By the end of the 15th Century B.C.E. a vibrant international community had developed across the Near East with a trade network linking Africa to Europe and Central Asia. Dominating this community was Egypt, at first with military might and then with its enormous wealth.
Egypt and the Late Bronze Age
The dawn of the Late Bronze Age begins with the newly enthroned 18th Dynasty breaking out of Egypt’s traditional borders. Under Tuthmose I, (ca.1504-1492 B.C.E.), Egyptian armies ranged from Nubia in the far south to the shores of the Euphrates in northern Syria, a distance of over 3,000 kilometers. This initial excursion into foreign territory was followed by the ambitious plans of Tuthmose III, (ca. 1479-1425 B.C.E.). This mighty conquering pharaoh crushed a coalition of enemies in Palestine at the first battle of Megiddo, invaded Syria, then went on to defeat an army led by the Mitanni King at pivotal battle of Juniper Hill. Tuthmose III’s military success in Syria, followed by many subsequent campaigns of consolidation, allowed Amenhotep II, (ca.1427-1401 B.C.E.), his heir, to secure Egypt’s place as foremost among the Great Kingdoms of the day.
After decades of peace and prosperity political instability abroad marked the end of the long reign of Tuthmose III’s great grandson, Amenhotep III (ca.1390-1353 BCE). When Amenhotep III died after a lingering infirmity his dynasty was at the peak of its control over Egypt and the Near East but already this power and prestige was poised to slip away. His successor, Amenhotep IV, who would change his name to Akhenaten, (ca.1353-1335 BCE), moved Egypt’s royal court to what has now become the partially excavated ruins of Tell el Amarna. This site has been conventionally named Amarna after the modern day location however Akhenaten named it Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) after his favored deity. This move marked the beginning of instability within Egypt as Akhenaten promoted the cult of the god Aten over all the other god’s but at the particular expense of the once all powerful cult of Amun.
To this new city, along with the royal family, went the diplomatic archives, which were, in turn, partially discarded or forgotten when the site was abandoned in ancient times. The remaining clay tablets, known as the Amarna Letters, have since become a primary source for contemporary knowledge of the history of the Late Bronze Age. Together with records from Syria and Anatolia, the Amarna Letters paint a vivid picture of the vibrant international community that existed at this time.
The International Community
Far to the north of Egypt, the Hittites were masters of the kingdom of Hatti in Anatolia. Hundreds of years earlier the Hittite King Mursili (ca.1620-1590 BCE) had toppled Hammurabi’s descendants from the throne as rulers of the Babylonian Empire. Although the Hittite Kingdom had since fallen on hard times, it’s power was resurgent during the Late Bronze Age under the auspices of King Suppliliuma (ca.1350-1322 BCE), who would build an empire to challenge Egypt’s dominant role in the Near East.
What is now Syria was then the Hurrian Kingdom, whose people were known to the Egyptians as the Mitanni. By the middle of Late Bronze Age the Mitanni Kings had settled their long conflict with Egypt by entering into a diplomatic marriage alliance with the Pharaohs. After extensive negotiations, Amenhoptep II’s son, Tuthmose IV (ca.1401-1391 BCE), married a princess from Mitanni, securing a peaceful frontier with Syria. It is possible that this initial agreement was reached in an effort for the two kingdoms to ally against the Hittites. Nevertheless, during the middle of the 14th century B.C.E., the Mitanni kingdom would be overrun by the Hittites in the west while at the same time the Assyrians, their former vassals would attack from the east.
During the Late Bronze Age, the rise of Assyria as an international power under Ashur-uballit, (ca.1363-1328 BCE), marks the beginning of a long standing rivalry between that land and its powerful southern neighbor, Babylonia. Babylonia was itself resurgent under a dynasty of kings known as the Kassites, who had inherited Hammurabi’s kingdom after a century of divided rule.
The Kassites, like the Mitanni, enjoyed a strong relationship with Egypt. It is known that a diplomatic marriage alliance also existed between the Egyptians and the Kassites. Although the original details of the negotiations are unknown, there is evidence that indicates Amhenhotep III, married a princess from Babylonia, the daughter of the renowned Ziggurat builder, the Kassite King, Kurigalzu the Elder (ca.1400-1374 BCE).
It is clear, however, that the relationship between Egypt and Babylonia was not built on reconciliation after conflict, as had been the case between Egypt and Mitanni. In fact, the primary reason that Egypt had for building an alliance with distant Babylonia, which is referred to as Karaduniyash in the Amarna Letters, was to secure the long range trade of luxury goods and horses.
Trade during this time was less straightforward than modern arrangements. The formal basis for commerce was the reciprocation of gifts between brother kings. Accordingly, certain occasions became customary opportunities for largess. Egypt, for its part, sent great quantities of gold and valuables in return for the gifts they received from the Kassites. As commerce was built upon cordial relationships between kingdoms, the cementing of such ties through marriage was seen as an important part of the established protocol.
The Slow Decline
For several generations the Great Kings from Egypt, Mitanni, Babylonia and Hatti identified themselves as a rank above ordinary kings and continued to honor marriage alliances and a system of trade built on friendship between brothers. As noted, this complex international dynamic came into being with the rise of the Egyptian Empire, whose dominance of the central territories of Palestine and Syria, coupled with Africa’s wealth in gold, made them the primary power in the ancient Near East for over a century. So it is no surprise to find that with the steady decline of Egypt’s power, during the second half of the 14th century B.C.E., so declined the international community it had fostered.
Eventually Egypt and the Hittites would make peace after the famous battle of Qadesh fought by Ramses II (ca. 1279-1213 BCE). However by this time even such an alliance could not stop the eventual downfall of the international community with its descent into a period known today as a dark age.
How much of the decline of Egypt’s power can be blamed on Akhenaten and his attempted religious revolution is a topic open for discussion. What is clear is that Egypt sought to correct it’s course of decline with a return to the embrace of Amun and an abandonment of the city Akhetaten. The new pharaoh’s name was changed from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun (ca. 1332 -1323 BCE) to signify the kingdom’s new direction. Although he was only a boy all the great people of the land rallied to his court. They came seeking power for themselves but they were all aware that this young man was likely the last chance for a dynasty that had lorded over the known world for nearly two hundred years.
Bryce, Trevor, Kingdom of the Hittites, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)
Klengel, Horst. Syria: 3000 to 300 B.C. (Akademie Verlag.)
Moran, William, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)
Roaf, Michael, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, (Andromeda, Oxfordshire, 2004.)
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.)