattuša (from the 15th century BC), a site from which come a huge number of fragments wholly written in this language or bilingual texts in Hurrian and Hittite.

Morphologically, Hurrian is an agglutinating language whose morphemes are connected in a rigid chain of elements located on the right side of the root form.

It is also an ergative language: The subject of transitive verbs is marked by an ergative case, while the subject of intransitive verbs and the object of transitive verbs are marked by an absolutive case.

The linguistic family of the Hurrian language, which is very different from the other contemporary languages of the ancient Near East, is not known at the moment. Typologically it can be compared with Sumerian and Hattian, both of which are agglutinating languages as well. The Urartian language is a cognate language of the first millennium BC and was found in the regions corresponding to the present states of Armenia, Azeirbaijan, and the northern areas of Iran and Iraq.

The word today used to designate both the language and the population, Hurrian, comes from the geographical term KUR URUHurri "The Land of Hurri", mentioned in Hittite sources and referred to the northern Mesopotamian area in which the Kingdom of Mittani flourished from the middle of the second millennium BC.

In the texts from Hattuša the term hurlili was used to designate magic spells in the Hurrian language inserted in Hittite rituals. Other words to name this language are at the moment unknown. In the Mittani Letter, an important 15th–century-BC document coming from the Egyptian site of Tell El Amarna, the form hurroġe is found; it has a geographical connotation.


Dialectal variations

Even though the Hurrian language presented broad homogeneity during its use, it is possible to distinguish between two main dialect variations (or linguistic phases, according to some scholars):
- The so-called ancient Hurrian: the language used for the inscription of Tiš-Atal of Urkeš, the oldest document known to us (2000-1950 BC), and in some ways similar to the language used in the later texts from Hattuša.
- The Hurrian of the Mittani Letter, whose differences are mostly visible in the structure of the verbal system.


Sources for the reconstruction of the Hurrian language

The mains sources to understand the Hurrian language are several documents completely written in this language but also written records containing elements of Hurrian onomastics. Although this language is still not fully deciphered, it is certain that Hurrian-speaking populations had a profound impact on intellectual and material culture of neighboring populations.

The earliest sources concerning the Hurrian language go back to the last phase of the third millennium BC. The name of a Hurrian king, Tahiš-Atili of Azuhinum, is mentioned in a “Year Name” of Naram Sin (2254-2218 BC), with reference to the conquest of this city and the imprisonment of the king. A seal from Tell Brak bearing the name of Talpuš-atili, “the Sun of Nagar, son of [ ]” dates back to the end of the Akkadian period.

The most ancient document entirely written in the Hurrian language is the foundation inscription for the temple of Nergal with the name of the dedicator, Tiš-atal, endan of Urkeš (Tell Mozan). The little tablet of limestone is held by a bronze lion between its forelegs. The text can be dated to the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2000-1950 BC).

A bronze tablet with the inscription of Atal-šen, king of Urkeš and Nawar, today kept in the Louvre Museum, dates back to the same period, or slightly after, as the tablet mentioned above. It also conserves a dedicatory inscription for the construction of the temple of Ner(i)gal. This tablet is written in the Akkadian language but the names are certainly of Hurrian origin.

Several documents dating from the second millennium BC and written in the Hurrian language or containing words and names in Hurrian, come from sites of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, but also from Anatolia. Some documents of the Old Babylonian period come from the Babylon area and Mari but are not fully understandable. During the Middle Babylonian period, tablets from Alalakh and Nuzi in Syria, and from Kaneš in Anatolia, although written in the Akkadian language, preserve elements of onomastics and terms in Hurrian.

The documents from Tikunani, a city which although not yet identified can be placed somewhere in the upper Mesopotamia, are very important for the reconstruction of the history of the Hurrians and their language in Syria. The king of this city had a Hurrian name, Tunip-Tešup and was a contemporary of the Hittite king Hattušili I (17th century BC), as is attested in an Akkadian letter. Among the documents attributed to him is a prism with a list of 483 names of Hapiru, the majority of them in the Hurrian language.

Some Hurrian texts were found in Ugarit. Among them is a lexical list of the series HAR-ra = hubullu in Sumerian and Hurrian, and some other multilingual wordlists that helped in establishing the meaning of many Hurrian words thank to their correspondence with Sumerian, Akkadian, and Ugaritic words. A lexical list with a column of text in the Hurrian language was found in Emar. Texts in the Hurrian language come from the site of Qatna and have been discovered in recent years.

The most important document of the second half of the second millennium BC is the Mittani Letter. Mittani was a political formation whose king Tušratta had diplomatic relations with the pharaoh Amenhotep III (and later with Amenhotep IV) between 15th and 14th century BC. Even though the majority of the letters exchanged between these sovereigns is written in the Akkadian language, in 1888/1889 a letter of 500 lines entirely written in Hurrian was found in Amarna. This document was property of the Hurrian princess sent as a spouse to Amenhotep III. The text follows the formal style of Akkadian letters and for this reason can be considered the basis for the study of the Hurrian language and its understanding.

Between 15th and 13th centuries BC a large number of texts in Hurrian, mostly of a religious nature, were copied by Hittite scribes who were evidently influenced by the culture of this population. A lot of compositions were archived in the Hittite capital Hattuša. They consist of magical rituals or Hurrian spells inserted in descriptions of magical practices, mythological texts and oracles in the Hittite language. The most important finding is, however, the so-called “Song of Release” (SÌR para tarnummaš [Hitt.] / kirenzi [Hurr.]), a bilingual composition in Hurrian and Hittite of the Middle Hittite period in which the destruction of Ebla is narrated. The composition was found during excavations from 1983 to 1985 in the temples 15 and 16 of the higher city at Hattuša. Texts in Hurrian with religious content, still unpublished, come from the site of Ortaköy, the ancient Šapinuwa. In 2005 during excavations at Kayalıpınar, archaeologists found a fragment (Kp 05/226) completely written in Hurrian. According to G. Wilhelm, who edited the modern publication of this material, it describes a military campaign towards Kizzuwatna in southern Anatolia and Alalah/Mukiš.

Documentation in the Hurrian language ends during the political and social crisis of the late Bronze Age that involved mostly the areas of Syria and Anatolia and caused the collapse of the national formations of these areas.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Hurrian