Between 1340 and 1321 BC, Assyrians and Hittites destroy the Mitanni, Tutankhamun undoes Egypt’s religious reforms, and a Hittite prince almost becomes pharaoh
UP IN THE LAND OF THE MITANNI, the king Tushratta was growing increasingly worried about the Hittites. Their energetic new king Suppiluliuma was building up his army, over there on the other side of the Taurus Mountains, and Tushratta needed help to keep the Hittites away.
Egypt was the logical choice of ally. Akhenaten, for all his preoccupation with devotional matters, was still the king of the most powerful empire around. He also happened to be Tushratta’s nephew (as well as something like a grandson-in-law, since two generations of Mitanni women had already married into the Egyptian royal family). Tushratta proposed one more match, between the pharaoh and his own daughter; Akhenaten agreed to the marriage, and Tushratta’s daughter went south.
But the Mitanni king found himself increasingly annoyed by the offhand treatment he got from his nephew. In letters exchanged by the two kings, Tushratta complains that the gold sent north as a bride-price isn’t up to snuff: “It doesn’t look much like gold,” one letter remarks. “My people say that gold in your country is more common than dirt, and perhaps, because you love me so much, you did not wish to send me something so common and so have sent dirt instead.”1
After this tart comment, Tushratta’s notes to his new son-in-law grow steadily more annoyed. He reminds Akhenaten that his father Amenhotep IV treasured Tushratta’s friendship (which, given Akhenaten’s attempts to outshine his father’s shade, may not have been the wisest move); he complains that his envoys have been hanging around the Egyptian court for almost four years, waiting for the pharaoh to pay attention to them; soon after, he points out that he has been waiting six years for an answer to a query sent down to Egypt by messenger.2
Despite the ties of marriage, Akhenaten was backing away from the Mitanni alliance. He had a shrewd enough guess about which way the northern wind was blowing: the Hittites were arming, they were strong, and Suppiluliuma was a canny strategist. The Hittite king had already sent the new pharaoh presents as soon as Akhenaten took the throne, a two-edged gesture of kindness meant to remind the new king that the secret treaty between Egypt and Hattusas was still active. “Just as your father and I were desirous of peace between us,” Suppiluliuma wrote, not long afterwards, “so now too should you and I be friendly with one another…. Let us be helpful to eachother.”3 Faced with choosing between the two countries, Akhenaten chose the Hittites.
Tushratta likely knew nothing of the secret treaty, but he could soon see the results. Suppiluliuma, now certain that Egypt would not come to the defense of the Mitanni, began to march east towards the capital city: towards Washukkanni itself. If Tushratta looked south for help, he looked in vain. The court of Akhenaten preserved a dignified silence.
What did arrive was not alliance, but yet another enemy. Assur, which had been subject to the Mitanni for years, had been rearmed in secret by Egypt; now the aid bore fruit. The Assyrian king Assur-uballit (probably the grandson of the king who had first received aid from Amenhotep III) marched his own men up and joined the Hittites, attacking Washukkanni from the south.
Tushratta, assailed from both south and west, pulled his men back out of north Mesopotamia. Assur-uballit instantly claimed the territory for Assur. For the first time since the overthrow of Shamshi-Adad’s dynasty, Assur was a kingdom.87 Indeed, in his next letter to Egypt, Assur-uballit reclaims the title Great King (while simultaneously asking for further handouts):88 “From Assur-uballit,” the letter reads, “king of Assyria, Great King, your brother. Gold in your country is like dirt; one simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am building a new palace. Send me more gold for it. When Assur-nadinahhe my ancestor wrote to your father, he received twenty talents of gold…. If your purpose to me is friendship, send me as much.”4
This letter, unlike similar messages from Tushratta, apparently gave no offense at all. Perhaps Akhenaten expected no more from Assyrians.
Kingdom Middle Assyria’s 33.1
MEANWHILE, Tushratta was faring badly on his western front. The Hittites got to the walls of Washukkanni much more quickly than he had expected. Unprepared for a siege, he fled from the city with a few courtiers. But he chose his companions poorly; he was assassinated by one of his own men as he ran.
His oldest son and heir, realizing that resistance was futile, turned back towards the enemy, surrendered, and was treated with honor. But he had no throne. In fact, after the fall of Washukkanni, there was no Mitanni kingdom at all. The Hurrians retreated, in the face of advancing Hittite troops, back across the Euphrates. Here, on the slopes of the Zagros Mountains from which they had come, they lingered: a weak tribal kingdom, ignored for a time by the great powers.
Meanwhile, Suppiluliuma marched down south along the Mediterranean as far as he could without actually starting a fight with the Egyptians. Every city he took had belonged to the Mitanni, not to Egypt (although he did march through Egyptian-held land on his way).5
Akhenaten made no objection to this empire-building. But by this point, his inaction was less from friendship than from necessity. The Egyptian army had fought little under Amenhotep IV and less under his son; the soldiers were now unused to war. Plague was spreading across Egypt and up the Mediterranean coast. With plague came poverty. A minor Western Semite king wrote, apologizing for the scarcity of the copper he was sending as tribute; plague had flattened his workforce.
And the royal family itself was suffering. Around the fourteenth year of Akhenaten’s reign, his chief wife died, followed not long after by his second wife. Akhenaten, who had three daughters and no sons, decided that his best hope was to try for a male heir by impregnating all three royal princesses.
The strategy failed. All of the babies were girls, and the middle daughter died in childbirth.
Akhenaten married off his oldest girl to a vaguely royal cousin and named the young man his heir. Not long after, the crown princess died. The old pharaoh himself sickened and followed her. The heir was crowned, and sat on the throne for mere days before dying himself. Apparently the plague had reached the royal house.
THE COURTIERS chose a nine-year-old boy named Tutankhaten as king. Whether he was of royal blood is very unclear; certainly he was no son of Akhenaten, although he seems to have grown up in the palace. At nine, he was brought from his schoolroom and made pharaoh, his claim to rule strengthened by a ceremonial marriage to Akhenaten’s only surviving daughter: the youngest, who was older than he and already the mother of a princess (by her father).
Tutankhaten was surrounded by advisors and courtiers who had watched Egypt lose hold of the north and battle plague while Akhenaten built his temples to Aten. He had himself seen the royal family die off, one by one. The throne must have seemed like a death sentence: now he sat directly beneath the wrath of the old gods.
So he ignored Suppiluliuma’s campaigns from the north and, directed by his regents, took care of more urgent matters. He rejected the name Tutankhaten and renamed himself Tutankh-Amun, to show his loyalty to the ancient First Cause. He followed his advisors’ wishes and ordered Akhenaten’s name excised from monuments, his inscriptions scraped off reliefs, his statues smashed.89 The great city of Aten became known instead as Amarna.
With this done, Egypt had to turn again and face the rest of the world. The Mitanni were no longer a problem, but the Hittites were huge and threatening to the north; Assur-uballit was behaving like an emperor up in the city of Assur; and in the southern part of Mesopotamia, the Kassite warrior-chief ruling in Babylon, Burnaburiash I, had decided to register a protest. He wrote to the young Tutankhamun, suggesting that the new king quit treating Assur-uballit with respect. Now that the Mitanni had relinquished their hold on Assur, Burnaburiash said, the city should belong by right to Babylon. He should have control of it, not Assur-uballit, and it was entirely inappropriate for Assur-uballit to be calling himself “Great King.”6 Furthermore, Tutankhamun ought not to be receiving envoys from Assur as though it had the right to conduct its own foreign affairs. “I didn’t send those Assyrian vassals to you,” Burnaburiash wrote. “Why, on their own authority, have they come to your country? If you love me, they will conduct no business whatsoever. Send them off to me empty-handed.”7
Tutankhamun appears to have ignored this, since Assyrian envoys continued to show up at the Egyptian court. Assur-uballit, treated as a king, retained his power and built his army; in fact, he kept his throne for almost thirty years.
Eventually Burnaburiash gave up any hope of getting Egypt on his side against Assyria, and took another tack. He suggested that Assur-uballit send his daughter down to marry the Babylonian crown prince, Karaindash. Assur-uballit agreed, likely seeing the marriage as a way to insulate his new empire from southern attacks. The wedding was duly celebrated. Karaindash soon fathered an heir of his own, and the two states, Assyria and Babylon, existed in a delicate peace side by side.
The peace lasted only until Burnaburiash died. Just before his death, he decided to pass over his son in favor of his half-Assyrian, half-Babylonian grandson (leaving the unfortunate Karaindash in the position of royal stud). Perhaps he hoped that the boy would have a chance of claiming Assur’s throne too, by right of his royal heritage; this would have brought Babylon and Assur under one crown.
Instead, he had sentenced his grandson to death. The Kassites of the army revolted. As far as they were concerned, the new king was a half-breed with no right to Babylon’s throne. They mounted an attack on the palace, assassinated the half-Assyrian king, and put a military government into place.8
At this, Assur-uballit claimed the right to come in and straighten things out. The fragmentary letters and inscriptions that survive don’t make his actions entirely clear; probably he killed his grandson’s murderer. A new king was proclaimed, but it is impossible to say exactly who this new king was, or what part Assur-uballit played in his crowning. All we can say for certain is that Assyria did not take over Babylon’s rule. A Kassite king, possibly a younger son of Burnaburiash, remained on the city’s throne. At some point during the chaos, Karaindash had apparently been killed.
THE ASSYRIAN-BABYLONIAN MATCH was not the only odd marriage around.
After sitting on the throne for less then a decade, Tutankhamun died, unexpectedly; the circumstances of his death will never be known, but he may have been hit by an arrow. He was buried with great magnificence. Probably his tomb was no more ornate than the tombs of his predecessors, but (unlike the others) it remained unrobbed until November of 1922.
He left behind him no children. His wife Ankhesenamun (like her husband, she had changed her name to honor Amun) had become pregnant twice. Both times she gave birth prematurely and the babies were born dead. Their tiny bodies, embalmed with care, were buried with their father in the royal tomb.9
Now, her husband dead, no other male relatives in the royal line living, and with no child of Tutankhamun to look after, Ankhesenamun began to worry about her future. The Egyptian court, after all, was not short on ambitious men who would be glad to take over (perhaps after her unexpected death). Chief among them was her own maternal grandfather, Ay. Ay had served Akhenaten as chief minister, had remained as Tutankhamun’s advisor, and was still in the palace: an old weary man who knew where all the bodies were buried. Just as powerful, if lacking the same venerability, was the army’s chief general, Horemheb, whose military service had begun all the way back during the reign of Amenhotep III. Despite this long tour of duty, he was only in his forties; he had joined the army at thirteen.
Ankhesenamun, fearing both of these men, came up with an insane plan. She wrote to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma and asked him to send one of his sons down to Egypt. If he would do this for her, she promised, she would marry the son and make him pharaoh.
There is no copy of the letter in Egypt, which suggests that this was a secret arrangement. The letter survived only in the ruins of Hattusas, the Hittite capital:
My husband died, and I have no son. But you have many. If you would give me one of your sons, I would make him my husband. I cannot pick out one of my servants and make him my husband…. and I am afraid.10
This was entirely unexpected, and Suppiluliuma was startled. He was on good terms with Egypt, but not that good. According to his own records, he sent several spies south to find out whether Ankhesenamun was serious.11 When they reported back that yes, indeed, there was no heir on the horizon, Suppiluliuma agreed to the proposal and prepared one of his sons for the journey south.
The prince never got there. He was met at the border by a welcoming committee organized by Horemheb; apparently Ankhesenamun, with Suppiluliuma’s consent in hand, had broken the news of her plan. Horemheb had not served in the army for decades without knowing that frontal assaults were always more risky than chance happenings. Travelling through the Delta towards his wedding, the Hittite prince accidentally died.
What negotiations then went on in Egypt are unknown. But immediately afterwards, Ay married his granddaughter Ankhesenamun and claimed the throne. His first act was to write Suppiluliuma denying any hand in the prince’s death (and shifting the blame neatly over to Horemheb). Suppiluliuma may not have believed this, but he had no chance to avenge his son’s death. Before he could get down south with his army, plague struck the Hittite camp, and the greatest Hittite king died.
Ay died soon after, of uncomplicated old age. He had ruled for less than four years. As soon as he was buried, Horemheb declared himself pharaoh. What happened to Ankhesenamun is a mystery. After her marriage to the old man, the Egyptian records never mention her again.