The world’s first acrobats crossed the Middle East 4,000 years ago

The inhabitants of the ancient city-states of the Middle East enjoyed a vibrant social and economic life centered on palace and temple institutions, supported by the surrounding agricultural and pastoral communities. People, goods and ideas circulated between these cities, generating a cultural sphere within which strong local identities and customs have been preserved.

One of these customs that emerged in the region of Syria was the professional acrobat, or huppu, attached to the royal court.

The earliest known mention of the huppu is found in administrative documents from the ancient city of Ebla (Tell Mardikh) in Syria dating from 2320 BCE. Details of the profession can be reconstructed from information extracts from the Royal Archives (1771-1764 BCE) of around 20,000 tablets kept in the nearby town of Mari (Tell Hariri) on the Euphrates.

Accounting records and personal letters unveil huppu troupes that performed several times a month at special events to celebrate the king’s safe return to the city, the arrival of special visitors, and religious holidays. The program for the feast of the goddess Ishtar included huppu, wrestlers and wailing priests who sang in the ancient Sumerian language accompanied by drums.

These productions were so admired that the cast and crew accompanied the king for entertainment in foreign realms.

Ruins of Elba Island (Tell Mardikh), Syria. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There are only two surviving adjectives used to describe the performance of the huppu, but they conjure up a visual feast of high-energy movement.

The first, mēlulu, meant variously “to play”, “to act” and “to fight”.

The second, nabalkutu, applied to a series of daring and dynamic actions: “to overcome an obstacle”, “to rebel against authority”, “to overturn”, “to change sides”, “to tumble” (said of a bird in flight) and “rolling” (said of waves and earthquakes).

One can imagine groups of huppû staging a choreographed mix of acrobatic feats and dance, combining physical strength and control with bodily expression to seduce an audience.

The machine seems to have been a pursuit reserved for men. There is no trace of a feminine form of the name huppû, nor of a documented huppû with a feminine name.

Access to formal education in writing and the arts in ancient Syria, as elsewhere in the Near East, was determined primarily by family status: most children followed in their parents’ footsteps.

Specialist conservatories existed for promising musicians and singers, while, like modern athletes, young male huppu apprentices were sent to dedicated academies to learn mastery over years of repetitive and arduous exercises.

Thanks to a preserved correspondence between the literate elite, it seems that the division between artistic conservatories and sports academies reflects a division of mind and body in cultural values.

The tension between the schools surfaced in a letter composed by the besieged leader of the royal huppu troop, Piradi, to King Zimri-Lim, dated around 1763 BCE.

Appealing first of all to the good judgment of the king (“my lord knows when I lie and when I do not lie”) Piradi then deplores the underestimated difficulty of his art (a grievance somewhat verified by a salary disparity between musicians and acrobats in the royal accounts) and the contempt he suffered from musicians.

Indeed, from the pen of a musician: “if I break my oath, they can chase me and make me a huppû!”

The troop members lived outside the palace and most likely had families – though not always happy, judging by Piradi’s statement, a woman had just left her home and stole his property.

The job was casual. Payments were received after performances, probably several times a month, in the form of silver shekels.

A surviving list of palace expenses for a visit to a nearby town indicates a reasonable life: an ordinary huppu collected a shekel; the second commander two; and head five.

(For perspective, a single silver shekel bought 300 kg of barley.)

The huppu chief was a particularly privileged role. Piradi had direct access to the king’s ear, and he attracted extravagant gifts, including “premium” clothing, silver weapons, and wine.

But troop leader was a very stressful job in a competitive line of work.

The huppu in the city of Mari faced a pervasive threat of external competition, especially rivals from the famous huppu school of Halep (modern Aleppo), and job shortages and potential layoffs with the arrival of a new leader targeting funding cuts. in the arts.

The huppu profession has continued under the same name – and probably roughly the same form – for over a thousand years.

This is evidenced by a legal contract signed by a private huppû trainer named Nanā-uzelli in 628 BCE about 450 km from Mari in Borsippa, near Babylon in Iraq. For the price of two shekels of silver, he would train a man’s son for two years and five months.

Further evidence of the wide spread of Huppu craftsmanship across the Middle East from its Syrian homeland is a royal banquet scene engraved inside an Elamite bronze bowl from southwest Iran circa 600 Before our era.

One of the oldest representations of its kind, the bowl features an ensemble of musicians performing in tandem with a troupe of acrobats who lean onto their backs, swing on stilts, and walk by hand.

The next time you’re watching gymnastics or seeing acrobats at the circus, think back to how humans have pushed their bodies to limits for thousands of years.

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