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ANE – Mari / 3 – End

Original Date
June 1, 2009

The Mari’s language

Almost all of the essential evidence for collective political traditions in the Mari archives comes from the letters. As a whole, this correspondence is written in Akkadian, the Semitic language of eastern Mesopotamia, native to Babylon, Ešnunna, and Aššur during the early second millennium. Akkadian was used for correspondence in this period wherever cuneiform was used. In Iraq and Syria, the heartland of cuneiform writing, even nonnative speakers exchanged written messages in Akkadian, and good Akkadian at that. As in the other Semitic languages, most Akkadian verbs and nouns were derived from triconsonantal roots that were manipulated in various patterns to yield different meanings. For example, the Akkadian noun “counselor” (m?likum) is related to the verb imlik (“he/she counseled”) and the noun “counsel” (milkum). The final -m on the nouns disappears soon after the period of the Mari archives, and the -u- before it is a case vowel that varies according to its function in phrases and clauses.

Most Syrians of this period spoke varieties of “West” Semitic dialects that were quite distinct from Akkadian, but we have little more than individual words that were rendered as if Akkadian. It is possible to distinguish Akkadian from West Semitic terminology in the Mari texts only by patterns of use as compared with the range of documentation from this period.

The Tablets (letters) of Mari written in Mari’s official language of Akkadian, a Semitic language related to Hebrew–also provide a fascinating glimpse into day-to-day life at the palace. During the reign of Zimri-Lim a man named Mukannisum, apparently the king’s chief assistant, oversaw all the bureaucratic activities at the palace complex. Surviving tablets reveal that Mukannisum managed store-rooms, supervised various workshops and dispatched supplies to the king on his travels. Also closely involved in the administration of the palace was Sibtu, Zimri-Lim’s queen, who handled correspondence and met with officials when the king was away. In fact, the prominence of upper-class women seems to have been a distinctive feature of life in Mari.

 Lists of foodstuffs kept by the king’s butler contain more prosaic details–from them we learn, for example, that the people of Mari ate two daily meals, a heavy lunch and a light supper. Clay baking-molds found in the palace, like the mold of a woman (possibly Ištar), attest to the sophistication of the royal household.

There is strong evidence for Mari’s cultural (and possibly ethnic) links to early Israel. Certain words appear only in Mari documents and in the Bible–one such word is nawum (Mari) / naweh (Hebrew), “pasturage.” Both societies appear to have been tribal and semi-nomadic, and their languages reflect this: Mari and early Israel used, respectively, the terms gayum /goy (a tribal unit) and hibrum / heber (a nomadic association).

The Official Language of Mari – Akkadian

Akkadian (liš?num akkad?tum ; Hebrew: lašon akkad?m) or Assyro-Babylonian was a Semitic language spoken in ancient Iraq, particularly by the Assyrians and Babylonians. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate. The name of the language is derived from the city of Akkad, a major center of Mesopotamian civilization Akkadian is divided into several varieties based on geography and historical period: [1]

  •  Old Akkadian — 2500 – 1950 BCE 
  • Old Babylonian/Old Assyrian — 1950 – 1530 BCE 
  • Middle Babylonian/Middle Assyrian — 1530 – 1000 BCE 
  •  Neo-Babylonian/Neo-Assyrian — 1000 – 600 BCE 
  •  Late Babylonian — 600 BCE – 100 CE

Akkadian scribes wrote the language using cuneiform script, an earlier writing system devised by the Sumerians using wedge-shaped signs pressed in wet clay. As employed by Akkadian scribes the adapted cuneiform script could represent either (a) Sumerian logograms (i.e. picture-based characters representing entire words), (b) Sumerian syllables, (c) Akkadian syllables, or (d) phonetic complements. Cuneiform was in many ways unsuited to Akkadian: among its flaws was its inability to represent important phonemes in Semitic, including a glottal stop, pharyngeals, and emphatic consonants. In addition, cuneiform was a syllabary writing system — i.e. a consonant plus vowel comprised one writing unit — frequently inappropriate for a Semitic language made up of triconsonantal roots (i.e. three consonants minus any vowels)

Akkadian sentence order was Subject+Object+Verb (SOV), which sets it apart from most other ancient Semitic languages such as Arabic and Biblical Hebrew, which typically have a Verb-subject-object (VSO) word order. (Modern South Semitic languages in Ethiopia also have SOV order, but these developed within historical times from the classical SVO language Ge’ez.) It has been hypothesized that this word order was a result of influence from the Sumerian language, which was also SOV. There is evidence that native speakers of both languages were in intimate language contact, forming a single society for at least 500 years, so it is entirely likely that a sprachbund could have formed. Further evidence of an original VSO or SVO ordering can be found in the fact that direct and indirect object pronouns are suffixed to the verb. Word order seems to have shifted to SVO/VSO late in the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE, possibly under the influence of Aramaic.

Mari, Canaan and the Israelites

In September 2007, about two weeks before the end of the last excavation season at Tel Hatzor, in July, a clay tablet with hieroglyphic was found. The tablet teaches how to forecast the future with an animal liver, a practice common in the ancient East The priests would examine the liver of an animal that had been sacrificed to the gods and use it to predict the future. The tablet found at Hatzor has not yet been deciphered, but its hieroglyphics are reminiscent of the style of early documents from the ancient kingdom of Mari on the Euphrates, in what is today Syria. Mari an important political center during the Middle Bronze Age, in the years 2000-1500 B.C.E., and Hatzor the only city in the Land of Israel that had connections with it at that time.

In the Bronze Age, the Canaanite population of Hazor reached an estimated population of some 40,000. This was 20 times more than the estimated 2,000 inhabitants of Jebusite Jerusalem. Archaeological research reveals 22 layers of occupation at Hazor. These span a period of 2,700 years beginning with the Early Bronze Age in the 29th. century BCE to the Hellenistic period in the second century BCE.

Caravan roads in the MIddle East 1000 BCE

Except for Laish (Dan), Hazor is the only Canaanite settlement in modern days Israel mentioned among the cuneiform tablets that compose the royal documents of Mari. Most of these documents connect with the reign of Zimri-Lim, a contemporary of the powerful King Hammurapi of Babylon in the 18th. century BCE. The ties between the two cities were described in 20 documents found in an archive in Mari. One of them reveals that Canaanite Hazor was so important that King Hammurapi saw convenient to place two ambassadors there. Other tablets associate Hazor with the trade of tin, for before the revolutionary introduction of iron, tin was essential for the manufacture of bronze weapons. The documents from Mari address the importance of Hatzor, the commercial caravans that passed through it, the emissaries sent there and the musicians and singers who lived there. In the 18th century BCE, Hatzor underwent a process of expansion and growth. The city was apparently founded at the end of the Early Bronze Age, in the third millenium BCE., on the upper part of what is now the tel. One text refers to an ambassador of the great lawgiver, Hammurabi, as resident at Hazor, while another mentions Hazor’s role in the trade of tin. From the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom (the beginning of the powerful Middle Kingdom 18th Dynasty) until the time of Rameses II, Hazor was a major military objective of those pharaohs who campaigned in Canaan.

The last Canaanite city of Hazor was destroyed at the end of the 13th century BCE. Following this destruction, Hazor was settled by semi-nomads (presumably Israelites), who lived in tents or huts. Although the same temporary settlement was enlarged in the 11th century BCE, the first Israelite building activities (dated to the mid-10th century BCE) are attributed to Solomon who fortified Hazor to control travel along the northern portion of the “Way of the Sea” (I Kings 9:15).

Who are the peoples of Mary?

The answer is simple - No body knows for sure ! – the common presumption is that they probably was Amorites (Sumerian MAR.TU, Akkadian Tidnum or Amurr?m, Egyptian Amar, Hebrew ’em?rî). The term Amorites, and in Akkadian amurrû simply means “Westerners,” that is, from the vantage point of people in Mesopotamia. They appear especially in late 3rd. millenium-2nd. millenium texts as tribal pastoral groups that become integrated with the populations of Mesopotamian cities and assimilated into the Sumero-Babylonian culture. Then in the 2nd. millenium, “Amorites” (people with “Amorite names”) become leaders of the major cities of Mesopotamia. [2] In Ethnicity in Ancient Western Asia during the Early Second Millennium BCE: Archaeological Assessments and Ethnoarchaeological Prospectives.” Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 237 [1980]:85-103.), Kathryn Kamp and Norman Yoffee, says:

 What we know of the Amorites comes from references to them in the written records of other peoples, primarily from Mesopotamian or Syrian cuneiform documents, but also to a lesser extent from Egyptian and other sources. Nontextual sources are even less rewarding. The archaeological evidence for the Amorites is scanty and not to be separated from the artifacts of other ethnolinguistic groups with which they shared the area. No one has yet been able to identify an Amorite pot or weapon with certainty. Therefore, the reconstruction of the ethnolinguistic group known as the Amorites is based on snippets of information, often contradictory… (p. 1231)

Much of the theories about them in the mid-20th were based on the assumptions that “Amorite” represented not just a particular social group(s) but also a language. The latter assumption took on a life of its own and simply became an umbrella term for what is now known as “Western Semitic” (as opposed to, say, Akkadian which constitutes “Eastern Semitic”). It became a catchword for the linguistic ancestor of later Northwest Semitic dialects. The problem is we don’t have a single text in that supposed language or, better, cluster of dialects. All the texts were written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time. All we have are names and a few words that differ from standard Akkadian onomastics and grammar, and those come from Syria (i.e., the “west”), such as city of Mari, on the middle Euphrates. One of the foremost authorities on Akkadian, Prof. Shlomo Izre’el explains why basing the notion of a dialect continuum on scanty evidence involving personal names (PN) and scattered features is problematic:

(1) PNs may well stem form a specific language, but they are not necessarily indicative of the vernacular. Trying to learn about the vernacular’s features from analyzing PNs is wrong methodologically, in my opinion. When we have loanwords or some interferences in syntax or morphology, only then we can learn something substantial on the interfering language, which may be the case at Mari. I wouldn’t call it Amorite, though, but just “the substratum of the OB [Old Babylonian] of Mari” or the like…

(2) Amorite for me, if I am to use it at all, is not a language. It would be a cluster of virtual vernaculars used during a large span of time and throughout a large geographical space, dialects about which we have no data at all as regards their contemporary use. This is why I call it a myth. This myth suggests that there actually was a dialect or a continuum of dialects (i.e., a language) that we know something of. I don’t think there is such a thing.

Furthermore, these “Amorites” didn’t call themselves that. For instance, as Whiting writes, “rather than calling themselves ‘Amorites,’ the tribal elements around Mari were known as Khaneans. The earliest record of an Amorite ruling Mari comes from an inscription of Yakhdun-Lim, son of Yaggid-Lim, who calls himself ‘King of Mari, Tuttul, and the land of Khana’.” (p. 1235). “Khana” actually means “tent dwellers”. A comprehensive study of the tribal, pastoralist, and political terminology used in the Mari letters is Daniel Fleming’s excellent 2004 book [4]   [See especially p. 39 (through 43, esp. 42)]:

Unlike the tribal categories bin? yamina and bin? sim’al, “children of the right (hand)” and “children of the left (hand),” amurrûm is not a self-given name. The “right” and “left” may even refer to south and north, as they do in ancient Hebrew, facing the rising sun, but these are entirely different names. Individual persons do not identify themselves as “Yaminite” or “Sim’alite,” but rather by the tribal units below these two umbrella categories. Nevertheless, the attribution of tribes to these two divisions is made by the people themselves. By origin, the word “Amorrite” is entirely different, and this difference should be kept in mind when we follow its common use in modern scholarly literature. Because “Amorrite” designates a category of outsiders, this naming will be unconscious of native identities and therefore both inaccurate in whom it groups together and liable to carry negative overtones. In its primary Mesopotamian use, it describes a certain sort of people who come from regions to the west, evidently somewhere in Syria, and the term has little use in discussion of contemporary peoples and events in areas further west, north, and south. There is no sharp break of unfamiliarity, but rather a gradual loss of precision.

The Links between the “Semitic Triangle” Ugarit, Ebla and Mari and the Israelite Heritage.

  1. We are not doubted that the intellectual heritage of the emerging Israelite ethnicity are deepen rooted  into  social, cultural and religious traditions of the third and second Millenium BCE Levant-Babylonian territories.
  2. The Amorites are the catalyst factor in the formation of social, cultural and political entities in the Ancient Near East after the falling of the Sumerian culture.   
  3. The rise of the Amorite kingdoms in Mesopotamia brought about deep and lasting repercussions in its political, social and economic structure.
    The division into kingdoms replaced the Sumerian city-state. Men, land and cattle ceased to belong physically to the gods or to the temples and the king. The new monarchs gave, or let out for an indefinite period, numerous parcels of royal or sacerdotal land, freed the inhabitants of several cities from taxes and forced labor, and seem to have encouraged a new society to emerge, a society of big farmers, free citizens and enterprising merchants which was to last throughout the ages. The priest assumed the service of the gods, and cared for the welfare of there subjects, but the economic life of the country was no longer exclusively (or almost exclusively) in their hands.
  4.  In general terms, Mesopotamian civilization survived the arrival of Amorites, as it had survived the Akkadian domination and the restless period that had preceded the rise of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The religious, ethical, and artistic directions in which Mesopotamia had been developing since earliest times, were not greatly impacted by the Amorites’ hegemony. They continued to worship the Sumerian gods, and the older Sumerian myths and epic tales were piously copied, translated or adapted, generally with only minor alterations. As for the scarce artistic production of the period, there is little to distinguish it from the preceding Ur-III era.
  5. The era of the Amorite kingdoms, ca. 2000-1600 BCE, is known as the “Amorite period” in Mesopotamian history.
  6. The Amorites don’t vanished to nowhere from history, they became the foundation of many Semitic nations as the  Akkadian and later the Assyrians. 
  7. From the point of view of the Israelite history as we perceive, they are the “Patriarchs” – Abram (later Abraham), Isaac and Jacob  – they are the kernel  and the leaders of later Canaanite tribes of Yahweh.


[1] Caplice, Richard. Introduction to Akkadian. Rome : Biblical Institute, 1980.
[2]   Robert Whiting’s article “Amorite Tribes and Nations of Second Millenium Western Asia” in Jack Sasson (ed.) Civilizations of the Ancient Near East vol. 2 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000] pp. 1231-1242
[3]  Daniel Fleming. Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance Cambridge University press 2004.


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