Indic influence in ancient Syria and Egypt

Mention ancient Egypt and the names we remember are Tutankhamen, Nefertiti and Cleopatra. For an Indic connection there is Ramesses II – the Pharaoh who had peppercorns stuffed into his nose. Though he was dismissed as a rebel and heretic, one Pharaoh who deserves attention is Nefertiti’s husband and Tutankhamen’s father Akhenaten (1353 – 1336 BCE) – the first known monotheist and probably the founder of monotheist intolerance.
Recently BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time (via Anne) had an episode on Akhenaten and one of the issues they discussed was why did Akhenaten, in a polytheistic Egypt, insist on the worship of only the Sun disk Aten? Was that a shift in theological thinking or a political move to divest the powerful priests of Amun of their power?
There is no clear answer for why in the third year of his reign Akhenaten started the construction of the new temple dedicated to his Sun god. In some incomplete inscriptions Akhenaten mentioned that things were bad during the reign of his father and grandfather, but it is not clear what was bad. This is also a bit surprising since the reign of his father — Amenhotep III — was  one of those prosperous times in Egyptian history[1].
But another possibility — one which is rarely mentioned — is that Akhenaten’s father-in-law, one Tusharatta, was a Mittani king in North Syria. His wife Kiya was a Mittani and his mother Tiye was half-Mittani. The Mittanis were a warrior elite who ruled over a Hurrian population. But what’s special about them is that they spoke an Indo-Aryan language.

In a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni, Indic deities Mitra, Varun. a, Indra, and N¹asatya (Asvins) are invoked. A text by a Mitannian named Kikkuli uses words such as aika (eka, one), tera (tri, three), panza (panca, ¯ve), satta (sapta, seven), na (nava, nine), vartana (vartana, round). Another text has babru (babhru, brown), parita (palita, grey), and pinkara (pi _ ngala, red). Their chief festival was the celebration of visuva (solstice) very much like in India. It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have been unearthed in the records from the area.[Akhenaten, Surya, and the R. gveda2]

But is this language Indo-Iranian, Iranian or Indo-Aryan or to rephrase: did the Mittanis speak the PIE branch of India.? That matter was settled in 1960 by Paul Thime[3].

There are several reasons, but to be brief, I shall only give three: 1. the deities Indra,Mitra, Varun.a, and Nasatya are Indian deities and not Iranian ones, because in Iran Varun.a is unknown and Indra and Nasatya appear as demons; 2. the name Vasukhani makes sense in Sanskrit as a “mine of wealth” whereas in Iranian it means “good mine” which is much less likely; 3. satta, or sapta, for seven, rather than the Iranian word hapta, where the initial `s’ has been changed to `h’.[Akhenaten, Surya, and the R. gveda2]

How did this Indo-Aryan speaking population reach Syria and Palestine in the 14th century B.C.E? There are four possibilities[3].

  1. This group split away from the Iranians, colonized the Mittani kingdom and then reached India.
  2. One group split away from Iranians and moved to India, while another group went to the Near East.
  3. The Indo-Aryans reached India and then went back to Near East.
  4. Indo-Aryans, a Vedic speaking tribe from India left for the Near East taking their gods with them.

Among these (1) is not considered as serious possibility while (2) is the most commonly accepted one. Sten Konov argued for (3) while Frederick Eden Pargiter supported (4). According to H. Jacobi (who believed that the Mittanis came from India), since the worship of Vedic deities was happening in 14th century Mittani kingdom, it would have happened in India much earlier. Jamna Das Akhtar and P.E.Dumont thought that the dates were even earlier[3].
In fact there are many arguments in support of (4). Archaeologists have not found Central Asian, Eastern European or Caucasian culture in the Mittani kingdom. At the time same time they found the peacock motif – something which could have come from India. Based on this Burchard Brentjes argued that Indo-Aryans were settled in the Near East much before 1600 B.C.E[3].With all the trading relations between various parts of India and the Near East, dating as far back as 4000 BCE with the find of cotton in Dhuwelia and carnelian bead in  Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE, the migration of Indo-Aryans is not a fantasy tale.
Thus with all the Indo-Aryan culture around him, is it possible that Akhenaten got the idea of “One Truth” and the worship of the disk of the sun from it?[2]
There is another related mystery: how this concept of the worship of one God, which disappeared from Egypt, surface in Judaism much later.? The most common explanation is that probably Moses, who according to the Hebrew Bible led an exodus, took the idea to Israel. But archaeology has revealed that the Exodus as mentioned in the Bible never happened. One theory is that they adopted it from a desert people called Shasu? Is there any other explanation?
Postscript: Finally it would take Tutankhamen, the boy king who is currently in San Francisco, to restore the old Egyptian culture back.

  1. In Our Time, BBC Radio 4
  2. Subhash Kak, Akhenaten, Surya, and the Rg veda,July 17, 2003
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).