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Queens gave Near East diplomacy feminine touch

By Yuan Zhihui, Cheng Junshu | 2014-09-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
As an important participator in the foreign affairs, the ancient Egyptian queen (the left) was able to wield notable influence on the pharaoh (the right) .
As the anthropologist Claude Gustave Levi-Strauss put it, “Women have played a crucial role in the history of human relations.” Since pre-historic times, women have acted as important contributors to the tradition of diplomatic marriage among royal families.
Mainstay of diplomacy
Matrimonial alliances, in ancient times, were often used by the West Asian countries for diplomatic reasons. In the 23rd century BC, Naram-Suen, the king of the Akkadian Empire, arranged for his daughter to marry the king of Urkesh. In the Mari period, a time when warlords scrambled to conquer territory through force, marriages among royalty were used to shore up alliances of state.
In the mid-Amarna Period of Egyptian history (1550 BC—1200 BC), diplomatic marriages were still quite common. For example, Mitanni, Babylon and other countries coupled their princesses to pharaohs of Egypt to maintain friendly ties between the nation-states.
To demonstrate loyalty and acknowledge allegiance, princesses of some small countries in the Near East (now West Asia and North Africa) married the pharaohs. By that time, the women of royal families had already become one of the mainstays of diplomacy among countries as important participants.
Generally speaking, in the history of the Near East, kings, princes and senior officers were the major parties involved in the diplomatic correspondence. The king of Mitanni, however, wrote to Tii, the queen of the Egypt, entreating her to persuade the pharaoh to marry Mitanni’s daughter.
It was obvious that Queen Tii was not a traditional woman forced to defer to men on matters of diplomacy but rather an important figure able to wield influence on the pharaoh.
From backstage to foreground
By the late Amarna Period, the political forces in the Near East region had radically re-aligned. After the Battle of Kadesh concluded between the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II at the city of Kadesh, diplomacy in the Near East region entered a new phase.
At the time, there were extensive diplomatic activities occurring among Egypt, Hittite, Assyria and Babylon. Interactions and communication between Egypt and Hittite, the two most important participators of the inter-state activities of this period, were also frequent.
In such context, the power held by the queens of the two countries shifted from backstage to the foreground. They dispatched envoys and sent messages to their counterparts, and like the kings who called each other “brother,” Bdulhippa, the queen of Hittites, and Nefertiti, the queen of Egypt, called each other “sister”.
What was noteworthy, however, was that in a letter Bdulhippa wrote to Nefertiti, she said that they established a profound “brotherhood”, a word usually used by kings in the Near East to express friendliness. That Bdulhippa used “brotherhood” instead of “sisterhood” indicates that in the ancient Near East, diplomacy between queens was subordinate to relations between the kings. This in some sense suggests the role queens played in whole foreign affairs relied on the king’s diplomacy and was meant to complement it.
Another old diplomatic message of the Hittite Empire was found. According to the site of excavation and the content of the message, scholars infer that it was written by the queen of the Hittites Bdulhippa to the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II in which Bdulhippa mainly dealt with the disputes over marriages between royal families of the two countries.
In the mid-Amarna Period, kings often shouldered the responsibility of negotiating royal marriages, but this message is evident that Bdulhippa, to some extent, shared the diplomatic obligations with the Hittite Empire’s king. After the matrimonial alliance between the two countries was established, Ramesses II wrote a letter to Bdulhippa that mentioned her together with Hattusili III, the king of Hittites, showing the important status of Bdulhippa in foreign affairs. In the letter, the contacts between Bdulhippa and Ramesses II were frequently mentioned. Therefore, it could be deduced that at that time, the foreign correspondence initiated by the queens was a diplomatic norm.
It can also be inferred from the aforementioned evidence that, with regard to foreign affairs between the Hittites and the Egyptians, the queens of the two countries not only associated with each other on an equal basis but also settled affairs through diplomatic channels with the kings of both countries, playing an indispensable leading role in the foreign affairs of the ancient Near East.
In addition, these letters demonstrate the gradual expansion of queens’ diplomatic activities through the dispatching of envoys, gift exchange, personnel transfer and other day-to-day interactions between the two countries.
Competence in various aspects
Diplomacy by queens emerged and culminated in the middle and late Amarna times and this trend is considered to be largely responsible for the relatively peaceful diplomatic environment that characterized that period. During the times when the flames of war spread everywhere, there was a lack of external stability that served to foster a greater role for queens in diplomacy.
One typical example is West Asia in the ancient Babylonian era, when a contest for hegemony raged among countries in the region. Though diplomatic activities were robust in scope, diplomacy by queens did not emerge. Before the Hittites and Egyptians reached a peace treaty, the two empires continued to wrestle with one another for dominance in the Syrian region, which, to some extent, precluded the diplomatic activities of queens.
It was also noteworthy that though patriarchy dominated ancient society, women also enjoyed high political status in Egypt, the Hittite Empire and Mitanni. There were also some competent and powerful female pharaohs in history. Furthermore, royal marriages between family members also improved the queens’ standing. These provided social support for queens to enter the diplomatic stage.
For example, the queens of the Hittites had strong power. During the intervals when the king was at war, the queen was authorized to exercise her rights in place of the king. Though there is no extant material that is evident of the high status of Mittanian women, a letter written by the king of Mitanni to the Egyptian pharaoh does provide hints. As the letter wrote, the king of Mitanni showed great solicitude to his daughter who married into the Egypt and also gave many gifts to her. This perhaps implied that the social status of Mittanian women, at least, was not that low.
The personal charisma of the queens was another factor that contributed to their diplomatic competence. Queen Tii of ancient Egypt was adored by Amenhotep III, the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. He inscribed the news of their marriage onto a scarab, which was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as divine. Such honor was unprecedented for queens at that time. Temples and artificial lakes were also specially built for Tii. After her son Akhenaton was enthroned, Tii wielded important influence on religious reform during her son’s reign.
Nefertari, the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt, was also beloved by her husband, who built temples for her. Her mausoleum in the Valley of the Queens, a place in Egypt where wives of pharaohs were buried in ancient times, was one of the grandest and most luxurious, evidencing her exceptional status. Puduhepa, a Hittite Queen married to King Hattusili III, was recognized as “one of the most influential women in the history of ancient Near East”. Having a status equal to that of her husband, she helped form a bulwark for the reign of her son after Hattusili III passed away.
The interaction of the civilizations among various nations in the Near East has a long history. The diplomatic forms they developed in the early history of human beings blossomed in great splendor. With the evolution of diplomatic practice, the participators in the foreign affairs tended to be more and more polynary. Women of the royal families gradually moved to the forefront of diplomatic activities, writing a new chapter of diplomacy for the Near East.
Yuan Zhihui and Cheng Junshu are from the Research Institute for Economic and Social Development at Tianjin Normal University and the Institute of History at Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.642, September 3, 2014.
Edited and translated by Bai Le
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