Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The Three-Way Contest

Between 1525 and 1400 BC, the northern Mitanni take away Hittite land in the west and make a treaty with the Egyptians in the south

THE NORTHERN EDGE OF EGYPT, now up near the Euphrates, was never very secure. It was too far away from Memphis, and too close to the Hittites. It also brought the Egyptian border far too close to another enemy.

Centuries earlier—around 2000 BC—a mountain tribe from the slopes of the Zagros had started to wander west. These people, the Hurrians, crossed the Tigris into the center of Mesopotamia and settled in small groups on the edges of cities. By 1700, a few tiny independent Hurrian kingdoms lay in the northern reaches of Mesopotamia, above Assur and Nineveh, and a few Hurrians had wandered even farther west. Hurrian names show up in merchants’ records from the Assyrian trading posts, all the way over in Hittite lands.1

These Hurrians were nothing like an organized nation, and probably would have remained in their separate scattered villages and walled cities, had a new batch of invaders not shown up to organize them. A splinter group of the Aryans who eventually made their way down into India broke off from their kin, sometime before the migration south, and travelled west into Mesopotamia. Welcomed by the Hurrians, they not only settled in and intermarried with them, but bullied their way into becoming the Hurrian ruling class: the maryannu. Maryannu and Hurrians together became the upper and lower strata of a kingdom called, by the surrounding rulers, “the Mitanni.”

The Hurrians were not much for writing, so it is difficult to trace exactly what was going on in their lands between 1700 and 1500. But by the time Tuthmosis III began his northwards drive, the Mitanni kingdom had its own established capital at Washukkanni, a little east of the far northern reaches of the Euphrates. The first maryannu king whose name surfaces from the obscurity is Parattarna, who came to the throne during Hatshepsut’s dominance, probably sometime around 1500. Under his guidance, Hurrian troops marched as far down into Mesopotamia as Assur. This city, which had been swept into the Babylonian kingdom of Hammurabi, had been lost by Samsuiluna; since, it had been ruled by whatever warlord could hold onto it. Now it became a province of the Mitanni kingdom, with its king a vassal serving the Mitanni king.2


29.1 The Mitanni

The Mitanni were not yet strong enough to resist Egypt. In the face of Tuthmosis III’s vigorous forwards push, they backed up; one of Tuthmosis III’s victory monuments stands on the east bank of the Euphrates, well within Mitanni territory. Egyptian excursions into this land yielded few prisoners, though. The Mitanni king and his forces retreated, strategically, away from possible harm.3

In the same year that Tuthmosis III returned to Egypt to die, a king named Saustatar came to the Mitanni throne at Washukkanni.79 He began his own empire-building; his troops marched as far east as the distant bank of the Tigris, as far west as Tarsus on the Asia Minor peninsula, and as far south as Kadesh.

The eastern claim doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone powerful enough to object. But the push west brought Saustatar into conflict with the Hittites; and his push south, through the Western Semitic lands, ran him head-on into Tuthmosis III’s successors.

THE HITTITES, now faced with an aggressive Mitanni king in command of a well-organized army, were not having a good century.

Years of assassinations and constant changes at the palace meant that each new Hittite ruler who came to the throne had to begin from scratch, building support among his own officials and persuading the people of Hattusas that he had the right to rule. This was time-consuming, and left less time and energy for guarding the borders of the empire. Cities on the edge began to break away.4

Seventy-five years before Saustatar’s push west against the Hittite border, a Hittite named Telepinus had tried to solve this problem. Telepinus was not exactly in the royal line. His brother-in-law, himself a man with no claim to the throne, had hired assassins to carry out an extensive clearing of the royal family. The slaughter wiped out not only all of the princes who currently stood in line to the throne, but also all the heirs of an entirely different family who might claim power once the current rulers were out of the way. Telepinus watched as his brother-in-law planned his coronation, but then got word that the king-to-be was also planning to remove Telepinus himself, as a possible threat. Proactively, Telepinus drove his brother-in-law out of town and proclaimed himself king.5

This probably places Telepinus in the best light possible, since this account comes from his own records. However, he was at least well-placed to understand why the Hittite empire was failing: internal struggles over the succession had distracted the rulers from the job of ruling. Early in his reign, he set out to fix this. In a document known as the Edict of Telepinus, he laid out long and detailed rules for the orderly conveying of the crown from one generation to the next. The Hittites, he explained in the preface, could only survive if the rules were properly followed. “A prince, the son of the first rank [that is, of the king’s chief wife], should become king,” he wrote. “If there is no prince of the first rank, a prince of the second rank [son of a lesser wife] can inherit. If there is no prince at all, the husband of a first-rank daughter of the king shall inherit.”6

The Edict also prescribed penalties for various crimes from sorcery to murder, as Hammurabi had done over two hundred years before. Despite his irregular beginnings, Telepinus was trying to impose the rule of law on a kingdom which had operated almost entirely as a military state. For the first time, the Hittites were presented with the challenge of becoming something like a real kingdom.

By the time of Telepinus’s death in 1500, just before Hatshepsut’s seizing of the Egyptian throne, the empire had recovered somewhat from the shattering conflicts of the previous years. Unfortunately, Telepinus’s Edict, like Hammurabi’s Code, did not hold much power without the force of his personality and generalship behind it. His oldest son had died before him, so Telepinus (as prescribed) left the throne to his son-in-law, the husband of his oldest daughter. But this son-in-law soon lost the throne to an assassin, and for the next hundred years the Hittite empire went through another internal struggle during which almost no coherent records were kept. Six kings gained and lost the throne in obscurity, while the edges of the empire again began to flake away. The Hittite army, divided and disorganized, had no chance of resisting Tuthmosis III. When his armies stormed into Carchemish, the Hittites retreated and gave up their land.

Saustatar’s invasion of Hittite territory began shortly afterwards. The Hittite army could not resist the Mitanni either; Saustatar pushed westwards to Tarsus with little difficulty. Aleppo paid tribute to him. So did the Hittite cities of Alalakh and Ugarit.

In the middle of all this, the people of Assur took the opportunity to revolt against their Mitanni overlord. Saustatar, without a lot of patience, sent troops down to remind the city who it belonged to; in a gesture both symbolic and practical, he hauled its gold-studded gate back to the capital city of Washukkanni.7

AS SOON AS the news of Tuthmosis III’s death spread up into the Egyptian-held lands of the north, the Western Semitic cities revolted. Saustatar did everything he could to encourage the revolt against Egypt, including sending his own army down to help out the rebels in Kadesh. Tuthmosis III’s son Amenhotep II, who had just been enthroned, immediately marched an army northwards. By the second year of his reign, he was all the way up near the Mitanni border.

But no major battle took place. The truth was that, under Saustatar, the Mitanni kingdom had grown strong enough to cause Amenhotep II serious trouble. He made a treaty, rather than risk open war.

He did his best in his own land to portray this as a victory: an inscription at Karnak claims that the Mitanni crept to him on hands and knees, asking for peace:

The Chiefs of the Mitanni came to him, their tribute upon their backs, to seek the peace of His Majesty…. A notable event, one not heard of since ancient times. This land which knew not Egypt was asking for His Majesty’s pardon!8

But this was sheer face-saving; Amenhotep II didn’t dare attack. No copy of the treaty has survived, but centuries later, a traditional boundary line between the two countries was still observed; it ran along the Orontes river.9

Within a twelve-year period, both Amenhotep II and Saustatar passed their thrones to their sons. In Egypt, Tuthmosis IV was enthroned; in the Mitanni capital of Washukkanni, Artadama took over. Sometime around 1425, the two kings reestablished the peace sworn out by their fathers. A formal treaty was put into place, and, even more important, Tuthmosis IV agreed to marry one of Artadama’s daughters.

A letter written by Artadama’s grandson, some decades later, explains that Tuthmosis IV wrote to Artadama “and requested for himself the daughter of my grandfather…. he wrote five and six times, but he did not give her; then he wrote to my grandfather for a seventh time, and then [my grandfather] agreed.”10 This is about as unlikely as Amenhotep’s story about the Mitanni abasing themselves in hopes of a treaty. Egyptian pharaohs did not beg for foreign princesses. But the treaty with Egypt had given the Mitanni a whole new respect for their own greatness. Like the palace at Memphis, the Mitanni royal house saw itself as sovereign and mighty, granting its favors graciously to the pleading kings of other countries.

Even if Tuthmosis IV didn’t beg for it, the alliance was very good for Egypt, which thereafter dominated its Canaanite holdings with the promised alliance of its good friends. No Western Semitic city, glancing at the huge empire to the south and the equally huge one to the north, dared to revolt, and a frightened peace followed.


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