The Akkadians & the Habiru
The Mari Tablets and the Habiru
The Akkadians comprised the kingdom of Mari, whose northern branch later came to be known as the Assyrians.
North of the Taurus Mountains, in modern day southern Turkey, lie
the ruins of ancient Kultepe. Kultepe is approximately 800 miles north
of Sumer, once a great city of the Akkadian Empire.
The Akkadians established their empire in Mesopotamia from the
years 2350 B.C. - 2000 B.C. The land of southern Mesopotamia was known
as the land of Sumer and Akkad during this period.
Excavations in Kultepe, and north of Kultepe in Alishar, have
unearthed Assyrian trading stations dating from the Old Akkadian Period.
The Old Akkadiann Period dates from 2500 - 1900 B.C.E, and includes the
reign of Sargon the Great.
Documents were recovered from these stations in which certain Akkadians had imprisoned a group of men referred to as Haberi.
It is significant to note that the logogram SA.GAZ was not used
in this instance. In the Akkadian language, "SA.GAZ" and "Haberi" become
synonymous with each other.
In this letter, an Assyrian merchant is beseeching the Akkadians for the release of "Haberi men" in their custody.
"Concerning the Haberi men in the palace of Shalahshuwe who
are present in custody, I sent word to you thus: 'Consult there with
the princes and the chamberlains as to whether they will return them or
will not return them. Then send word to me. If they will not return
them, redeem those men. Whatever the ransom for them the palace asks of
you, let me know in your message that I may send it to you. Let your
hand seize those men. Whatever response the palace makes to you
concerning those men, let me know in your message. The men have much
ransom money.' "
It is apparent this merchant thought highly of the Haberi men in
the Akkadians custody. He begs their release throughout the letter, and
even mentions he will send money for their release if necessary.
It is also noteworthy these Haberi are well off financially.
They possess enough money of their own to pay the ransom for their
These Habiru certainly appear in a much different light than those in
. However, many similarities exist between the two groups in Sumer and Turkey.
One such example is the seemingly constant attention these people draw from the legal authorities.
As is the case in many of the Sumerian references, these Haberi
in Turkey find themselves in a legal conundrum with the local Akkadians.
Though the exact date of these documents is unknown, it proves
that various groups of individuals, identified using the logogram
SA.GAZ, or Haberi, were located in southern Anatolia (Turkey) around the
same time other Habiru were dwelling around southern Mesopotamia.
These separate groups of SA.GAZ/Haberi were hundreds of miles
apart, and operated completely independent of each other. By 2000
B.C.E., if not considerably before, these people were widespread, and
already an established part of different societies and different
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The Mari Tablets (1800 - 1750 B.C.E.)
The city of Mari is located on the western banks of the Euphrates
River, approximately 250 miles north of Babylon. Archaeology has shown
the city flourished from 2900 B.C.E. to 1759 B.C.E., at which point it
was sacked by Hammurabi. Mari was a part of the Amorite kingdom which
dominated Mesopotamia in the 18th century.
The Akkadians established this empire from Babylon, northeast to Asshur, northwest to Haran, and across to the Mediterranean.
is believed to have existed during the reign of this Amorite kingdom.
His journey from Ur to Haran more than likely carried him through the
city of Mari. The Akkadians in Mari kept impeccable records of their
kingdom. These record would lead historians to rewrite the historical
time line of the Ancient Near East.
In the 1930's over 25,000 Akkadian tablets were discovered in the
archives of Mari. These tablets provided invaluable information on the
kingdom of Mari, its customs, culture, religion, and even names of
people. These tablets date to the last fifty years of Mari's
independence, 1800 - 1750 B.C.E.
The Mari tablets revolutionized the view of the ancient world by
shedding light on over 500 name of different places. Important
discoveries were also made on the identity of the SA.GAZ/Haberi/Habiru,
and their interactions with the Akkadians of this time.
It is important to take notice of one Cappadocian tablet in
particular. In this tablet the verb "Habiru" appears. It has been
translated by Birot as "imigrer". Other scholars, such as Bottero,
disagree with this definition. Bottero claims it should translate as
Though the Cappadocian tablet is the earliest occurrence of the
word "Habiru", dating to the 19th century B.C.E., it should be noted
that both scholars may be correct in their assessment.
The Akkadians were constantly at war between individual
city-states. Within the documents regarding these disputes, the
SA.GAZ/Haberi appear in numerous accounts.
One account speaks of a certain man named Yapah Adad. He had
built up the city of Zallul, located on the banks of the Euphrates. He
stationed himself in Zallul, along with 2,000 "Habiri" soldiers. It is
not presumptuous to assume these 2,000 soldiers had hired themselves out
to Yapah Adad as mercenaries.
In yet another tablet, a chief by the name of Izinabu is said to have had 30 "Habiru" men march in his charge.
One tablet, though much of it damaged and indecipherable, speaks
of "300 asses of the Haberi". It is intriguing special attention is paid
to the donkeys belonging to the Haberi. Throughout the Old Testament,
donkeys are mentioned as an important part of
Another tablet speaks of the skill "Habiru" soldiers displayed
during a night raid. Under the cloak of darkness these men raided the
town of Yahmuman.
They attempted to seize other towns, apparently unsuccessful, yet did raid Luhaya, confiscating 500 sheep and 10 men.
One immediately notices the rather liberal terms used to
designate these bands of people. From the Sumerians, and later adopted
by the Akkadians, comes the cuneiform designation SA.GAZ.
The Akkadians pronounced this word "Habiru". Yet, other similar terms are used as well; Habiri and Haberi.
One insightful tablet speaks of the young Prince Idrimi. This
tablet becomes especially significant when evaluating the Habiru/Hebrew
connection. The tablet reads as follows:
"My horse, my chariot, and my groom I took and departed.
The wasteland I crossed and into the midst of the Sutu warriors I
entered. With them I spent the night in my covered chariot. The next day
I moved along and went to the land of Canaan. In the land of Canaan the
town of Ammiya is located. In Ammiya dwelt people of Halab, Mukish, Ni
and Amau. When they saw that I was the son of their former lord they
gathered about me and said: 'It has been much for you, but it will
cease.' Then I dwelt for seven years among the SA.GAZ warrior. I
interpreted (the flight of) birds; I inspected (the intestines and
livers of) lambs; and thus seven years of Adad/Teshup turned over my
This is a remarkably illuminating piece of information regarding
the Habiru. In summary, a young prince by the name of Idrimi left his
clan of Habiru, destination unknown.
After spending a certain amount of time in his new home, he
experienced some sort of trouble, and was exiled. He decided to spend
his exile in his homeland, located somewhere in the land of Canaan.
Idrimi then set out for the land of Canaan. Upon arriving, the
residents discovered he was the son of their former leader. He was thus
welcomed back, and allowed to live peacefully amongst the Habiru
He studied the ways of nature, looking for prophetic signs his exile was
over, and it was safe to return to his former lands. He was, in
essence, the prophet of his tribe.
This depicts the Habiru as migratory, moving from one land to
another, and portrays the way in which many of these bands may have been
Idrimi asks for asylum, and is given such, being allowed to dwell within the Habiru camp.
To this point the Habiru have been seen as a negative element in
society, constantly at strife with the law, and other kingdoms. Their
bands are heterogeneous in its makeup.
They come from all levels of society, from all corners of the
Near East, and are employed at various occupations and levels of
They tend to excel in matters of war, as many become mercenaries.
The picture painted, thus far, is one of a rebellious and defiant
However, Nadav Na'aman argues the Akkadians view of the Habiru in
the Mari tablets have changed the perception of the Habiru. He points
to three tablets in particular to stress his point.
ARM 14 50
The text of this tablet speaks of a man named Ami-ibal. He was a
native of the town of Nasher, in Ilansura. Ami-ibal had migrated, the
verb used is Habaru, to Subartu.
The tablet accuses Ami-ibal of being registered as an elite soldier in his native Ilansura, and he is thus accused of defecting.
The term used as defector is "Pateru".
Ami-ibal rejects this accusation on the grounds he migrated (Habaru) to Subartu four years prior to the alleged registration.
His reasons for leaving are not given, and he had just recently returned to his homeland as a result of the advance of Atamrum .
Na'aman points out there is a clear distinction between a "Pateru", and a "Habaru". Desertion (Pateru) was a major offense.
Governments sought the extradition of deserters from other
countries, and in some cases punished them by death. However, migrating
(Habaru) was not considered an offense at all, but rather a legal, and
ARM 14 72
The Akkadians in Mari were said to have accepted a certain
Babylonian overseer named Addu-sharrum. An overseer was one who led a
group of soldiers. Addu-sharrum, along with his band of warriors, served
Mari as replacements in the military.
According to the story on the tablet, eight months passed, at which point the Babylonian government demanded his extradition.
The Babylonians claimed Addu-sharrum and his warriors deserted
from their stations as the army passed through Mari. He and his men had
defected, and according to law, must be extradited back to Babylon to
Addu-sharrum claims he and his men fled from Babylon to Mari,
thus they were migrants, or refugees. As Habiru, they were not subject
The governor of Saggaratum, Yaqqim-Addu, was the author of this
letter. He sends Addu-sharrum to the king of Mari. In this letter he
beseeches the king to see if Addu-sharrum "fled from Babylon or whether
he came up with the troops and then stayed."
ARM 14 73
This letter is connected to ARM 14 72. However, only the second
half of the letter has survived. The men of Addu-sharrum are quoted by
Yiqqim-Addu as saying:
"Is there a country which extradites its replacements? Not
only us: a messenger who was used to hearing the secrets of his lord, if
he enters the service of another king, he becomes the son of (that)
country. Now, why should you extradite us?"
These letters attest to the difficulty in defining the legal
status of the Habiru. The Akkadians, thus, were not alone in their
difficulty in interpreting the status of the Habiru in their kingdom.
However, it is significant that the common thread of each letter
deals with people who had left their homeland and migrated to another.
The core of the question lies in the difference between Pateru
and Habiru. In these letters, Habiru is not a negative element. In fact,
quite the opposite is stated.
The Habiru are legal immigrants, seeking the protection of their
new governments. They are distinguished from the criminal behavior of a
They fled from their homelands, for whatever reasons, thus fitting the description of what constitutes a refugee.
Once again, a remarkable Hebrew/Habiru connection can be made to
David in the Old Testament book of I and II Samuel. David, fleeing from
Saul, seeks the protection of King Achish of Gath, a rival king.
He even fights with the Philistines against the Israelites. The
Philistines welcomed David, for the most part, rather than sending him
to Saul to face death.
Na'aman points out another class of people similar to, but quite
distinct from, the Habiru. The term "Munnabtu" is used frequently to
denote an assortment of runaways and outcasts. The term is even used to
refer to runaway slaves.
In many instances, the Mari tablets treat the Munnabtu and Pateru
in the same manner. They are individuals accused of a crime, and thus
subject to punishment.
On the other hand, as was the case with the Akkadians in the Mari
tablets, the Habiru were regarded as migrants. They were exempt from
such treatment. Once these individuals were confirmed as Habiru, or
legal migrants, they were permitted to dwell in whatever kingdom they
had fled to.
Throughout ancient Near East kingdoms Habiru were given asylum, free
from extradition or prosecution. Bottero's interpretation as "refugee"
thus seems in harmony with the above references. Sumerian and Akkadian
perceptions of the Habiru were as outlaws, or aliens, sometimes as
resident aliens. The Akkadians obviously did not view all Habiru with
contempt, simply as foreigners.
Na'aman argues these designations were used to describe the
Habiru after they had migrated, as they settled into their new
However, in the Mari tablets it seems evident that it is soley
the act of migration which distinguishes one as a Habiru. The Mari
tablets illuminated the diversity of the Habiru people. They come from
diverse regions, spread across the Near East.
They served at all levels of society, from Princes, to soldiers,
to shepherds. Even in the military their roles were diverse. Some were
foot soldiers, others were charioteers.
They were distinguished from runaways and outcasts. They were
protected legally by their new kingdoms. They oftentimes received
payment in the form of livestock and sheep. Some of the Habiru
interacting with the Akkadians possessed large sums of money.
The Mari tablets perhaps demonstrate most accurately the original
perception of the Habiru people. They emerge from the perspective of
the Akkadians as people on the move.
Migrating from their homelands, joined together with other
immigrants, or refugees, they seek out employment in their new
They take on a variety of occupations, in order to reintegrate
themselves into some form of established society. They also have a
strong connection to animals; particularly, sheep, asses, and other
The Habiru, in these regards, do not appear as a threat to society, as they had in previous documents from other cultures.
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