Forbes and Fifth

Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East

At the heart of diplomacy lies communication. Even in this modern day and age where communication is near-instantaneous, the sheer task of communicating an entire nation’s needs and demands to another is no small undertaking. From the early 17th to the early 12th century BCE, “Great Kingdoms” ruled by “Great Kings” jockeyed for control of a region roughly encompassing modern day Turkey, Iran, the Levant, and Egypt.i These kingdoms’ ability to resolve issues through diplomacy along with their system of regular communication was the key to the success of these Kingdoms. Compared to later forms of diplomacy, Great Kings derived political obligation and action from friendship and kinship ties rather than from abstractions such as the national interest.ii These Kings communicated with each other via messengers to facilitate diplomacy. Kings addressed each other as “My Brother”, and much of the writing of the Amarna Letters included complaints about trifles such as the paltriness of a royal brother’s gifts, the lack of courtesy shown to a royal brother’s envoys, or the failure to send a message of sympathy to a royal brother who had fallen ill.iii The Great Kings of this time created the ‘Amarna Style’ of brotherly diplomacy through a unique balance of trade, power, and prestige tempered by shared cultural ideas of family.

Setting the Scene

Mishra graphic 1

Map of the Ancient Near Eastiv

Understanding the political map of the Near East during the Late Bronze Age informs the context of contemporaneous diplomacy. Five major kingdoms emerged in this age: the Hittite kingdom in central Anatolia; the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni in Upper Mesopotamia and northern Syria; the Mitanni kingdom, which would collapse in the 14th century; the Kingdom of Assyria in northern Mesopotamia; the Kassite kingdom of Babylon in southern Mesopotamia; and the Kingdom of Egypt. For much of the Late Bronze Age, all but the Mitanni controlled the Near Eastern, since Assyria replaced Mitanni in the second half of this period.v, vi, vii

The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are a body of correspondence exchanged between the Pharaoh of Egypt, his client kingdoms, and the other Great Powers of the Near East. These letters are some of the earliest examples of diplomacy in human history.viii They were discovered in 1887 CE in El-Amarna, the former capital of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. The Letters span about 30 years of correspondence,ix though their system likely existed for much longer. They were written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time. Most of the Letters recovered detailed correspondence between Northern Kings and the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The Amarna Letters provide critical insight into the diplomatic protocol of the Great Powers during this time. Almost invariably, the dominant diction in the Letters uses analogies rooted in brotherhood and family. References to familial matters—greetings, recollection of family history, inquiries after health and sickness, respect for the dead, marriage, invitations to visit, gift-giving—comprise much of the correspondence. Even the kings negotiated defensive alliances with the frame of fraternal piety rather than national interest.x The Letters outline the thought processes of the kings and provide insight into their lives unknown to the public during the kings’ respective reigns. Over many years, this system of communication developed its own rules and conventions, all of which relied upon the familial bonds the Great Kings claimed to share. The Amarna system developed out of the practical need for diplomacy and communication among the Great Powers and of the similarities that family dynamics shared with politics during this time.

The System that Created the Amarna Letters

The basis of the Amarna diplomatic system was in the geo-political makeup of the region. Supreme among the Great Powers was the Egypt of the 18th dynasty. Under Thutmosis III, Egypt fought a series of 17 campaigns in Canaan and southern Syria and controlled the ports and principalities in the area.xi Although this expansion of Egyptian power came at the expense of Mittani, by the time of Amenophis III, the two states enjoyed friendly relations. This likely responded to a shared fear of the Hittites encroaching from the north. Because of the military ictories of Suppilulumas, the Hittites enjoyed their status as a Great Power. By the time of Suppiluliumas’ death, the Hurrian kingdom of Mittani had disintegrated, and the Hittites occupied much of Syria. Assyria ascended, much to the detriment of a now-weakened Babylon under the ‘Great King’ Ashuruballit. Babylon remained on good terms with Egypt for the period of the Amarna letters, but was eventually annexed by Assyria.xii, xiii

The key to the creation of this system was for the Great Kings to recognize that (1) no single power could acquire hegemony; (2) the region was big enough for a Great King to satisfy realistic territorial ambitions; and (3) peaceful interaction between peers offered many benefits in terms of international trade opportunities and access to sought-after materials from other lands. Additionally, all kings likely saw that their own dynasties had greater longevity thanks to the improved stability of the greater region.xivMy belief is that the “Brotherhood of Kings” arose from this ‘cooperation within conflict’ necessarily. The Great Kings realized the many advantages of extensive diplomatic ties, but at the same time, they could not stomach being treated as anything less than equal to the other Great Kings. The only suitable way to strike this balance between the kings would have been to characterize their relations within the context of brotherhood and family. ‘Family’ in this culture and context referred to the large extended family, which consisted of many brothers (and their wives and children) living together under one household around one all-powerful patriarch. The brothers may quarrel occasionally, but overall, there was an abundance of brotherly love and they presented a uniform front to any outsider.xv The context of maintaining equality between Kings, the patriarch figure was done away with for simplicity—as long as the Kings all maintained equal status.

Being a part of the “Brotherhood of Kings”

Being a part of this fraternal group was highly exclusive. Only Great Kings were permitted to send ambassadors to other Great Kings, receive the symbolic sulmanu greeting-gift, and conduct business in the fraternal group.xvi This act of conformity was called parsu, the code of international norms and customs between equal Great Kings.xviiNegotiation was an activity solely and exclusively reserved for the great power members of the diplomatic club; the very agreement to negotiate was synonymous with acknowledgment of one’s equal status. Vassal principalities, in contrast, were entirely excluded from diplomacy and were not entitled to send messengers to states other than their sovereign. They might beg him for a favor, but the give-andtake of a negotiation was closed to them. In accord with this principle of kinship, Great Kings thought of themselves as entering a fraternal relationship when they established diplomatic ties. As brothers, they were members of the same family and household, united by bonds of love and friendship.xviii They addressed each other quite naturally as ‘brother’, sent presents, asked after each other’s health, and participated in ‘life-cycle’ events such as mourning on the death of a foreign king. To further cement their relations, they sometimes entered dynastic marriages.

An example of this familial bond is found in a letter written circa 1270 B.C.E. by the Hittite king Hattusili to “the great brother” Kadashman-Enlil II of Babylonia. The message reflects a calculated attempt by Hattusili to conciliate Kadashman-Enlil after a period of weakened communication between the two countries. The Hittite king offers several political concessions to secure Babylonia as an ally against Assyria. Yet the document’s language and arguments used take a familial tone. Hattusili, in formulaic terms, describes the well-being of his family and possessions and inquires after the Babylonian king. Afterwards, Hattusili presents the moral basis for resuming close political cooperation:

When your father and I established diplomatic relations and when we became like loving brothers, we did not become brothers for one day only; did we not establish permanent brotherly relations based on equal standing? We [then] made the following agreement: We are only human beings; the survivor shall protect the interests of the sons of the one of us who has gone to his fate. While the gods have kept me alive and preserved my rule, your father passed away and I mourned him as befits our brotherly relationshipxix

In this letter, we see clear evidence of the brotherly bond that the Great Kings created with each other. We also see another development here: when one of the Great Kings passes away, the familial bond carries throughout generations. Hattusili evokes this when rekindling a political alliance with Babylonia. Though the language used is that of a family letter, there is obvious political significance to the actual content of the letter. The reverse of this depiction is presented in a letter from the same Hattusili to his rival Adad-nirari I, King of Assyria, who had just conquered Mittani and now claimed the title of Great King. The Hittite monarch angrily rejected this pretension:

With respect to brotherhood ... about which you speak - what does brotherhood mean? ... With what justification do you write about brotherhood ...? Are not friends those who write to each other about brotherhood? Were perhaps you and I born of the same mother? As my [father] and my grandfather did not write to the king of Ashur [about brotherhood], even so must you not write [about brotherhood and] Great-kingship to mexx

Hattusili did not intend to accept any of the obligations implicit in an acknowledgment of Adad-nirari’s status of Great King. He would not legitimize his conquest, treat him as an equal, underwrite his rule, or make common cause with him. This significant exchange confirms that the notion of brotherhood was not an empty formula, but a solemn bond entailing far-reaching political consequences. The terminology of brotherhood was not simply a form of polite address accompanying a pragmatic relationship of mutual benefit. Had the Hittite and Assyrian kings already been linked by fraternal ties from the time of their forefathers, Hattusili would have found it difficult to evade the moral and political implications of the relationship.

Entering the Family

Among one of the most interesting political mechanisms of the Amarna system was the acceptance and recognition as a Great King. In the Amarna Letters, an interesting example of this metamorphosis involves Ashur-uballit, King of Assyria and grandfather of Adad-nirari. In a major initiative, Ashuruballit asked that pharaoh receive his messenger to request to enter diplomatic relations. The term ‘brother’ is not used in the letter, for there is no bilateral relationship nor is pharaoh addressed by name. However, introduction of the term ‘King of the Land of Ashur’ in the same sentence with the title ‘King of the Land of Egypt’, and the presentation of a greeting gift are indications of a bid for status as an equal Great King. By the time of the next dispatch in the series, Ashur-uballit addressed Akhenaten as ‘Great King, King of Egypt, my brother’, received Egyptian envoys and Egyptian gold, and haggled for more gold and jockeying for prestige.xxi The international ramifications of Assyria’s admission to the family were far-reaching, as we learn from a bitter protest sent to pharaoh by the Babylonian king. In it, Bumaburiash II, son of Kadashman-Enlil, complains that the reception of Assyrian envoys at the Egyptian court was a breach of brotherly relations. Assyria, he insisted, was a Babylonian vassal, and had no right to send messengers: “Now, as for my Assyrian vassals, I was not the one who sent them to you. 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”.xxii From this protest, we learn that Assyria’s reception into the monarchical brotherhood would give it legitimacy as an independent kingdom. Babylon, the former sovereign of Assyria and a declining power at this point, proved incapable of preventing Assyria’s menacing ascent to great power status. Once Assyria had acquired diplomatic recognition, it could proceed to consolidate its position diplomatically, militarily, and financially. Becoming “brothers” with Egypt insured not only an alliance with the premier power of the region, but also legitimacy as a Great Power. Establishing relations with Egypt was an aggressive move by Assyria—one that rightfully worried the Babylonians. When push came to shove, which brother would Pharaoh support?

Truly Equal Brothers?

Though, officially, all the Great Kings regarded themselves as equal, privately, it seemed that the pharaohs of Egypt were more powerful than the other kings. The Assyrian kingdom used ties to Amarna to legitimize itself, and the already weakened Babylon fell into a diplomatic death spiral as its former status as a Great Power waned. Egypt’s correspondents constantly asked for more gold or complained that they had received less gold than others. Implicitly—if brgrudgingly—recognizing Egypt’s supreme standing as the Greatest Power in the region, the other Great Kings saw themselves as rivals for the favor of their elder brother. Burnaburiash II of Babylon claims offense when pharaoh sends only 5 chariots to escort a betrothed princess back to Egypt. The Egyptian king should treat him munificently, in order “That neighboring kings might hear it said, ‘The gold is much. Among the kings there is brotherhood, amity, peace, and good relations,’ he was rich in stones, rich in silver, rich in gold”.xxiii A king’s standing in the eyes of his neighbors formed by equating brotherhood with friendship, peace, good relations, and material well-being.


The Amarna system came into existence in the presence of several sovereign states that desired a balance of power, had mixed motives of cooperation and conflict, and held a range of interdependent interests. Members of the system possessed a deep sense of fraternal and familial society. In these circumstances, they considered it essential to maintain regular channels to communicate and conduct business. Amarna diplomacy was governed by a set of recognized conventions and established procedures. The Amarna kingdoms hardly constituted one republic; nevertheless, they comprised a single civilization and were ‘joined together by all kinds of necessary commerce’xxiv as well as shared cultural aspects, especially in the realm of family bonds.

The correspondence of the Amarna letters indicates that the politics of the region were likened to bickering brothers trying to gain advantages over one another. Despite the personal vanities and lust for power among these individual Kings, they all recognized that there was no singular way for one power to control the entire region, and so, they created the Amarna system of diplomacy not only to mediate the incessant fighting in the region but also to soothe their own egos. War could provide slaves, territory, and wealth to any nation, but only upon membership into the club of Great Powers did these Kings receive the prestige they so desperately desired. Their status as Great Kings was a constant concern. They were obsessed by questions of prestige, which was key to both domestic control and external deterrence. From the Amarna letters, we can see that the Amarna system of diplomacy was involved in negotiating agreements, opening diplomacy with new powers, addressing grievances and protests with other Great Kings, and transporting gifts. Over hundreds of years, this system of incredibly complex diplomacy involved multiple Kingdoms across the Near East—all thousands of years before the invention of motorized communication.


“Adad-nirari I.” Wikipedia. Accessed November 2017. Adad-nirari_I.

“Amarna Letters.” Wikipedia. Last modified October 28, 2017. Amarna_letters.

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“Ancient Near East Empires Map.” Digital image. The Bible Study Site. Accessed Nov. 2017. ancient-near-east-empires.html.

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Artzi, Pinhas, and A. Malamat. “The Great King: A Preeminent Royal Title in Cuneiform Sources and in the Bible.” In The Tablet and the Scroll: Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William W. Hallo, 28-38. (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993).

Artzi, Pinhas. “The Rise of the Middle-Assyrian Kingdom, According to El-Amarna Letters 15 & 16.” In Bar-Ilan Studies in History, edited by Pinhas Artzi, 25-42. (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1978).

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iTrevor Bryce, introduction to Letters of the Great Kings of the Ancient Near East: The Royal Correspondence of the Late Bronze Age (London: Routledge, 2003), 1-6.

ii Raymond Cohen, “All in the Family: Ancient Near Eastern Diplomacy,” International Negotiation 1, no. 1 (1996): 11-28.

iii Bryce introduction to Letters of the Great Kings, 1-6.

iv "Ancient Near East Empires Map", The Bible Study Site, acccessed Nov. 2017,

v Bryce, introduction to Letters of the Great Kings, 1-6.

vi Ibid., 8-35.

vii Marc van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East, C. 3000-323 BC (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004).

viiiWilliam L. Moran, The Amarna Letters, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 20-28.

ixIbid., 30-35.

xCohen, “All in the Family”, 11-28.

xiJohn Boardman, The Cambridge Ancient History. Early History of the Middle East, vol. 2, 3rd ed. 449-459.

xiiAlan K. Bowman, John B. Bury, Averil Cameron, and Iorwerth E. S. Edwards, The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006), 449-459.

xiiiCohen, “On Diplomacy in the Ancient near East: The Amarna Letters”, Diplomacy & Statecraft 7, no. 2 (1996): 245-70.

xiv“Ancient Near East Empires Map,” The Bible Study Site.

xvDale F. Eickelman, The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989), 105-34.

xviPinhas Artzi, The Great King - A Royal Title in Cuneiform Sources and in the Bible, (Bethesda MD: CDL Press, 1993) 1-11.

xviiBowman, The Cambridge Ancient History, 449-459.

xviiiMoran, The Amarna Letters, 24.

xixLetter from Ḫattušili III to Kadašman-Enlil II, Bo 1802, published as KBo 1:10 and KUB 3.72.

xxLetter from Hattusili to Adad-nirari, Bo 1802, published as KUB 23:102, lines 1-19.

xxi Pinhas Artzi, “The Rise of the MiddleAssyrian Kingdom, According to ElAmarna Letters 15 & 16,” in Bar-Ilan Studies in History, (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press 1978): 25-41

xxii Moran, The Amarna Letters, 18.

xxiii Joan Aruz, Kim Benzel, and Jean M. Evans, Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009), 202-04.

xxiv Martin Wight and Hedley Bull, Systems of States (Leicester UK: Leicester University Press, 1990), 32-33.

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Volume 12, Spring 2018