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Amarna SunsetNefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian

Aidan Dodson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789774163043

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774163043.001.0001

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The Northern Problem

The Northern Problem

(p.53) 3 The Northern Problem
Amarna Sunset

Aidan Dodson

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

During the reign of Akhenaten, Egypt was one of those who had great powers in the ancient world and was a key node in the complex of diplomatic links. Late in his reign, Egypt attacked Qadesh — the key city of northern Syria. When Hittie king, Shuppiluliumash I, seized the throne before Akhenaten's accession, he consolidated his power on Anatolia and began to flex his muscle on the south. Shuppiluliumash started the “Great Syrian War” as an answer to the attack of Tushratta and his army on Hatti's north Syrian ally, Nukhashshe. Hitties conquered Isuwa and entered Mitanni, and they conquered all various Mitannian vassal cities in northern Syria. Qadesh was also taken into the Hittie sphere after its ruler foolishly attacked Shuppiluliumash's forces. Although already at this stage of success in the part of Shuppiluliumash's forces, they never planned to attack Egyptian possessions.

Keywords:   Egypt, Akhenaten, Qadesh, Hittie, Shuppiluliumash I, Great Syrian War, Tushratta, Nukhashshe, Isuwa, Mitanni

During the internally momentous years of Akhenaten's reign Egypt was one of the great powers of the ancient world and a key node in a complex of diplomatic links. As such, it was the pharaoh's role to correspond both with his fellow monarchs—an exclusive band that called each other “brother” (appendix 1)1—together with a large swath of vassal princes of Syria-Palestine. The latter were an inheritance from the conquests of the earlier kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, in particular Thutmose III (map 3).2 There is no direct evidence for any campaigning in this area under Akhenaten,3 although some of the Amarna correspondence could imply an Egyptian attack on Qadesh, the key city in northern Syria, late in his reign.4

A considerable amount of data for the reconstruction of these relation-ships during the late fourteenth century BC is provided by two groups of cuneiform tablets. The first is the Amarna Letters, a group of cuneiform tablets found at that site in 1887 (and a few subsequently). They comprised communications between the rulers of the various states of the Near East and kings Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun.5 The second group derives from the Hittite archives at Boğazkale (Boğazköy) in Anatolia, in particular those comprising the “Deeds of Shuppiluliumash,” written in the time of his son, Murshilish II, and forming an introduction to that king's “Plague Prayers.”6 Some fragmentary letters also survive.

The Hittite material is important because a key motif of the period covered by this book is the steady expansion of Hittite power in northern (p.54) Syria, through which the Hittites came into conflict both with the kingdom of Mitanni—for the past few decades an Egyptian ally—and with Egypt itself over the loyalty of their vassals in the region. The precise chronology of what happened and when is difficult to assess from the surviving documentation, with a number of different reconstructions put forward by modern researchers.

However, the key figure is the Hittite king Shuppiluliumash I, who seized the throne shortly before Akhenaten's accession.7 After some time spent consolidating his power in Anatolia, he began to flex his muscles to the south. An attack on Mitanni was repulsed by its king, Tushratta, who sent a tithe of material captured from the Hittites as a gift to Amenhotep III.8 However, this was followed up by Shuppiluliumash's “Great Syrian War,” the justification for which was probably provided by an attack by Tushratta on Hatti's north Syrian ally, Nukhashshe; this was accompanied by an uprising in the nearby state of Isuwa. Shuppiluliumash crossed the Euphrates, conquered Isuwa and entered Mitanni. Tushratta failed to offer battle, as a result of which his capital Washshukanni was occupied and sacked. The Hittites then turned west and took control of all the various Mitannian vassal cities in northern Syria. In addition, Qadesh, which had previously owed allegiance to Egypt, was also taken into the Hittite sphere after its ruler had foolishly attempted to attack Shuppiluliumash's forces.

Another Egyptian ally in the area was the land of Amurru, with a considerable population of seminomadic warlike tribes known as the Apiru.9

These have on occasion been equated with the Hebrews, but this has been purely on the basis of the similarity of the name. Using Apiru troops, a certain Abdiashirta had become ruler of Amurru some years previously and was busy expanding his influence. This alarmed another Egyptian ally, Ribaddi of Byblos (Gubla) on the Lebanese coast. Byblos had had strong links with Egypt since the Old Kingdom, and was an important trading port, in particular being the center of the export trade in cedar, a vital commodity for Egypt, which lacked good quality native woods.

Ribaddi wrote repeatedly to Egypt reporting Abdiashirta's aggressive takeover of neighboring cities and calling on the Egyptian king to intervene. However, Abdiashirta represented himself to the pharaoh as a loyal vassal of Egypt working closely with the Egyptian Resident Pahunnate (Egyptian: Pahemnetjer), and clearly the Egyptian government took the view that this was a local issue and, provided the territory remained (p.55) aligned to Egypt, there was little reason to intervene. Byblos was seemingly about to be added to Abdiashirta's kingdom when Abdiashirta himself suddenly died—whether naturally or by violence is unknown.

His son and successor, Aziru, soon resumed Abdiashirta's expansionist policy, once again writing frequently to Akhenaten in the guise of a loyal servant of the Egyptian crown, and complaining that local Egyptian officials were obstructing his activities. He warned, however, of fears regarding the Hittites, and requested military aid from Egypt in the event of a Hittite attack.10 However, when at last Byblos fell into Aziru's hands, and the latter allied with the King of Qadesh—of course now a Hittite vassal—Aziru was summoned to Egypt, where he was detained for a year.

Thus, although at this stage there seems not to have been a direct attack by the Hittites on Egyptian possessions, most of their north Syrian client states had begun to pass under Shuppiluliumash's suzerainty during the latter part of Akhenaten's reign and into the first part of Tutankhaten's. Such a “cold war” between the two states may be suggested by the tone of a letter written by Shuppiluliumash to a king “Khuria” of Egypt on the latter's accession:11

Why, my brother, have you held back the presents that your father made to me when he was alive? Now you, my brother, have ascended the throne of your father, and, just as your father and I were desirous of peace between us, so now too should you and I be friendly with one another (trans. after Moran).

The identity of the recipient is made obscure by the fact that the Hittite scribe has seemingly attenuated the Egyptian king's name. At this time, the normal way of referring to a pharaoh was by his prenomen, and this convention was followed by his overseas correspondents, albeit transcribed into Akkadian. So Thutmose III (Menkheperre) appeared as “Manakhpiya,” Amenhotep III (Nebmaatre) as “Nibmuariya,” Akhenaten (Neferkheperure) as “Napkhuriya” and Tutankhamun (Nebkheperure) as “Nibkhuriya.” Thus, Shuppiluliumash was writing to a king whose prenomen was clearly “X-kheperure,” but with the first element omitted.

Four kings fit this pattern: Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Neferneferuaten, and Tutankhamun. The second can be ruled out: Smenkhkare seems never to have reigned alone, as is demanded by the contents. Arguments can be made for Akhenaten being the recipient, but the tone of the letter fits better with the aftermath of the great Syrian campaign and the ongoing (p.56)

The Northern Problem

Fig. 42. The tomb built by Horemheb at Saqqara prior to his accession as king.

events in Amurru. It was thus most probably sent to Egypt after the death of Akhenaten, to be received by the co-rulers Neferneferuaten and Tutankhaten. The letter's address to the Hittite king's “brother” would seemingly suggest that the intended addressee was not the female Neferneferuaten; on the other hand, diplomacy may have deemed her to be technically male—and certainly “Khuria” could be taken as a contraction of “Ankhkheperure,” the Hittite ear conflating the two x-sounds at the beginning of the name. Or did the existence of two kings lead to confusion in Hatti, resulting in the use of a neutral “Khuriya”?

“Hot war” seems to have followed soon afterward, however: in Aziru's absence cities in Amqa (the Beqaa Valley), within Egypt's sphere of influence, had been taken over by the Hittites and a large band of Hittite troops had massed in Nukhashshe, suggesting a planned attack on Amurru. Aziru was allowed to return, but not long afterward threw off his long-professed loyalty to Egypt and threw in his lot with the Hittites, agreeing a treaty with Shuppiluliumash. This low point in Egyptian fortunes in the area may well be reflected in a monumental text, bemoaning the country's impotence in Syrian affairs, which was apparently produced around Year 4 of Tutankhamun.12

(p.57) Documentation is sparse for the next few years, but that the Egyptians made some attempt to regain the initiative is suggested by a number of depictions from Tutankhamun's reign. In the tomb of General Horemheb (later to become king) at Saqqara (figs. 42, 62, and 79)13 are to be found scenes that show the presentation of a range of captives from Syria14— including Hittites—together with a delegation from the region requesting terms (figs. 43 and 44).15 Furthermore, a tableau of Tutankhamun himself in battle against Asiatics existed at Karnak (fig. 45).16 There is also a depiction of Tutankhamun charging against Asiatic foes on the painted box from his tomb.17 On the other hand, the fact that these Asiatic scenes existed in parallel with one of Nubian campaigning (which is also the case at Karnak18) may, or may not, militate against their historicity. Yet Egyptian action would fit in well with the context of known Hittite activity in the crucial North Syrian border zone.19

The Northern Problem

Fig. 43. Syrian captives with their Egyptian guards, as shown in the tomb of Horemheb (RMO H.III.OOOO).

The Northern Problem

Fig. 44. Horemheb (shown twice) presents a delegation of seven Asiatics and two Libyans to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun to request terms in the wake of a successful Egyptian campaign. From a relief on the west wall of the inner courtyard of Horemheb's Saqqara tomb (RMO H.III.QQQQ. H.III.SSSS & F1914/4.1, Vienna 214 and Berlin 22663).

The Northern Problem

Fig. 45. Reconstruction of part of the Asiatic battle scene from the outer part of Tutankhamun's Karnak monument. The blocks included here were found widely dispersed, at Medamud and Luxor as well as at Karnak.


(p.60) In the north, the rump of the Mitannian state, now based at Carchemish, at length made an attempt to reassert Tushratta's authority in his former realm. In addition, there was an Egyptian attempt to regain Qadesh, perhaps following up the more southerly campaign(s) apparently depicted in Horemheb's tomb. The assault on Qadesh failed, and in retaliation the Hittites made a new attack on Amqa, which had apparently by now reverted to Egyptian control. Turning to face the Mitannians, the Hittites besieged Carchemish, which fell after a week. Tushratta escaped, but was soon murdered by a Mitannian faction, which placed one of his sons on the throne of the surviving fragments of the state, which were then ultimately swallowed up by the Assyrians.

It was as he prepared for the attack on Carchemish that Shuppiluliumash received a surprise:20

When the Egyptians heard of the attack on the land of Amqa, they were afraid. Since, in addition, their lord Nipkhururiya had died, and dakhamanzu, who was the queen of Egypt, sent a messenger to [Shuppiluliumash]. She wrote thus to him: ‘My husband died, and I have no son. But they say, you have many sons. If you would send me one of your sons, then he would become my husband. I do not want to take a servant of mine and make him my husband. I am afraid!’ When [Shuppiluliumash] heard this, he called forth the Great Men for counsel (saying): ‘Never before has such a thing ever happened to me!’ So it came about that [Shuppiluliumash] sent Hattushaziti, the Chamberlain, into Egypt, (saying): ‘Go! You must bring back to me the true word. Perhaps they are deceiving me; perhaps there is a son of their lord: you must bring back to me the true word!’

We will return to this in Chapter 5.


(1) cf. Cohen and Westbrook 2000; Bryce 2003; Darnell and Manassa 2007: 149–52.

(2) cf. Darnell and Manassa 2007: 137–47, 153–61.

(3) Battle reliefs from Karnak once attributed to Akhenaten actually belong to Tutankhamun (Johnson 1992: 38–39).

(4) Gabolde 1998: 195–207; Darnell and Manassa 2007: 172–76.

(5) Moran 1992. Each letter is referred to by a serial number, prefixed in the following notes with ‘EA’—not to be confused with the ‘EA’ prefix used in the museum numbers of Egyptian antiquites in the British Museum: all the latter numbers are given in this book as ‘BM EA.’

(6) Güterbock 1956.

(7) Murnane 1990 is a key source for discussions of matters concerning Egypto-Hittite relations during the latter part of the Eighteenth Dynasty; cf. also Kitchen 1962 and Spalinger 1979.

(8) EA17.

(9) Also referred to as the SA.GAZ.

(10) EA157.

(11) EA41.

(12) See p. 64, below.

(13) Martin 1989b; Schneider 1996; Strouhal 2008; Aston and Bourriau (in preparation); Raven (forthcoming).

(14) Martin 1989b: 87–92, pl. 99–108.

(15) Martin 1989b: 94–97, pl. 110a–117.

(16) See p. 68, below.

(17) Cairo JE61467 (Porter and Moss 1960–64: 577–78).

(18) See p. 68, below.

(19) cf. Darnell and Manassa 2007: 178–82.

(20) Deeds of Shuppiliumash, frag. 28.