The world’s first professional acrobats were flipping through the Middle East 4,000 years ago

The ancient city-states in the Middle East had a vibrant economic and social life centered around temples and palaces. The surrounding pastoralist and agricultural communities supported this. These cities were hubs of people, goods, and ideas that created a culture based on local customs and identities.

The professional acrobat or Huppu was a custom that developed in Syria.

Administrative documents dating back to 2320 BCE find the first mention of a hippo in the ancient Syrian city of Ebla. The profession’s details can be gathered from fragments of information preserved in the royal archive (1771-1764 BCE), which contains about 20,000 tablets at the nearby city of Mari (Tell Hariri) on the Euphrates River.

Accounting records and letters reveal that huppu performed at special events such as religious festivals, special guests arriving in the city, and the safe return of the King to the town. The celebration of Ishtar featured huppu and wrestlers. Lamentation priests sang in ancient Sumerians with drums.

The cast and crew were so well received that they accompanied the King to entertain in other kingdoms.

Craft of the Huppu

Only two adjectives describe the performances of the hippo, but these evoke an energetic visual feast.

The first, Melulu, means “to play,” to “act,” and to “fight.”

The second, nabalkutu, was used to describe a variety of dynamic and bold actions: “to remove an obstacle,” ‘to rebel against authority,’ ‘to turn upside-down,” to change sides, & “to tumble” (of a flying bird), and “to roll.”

Imagine a group of Huppu performing a blend of acrobatics and dance. They would combine physical strength, control, and bodily expression in order to impress an audience.

This bowl, from Arjan (c.600 BCE), depicts the skills of the early acrobats. Photograph J. Alvarez Mon; drawing courtesy Y. Majidzadeh. Author provided

It appears that the craft was a male-only pursuit. No female version of huppu has been recorded, nor is there any huppu that bears a feminine name.

As in other parts of the Near East as well, family status was the main factor determining access to formal education, especially in writing and arts. Most children follow in their parents’ footsteps.

The best male and female singers and musicians were placed in specialist conservatories. In contrast, young, happy male apprentices, like today’s athletes, were sent to academies dedicated to learning through repetition and hard work.

It seems that the cultural divide between athletic academies and artistic conservatories was reflected in the preserved correspondence of the literate class.

A letter written to Zimri Lim by Piradi, the head of the royal Huppu troop, around 1763 BCE shows tensions between the schools.

Piradi begins by appealing to the King for his good judgment (“my lord will know when I’m lying and when I’m not”) and then laments the difficulty of his work (a complaint that is somewhat confirmed by the pay disparity between musicians in royal accounts and acrobats) and the disrespect he receives from musicians.

One musician even wrote: “If I break my oath they can chase down and make a huppu !”

Living as a huppû

Troupe members probably lived outside the palace and had families. However, they were not always happy. Piradi declared that a woman just left his home and had robbed his belongings.

The employment was casual. Payments in silver shekels were collected at the end of performances, possibly several times a month.

The list of disbursements made by the palace for a visit to a nearby town shows a decent standard of living. An upper received one shekel, the second in command two, and the head five.


Silver coils from ancient Iraq Silver coils were snipped from the waves and weighed in Shekels. They were then used as money. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago


Head, or huppu, was a privileged position. Piradi had direct access to the King’s ear and received extravagant gifts, including “first-quality” garments and silver weapons.

Head of the troupe is a stressful position, especially in a highly competitive field.

The hippo of Mari was constantly threatened by outside competition. This included rivals from nearby Halep, the famous hippo, and the possibility of work shortages or layoffs due to the arrival of the new ruler, who targeted funding cuts for the arts.

A lasting legacy

The hippo has been around for over 1000 years under the same name and in a similar form.

A legal contract was signed in 628 BCE by a private happy trainer named Nana-Ezell at Borsippa near Babylon in Iraq, about 450 km away from Mari. He would train the son of a man for two silver shekels over a two-year and five-month period.

A royal banquet scene engraved in an Elamite Bronze bowl from southwest Iran circa 600 BCE is further evidence of the vast spread of happy crafts throughout the Middle East.

The bowl is one of the oldest representations of this type. It shows a group of musicians in tandem with an acrobatic troupe that performs back bending, stilt balancing, and hand-walking.

Think about how humans have pushed their bodies to the limit for thousands of years when you watch gymnastics or acrobats in the circus.

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