Chapter 14

Businessmen, Charioteers, and Translators

During the 1420s BCE, Ilim-ilimma was a man to be reckoned with in the town of Alalakh, which was located in the northern Levant.1 He had been born into a family who did well for themselves—his father, Tuttu, was a businessman—and Ilim-ilimma had a seat among the power brokers of the town. To judge from the few documents that survive from his archive, he spent time with the local royal family and with army generals, but was not averse to making himself richer from the misfortunes of others. But we only know about him from contracts and lists; it would be good to think that he was a kinder man than one might conclude from what he left behind though, honestly, it seems unlikely.

The documents that tell us about Ilim-ilimma, and many other citizens of Alalakh, were excavated by Leonard Woolley when he led an archaeological expedition there in the 1930s and 1940s. This was the same British excavator who had found the royal tombs of Ur a decade before, and he had been knighted in 1935 for his archaeological discoveries—he was now Sir Leonard. He uncovered hundreds of tablets in Alalakh’s finely built stone palace, in what he dubbed Level IV of the city’s existence, dating approximately to the fifteenth century BCE. Nine of these documents pertain to Ilim-ilimma, son of Tuttu, just enough to glimpse his life and to wish we knew more.2

Ilim-ilimma had an unusual name. It had been the name of an early king of Alalakh, and he also shared it with the son of the current local king. He was important enough that his personal archive was kept (and ultimately found) in that king’s palace, so he seems to have been close to the royal family; he might even have been named in honor of the earlier king.3 One wonders if having the same name as the crown prince was a source of annoyance to Ilim-ilimma, or whether it was perhaps an advantage. In any event, we know for certain that he and the crown prince were not the same man, though they did know one another.4 Both of their names were included on a document drawn up by a palace scribe, a list of horses that had been allocated to important individuals. Ilim-ilimma the prince and Ilim-ilimma son of Tuttu each received a pair of female horses.5 Both men, almost certainly, used these mares to pull their chariots in battle. By their time, chariot warfare had become a crucial part of any military engagement.

One reason for this transformation of military strategy was that the technology of manufacturing chariots had improved enormously. They bore almost no resemblance to their clunky predecessors. Being a charioteer in warfare may have been dangerous in their time, but it was also prestigious. Gone were the wooden boxes with solid wooden wheels, pulled along by donkeys, which had been used since the Early Dynastic period. In their place were horse-drawn lightweight vehicles with two spoked wheels that were capable of high speeds and could be maneuvered easily. They were used not only in Alalakh but in many regions of the Near East, including in Egypt (see Fig. 14.1).


Fig. 14.1 Relief sculpture showing a spoked-wheel chariot, from Amarna in Egypt, 1352–1336 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Two men rode in each chariot—a bowman, like Ilim-ilimma, and a driver who also held a shield to protect them both. Horses had been domesticated for some time and now they were being trained to pull these chariots. Horses were faster and larger than donkeys, which had been so valued in the past, and kings now were looking to buy and raise the best horses available and were hiring horse trainers. Chariot forces were expensive to maintain and to train, but the investment was worthwhile, even necessary, for a major power.6

Scholars used to propose theories about where this new form of chariot was invented and further theories about how the kingdom responsible for the development might have gained an important advantage over its neighbors in warfare. But there is really no way to know where the new design of chariot came from, because every Near Eastern kingdom of the age adopted it at pretty much the same time. The same basic chariot design even made it all the way to China, which was ruled at the time by the Shang dynasty; it seems that once any leader had seen this technological wonder, he set his engineers to the task of trying to build some chariots of his own.

Alalakh before the Late Bronze Age: A Town on the Border

It would have been important for forces in Alalakh to master chariot warfare, because the city was located in a spot not unlike that of Kisurra during the earlier Isin-Larsa period (though hundreds of kilometers distant): it was right at the border between two powerful kingdoms, Hatti in Anatolia and a new state called Mittani in Syria. Before we find out more about Ilim-ilimma and his world, we need to understand a little about the history of his city, Alalakh, and of the empire of Mittani. The imperialistic stirrings of Hatti and Mittani had already buffeted Alalakh before Ilim-ilimma’s time.


Map 3 The Near East from 1500 to 1000 bce

The setting of Alalakh, in the Amuq valley in the northern Levant, was deceptively bucolic. The valley was green with vegetation from ample rainfall, and cozily surrounded in most directions by low hills. To the west, the Amanus Mountains stood much higher on the horizon, their slopes cloaked in forests of cedar trees.7 Alalakh lay close to the Orontes River, which winds through the valley. Although it was not navigable, the river had carved a pass through the Amanus Mountains, providing a relatively easy road to the Mediterranean.8 Other ancient routes passed through the valley, leading from Egypt in the south to Anatolia to the north, and from the Mediterranean coast to Babylonia and Assyria to the east. The cedar forests in the Amanus range had long provided wood for Babylonian building projects; Alalakh was ideally situated to take advantage of the trade. Plus, it enjoyed a relatively mild climate, so that even in summer the cool winds from the Taurus Mountains kept the weather from becoming unbearably hot. Crops flourished. Stone was readily available for construction. The Amuq valley was an ideal place to settle and, unsurprisingly, people had been living there for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, though, those same advantages made Alalakh and its region something of a target for greater powers. It was not a big city, just 22 hectares (54 acres) in extent, with a relatively small but well-built palace, temples to the local gods, and a flourishing economy. It was almost always subject to a stronger kingdom in the region. During the Old Babylonian period this had been Yamhad, with its capital at Aleppo. At one point, Zimri-Lim of Mari had decided that he wanted control of Alalakh, so he had actually offered to purchase the whole town from his ally, the king of Yamhad.9 You will not be surprised to hear that he failed. The king of Yamhad held onto this treasure of a town.

In the late Old Babylonian period, Alalakh’s fate changed. It was one of the first northern Syrian cities to be attacked and destroyed by the Hittites when they began hostilities against Yamhad in 1600 BCE. Alalakh probably suffered further ravages when the Hittite king Mursili I moved troops beyond Syria to Babylon in 1595. But afterward, the people of Alalakh duly rebuilt and reoccupied their town.

The Hittites did not forget their interest in this area; they returned several times. By 1500 BCE, Mittani and Egypt shared the Hittites’ desire to control the Amuq valley and the Mediterranean coast.

The Puzzling Beginnings of Mittani: A Little-Known Empire

A new era, which began around 1550 BCE and lasted for more than 300 years, is known as the Late Bronze Age, and it was in many ways strikingly different from anything that had come before it. Although the period started out in a blaze of antagonism and warfare, eventually (after Ilim-ilimma’s lifetime) the Late Bronze Age proved to be among the most peaceful eras in ancient Near Eastern history, with the great powers of Egypt, Hatti, Mittani, Babylonia, and (later) Assyria mostly choosing to interact and cooperate together rather than to fight one another. It marked an international age of alliance or “brotherhood” among great kings.

Once this brotherhood was established, an army of messengers, diplomats, and translators worked incessantly to maintain it. They were almost always on the move, traveling from one country to another on the well-worn roads we have encountered before, including through the Amuq Valley and its provincial capital of Alalakh, and on newer routes to lands that had previously been outside the orbit of the Near Eastern states.

Peace in the Late Bronze Age was to be hard-won, however, taking almost a century to establish. Early kings of the new state of Mittani seem to have had little interest in keeping to themselves in the Habur region in northern Syria where they had their capital city of Washshukanni. This was the same area from which Shamshi-Adad had ruled his empire of Upper Mesopotamia 300 years earlier. Over the course of the fifteenth century BCE, Mittani aggressively expanded its borders west to the Mediterranean and east to Assyria, ultimately ruling over an even larger empire than the one Shamshi-Adad had controlled. Quite early in this expansion, the city of Alalakh once more became subject to the greater forces that surrounded it and was subsumed into the kingdom of Mittani.

The story of how Alalakh joined Mittani was remembered and recorded. At the beginning of the fifteenth century bce a local king of Alalakh named Idrimi gathered allies who tried to fight the newly imperialistic Mittanian army, but ultimately he gave up and joined the kingdom, swearing his allegiance to its king and becoming his vassal.10 His life story was written as an autobiography carved in cuneiform onto a rather forlorn looking statue of him, which was excavated by Woolley and is now in the British Museum (see Fig. 14.2). Mittani was swallowing up areas to the west of its heartland, and no doubt many other local princes experienced the same fate as Idrimi.


Fig. 14.2 Stone statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh, inscribed with his autobiography, from Alalakh, sixteenth century bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

You might expect such a dominant kingdom as Mittani to have left a great hoard of documents, ones like Idrimi’s autobiography and other royal inscriptions, from which we could reconstruct the details of its political, social, and economic history. But in fact Idrimi’s account is unique and Mittani is probably the least known of any great power in any era of Mesopotamian history. No royal inscriptions survive beyond short lines of text on cylinder seals. We have no images of the Mittanian kings. Only a few dozen extant documents even name the kings. The problem is that, although thousands of documents must have been written in the palaces and temples of Mittani, they have not been found. Even tablets excavated from provincial towns that were ruled by the kings of Mittani—like Alalakh, and like a town called Nuzi in northern Iraq—rarely mention the great kings who controlled them.

This means that there are a great many things we don’t know about Mittani. We don’t know, for example, the exact location of its capital city in the Habur region, or the sequence of its kings, or the lengths of their reigns, or the structure of the government. Even the name of the kingdom itself is uncertain. The name Mittani was spelled in several different ways by its kings, on their cylinder seals and letters,11 and scribes in other lands spelled the same word in two more ways.12 But the land also had a number of completely different names, depending on who was writing about it. To the Egyptians, Mittani was called Naharina; the Hittites referred to it as the Hurri-land (for its Hurrian inhabitants); and the Babylonians (and Mittanians themselves, for that matter) often called it Hanigalbat. The terms all seem to have referred to the same place.

Presumably when Mittani’s capital city of Washshukanni is identified and excavated,13 more tablets will be found and a whole new field of cuneiform studies will open up. But for now, we just have clues and fragments, and a clear sense that we are missing a big chunk of ancient Near Eastern history.

Particularly puzzling are the names of the kings. Although the heart of Mittani was home to speakers of the Hurrian language, its rulers had throne names that did not make sense in Hurrian. Instead, their names consisted of phrases in Indo-Aryan, a language later spoken in northern India. No obvious explanation exists for this, especially when one considers that there is no evidence that anyone at all in Mittani—even the kings—spoke an Indo-Aryan language.14 The kings, like their subjects, were native speakers of Hurrian and had Hurrian personal names before assuming Indo-Aryan throne names. It’s true that a few Indo-Aryan terms show up in Mittanian texts—a very few—but as far as we can tell, almost no one knew what they meant. This was certainly not a situation (as it has often been described) of an Indo-Aryan elite ruling a Hurrian population. Mittani was a Hurrian-speaking state with a Hurrian royal family, who must have had some sort of contact with an Indo-Aryan-speaking population, from whom they got their official names.15 How that happened is anyone’s guess.

Other powers also began flexing their muscles in the early fifteenth century BCE and attempting to assert dominance over their neighbors. To the north and east of Mittani lay the land of Hatti, which grew stronger than before. As was true in Mittani, Hatti’s leaders were keen to take control of the coast of northern Syria, along with the coastal valley of Kizzuwatna, at the northeast corner of the Mediterranean coast.

Egypt, under its Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Thutmose I (c. 1506–1493), was in the same expansionist mood, sending troops farther north than ever before. Thutmose I may have assumed that he could easily take control of the entire eastern coastline of the Mediterranean, but in northern Syria he encountered Mittanian forces, which put the brakes for now on any Egyptian thoughts of extending its empire beyond Canaan.

The shared interest of the rulers of Hatti, Mittani, and Egypt in taking control of this one section of the northern Levant may have had something to do with the cedar forests that grew there, the trade routes that passed through, and the access to seaborne trade. This was the same period that saw the growth of a kingdom on the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus, known as Alashiya, which was only 71 kilometers (44 miles) south of the coast of Hatti, and 105 kilometers (65 miles) west of the coast of Mittani. Alashiya was rich from the vast supplies of copper ore in its mountains. Meanwhile, farther to the west in Greece, the Mycenaean culture was beginning to flourish. It, too, depended deeply on trade.

Away from the coast, and south of Mittani, Babylonia continued to be ruled by a dynasty of kings with Kassite names. They looked in a different direction for their expansion; they were not interested in fighting the other land-hungry kings in the northern Levant. Instead they turned southward to expand, taking over the region that had been known as the Sealand by 1475 BCE and continuing all the way south in the Persian Gulf to take control of the land of Dilmun (Bahrain).16

Later, a Mittanian king named Saushtatar, who lived in the last decades of the fifteenth century BCE, expanded the Mittanian Empire to its greatest extent. He seems to have been remembered in subsequent generations as the great hero of the empire. It was his cylinder seal that later kings of his dynasty continued to use when they sealed clay tablets. And it was during his reign that Ilim-ilimma, son of Tuttu, was alive.

Ilim-ilimma: A Charioteer and Lender at Alalakh

The fifteenth century BCE was therefore a time of change, and a time when wars frequently disrupted the lives of ancient Near Eastern peoples, especially in the Levant. Each of the kingdoms developed new strategies to employ in their battles against their neighbors. For the kings of Mittani, one approach was to assign their citizens to well-defined social classes and to demand different kinds of state service from the members of each class. This was not an old tradition in the region of Alalakh. There is no sign of it before the kings of Mittani took over there. But soon after Alalakh had been captured and brought into the kingdom of Mittani, the government set about organizing its population into classes.17

This brings us back to Ilim-ilimma. The classes at Alalakh had been established before his lifetime, and we know that he was a member of a social class called the maryanni. This meant that, in times of war, he would have served as a chariot warrior.

Ilim-ilimma’s name appeared on a list of thirty-four maryanni men, who represented the city’s elite.18 The list was one of many census records preserved in the palace at Alalakh that recorded people’s names along with their social classes. Although this preoccupation with social class was a new phenomenon, it was one that seems to have spread right across Mittani. Administrations in earlier Near Eastern kingdoms had little interest in defining people by social class. Although in his laws Hammurabi had made some distinctions among free individuals between a higher class (the awilums) and a lower class of commoners, in other contexts these terms were rarely used in association with actual named people. It’s not even clear how, or on what occasions, the two classes were distinguished in Old Babylonian times. In Mittani, though, one’s social class was an important part of one’s identity.

The four classes listed on the census records in Alalakh, and in another Mittanian town called Nuzi far to the east, were as follows. The maryanni—men like Ilim-ilimma—comprised the elite in society. The other classes were known as the “released ones”; “doers of ilku service” or “peasants”; and “tenants” or “poor.”

According to historian Eva von Dassow, the maryanni were distinguished from the rest of the society by their right to fight in chariots and their exemption from corvée labor duties, such as work on state building projects.19 The term maryanni comes from a borrowed Indo-Aryan word, márya, which meant “(young) man.” (The -nni at the end was a Hurrian word ending.) But to the east in Nuzi, the census takers did not use this word. They called men of this class “chariot riders,” using an Akkadian term,20 which confirms that chariot fighting was a distinguishing feature of men in this class in both cities. Presumably the same was true across Mittani.

The “released” individuals were artisans along with specialists in such fields as horse training. They worked for the great institutions and for the maryanni. These people merited the designation “released,” not because they had been freed from slavery, apparently, but because, like the elites, they were released from performing corvée labor.

Next were the peasants, who constituted the mass of the population. They worked hard, farming their allocated ilku fields and orchards to support their families,21 like their counterparts during the Old Babylonian period. They also had to show up when summoned for corvée labor duties and for obligatory military service.22 These men had no chariots; they served in the infantry.

At the lowest rung of society were the tenants who, unlike those in the other three classes, had lost their rights to land. These men farmed for others and paid rent, but they were still subject to military and corvée service.23

You may have noticed that, in this class system, no men were exempt from the military. No matter what class they belonged to, men fought for the king of Mittani when he needed them. If he was in the mood to expand his empire, or if he needed to defend the land against the Egyptians or the Hittites, they were called up. The troops of Alalakh even fought from time to time against kingdoms that should have been their allies—other kingdoms that lay within the Mittanian Empire. This happened at least once during Ilim-ilimma’s lifetime. A treaty found in the palace at Alalakh was negotiated after a war between the king of Alalakh and the king of a neighboring land called Tunip,24 both of them vassals of the king of Mittani.

Although Ilim-ilimma son of Tuttu almost certainly fought in this battle against Tunip, and perhaps at other times as well, the records that survive from Alalakh tell us nothing about his exploits on the battlefield. They shine a light, instead, on his private transactions and his clear desire to increase his personal wealth.

He was a shrewd businessman. On at least three occasions he lent silver to fellow citizens. Two of those loans stipulated that the borrowers (and, in one case, the borrower’s wife as well) would work in his house as indentured servants until they had paid off their debts.25 This type of loan seems to have been uncommon and it would have been challenging for the debtors, who had to physically serve their creditor while accumulating the money they needed to pay back the loan with interest. Ilim-ilimma had contracts drawn up that laid out all the details of the agreements, which he kept in his archive.

Ilim-ilimma also purchased two women, presumably as slaves, one of them for a prohibitively high price of 1,000 shekels.26 The normal price for an enslaved woman was about 50 shekels, which was, indeed, the price of the second woman that he bought.27 Why was the first woman worth twenty times as much? It was not a scribal error—the number 1,000 was written out clearly as a word, and Ilim-ilimma paid seven sellers (six men and one woman) for the enslaved woman—this was a much larger number of sellers than usual. We simply don’t know why he paid so much. Perhaps she was a talented musician or artisan.28 But nothing more is known about her. The contract doesn’t even provide her name.

In one legally convoluted transaction, Ilim-ilimma had himself adopted by another man.29 The “adoption” was designed so that Ilim-ilimma could legally inherit the wealth of his “father” after that man’s death. The older man had no way out; clauses in the contract required that, if he did not respect the contract, he would lose all his property, and he would lose it to Ilim-ilimma, of course. Ilim-ilimma’s own property was protected. If he reneged on the contract, all he would lose would be the right to inherit the wealth of the man who had supposedly adopted him.30 Clearly, this was not a real adoption. It was not even created because Ilim-ilimma felt the need for a father; he was already an adult at this time and, in any case, Tuttu had played that role in his life (though Tuttu was probably dead by now). It was, instead, a way for Ilim-ilimma to gain control of the estate of a man who must have been, in some way, beholden to him—a man whose actual relatives lost their inheritance as a result.

The contracts that record these transactions all start with the same phrase. The scribe wrote, each time, that the events described took place “in the presence of” the king of Alalakh. The king also sealed each tablet at the top of the front side.

This was not just true of Ilim-ilimma’s contracts, it was true of all the contracts found in occupation Level IV of the city. The king was deeply involved in the business activities of the people in his close circle and made a point to be present whenever they undertook important transactions. The witnesses to these contracts were also often high-ranking members of the court and the society, some of whom had been listed on the tablet of maryanni men in Alalakh.31 But all the tablets from Woolley’s excavations were found in the king’s own palace. Perhaps contracts stored in private houses might be different, with less involvement of the local king.

When the king of Alalakh himself was the subject of important transactions or litigation, it was the great king of Mittani in whose presence the contract had to be drawn up. This was true of two contracts found in Alalakh. For both, King Saushtatar seems to have traveled all the way from his capital city to decide the cases.32 It is striking that these contracts, unlike almost any written before this time, listed no witnesses at all. It seems that the great king’s presence and his seal on the tablet eliminated the usual need for other witnesses; the tablet itself was apparently evidence enough.

This was not just true in Alalakh; contracts drawn up in the presence of the great king of Mittani have been found at other cities as well. It was also true of many contracts written in Hittite lands. And each time that the great king was present, his royal seal was impressed on the tablet. Throughout Syria and Anatolia, great kings seem to have been more willing to travel around their kingdoms to serve as judges and witnesses for important court cases and contracts than in previous eras. And yet, when you look at the majority of tablets from the great kingdoms of Mittani and Hatti, it was the local kings—the vassals of the great kings—who were more directly involved in, and who had the greater impact on, people’s lives.

Ilim-ilimma’s career spanned two generations of kings of Alalakh. In time, the crown prince who shared his name became king, and he, in turn, was present as king when Ilim-ilimma needed to have contracts drawn up. On one such occasion a whole Canaanite family—father, mother, and son—needed to borrow 24 shekels of silver from Ilim-ilimma.33 He agreed. The man was named Ba‛laya, and his profession was listed as “hunter.” Surprisingly, given Ilim-ilimma’s evident love of silver, he was willing to accept the interest on the loan in the form of 200 turtledoves. Presumably the hunter would capture these birds, and they must have been worth at least the value of the interest payment. Were the birds to be delivered alive or dead? The contract doesn’t specify. If he delivered them dead, they would not have been useful as food for long, because of the lack of refrigeration. If Ba‛laya delivered them alive, did Ilim-ilimma own a dovecote in which he could house them all? Either way, there was to be no negotiation about this interest payment. If the 200 turtledoves did not appear at the first of the year, Ba‛laya was to be imprisoned, and “if Ba‛laya runs away, disappears, or dies, his wife, his children, his property serve as deposit for . . . (the loan).”34

We do not know the fate of Ba‛laya, his wife and son, or the turtledoves. Nor, for that matter, do we know the fate of Ilim-ilimma son of Tuttu. His namesake, the local king Ilim-ilimma was the last king to live in the Level IV Alalakh palace. Perhaps the king moved the capital to another city in the region.35 If so, perhaps Ilim-ilimma, son of Tuttu, moved there as well, though he left his written contracts behind.

Diplomatic Overtures and the Attainment of International Peace

Alalakh ended up being destroyed again in the course of yet another battle for the region. The sacking was again probably the work of Hittite troops, but they may have been fighting in collaboration with the neighboring kingdom of Tunip. Alalakh and Tunip had been bound together by a peace treaty, but one side or the other seems to have broken it.36

The fighting in Alalakh—between Mittani and Hatti, and with neighboring lands—must have seemed interminable and was only made worse when Egypt again got involved. During the same reign of Saushtatar of Mittani (and therefore probably during Ilim-ilimma’s lifetime), the pharaoh Thutmose III (c. 1479–1425 BCE) gathered a great force of soldiers and marched on Mittani from the south. The clashing of great powers in the northern Levant probably took many lives and destroyed property over a wide area. Thutmose claimed to have removed a great deal of Mittanian wealth which he transferred to Egypt when he returned (though Mittani remained undefeated, in spite of Thutmose III’s claims of victory).

Perhaps it was a shock to each of these imperialistic rulers—the kings of Mittani, Egypt, and Hatti—to find that victory was not a given when they went to war against one another. They each had little trouble taking over lesser powers: Egypt had conquered neighboring Canaan to the north and Nubia to the south; Hatti had conquered many lands across Anatolia; Mittani had conquered Assyria and most of Syria. But faced with fighting one another, none of them seems to have made much headway. The coastal valley of Kizzuwatna, for example, passed back and forth between Hatti and Mittani as they repeatedly fought for control of it. Kings died and were succeeded by their sons and still the battles continued. But at some point, the kings of the three lands seem to have reached the conclusion that each was incapable of conquering the others.37

The next step in their relationship was remarkable. The previously belligerent pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427–1400 BCE), who with his troops had campaigned ferociously against Mittani at the start of his reign, suddenly ceased his military activities in his ninth year. Instead, he boasted of riches flowing into Egypt from the kings of Hatti, Babylonia, and Mittani. “Each one,” he wrote, “tried to outdo his counterpart with gifts of every foreign land.”38

No matter what Amenhotep II wanted his subjects to believe, however, these gifts did not represent tribute being sent to Egypt by the other kings. Almost certainly, the four great powers had come to a shared agreement. Instead of fighting one another and looting one another’s lands, they realized they could obtain the same benefit by willingly and formally exchanging luxury goods, just as Mesopotamian kings had done for at least a thousand years, since the time of the kings of Ebla. Amenhotep II simply did not mention to his subjects the gold that he sent abroad in exchange for the “gifts” sent by his new allies. A new era of peace had begun.

We know that, a generation later (and perhaps already in the time of Amenhotep II), these four great powers had negotiated peace treaties, were engaged in formal diplomatic relations, and had even become members of one another’s families through dynastic marriages. Remarkably, they all accepted the Mesopotamian diplomatic system wholesale, even to the point of writing to one another only in cuneiform on clay tablets and almost always in Akkadian, which was the native language only of the Babylonians.

Their envoys all adopted the same set of conventions, most of which already had a millennium-long history. These rules were so carefully observed that they must have been learned by the envoys rather than acquired through observation. Although individual kings occasionally tried to push the limits, they could expect their allies to push right back when they did; adherence to the system was part of being a member of the brotherhood.

The following were the (probably unwritten) rules:

First, with regard to titles, each king was to be regarded as the equal, the “brother,” of his ally. Each considered himself and his allies to be “great kings,” and these titles—brother and great king—could not be used by kings outside the brotherhood without permission.

Second, each king chose experienced diplomats to represent him in the courts of his allies, and the envoys were expected to visit the ally’s court at least once a year. They traveled in pairs, one from each of the two courts that constituted that particular alliance. Under certain circumstances, an envoy could be detained in the ally’s palace, but this detention had to be explained in a letter transported by a separate messenger. Envoys were the eyes and ears of their royal employers and were to be treated well, receiving banquets and personal gifts on arrival in the foreign court. Even detained diplomats lived comfortably.

Third, they wrote regular letters to one another. When an envoy traveled to another court, he carried a letter from his king, written in the lingua franca of Akkadian on a single clay tablet. Each of these letters began with a formulaic greeting in which the king sent wishes for the well-being of his “brother,” and in which he assured him that all was well with him too. In their letters, the kings were careful never to show weakness or to suggest even a hint of a difference in status or wealth between them. They were equals, period. As a Babylonian king wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh: “Furthermore, as I am told, in my brother’s country everything is available and my brother needs absolutely nothing. Furthermore, in my country everything too is available and I for my part nee[d] absolutely nothing.”39 This was patently untrue since one of the main reasons for their alliance was to obtain goods from one another, but to admit that would have been a sign of weakness. It also seems to have been taboo in the letters to engage in any saber-rattling. The kings never threatened one another, no matter how annoyed they got (and they certainly did get annoyed).

Fourth, the envoys almost always transported valuable “greeting gifts” from one king to the other. These had to be of approximately equal value and represented luxury goods to which the sending king had access—gold, silver, horses, chariots, lapis lazuli, perfume, and so on. A king could request a particular gift from his ally but he had to depend on the ally’s goodwill to send it; no enforcement mechanisms existed. These were not trade relationships with invoices and receipts; they were based on trust. The exchange of luxury gifts was the carrot that kept the kings engaged with one another, and it was also often the main sore point between them. Almost none of the other kings ever thought the pharaoh had sent them enough gold.

Fifth, the kings married one another’s daughters. Well, this was true of all the lands except for Egypt. The Egyptian kings agreed to maintain all the practices the Mesopotamians had been insisting upon in their diplomatic system for centuries . . . until it came to marriages. They were happy to accept royal brides from other lands, but as one pharaoh put it, “From time immemorial no daughter of the king of Egy[pt] is given to anyone.”40 This was non-negotiable. Egyptian princesses would not be arriving at foreign courts with dowries and entourages of servants. They would, instead, be staying in Egypt. But the other kings seem not to have been too upset. Marriages could go either way between equals; it didn’t really matter which king sent a princess and which king received one as a bride. Given that Mesopotamian kings seem never to have married the daughters of their vassals, the slight advantage, in their minds, lay in being the father-in-law rather than the son-in-law. The pharaoh, on the other hand, collected foreign brides as though they represented tribute.

And, finally, all the kings negotiated and abided by peace treaties. Unfortunately, none of the peace treaties between the great kings of this era survives, but they were mentioned in the letters and we know that they were sworn in the names of the gods of both lands.

This was just a remarkable historical moment. These powerful kings who had never met one another (as they occasionally admitted), and whose lands had recently been enemies, decided to put aside their pride and their pompous assertions of world domination, and to collaborate. The goal was selfish enough—the acquisition of more wealth—but they seem also to have relished the peace that came with it.

We know about all this because the Egyptian pharaohs kept their international correspondence in a special archive room of the palace and, incredibly, the letters survived there in the ground for thousands of years before being discovered in the late nineteenth century of our own era. The site has the modern name of Amarna, which has given its name to the tablets themselves—the Amarna letters—and to the whole “Amarna period” that they document. The contrast with the chaos of the fifteenth century is stark and must have come as a relief to people all across the empires, but especially in those regions that had been fought over for so long.

Our attention will turn therefore from charioteers to diplomats, and especially to translators, because the whole system depended on them. As is still true today, a translator was responsible for communicating ideas that had been formulated in one language by relaying them in another, without changing the meaning. During this particular era, the continued relationship between great powers could rest on a translator’s ability to get the message right.

Being a translator was a very ancient profession. Even before the first cities were built, speakers of Sumerian and Akkadian shared the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys and must have been able to communicate with one another. As we’ve seen, soon after cuneiform writing was invented, scribes figured out how to use the script to write in languages other than Sumerian; by the Early Dynastic period it had been adapted to record Akkadian and Eblaite. A glossary found at Ebla that lists Sumerian words and their Eblaite equivalents is the earliest known example of a systematic attempt to correlate words in one language to another. From this we know that people were aware that it was possible to express the same ideas using completely different and unrelated languages in order to do so. But this realization almost certainly predated the period covered by this book; it took place before the development of cities. People had been trading over long distances for thousands of years before this, and languages that were just as sophisticated as any used today had been spoken for at least tens of thousands of years. As far back as 400,000 years ago Homo erectus was capable of speech,41 and Homo sapiens hunters and gatherers communicated with one another without difficulty. Language made it possible for humans to settle across the globe. Unimaginably long before anyone conceived of writing languages down and listing their vocabularies, humans from distant places had been coming in contact with one another and finding ways to communicate.

Hane of Egypt: A Translator

Most of the translators of the Amarna period remain anonymous, not even mentioned by the scribes, envoys, kings, or queens who depended upon them, but we do know the names of a couple of them. One was a man named Hane who lived in the mid-fourteenth century BCE. He must have grown up in Egypt—his name seems to be Egyptian—but he spoke fluent Akkadian and probably Hurrian as well.

Hane gets just one brief mention, in a letter written by a very verbose king of Mittani named Tushratta (mid-fourteenth century BCE).42 The king was writing to his ally, Amenhotep III of Egypt (1386–1349 BCE), about a marriage that was taking place between their families; the pharaoh was about to marry Tushratta’s daughter. By Tushratta’s normal standards, this was a short letter—just forty-one lines long—and it reads like a sigh of relief.

Tushratta’s daughter Tadu-Hepa had recently left for Egypt, traveling with her dowry (which included more than 1,500 items, many of them immensely valuable), a separate enormous hoard of gifts for King Amenhotep III, and 300 attendants. They were accompanied by innumerable Egyptian guards.43 In his letter, her father wrote that “I have given my daughter to be the wife of my brother, whom I love.”44 Months of planning and negotiation had finally come to an end, and now the king could only hope and pray the princess and her fabulous gifts would all arrive safely in Egypt and that Amenhotep III would approve of this new bride, whom he had not yet met.

Tushratta then launched into what almost sounds like a prayer: “May (the Hurrian gods) Shimigi and Shaushka go before her. May they make her the image of my brother’s heart. And may my brother rejoice on t[hat] day. May Shimigi and Shau[shka] give [to] my brother a gre[at] blessing and wonder[ful] joy. May [they bless him], and may my brother, li[ve] forever.”45 One can feel in his words his fervent desire for the marriage to be a success.

At this point, he switched gears, moving on to praise the two Egyptian officials who had done the most to bring the marriage plans to a successful conclusion: Mane, the envoy, and Hane, the translator. This passage is one of the warmest and the most complimentary in all the Amarna international correspondence between great kings. Tushratta wrote of the Egyptian men that “their report was excellent” and that “in everything about them, I have never seen men with such an appearance.”46 Accordingly, Tushratta said he had “ex[alted]” the two men “like gods” and had “given [them] many presents and treated them very kindly.” He prayed for them as well: “May my gods and the gods of my brother protect them.”47

Most great kings in this era were much cagier than this when writing to one another, and some, Amenhotep III included, didn’t hesitate to blame envoys for making mistakes or jeopardizing the good relationships between themselves and their allies.48 Tushratta didn’t play these games; he admired the Egyptian envoy Mane and was happy to let the pharaoh know it. He even specifically asked for Mane to be sent to Mittani on occasion; Mane was the Mittanian king’s clear favorite among the envoys from the Egyptian court. Hane’s contributions in interpreting during the marriage negotiations must also have been exemplary to have warranted this rare praise, though in all the other letters from Tushratta, a translator’s presence is assumed but not acknowledged.

By the time that Tushratta was dictating this letter, Mane and Hane were probably already well on their way to Egypt, accompanying princess Tadu-Hepa and her extensive bridal party. Tushratta’s own scribe wrote down his words, and he notes in the letter that a Mittanian envoy named Nahramashshi would be carrying the letter to Egypt. The letter was in Akkadian, but that was not how Tushratta had composed it. He would have dictated the letter in his native Hurrian and one of his own translators had rendered it in Akkadian.

Tushratta then approved the letter (probably by having a scribe read it back to him) and gave it to Nahramashshi. He also entrusted him with extravagant gifts for the pharaoh: “one polished nahra for making mirrors” and “one maninnu-necklace of pure lapis lazuli, pure lapis lazuli and of gold.”49 He emphasized the prized lapis lazuli by repeating it twice.50 Tushratta hoped that the necklace might symbolize a lasting alliance between the two lands; he wrote, “may it rest on the neck of my brother for one hundred thousand years!”51

The Mittanian envoy Nahramashshi was no doubt accompanied on his journey to Egypt by an armed guard to protect the valuable gifts, and probably also by an Egyptian envoy who was returning to his own country. Nahramashshi and his small group probably caught up with the princess’s entourage en route; they could travel much faster than her unwieldy procession.

As soon as this group reached the Egyptian border, Hane would have been needed regularly to serve as the voice of the expedition: making arrangements, greeting officials, and translating for the Mittanian team. No doubt several people in the group were bilingual, but Hane had particular authority as the pharaoh’s official translator.

Once the group reached Amenhotep III’s court and the envoys and translators had been granted an audience, Nahramashshi greeted the pharaoh on behalf of Tushratta and gave an overview of what was in the Mittanian king’s letter.52 When he was done, it would have been the pharaoh’s own scribe who read Tushratta’s letter aloud in Akkadian to Amenhotep III, and Hane who translated it into Egyptian.53 Each king trusted his own translators under these circumstances more than those of his allies.54

By the time Amenhotep III heard the message in the letter, it had already been translated twice. Tushratta’s Hurrian words had become—through the work of one of Tushratta’s own scribes—the Akkadian letter, which in turn had been transformed orally into a message in Egyptian by Hane. Akkadian made for a useful lingua franca, but there was plenty of room here for mistakes or misunderstandings to creep in. The correspondents were aware of this and sometimes a king added words to assure his ally of his good intentions. In a later letter to Amenhotep III, Tushratta declared that, no matter how his words might turn out when translated, “The word that Mane will communicate to my brother is gracious and true. . . . It is not evil (and) not hostile towards my brother.”55 It might have been particularly important to include this disclaimer on this particular letter because (unlike any other) it had been written down in Tushratta’s native Hurrian, not Akkadian. Presumably no one at the Egyptian court would have been trained to read Hurrian, so getting the letter translated into Egyptian for the king to hear might have been a challenge. Amenhotep III could have depended on a Mittanian scribe for the translation, but that man’s Egyptian might have been less adept than the pharaoh wished. The fact that the letter was a whopping 493 lines long did not make things easier.56

Supporting the multilingual communication between kings was an education system in which scribes and translators across the Near East were taught to read and write in a standard style of Akkadian.57 Hane certainly had gone to school in Egypt. He would have learned to write his native Egyptian language in both hieroglyphs and the cursive hieratic script but, unlike most Egyptian scribes, he also mastered the Akkadian language and the cuneiform script. It could be that Hane had grown up hearing and speaking Akkadian as well as Egyptian. Plenty of women in the Egyptian court spoke Akkadian as their native language—princesses from Babylonia who were married to the king, for example, along with their hundreds of attendants. If Hane had been the son of a Babylonian lady-in-waiting or musician, he might have been encouraged by his mother to speak her language and have been bilingual from birth. On the other hand, he might have been the son of a court translator, since professions tended to run in families. If so, his father probably spoke to him in Akkadian as a boy, to prepare him for his future career.

We get a glimpse of Hane’s education from twenty-nine scribal exercise tablets that were written by the students at the Egyptian court school, which was located near the records office at Amarna.58 They show that, just like a Mesopotamian scribe learning to write his own language, Hane started his cuneiform training by learning to write signs on clay (the tu-ta-ti exercises),59 after which he moved on to lexical lists and names. Eventually he was required to copy literary works and myths.60

The school tablets from Amarna were written by a later generation of students who studied at the successor to the court school that Hane had attended. The tablets from Amarna show that, soon after joining the alliance of great kings, a pharaoh (perhaps Amenhotep II) must have invited a Mesopotamian scholar to create the school so that the Egyptian scribes and translators were prepared to help their kings participate in international diplomatic exchanges. It’s even possible to identify the origin of the founder of this school; the curriculum he chose is the same one found at a city called Emar on the Euphrates in Syria.61 Emar would have been ruled by Mittani at that time, so the Egyptian school had a Mittanian founder. (We will return to Emar in Chapter 16.)

One tablet found in Amarna even included a list of a few Egyptian words and their Akkadian equivalents, but this wasn’t a regular school text, and it wasn’t in the type of handwriting that Egyptian scribes used for cuneiform.62 It seems, instead, to have been written by someone who grew up speaking Akkadian, someone who wrote in an assured Mesopotamian cuneiform hand and was learning to speak Egyptian.63 The Egyptian words were written phonetically in cuneiform in a column on the left, with their Akkadian equivalents on the right. The words include such useful terms as house, door, bolt, door-socket, chair, bed, and table, along with terms for numbers (written in numerals on the Akkadian side, but phonetically in Egyptian).64 The scribe who wrote it even inadvertently added an Akkadian case ending to an Egyptian word, which is not something an Egyptian would have done.65 We tend to think of Egyptian as an ancient language that was written only in the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts, but this list shows that even Egyptian could be written in cuneiform. Hypothetically, the reverse was also true and Akkadian could have been written in hieroglyphs, but hieroglyphs were not generally used to record other languages. Scripts are not the same as languages. Just as any language can be written phonetically using our Latin alphabet—some with more difficulty than others—so any language could hypothetically be written phonetically in cuneiform. More difficulties arose in some languages, especially because cuneiform signs comprised syllables, not individual consonants and vowels, but this did not stop scribes from trying.

Once he had mastered both languages and scripts, Hane began his career in the Egyptian civil service, eventually gaining the pharaoh’s trust to such an extent that he was appointed as Egyptian translator to the court of Mittani. In this capacity he always worked with other men such as fellow Egyptian scribes who wrote and read the letters, the Egyptian envoys (like his colleague Mane) who transported them and negotiated for their king, and their counterparts in the court of Mittani.

These men shared experiences that few of their contemporaries could imagine. They had access to some of the most exclusive areas in the royal palaces, not just in their homeland but in another land as well; they spoke in person to the great kings of both lands. Unlike even the kings themselves, they understood the etiquette in the allied king’s court—when to wash their hands, when to bow, when to speak, what was implied by the seating arrangement at banquets. They saw for themselves how much gold decorated the furniture and the walls, and how the servants were treated. They heard the court musicians play and they ate the best food.

The men also shared the experience of the exhausting travel involved in getting from one court to the other. From the capital city of Mittani to the capital city of Egypt was a one-way journey of about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). Traveling at the normal pace of 24 kilometers (15 miles) per day, the trip would have taken more than three months. Fortunately, the lands they passed through were at peace with one another, mostly being subject either to Mittani or to Egypt, though bandits always presented a threat. As they traveled, the men must have talked together, which raises the question—in which language? All of them must have been at least bilingual, and probably multilingual, able to converse with one another in their own languages of Egyptian and Hurrian, as well as in the lingua franca of Akkadian. They probably even understood the related Semitic languages that were spoken in the Mediterranean lands they passed through. But probably only official translators like Hane had been trained to write confidently in more than one language.

Sometimes, though, even a translator could struggle. Concepts that were clear in one language did not always have an obvious equivalent in another. Even terms that translated directly might have had different nuances. This is, of course, still true of all translation today. Particularly tricky for Hane must have been the idea of “love,” which in Akkadian was the verb ramu. You may have noticed, in the letter that began this section, that King Tushratta of Mittani called Amenhotep III “my brother, whom I love.”66 He wrote about his love for the pharaoh a lot, much more than any other of the great kings. He added it to the greeting formula almost every time, and, in the body of his letters, a version of the word “love” appeared, on average, once every thirteen lines.67 In Tushratta’s very first letter to Amenhotep III, in which he proposed re-establishing an old alliance between their two lands, he justified this overture in terms of the love between their ancestors: “My father loved you and you, moreover, as for my father, you loved him and my father, because of (that) love, [g]ave to you my sister (as a wife).”68 In Tushratta’s mind, the whole brotherhood, including the diplomatic marriages, was built on the love that the kings had for one another, notwithstanding that they had never met.

The strange thing is, Tushratta was alone in this. None of the other great kings ever mentioned loving one another in their letters. They did refer to feelings of friendship and brotherhood toward their allies, but not love. Was Tushratta just much more affectionate than his fellow kings? Possibly. There are some indications that Mittanians did talk more about love, at least within their diplomatic relationships, than people did in other lands.69 But Tushratta’s message might have been interpreted differently by the pharaoh. Whether he intended it or not, his letters to the Egyptian king expressed a subtle message of subservience.

You see, for centuries, when someone wrote about love in an Akkadian letter it tended to be as a statement of loyalty, which was another meaning of the verb “ramu.”70 Someone who began a letter with the greeting “To so-and-so, speak! This is what so-and-so, who loves you, says,”71 the writer tended to be of lower status than the recipient. Equals rarely if ever wrote this way in Akkadian but, as a native Hurrian speaker, Tushratta might not have known this.

Love did come up in other contexts in letters, but it wasn’t often there as a way to indicate affection. For example, a writer could use it as a kind of emotional blackmail. The king of Babylon did this in the only Amarna letter written by a great king (other than Tushratta) that mentioned love. He wrote to the pharaoh, “If you love me, they (some Assyrian leaders) will conduct no business whatsoever.”72 That “if” was a way of needling the pharaoh, with an understood subtext that, if he did not do what was requested, he was not a true ally.

So “love” was a complicated verb, and when Tushratta spoke in Hurrian of loving the pharaoh, he might have meant something very different from the overtones that the phrase acquired in Akkadian, and, for all we know, Amenhotep III may have understood something else again when he heard it in Egyptian. The great kings were constantly jockeying for status. Although they were equals, they were also masters of subtle attempts to raise themselves above the rest. Tushratta seems to have erred in the wrong direction. In his desire to emphasize how close he felt to Amenhotep III, he made himself seem to be a less important king.

Was the Mittanian translator aware of this nuance? Was Hane, as the Egyptian translator? Possibly not, unless they had grown up completely immersed in Akkadian. Native speakers understand subtleties that go beyond translation.

In another way, Tushratta could have been seen as groveling a little to the pharaoh, whether consciously or not. He had a curious habit when he wrote to the Egyptian king: he avoided calling him “you.” Instead, he repeatedly wrote in the third person about “my brother.” This may have been intended as a reminder of their alliance and equality, of course, but the third person was almost always used by vassals and servants when they wrote to kings. The other great kings were happy to refer to one another as “you.”73 Tushratta had less and less success in getting the pharaoh to respond to his letters. His subservient tone might not have helped.

On another occasion that depended on translators, Amenhotep III wanted to develop an alliance with a king in the western Anatolian land of Arzawa, and again we see language problems creep into diplomatic relations. Arzawa’s neighbor, the Hittite Empire, was suffering through a period of decline, so it behooved the Egyptian king to create an alliance with the newly powerful land of Arzawa, and of course to marry an Arzawan princess. Amenhotep III seems to have sent an envoy all the way across the Mediterranean with an oral message expressing this interest, but apparently he did not send a corresponding letter. Perhaps he thought that no one in the Arzawan court was likely to be able to read Akkadian. If so, he was right; Tarhundaradu, the king of Arzawa, wanted to respond to the pharaoh’s message in writing, but he was not a member of the international diplomatic network and he had no scribes on his staff who were trained in Akkadian who could draft a reply. (He would have had no scribes who could write in Egyptian, either; it seems that almost no one did, outside of Egypt.)

So Tarhundaradu replied in Hittite in a letter that extended over two tablets (which was highly unusual, especially for a relatively short letter), only one of which survives—the second half of the letter. It’s unlike any other international letter. Tarhundaradu was clearly annoyed at the way he had been contacted by the pharaoh. He said that he didn’t trust the Egyptian messenger, Kalbaya, and that “he conveyed [the message] orally, but it was not written on the tablet.”74 He demanded to be treated properly: “So send Kalbaya back to me quickly together with my messenger, and write back to me on a tablet concerning this matter.”

Touchingly, the Arzawan scribe who wrote the letter included a private postscript to his counterpart in Egypt. After finishing the king’s message, he added an elaborate blessing to “the scribe who reads aloud this tablet,” perhaps hoping that the gods would help the Egyptian scribe understand what he had written, and then asked him to add a postscript to his own return letter: “You, scribe, kindly write to me and put your name at the end.”75 He also pleaded for future letters to be written in Hittite: “Always write in Hittite the tablets that they bring here.”

Again, one can imagine the difficulty that was now faced by the Egyptian scribes when the Arzawan messenger arrived with this letter in Hittite. The court was presumably combed for any scribe who could read and write in Hittite who could translate the letter from Arzawa and then translate and record the pharaoh’s reply. It seems that one of Amenhotep III’s wives was from Kaska,76 a land to the north of Hatti; perhaps one of her literate attendants helped out.

A letter was duly written in return, in which Amenhotep III pointedly did not refer to Tarhundaradu as a “brother” or a “great king,” though he continued plans for an alliance and diplomatic marriage.77 The letter was indeed in Hittite, but, as its modern editor noted, the Egyptian scribe “writes in a very clumsy and faulty Hittite, showing that he was not a very good translator of the pharaoh’s Egyptian language.”78 Curiously, though, the letter was found in Amarna—it had not been sent. Perhaps the tablet we have was a rough draft and the Hittite in the final version was more polished. Or perhaps word arrived that the power of Hatti was rising again so Amenhotep III scuttled his plans for an alliance with Arzawa. The court of the Hittite capital of Hattusa, like the court in Thebes, was home to a school that trained its scribes in Akkadian. The Egyptian relationship with the great king of Hatti would be one between equals, and it would be a lot easier to maintain. The king of Hatti, unlike the king of Arzawa, knew the rules.

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