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Habiru (Ha biru) or Apiru or pr.w (Egyptian)[1] was the name given by various Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni, and Ugaritic sources (dated, roughly, between 1800 BC and 1100 BC) to a group of people living as nomadic invaders in areas of the Fertile Crescent from Northeastern Mesopotamia and Iran to the borders of Egypt in Canaan.[2] Depending on the source and epoch, these Habiru are variously described as nomadic or semi-nomadic, rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, and bowmen, servants, slaves, migrant laborers, etc.

The names Habiru and Apiru are used in Akkadian cuneiform texts. The corresponding name in the consonant-only Egyptian script appears to be PR.W, conventionally pronounced Apiru (W being the Egyptian plural suffix). In Mesopotamian records they are also identified by the Sumerian logogram SA.GAZ, of unknown pronunciation. The name Habiru was also found in the Amarna letters, which again include many names of Canaanite peoples written in Akkadian. The Amarna letters written to Egyptian pharaohs in the 14th century BC document a time of unrest in Canaan that goes back before the battle of Kadesh to the time of Thutmose I.

File:Peoples of the battle of kadesh.jpg

The sources

In addition, the Hebrew patriarchs of the Bible are recorded as having conducted military activities in Canaan some centuries before the Exodus. Genesis 13 depicts Abraham and Lot as each having many herdsmen in their retinue. By the time of the Battle of the Vale of Siddim, Abraham was able to muster 318 trained men from his camp (14:14), who defeated the foreign kings. Likewise, in Chapter 26, Abraham's son Isaac is portrayed as having such a huge force that Abimelech, king of the Philistines, felt his presence to be threatening (26:13-16). Jacob for his part acquired a large number of retainers in Paddan Aram (30:43), and brought them with him to Canaan (32:5). The account in Jubilees (34:7) states that Jacob defeated 7 Amorite kings with a force of 6,000 swordsmen; and elsewhere (37:9-15), that his brother Esau raised a force of 4,000 mercenaries to oppose him, who were recruited from the Aramaean, Moabite, Ammonite, Philistine, and Horite populations. Jacob is said to have had 70 direct personal descendants, by the time he led the Hebrews to Egypt in the time of Joseph.

As more texts were uncovered throughout the Near East, it became clear that the Habiru were mentioned in contexts ranging from unemployed agricultural workers and vagrants, to mounted mercenary bowmen. The context differed depending upon where the references were found.

Though found throughout most of the Fertile Crescent, the arc of civilization "extending from the Tigris-Euphrates river basins over to the Mediterranean littoral and down through the Nile Valley during the Second Millennium, the principal area of historical interest is in their engagement with Egypt."[3]

Carol Redmount who wrote 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World concluded that the term "Habiru" had no common ethnic affiliations, that they spoke no common language, and that they normally led a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society.[4] She defines the various Apiru/Habiru as "a loosely defined, inferior social class composed of shifting and shifty population elements without secure ties to settled communities" who are referred to "as outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves" in ancient texts.[5] In that vein, some modern scholars consider the Habiru to be more of a social designation than an ethnic or a tribal one.

Abdi-Heba, the Egyptian vassal ruler of Jerusalem in the Amarna period (mid-1330s BC), wrote a series of letters to the Egyptian king in which he complained about the activities of the "Habiru." The Habiru were plundering the lands of the king.

Abdi-Heba wanted to know why the king was letting them behave in this way; why he was not sending archers to protect his, the king's properties. If he did not send military help the whole land would fall to the Habiru.

Sumerian records

The earliest recorded instance of the term is dated to the reign of king Irkabtum of the north Mesopotamian (Amorite) kingdom of Yamkhad (c. 1740 BC), who had a year named "Year when king Irkabtum made peace with Semuma and the Habiru." This has been taken to show that the Habiru led by Semuma already wielded such influence in the neighborhood of Alalakh that the local sovereign felt obliged to conclude a treaty with them.

Sumerian documents from the 15th century next describe these groups speaking various languages, and although described as vagrant, also having significant influence and military organisation. Those people are designated by a two-character cuneiform logogram of unknown pronunciation, which is conventionally transcribed as SA.GAZ and corresponds with the West Semitic hapiru and the Akkadian habbatu meaning bandit, robber or raider. Although the logogram occurs in Sumerian literature, the two symbols have no separate meaning in Sumerian.[6]

Early Mesopotamian sources

The Sumerian logogram SA.GAZ appears in texts from Southern Mesopotamia, dated from about 1850 BC, where it is applied to small bands of soldiers, apparently mercenaries at the service of local city-states and being supplied with food or sheep.

One of those texts uses the Akkadian cuneiform word Hapiri instead of the logogram; another described them as "soldiers from the West". Their names are predominantly Akkadian; some are West Semitic, some unknown. Their origins, when recorded, are in local towns.

A letter to an Old Assyrian merchant resident in Ali?ar requests his aid in freeing or ransoming some Hapiri, formerly attached to the palace of Shalahshuwe (as yet unidentified), now prisoners of the local authorities.

The Tikunani Prism, dated from around 1550 BC, lists the names of 438 Habiru soldiers or servants of king Tunip-Tessup of Tikunani, a small city-state in central Mesopotamia. The majority of these names are typically Hurrian (Northeast Caucasian), the rest are Semitic, one is Kassite.

Another text from around 1500 BC describes the Hapiru as soldiers or laborers, organized into bands of various sizes commanded by SA.GAZ leaders: one band from Tapduwa has 15 soldiers, another from Sarkuhe has 29, and another from Alalakh has 1,436.

Canaanite sources

A number of the Amarna letters—sent to pharaohs Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and, briefly, his two successors from vassal kings in Canaan and Syria in the 1300s BCE — mention the "Habiru". These letters, written by Canaanite scribes in the cuneiform-based Akkadian language, complain about attacks by armed groups who were willing to fight and plunder on any side of the local wars in exchange for equipment, provisions, and quarters.

Those people are identified by the Sumerian logogram SA.GAZ in most of the letters, and by the Akkadian name Hapiru in a few from the area of Jerusalem. They appear to be active on a broad area including Syria (at Upe near Damascus), Phoenicia (Sumur, Batrun and Byblos), and to the south as far as Jerusalem . None of the kings of the region, with the possible exception of one Abdi-Ashirta, are called Habiru or SA.GAZ.

Sources also discuss one Labayu, who had been an Egyptian vassal, and set up for himself. Attacking Megiddo, he assembled a group of Hapiru who consisted of both dispossessed local people and invaders. Having won Megiddo for himself, he gave his supporters Shechem for their own. (Harrelson, van der Steen)

Egyptian sources

Several Egyptian sources, both before and after the Amarna letters, mention a people called `PR.W in the consonant-only Egyptian script, where .W is the plural marker. The pronunciation of this word has been reconstructed as apiru. From similarity of context and description, it is believed that the Egyptian `PR.W are equivalent to the Akkadian Habiru/Hapiru.


This image from the inscriptians recording the Battle of Kadesh shows one of the ibrw or mounted bowmen used as scouts by the Egyptians. ibr is the Egyptian word for horse and w is the plural.

In his account of the conquest of Joppa, General Djehuty or Toth of pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt (around 1440 BC) asks at some point that his horses be taken inside the city, lest they be stolen by a passing Apir.

On two stelae at Memphis and Karnak, Thutmose III's son Amenhotep II boasts of having made 89,600 prisoners in his campaign in Canaan (around 1420 BC), including "127 princes and 179 nobles(?) of Retenu, 3600 Apiru, 15,200 Shasu, 36,600 Hurrians", etc.

A stela from the reign of Seti I (around 1300 BC) tells that the pharaoh sent an expedition into the Levant, in response to an attack of "the apiru from Mount Yarmuta" upon a local town.

A list of goods bequeathed to several temples by Pharaoh Ramesses III (around 1160 BC) includes many serfs, Egyptian and foreign: 86,486 to Thebes (2607 foreigners), 12,364 to Heliopolis (2093 foreign), and 3079 to Memphis (205 foreign). The foreign serfs are described as "maryanu (soldiers), apiru, and people already settled in the temple estate".

The laborers that Ramesses IV sent to the quarry of Wadi Hammamat in his third year included 5,000 soldiers, 2,000 men attached to the temples of Pharaoh as well as 800 Apiru.[7] This is the last known reference to the Apiru in Egyptian documents.

Hittite sources

The SA.GAZ are mentioned in at least a dozen documents from the Hittite kingdom, starting from 1500 BC or earlier. Several documents contain the phrase "the troops from Hatti and the SA.GAZ troops", Hatti being the core region of the Hittite kingdom.

Two oaths from the reigns of Suppiluliuma (probably Suppiluliuma I, reigned ca. 1358 BC ? 1323 BC) and Mursilis II (around 1300 BC) invoke, among a long list of deities, "...the Lulahhi gods (and) the Hapiri gods, Ereshkigal, the gods and goddesses of the Hatti land, the gods and goddesses of Amurru land, ...".

Another mention occurs in a treaty between kings Duppi-Teshub of Amurru and Tudhaliya of Carchemish, arbitrated by Mursili II. The Hittite monarch recalls how he had restored king Abiradda to the throne of Jaruwatta, a town in the land of Barga, which had been captured by the Hurrians and given to "the grandfather of Tette, the SA.GAZ".

Another text record the existence of a Habiru settlement somewhere near a Hittite temple; one from Tahurpa names two female SA.GAZ singers.

Mitanni sources

An inscription on a statue found at Alalakh in southeastern Anatolia [1], the Mitanni prince Idrimi of Aleppo (who lived from about 1500 BC to 1450 BC), tells that, after his family had been forced to flee to Emar, he left them and joined the "Hapiru people" in "Ammija in the land of Canaan".

Stand fast.jpg

At the Battle of Kadesh the Egyptians employed ibrw mounted bowmen as messengers.

The Hapiru recognized him as the "son of their overlord" and "gathered around him;" they are said to include "natives of Halab, of the country of Mushki, of the country Nihi and also warriors from the country Amae." After living among them for seven years, he led his Habiru warriors in a successful attack by sea on the city-state of Alalakh, where he became king.

Several detailed lists of SA.GAZ troops have been found on the same site, enumerating eighty in all. Their names are predominantly Hurrian; seven are perhaps Semitic. They come from a variety of settlements scattered around the region. One had been a thief, another a slave, two others, priests; most became infantry, a handful were charioteers, one a messenger.

Like the SA.GAZ soldiers of the earlier Mesopotamian city-states, they received payment, or perhaps rations, in the form of sheep. A general enumeration of SA.GAZ soldiers within the city counts 1436 in all.

At Nuzi in Mesopotamia, documents from the household of an official named Tehiptilla record a number of Habiru voluntarily entering long-term service in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter. Public records from the same city tally handouts of food and clothing to Habiru, the former to groups, the latter to individuals. One is given feed for a horse, perhaps indicating a military role. Another document allocates Habiru laborers to various individuals.

The local population was predominantly Hurrian, while approximately 2/3 of the Habiru names are Semitic; of these, all are East Semitic (Akkadian), none West Semitic.


In the port town of Ugarit in northern Syria, a cuneiform tablet that was still being baked when the city was destroyed (around 1200 BC) mentions the PRM (which are assumed to be the Hapiru, -M being the Ugaritic plural suffix). Tax lists from the city record the existence of "Aleppo of the PRM" (in Ugaritic) and "Aleppo of the SAG.GAZ" (in Akkadian; the logogram is slightly modified from the usual SA.GAZ).

Being found in lists of four Aleppos that are otherwise the same, these are certainly the same location, but it is unclear whether they are separate settlements or quarters of one city.


Habiru as a loose ethnic group

Scholars since Moshe Greenberg have envisioned the Hapiru, like the 17th century Cossack bands of the Eastern European steppes, as being formed out of outlaws and drop-outs from neighbouring agricultural societies. The numbers of the Habiru of the 2nd millennium BC grew from the peasants who had fled the increasingly oppressive economic conditions of the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms.

Some scholars have seen the Habiru legacy preserved in the place-names of Iranian Kabira, the Khabur River valley of the Northern Euphrates and perhaps also the Hebron valley, although the Hebrew and Arabic root for Hebron more likely derives from the word for "friend" (haver/habib) named for Abraham as a "friend of God".

Habiru and the Hebrews

When the Amarna letters were translated, some scholars equated these Apiru with the Biblical Hebrews (Hebrew: עברים or עבריים, ʿIvrim, ʿIvriyyim). Besides the similarity of their spellings, the description of the Apiru attacking cities in Canaan seems to fit the Biblical account of the conquest of that land by Israelites under Joshua.

The photographs from the 1904 Breasted Expedition to Egypt, especially those of the battle of Kadesh incribed at Abu Simbel provide one of the first recorded mentions of the ha ibr u[8] in the context of an army that messengers rushed to fetch to the battle.

Scholarly opinion remains divided on this issue. Some scholars argue that the Hapiru were a component of the later peoples who inhabited the kingdoms ruled by Saul, David, Solomon and their successors in Judah and Israel. Rainey argues that Hapiru is a generic term for bandits, not attached to a specific population. He proposes that, in the Amarna letters, Hebrews are referred as Shasu.[9]


  1. Exodus and Archaeology
  2. (William H McNeil and Jean W Sedlar, in "The Ancient Near East" discuss the etymology of the name habiru and references to it in the Amarna letters and Egyptian campaign literature.)
  3. Carol A. Redmount, 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed: Michael D. Coogan, (Oxford University Press: 1999), p.98
  4. Redmount, p.98
  5. Redmount, p.98
  6. Mendenhall, George E; H.B. Huffmon, F.A. Spina, and Alberto R.W. Green (1982). The Quest for the Kingdom of God: studies in honor of George E. Mendenhal. Eisenbrauns. p. 198. ISBN 978-0931464157. 
  7. A.J. Peden, The Reign of Ramesses IV, (Aris & Phillips Ltd: 1994), pp.86-89
  8. (Gardiner "Egyptian Grammar" see A12 and E6)
  9. Rainey, Anson (2008-11). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?". Biblical Archeology Review (Biblical Archaeology Society) 34 (06 (Nov/Dec)). 

See also

  • Shasu

Further reading

  • Forrest Reinhold, Hurrian Hebrews; Ea as Yahweh; The Origins Of The Hebrews & "The Lord Iowa, 2000.
  • Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. 2003
  • Moshe Greenberg, The Hab/piru, American Oriental Society, New Haven, 1955.
  • Oxford History of the Biblical World, page 72. ISBN 0-19-513937-2
  • Mirjo Salvini, The Habiru prism of King Tunip-Te??up of Tikunani. Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, Rome (1996). ISBN 88-8147-093-4
  • Robert D. Biggs, (Review of the above). Journal of Near Eastern Studies 58 (4), October 1999, p294.
  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  • Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
  • Huddleston, Marvin W., 2000, The Ancient Habiru/Apiru
  • George Roux, Ancient Iraq, third edition 1992 ISBN 0-14-012523-X
  • Daniel C. Snell, Life in the Ancient Near East, Yale, 1997. ISBN 0-300-06615-5
  • Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C., Princeton, 1993. ISBN 0-691-02591-6
  • Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks: Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East, Princeton, 1988. ISBN 0-691-03592-X
  • Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, James B. Pritchard, Ed. Second Edition. Princeton, 1955.

Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Habiru. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.