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The Balance of Power: The Amarna Letters, Gift-Giving and Diplomatic Marriages

In this section, we introduce diplomacy in the Near East, leading with examples from the core collection of diplomatic texts: the Amarna Letters.

In the previous step, we saw how warfare gave way to peace between Mitanni and Egypt, with Tuthmosis IV marrying Artatama’s daughter to seal the deal. Egypt now entered an era of peace and prosperity, and for the first time in history, we have an archive of texts that give detail on the international system in place at this time…

The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are an archive of correspondence that were discovered at the capital city of one of Egypt’s most famous kings: Akhenaten. Akhenaten began life as Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III. However, early in his reign he promoted a lesser Egyptian god to supreme deity, and along with this came significant cultural change seen, not least, in the art of the period. Unfortunately, an examination of this fascinating individual is beyond the scope of this course, but for an excellent introduction, listen to the BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time episode (available as a download at the bottom of this page), in which three leading experts (Elizabeth Frood, Richard Parkinson and Kate Spence) discuss Akhenaten’s reign.

Amarna Letter Key Facts:

  • Discovered in 1887 at Amarna in Middle Egypt
  • c. 350 cuneiform tablets, mainly letters sent to Egypt, but a few drafts of outgoing letters
  • Largely covers the reigns of Amenhotep III and his son, Akhenaten (of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty)
  • Two types of correspondence:
  1. The Superpowers Club: International Relations between Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, Assyria and Babylonia. Members of this exclusive club are known as “Great Kings”, and refer to each other as “brother”. In this video, Bruce Routledge references the Amarna Letters to illustrate the ancient Near Eastern culture of exchanging gifts which lay at the centre of the diplomatic system that existed between superpowers. In addition to goods, family members were also used as bargaining chips to bond together kingdoms through marriages. Bruce also considers how in some cases the gift giving could be a little one sided.
  2. The Syro-Palestinian City-states: Domestic affairs between Egypt and its c. 40 vassals. The letters between Egypt and its vassals are quite different. One of the most prolific writers, Rib-Hadda of Byblos, exemplifies the type of issues that these letters cover. He sent about 60 of the Amarna Letters to Egypt, complaining that his neighbours, Amurru, were expanding their territory and threatening his territory.

This website, presents some translations of both types of Amarna letter, including a flavour of Rib-Hadda’s relentless missives.

Finally, the letters provide us with names of Great Kings ruling at the time, so we can add to our list of Mitannian rulers:

Egypt Mitanni
Amenhotep I  
Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis II Parrattarna, Kirta (These kings of the newly emerged Mitannian state seem to belong somewhere in Egypt’s early New Kingdom, perhaps being the enemy faced by the likes of Tuthmosis I).
Tuthmosis II , Tuthmosis III Shuttarna I, Parsatatar (As above, a rough guess might put these kings around here. One of these names could then be the driving force behind the city-state coalition at the Battle of Megiddo).
Amenhotep II Saushtatar (From evidence discovered at Nuzi, we know that Saushtatar ruled a large empire, and who his predecessors were).
Tuthmosis IV Artatama (This placing seems fairly secure, not least since Tuthmosis IV married Artatama’s daughter, ushering in a new era of peace between these two great superpowers).
Amenhotep III Shuttarna II, Artashumara, Tushratta (Amenhotep III had several foreign women sent to Egypt to marry, including daughters of Shuttarna II and Tushratta).
Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten Tushratta (Tushratta complains that Akhenaten is neglecting his international obligations, and not engaging in gift-giving and diplomatic marriage in the way his father had before him).
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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

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