Chapter 15

Gift Recipients and Royal In-Laws

The Amarna letters provide us with an insider’s view of the royal courts and diplomacy in the Late Bronze Age, but many other cuneiform documents survive from this era. They provide glimpses of many people who were affected by the kings and the international spirit of the age.

Abi-hunni: Recipient of a House from the King of Hana

Abi-hunni was an individual for whom just one document survives. He lived a whole life in which, no doubt, he had a profession, a family, friends, neighbors, a house, some fields. He had favorite foods and perhaps he was an expert at the local board game, or perhaps he was known for his singing voice or his skill with numbers. But all that is gone. Everything we know about him is based on just the one text.1 But the surprising thing is that this makes him incredibly fortunate. At least he left a tiny dent on history, unlike millions of other people who lived in the ancient Near East. His document was published in 1897,2 and it remains the sole witness not just to Abi-hunni’s life but to the time of a king named Ishar-Lim of Hana, in eastern Syria. Abi-hunni, King Ishar-Lim, and the fourteen other men named on the same tablet are the only individuals whose names survive, so far, from the entire reign. Ishar-Lim ruled sometime in the late fifteenth century or early fourteenth century BCE.3 Given the international situation in that era, it’s unlikely that Hana was independent. Even though the Hana kings issued their own year-names, they were probably vassals of one of the great powers—Babylonia or Mittani, or (later) Assyria.

The other kings who ruled Hana during this the same era had the same bad luck as Ishar-Lim in terms of their legacy. Although presumably thousands of documents were written during their reigns (each of which seems to have lasted an average of at least twenty years, since son followed father to the throne for generations), so far, just one or two tablets have shown up dated to each king.

Abi-hunni is interesting because he was the recipient of a generous gift from King Ishar-Lim: a small house in the city of Terqa. Their interaction was part of a trend in the Late Bronze Age, a trend seen from Hatti to Syria to Babylonia. Kings were granting more and more houses, fields, orchards, even whole towns, to their trusted friends, officials, vassals, and even, it seems, to normal citizens.

Abi-hunni’s new house was just 2⅔ SAR in extent, or about 60 square meters (c. 650 square feet). But the gift was considered significant enough that the king seems to have been physically present at the ceremony when the contract for the gift was written. No royal gift was too small for the king’s direct involvement. King Ishar-Lim rolled his own seal on the margin of the contract. It was an impressive cylinder seal, bearing gold caps on each end that were decorated with granulated triangles. A king’s presence at the creation of a contract was a tradition not just in Hana, it was also becoming common across the Near East. Kings in this period showed up for ceremonies, seals in hand, in order to oversee a great many legal matters. We have already seen this in the case of Ilim-ilimma son of Tuttu in Alalakh; the scribes often noted specifically that such proceedings took place “in the presence of” the king. On the other hand, this phrase was not used on records of royal land grants. Something that took place “in the presence” of the king was a transaction to which he was a witness. In a royal land donation, he was one of the principal parties.

The scribe who recorded the gift to Abi-hunni carefully noted that Abi-hunni’s house was on a town square called “the square of the land,” and that the buildings on the other three sides of his house all belonged to the palace. A great deal of land everywhere belonged to the various palaces in the Late Bronze Age. The scribe also noted that the house could not be reclaimed by someone else, even in cases of an edict releasing borrowers from debt. This presumably meant that it had previously been home to another family who might have tried to get it back. Such a person would have to pay a huge fine of ten minas of silver, and the tablet notes that “his head will be smeared with hot asphalt.”4 This sounds horribly painful but, in Hana, it had been the standard penalty for challenging a real estate contract for centuries, and one has the sense that by now it was just a required legal clause, not an actual threat.

The scribe then listed the witnesses who had been present on what must have been a happy day for Abi-hunni. They seem almost ridiculously high-powered for the transfer of such a small house. The first witness was the crown prince. Then came another prince, followed by a “great judge,” the overseer of the diviners, and the overseer of the ministers, and then four other men, including a priest. Admittedly, Hana was not a power the size of Mittani or Babylonia, and the royal court may have been located in the city of Terqa, where Abi-hunni’s new house was located. So perhaps it wasn’t that difficult to assemble the leaders of the kingdom when the contract was drawn up. Still, these types of distinguished men often served as witnesses for royal land donations, not just in Hana but elsewhere, and they—and the king—did often have to travel considerable distances in order to be present.5 Donating land represents what was apparently a successful strategy for the kings of this era in many regions; in this way, the kings were accessible and visible to their subjects, and they rewarded loyal service with gifts that had an impact on lives: grants of real estate. It’s unclear, though, how much of an impact this might have had on the poorer people in society, the ones actually working the fields. Were they transferred along with the land? Did they have the right to leave if they chose to? Did their lives change much at all when someone new came to power? Some of the royal land grants were surprisingly small and were made to people who are otherwise unknown, men like Abi-hunni, each of whom was identified by his father’s name, not by his prestigious position. The engagement of royalty with the populace seems to have been not just among the elite.

Royal Land Grants and Loyalty

Fields and orchards still stood at the core of the Near Eastern economy, as had always been true. Ownership of agricultural land was important even to men whose official jobs completely precluded any possibility that they might work the land themselves. Likewise, owning a house, or having the right to live in one, created stability for a family. People generally didn’t sell a family house unless forced to by crises beyond their control, so members of the same family often lived in a house for generations. Abi-hunni’s gain of a new house probably also represented another family’s tragic loss; perhaps they had been forced by debt to move out. In fact, in Hittite royal land grants, the person from whom the land had been taken was listed right along with the person to whom it was now being given.

What could endear an official more to his king than to be the recipient of a house or a field? In the Late Bronze Age, even vassals benefited from this system. In the region of Nuzi, near the eastern border of Mittani, the Mittanian king had donated whole towns to his vassals and their family members. At one point he needed to switch ownership of a district from one local leader to another. He wrote a letter commanding a local leader concerning his decision: “To Ithiya, speak. So says the king: [With regard to the district of] Paharrashe, which I previously gave to (Queen) Amminaia, now from its confines I have assigned a town to Ugi.”6 The man named Ugi obviously benefited from this, but Amminaia would be compensated. The king continued, regarding the man he was writing to, “Your own town I have assigned to the district of (Queen) Amminaia.” The letter was impressed with the royal seal. This was necessary for any change that was made concerning the control of royal land. Land grants represented an ingenious, and apparently successful, way for a king to engender loyalty among his court, vassals, and officials.

Strikingly, the land grant contracts from across the region rarely mention what the recipient was supposed to do in exchange. These were not ilku lands that required military or corvée labor service. But these types of grants were not brand-new in the Late Bronze Age. Even in the Old Babylonian period, kings in the Middle Euphrates (in the region that later became known as Hana) sometimes granted land in the same way.7 The royal grants seem to have been actual gifts, rewards for loyal service, something to spend a career working toward. Amazingly, they also had no end date. In Babylonia, most of the gifts made by kings specifically stated that they were forever and could be passed on to the recipient’s descendants. The king “granted (the land) to (name of the recipient), his servant, for the distant future.”8

Because the gifts of land and houses were so valuable, and because their descendants inherited them, the recipients wanted to keep the contracts that recorded them as safe as possible and for as long as possible. Real estate contracts had always been kept longer than any other legal documents. Some of the very first tablets from the Early Dynastic period were, remarkably enough, made of stone (into which the scribes had meticulously carved the cuneiform signs) just because they pertained to land.9 Later on, you may remember that Ur-Utu, the lamentation priest in Sippar who was trying to rescue documents from his burning home, focused on those that recorded his rights to real estate. And land contracts show up in disproportionate numbers from the Late Bronze Age as well. In the city of Terqa in the land of Hana, for example, excavators found two jars containing records of royal land grants that went back about 200 years.10 Long after other documents in a family archive had been scrapped or recycled, the ones that proved ownership or usage rights to fields, orchards, and houses needed to be kept safe.

Without the impression of the king’s seal, though, the royal grants had no meaning.11 In Hatti, the kings sealed such a contract right in the middle of the tablet, using their impressive, round stamp seals.12 In the coastal city of Ugarit, the king rolled his seal at the top of the front of the tablet.13 Kings of Mittani rolled theirs across the middle of the tablet’s back.14 And in Hana, as we have seen, the king rolled his seal in the margin on the left. No matter where the seal impression appeared, it was crucial and it was alone. No one else needed to seal the tablet once the king had done so.

In Babylonia, starting in the fourteenth century BCE,15 some recipients of royal grants of land went a step further in preserving the records. They had stone carvers reproduce the text of the original sealed clay tablet on a polished stone boulder,16 with the additions of curses on anyone who might take away the rights recounted in the text, along with symbols of the gods who would enforce the agreement and the curses. These small monuments are known as kudurrus, and almost all of them recorded royal gifts of agricultural land, or of other sources of perpetual income.17 The kudurru was then set up in a temple.18 Temples had become much more than places to worship and provide for the gods; they had become repositories for many different kinds of objects designed to remind the gods of requests that had been made of them. These included not just the kudurrus but also statues of royalty and other individuals that had been placed there to remind the gods to watch over them.

So Abi-hunni was not alone in being the recipient of the king’s largesse, and he presumably benefited from the house he received. The contracts and kudurrus show that the great kings of Hatti, Mittani, and Babylonia, along with the lesser kings of Hana, Ugarit, and Alalakh, and probably other vassal states, all had become much more personally involved with their officials and subjects during this time, as seen in the appearance of the kings’ seal impressions on what might otherwise seem to have been private transactions, and in the many documents drawn up in their presence. They had also claimed the right of controlling more land, even while also giving more of it away. Land sales became much less common than in the Old Babylonian period. If you received a grant of a field or house from the king, it seems that you could not then turn around and sell it. The royal land grants may well have helped to create internal stability within these great kingdoms during the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE. One gets the impression that it was a time marked by fewer rebellions than in earlier eras.

The same emphasis on personal relationships pervaded international diplomacy. The kings may have never met one another, but their letters show that they felt deeply personal connections to one another anyway. This was partly because a visit from an envoy and translator became, in a way, a substitute for a visit from the king himself. The envoys showed up regularly, read their sovereign’s letters and explained his ideas, received gifts, and were feted at banquets. The king might boast of how well he treated an envoy, that he “showed him very great honors.”19 The best of these ambassadors also seem to have been highly appreciated, singled out for praise by the allied king, as in the case of the translator Hane, whom you met in the previous chapter.20 They made the brotherhood personal, not just something that existed in disembodied words on clay.

But perhaps more important, the marriages between the royal families across the Near East created powerful ties between the kings. Their alliances were not just based on treaties, trust, and gifts; the royal families in far-flung lands became actual kin. I have mentioned, throughout this book, how important family was as a fundamental building block on which the whole society was based, much more than social class, or citizenship, or any other way in which people can be divided or united in identity. Once kings had family members in other states, they had created an obligation that was hard to break. When Tushratta of Mittani stated, after his daughter married the Egyptian pharaoh, that “we, between us, are one, the Hurrian land and the land of Egypt . . . I am the k[ing] of Egypt and my brother is the ki[ng] of the Hurrian land,”21 he was expressing a common perception. Their families and lands had been united. And just as the royal land grants were supposed to be held in perpetuity by the recipient’s descendants, so too the alliances between the royal houses were supposed to be forever.

These secure ties between the great kings meant that Amenhotep III of Egypt never had to send troops out on campaign and, perhaps in consequence, he accumulated wealth beyond imagining. As his brother kings never tired of reminding him (with not-too-veiled envy), “In Egypt, gold is more plentiful than dirt.”22 But his allies were not suffering financially either. Tushratta of Mittani (mid-fourteenth century BCE) and Burna-Buriash II of Babylon (c. 1359–1333 BCE) both were able to put together truly enormous dowries for their daughters along with gifts for the pharaoh when the princesses married Egyptian kings,23 and no doubt they did the same for other daughters who married other great kings.

The Children of Burna-Buriash II of Babylonia: Strengthening Alliances

We turn now to a remarkable example of the web of marriages that connected kings in the fourteenth century BCE.24 It all revolved around the Babylonian king named Burna-Buriash II. He followed his father to the throne around 1359 BCE, as one in the long line of kings with Kassite names.25 Although his own archives have not yet been found, documents mentioning him, or even written by him, have showed up at sites in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and even Greece!26 He had family members pretty much everywhere (though it must be admitted that they were probably not to be found in Greece).

Burna-Buriash II was a savvy diplomat. As a result of his efforts in marriage negotiation, he ended up being related to kings of four major states that dominated this period, and each of these kings had an outsize impact in Late Bronze Age history. Burna-Buriash II became the father-in-law of King Akhenaten of Egypt (c. 1353–1336 BCE), of King Suppiluliuma I of Hatti (c. 1344–1322 BCE), and of King Untash-Napirisha of Elam (c. 1340–1300 BCE), and he became the son-in-law of King Ashur-uballit I of Assyria (c. 1363–1328 BCE). Perhaps not until the time of Britain’s Queen Victoria were the children and grandchildren of a monarch so entwined with the royal families of other states.

Burna-Buriash II notably excluded Mittani from his network, however. It seems that by Burna-Buriash’s reign, Mittani’s king Tushratta was gradually being shut out of the brotherhood of kings. Tushratta’s daughter had married the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III when that king was elderly, as we saw in the last chapter, and she had been taken on as a wife of the next pharaoh, Akhenaten, but Tushratta of Mittani seems not to have been related by marriage to any of the other great kings of the time. Even Akhenaten was less than friendly to him. Tushratta’s letters to Akhenaten grew increasingly panicky; Mittani appeared to have been losing its standing among the great powers and Tushratta feared for its future.

It was a great advantage to Burna-Burniash II of Babylon to have daughters. Ever since the Early Dynastic period, daughters were important for any king. He hypothetically needed only one son to take over the throne after his death, but every adult daughter could marry and create a family tie to another monarch. It seems likely that the daughters were brought up to prepare for such a future. In fact, a school for princes, princesses, and children of court officials seems to have existed in the city of Nippur in Babylonia during the reign of Burna-Buriash II, educating children of high-ranking men from across the kingdom.27 As in the time of Zimri-Lim of Mari, these elite girls, and in this case boys, seem to have been trained primarily in music. The school was mentioned in several letters from a physician concerning a bout of illness among the students.28 He mentioned two girl singers who had become ill but had now recovered: “the daughters of Kuru and Ahuni are fine, their health is good. Should my lord so order, they can both leave and attend school again.”29 Among the other girls whom he had treated was the daughter of the Babylonian governor in the vassal state of Dilmun.30 A second physician treated a “princess who suffered from repeated attacks of fever.”31 Perhaps this was one of the daughters of Burna-Buriash himself. In any event, the Babylonian princesses who ended up married to their three powerful husbands seem to have been well prepared to cope with their appointments as queens in foreign courts.

They were not alone when they arrived to be married; each would have taken hundreds of attendants and officials with her from home. The women no doubt wrote to their father, who in turn sent them gifts and messages whenever his envoys visited. Burna-Buriash II would also have expected them to send him gifts in return. The previous Babylonian king had written to the pharaoh about this: “As for my daughters who are married to kings that are my neighbors, if my envoys [go] there, they converse with the[m, and they se]nd to me a present.”32 It would be fascinating to know whether the women also maintained a correspondence among themselves. If so, perhaps they compared notes on their lives.

The Babylonian Wife of Akhenaten in Egypt

Amenhotep III of Egypt was still alive when Burna-Buriash II came to power, so one of the Babylonian king’s first priorities was to send the pharaoh a letter confirming that he would continue to maintain the alliance that his father had enjoyed with Egypt. The letter was short, and Burna-Buriash got to the point quickly: “Just as previously you and m[y] father were friend[ly] to one another, you and I [should] now [be friendly] t[o one another].”33 Unfortunately, Amenhotep III died soon afterward, but Burna-Buriash was undaunted. He was determined to continue his family’s alliance with Egypt, so he continued to write regularly (though often rather coldly) to the new pharaoh, Akhenaten. Burna-Buriash’s sister had been married to Amenhotep III,34 and he soon sent a messenger and an interpreter to Egypt, proposing a new marriage to bind their lands together.35 He suggested that one of his daughters, whose name we unfortunately don’t know, might marry Akhenaten. The pharaoh consented and sent his own messenger and interpreter to formalize the engagement, by anointing the princess with oil.36 The princess then wrote to the pharaoh—she is the only one of the sisters from whom a letter survives. She may well have been a teenager at the time. She didn’t mention her name, or the name of Akhenaten, whom she would be marrying. The king was “my lord” and she was only “the princess.”37 The letter tells us little about her, her main point being her subordination to him: “In the pre[sence of my lord], thu[s,] I [prostrate myself], saying, ‘Since . . . my envoy has brought colored cloth, to your cities and your house, may it be well. Do not murmur in your heart and impose darkness on me.’ ”38 So far, things were going smoothly. They did not stay that way.

Burna-Buriash II was something of an expert in diplomatic marriages and he was inclined to see insults everywhere, even when they may not have been intended. So, when the Egyptian delegation arrived with just five chariots to transport his daughter to Egypt, he was not at all happy. This was not at all grand enough for Burna-Buriash’s taste. He wrote to the pharaoh to protest: his sister had been accompanied by 3,000 soldiers when she left to marry Amenhotep III, he said, and that had been an appropriate escort.39 But his hurt feelings were somehow assuaged, so he assembled a dowry40 and sent his daughter off to marry Akhenaten. In turn, the pharaoh sent a gratifyingly extravagant collection of gifts to Burna-Buriash.41

If she later heard from her sisters after they had married the kings of Hatti and Elam, this Babylonian princess might have felt disappointed with her status in Egypt in comparison; she was a member of a large, fairly powerless, cadre of foreign wives, all of them completely overshadowed by Akhenaten’s chief wife, Nefertiti, who was virtually his co-ruler.42 The Babylonian princess’s aunt had been in a similar situation a generation before: this woman had been so inconspicuous among the women of the palace that the pharaoh had been uncertain which wife she was. He was not even sure whether she was still alive when Burna-Buriash II had written to inquire about her.43

That woman’s niece, the new Babylonian wife of Akhenaten, certainly didn’t have a dull life. Akhenaten’s court may have been the most international of any during this era, given the presence of his many foreign wives and the fact that each one of them may have brought more than 300 attendants with her from her homeland.44

During Akhenaten’s reign, he changed the state religion, closed most of the temples, and built a new capital city at Amarna (where the diplomatic letters were later found), to which he moved his whole court, including all his wives and their entourages.45 Burna-Buriash’s daughter experienced this remarkable era firsthand, though it might have been traumatic to live through. She probably had no choice but to worship Akhenaten’s beloved sun god, Aten, to the exclusion of other deities, even her gods of Mittani. Akhenaten required it.

Tawananna: The Babylonian Wife of Suppiluliuma in Hatti

Burna-Buriash’s next daughter, who married the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, played a much more prominent role in her adopted home, but at a cost: she was not at all popular. Her father had been ruling in Babylonia for at least fourteen years when Suppiluliuma came to power in Hatti around 1344 BCE. Burna-Buriash must have recognized the need to have the war-like and impulsive Hittite king on his side, so he continued in his program to unite all the great powers as members of his family. At some point, Burna-Buriash was able to convince Suppiluliuma to agree to a peace treaty and a diplomatic marriage between their two lands.

What is almost unbelievable is that Suppiluliuma also agreed to demote his long-standing chief wife, Henti, so that the Babylonian princess could assume her top position as queen.46 Henti had been more than a wife to Suppiluliuma—she seems to have been the very reason he was able to claim the throne to begin with. Historians have been able to reconstruct what may have happened. Henti’s seal, when she was married to Suppiluliuma, bore the following inscription: “Seal of Henti, Great Q[uee]n, daughter of the Great King, Hero.”47 So Henti was a daughter of the previous Hittite king, Tudhaliya III, and it was perhaps only by marrying her that Suppiluliuma had any claim to the throne.48 The previous king’s choice of successor had been his son, who was named for him, another Tudhaliya. This young man duly took the throne after his father’s death, and the members of the royal family, all the courtiers, and the entire Hittite military swore an oath to support him. Suppiluliuma, his brother-in-law, swore this oath, along with the others.

But Suppiluliuma was not content with his status. Although he was apparently not a prince, only the husband of a princess, he wanted to be king. As his own son later put it, “[But when my father] mistreated Tudhaliya, all [the princes, the noblemen], the commanders of the thousands, and the officers of Hattusa [went over] to my [father]. Although he had sworn an oath (to him), [they seized] Tudhaliya, and they killed [him]. Furthermore, they killed those of his brothers who [stood by] him.”49 Although Suppiluliuma later claimed to be the son of Tudhaliya III, he may have been using the term “son” very loosely.

You might think that Queen Henti’s support was crucial to Suppiluliuma’s acceptance as king. The couple had powerful sons, notably the crown prince Mursili, who also was deeply attached to his mother. But Suppiluliuma seems to have decided that he didn’t need Henti, and her demotion and exile must have rocked the Hittite court. The Babylonian princess arrived into what must have been a political maelstrom. She would have immediately faced anger and hostility from people she had never even met before. It can’t have helped that she was probably younger than many of her royal husband’s children.

We don’t know her original name, but she was given the title Tawananna, the traditional designation used for the great queen in Hatti. Tawananna’s legacy is somewhat tarnished by the fact that the one person who wrote about her was her stepson, Suppiluliuma I’s successor Mursili II (1321–1295 bce), and he despised her. But, reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was far from being cowed by her adversaries. She was appointed to a position as a priestess,50 and she was given considerable control over resources.51 Her enemies might have resented this, but they were unable to do anything about it as long as the king was alive.

Meanwhile, her husband, King Suppiluliuma, embarked on a much more militaristic career than those of his fellow great kings. He wrote to the pharaoh in Egypt in friendly terms about maintaining their alliance and initiating a new diplomatic marriage,52 but he seems to have cared little for the peace that his brother kings had established and worked hard to maintain. Suppiluliuma campaigned with his army beyond the Hittite borders into Syria, destroying cities as he went. He clearly had his sights on King Tushratta and on taking over the lands controlled by Mittani.

Although Suppiluliuma was unsuccessful in conquering Mittani, Tushratta’s long reign there did indeed come to an end during Suppiluliuma’s reign. Tragically, the Mittanian king was assassinated by one of his own sons (though the records don’t tell us which one). In what had been the eastern half of his kingdom, Assyria took advantage of the ensuing turmoil by reclaiming its independence. The remaining western half of the Mittanian Empire was claimed by at least two different sons of the assassinated king. One of them, whose name was Shattiwaza, sped, almost alone, to Babylonia to try to gain the support of its king Burna-Buriash II, the man who was so central to the network of great kings. Surely he would help restore stability to Mittani? But no, Burna-Buriash was completely uninterested in helping the prospective king.53 In fact, the Mittanian prince had to flee for his life.

Shattiwaza turned instead to Suppiluliuma in Hatti for help against his brother and against the Assyrians. The Hittite king agreed and, ultimately, together they were victorious. But in exchange for his assistance, Suppiluliuma made sure that Shattiwaza, as the new king of Mittani, could no longer count himself among the brotherhood of great kings. Instead, Mittani became a dependent state of Hatti. Although their agreement ended with a diplomatic marriage, the Hittite princess was marrying a minor king, not an equal of her father.54

Suppiluliuma even raided Egyptian territory in the Levant during the 1320s BCE, perhaps during the reign of the young king Tutankhamun, after the death of Akhenaten. In doing so, Suppiluliuma was breaking the terms of his treaty with Egypt. Here again, as when he had killed his brother-in-law to become king of Hatti, he doesn’t seem to have felt constrained by the rules and traditions followed by his fellow great kings. But, in the eyes of his contemporaries, he suffered for his hubris. The gods exacted their revenge on him.

After Suppiluliuma’s campaign in Egyptian territory, a fatal plague began to spread across Hatti. Scholars believe that it might have been brought there by Egyptian prisoners of war, but Suppiluliuma’s son was convinced that it was his father who had brought this disaster upon his land. After all, the Hittite king had broken the oath he had sworn to support his brother-in-law as Hittite king, and the gods always punished people who broke oaths. As if to prove this, one of the early casualties of the plague, around 1322 BCE, was King Suppiluliuma himself. Over subsequent years many people died, and no one knew how to prevent themselves from catching it. This was not a normal illness like the ones that had worried Zimri-Lim of Mari when they arose in his palace. This was terrifying.

But the Babylonian-born queen, Tawananna, the daughter of Burna-Buriash II, seems to have been unaffected; she lived on. By tradition, the Hittite queen had the right to keep her title and responsibilities until she died, so Tawananna continued to serve as a priestess after the death of Suppiluliuma. But this was too much for his son, the new king, Mursili II. Of course, he had hated Tawananna all along for replacing his mother, but that was not all. He accused her of squandering riches, introducing foreign Babylonian practices, and generally wreaking havoc on the orderly world of the Hittite court. He wrote, “Some things she brought in from the land of Sanhara (Babylon). Others in Hatti [. . .] to the populace she handed over(?). She left nothing. . . . My father’s house she destroyed.”55 More traumatic for Mursili II was his belief that Tawananna had killed his own wife, whom he clearly loved very much. He wrote that “while she was queen, she kept [curs]ing [my wife] until she had killed her.”56 Did the Babylonian-born queen really hate her step-daughter-in-law so much that she called on the gods to kill her? We have no idea, but Mursili believed, deeply, that this was the cause of his wife’s death. He lamented, “Because she killed her, throughout the days of life [my soul] goes down to the dark netherworld [on her account]. . . . Don’t you gods [recognize] whose is the punishment?”57

Mursili II consulted the oracles and was told that he could, if he chose, rightfully have Tawananna executed. She may well have been aware of this and no doubt she feared for her safety. But the king settled instead for deposing her from her position as priestess,58 putting her on trial, and banishing her from the capital.59 He then composed a prayer to the gods to explain himself and to argue that, honestly, he had treated her well, considering her behavior. As he wrote, “I gave her a house. Nothing is lacking to her desire. She has food and drink. Everything stands at (her) disposal. Nothing is lacking to her. She is alive. She beholds the sun of heaven with her eyes.”60 So, he argued, the gods should not object to what he did. Hers had not been a very harsh punishment, after all. Mursili II had only removed Tawananna from her position as a priestess, and only after an oracle gave him permission to do so.

Still, the plague raged on. Mursili wrote, in one of several prayers to the gods, that “A plague broke out in Hatti, and Hatti has been beaten down by the plague. . . . This is the twentieth year.”61 He prayed for the gods to end the people’s misery: “O gods, my lords. Send the plague [away]. . . . May you be well-disposed toward Hatti. Let [the plague] abate once more.” Twenty years is a very long time for a country to suffer through a plague, but eventually it retreated. As for Tawananna, the daughter of Burna-Buriash II, unfortunately we have no record of what happened to her after she was banished.

Napir-Asu: The Babylonian Wife of Untash-Napirisha in Elam

The third daughter of Burna-Buriash II of Babylon to marry a powerful king might have believed herself to be in the best situation of any of her sisters. She did not disappear into a crowd of foreign wives, and she was not hated when she arrived in her new palace. For her we even have a name rather than a title: she was called Napir-Asu.62 That was her Elamite name, anyway; we once again don’t know the name she went by before she was married.

Elam, the land immediately to the east of Babylonia, extended from the Tigris River floodplain up into the Zagros Mountains in what is now Iran.63 Although it had been a major power in previous centuries, it was not now a member of the great king brotherhood, at least not from the perspective of the king of Egypt. No letters from the king of Elam showed up among the Amarna letters. But Burna-Buriash II might still have considered neighboring Elam to be a great power; its king was his closest ally. Remarkably, Burna-Buriash II was already closely related to the Elamite royal family, even before his daughter married the king there. That king, Untash-Napirisha, was Burna-Buriash’s first cousin: both were grandsons of a Babylonian king named Kurigalzu I (early fourteenth century BCE).64 For generations, Elamite kings had married Babylonian princesses; Untash-Napirisha was at least the third Elamite king in his dynasty to do so (and two more kings did the same after him).65 The woman he chose to marry was a daughter of his cousin Burna-Buriash II.

Untash-Napirisha seems to have come to power only seven years before the death of his Babylonian ally around 1333 BCE,66 but Burna-Buriash’s daughter, Queen Napir-Asu, may have been born when her father had been on the throne for many years. In any event, she must have been of the same generation as her husband, even though she married him at a time when her father was nearing the end of his twenty-seven-year reign.

The Elamite king probably spoke Akkadian in addition to his native language, having learned it from the Babylonian princess who was his mother, so Napir-Asu may have found her husband’s palace more familiar and welcoming than would have been true for her sisters in Egypt and Hatti. She also had greater prestige than even her sister Tawananna; her son (unlike any sons of her sisters in Egypt and Hatti) eventually became a king—the king of Elam.67 The relationship between the lands of Babylonia and Elam was profound and, for a long time, unwavering.

Almost nothing, however, is known about Napir-Asu’s life in Elam other than that she was queen and that her son eventually became king. Her husband never seems to have mentioned her activities in any of his many inscriptions. She is, however, depicted on a tall stone stela that Untash-Napirisha dedicated to the gods, standing behind him with her arms folded. (Her name appears on one of her arms.)68

Napir-Asu did, however, leave behind something that we have from almost no one else in her family: an extraordinary free-standing statue of herself that she had commissioned (see Fig. 15.1). Surprisingly, no images at all survive of her father Burna-Buriash II, or of either of her sisters in Egypt and Hatti, or even of her self-aggrandizing brother-in-law Suppiluliuma I of Hatti. Napir-Asu’s statue is one of the largest and heaviest bronze figures to survive from the ancient Near East, and it is said to be the best-known work of art from Elam.69 It stands 1.29 meters high (4.23 feet) and would have been life-size, had her head survived, which, regrettably, it did not. The statue weighs an incredible 1,750 kilograms (3,860 pounds—almost 2 tons) and was discovered in 1903 during excavations in the ancient Elamite capital of Susa.70


Fig. 15.1 Bronze statue of Queen Napir-Asu of Elam, from Susa, mid to late fourteenth century bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

The ancient bronzeworkers cast the exterior of the statue in almost pure copper using the lost-wax technique, but the interior clay core over which it was cast is missing. For a reason that escapes us but that made sense to the bronze-workers, the clay was removed and the statue was filled with solid bronze (11 percent tin added to copper).71 This represented a huge amount of effort and expense to create a solid core that not only was invisible to the viewer, it really wasn’t necessary; her statue could just as well have been left hollow.72 How many other solid bronze statues existed is impossible to know, because most metal objects had been melted down long before modern archaeologists came looking for them. What is clear, though, is that Napir-Asu was an important queen, deserving of an elaborate sculpture. The copper exterior may even have been coated in gold or silver.73 Like the other royal statues that we have encountered so often, hers would have been set up in a temple to pray to the gods and to receive offerings. The inscription on it was written in Elamite, in the first person, and Napir-Asu didn’t mince her words. She wanted this statue to survive:

I, Napir-Asu, (am) wife of Untash-Napirisha. He who would seize my statue, who would smash it, who would destroy its inscription, who would erase my name, may he be smitten by the curse of (the god) Napirisha, of (the god) Kiririsha, and of (the god) Inshushinak, that his name shall become extinct, that his offspring be barren, that the forces of Beltiya, the great goddess, shall sweep down on him. This is Napir-Asu’s offering.74

The curse didn’t really work, since the head of her statue had indeed been “smashed” and removed long before the statue was found. But at least the body remains, and it is regal. Napir-Asu is dressed in what must have been some of the finest clothes produced in the Elamite palace. She wore three garments: a short-sleeved dress, which consisted of a top that was embroidered with small circles and a tiered skirt that was fringed along the bottom; a shawl around her shoulders; and an elaborately decorated flounce around her waist. She wore jewelry as well: four bracelets on each arm, and a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. Although we are missing her head, it is safe to assume that she wore her hair in the Elamite fashion of the day, in a thick braided coil around her head.75

King Untash-Napirisha was ruling Elam at a time of great strength for his dynasty, when the former kingdoms of Susa, on the plain, and Anshan, in the highlands, were united under Elam’s governance.76 Envoys and messengers must have traveled regularly between the Babylonian court of Burna-Buriash II and that of his son-in-law and cousin Untash-Napirisha. Only about 450 kilometers (280 miles) separated their capital cities: it took just a month to walk each way, and perhaps half that by chariot. So Burna-Buriash must have heard a lot about the building projects of the ambitious Elamite king. Untash-Napirisha didn’t just build and rebuild many structures in the traditional Elamite capital of Susa (though he did that too), he decided to build a whole new capital city. He named it for himself: Al Untash-Napirisha, which meant “City of Untash-Napirisha.” He even seems to have hoped that the city would replace Susa, not just as the political capital, but also as the center of worship for the Elamite gods of both the highlands of Anshan and the lowlands of Susa.77 The city became home to twenty-five temples to different gods, all constructed pretty much simultaneously by architects and workmen during the time of Untash-Napirisha. He must have felt very strongly about his desire to unite the deities of the land in one place, and in doing so, to unite the land of Elam as well.

He shared the desire for a new political and religious capital not only with his Egyptian contemporary, Akhenaten (who had built his capital at Amarna), but also with his own (and Burna-Buriash II’s) Babylonian grandfather, Kurigalzu I, who had constructed an impressive new capital in Babylonia and had also named it after himself: Dur-Kurigalzu. It boasted a huge ziggurat, the core of which still stands today near modern Baghdad.

Untash-Napirisha’s choice of location for his new city was a site that is now called Chogha Zanbil, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Susa. It was a dramatic spot on a high plateau, with views of a wide green river valley. When the city was excavated in the 1950s and early 1960s, by a French archaeological team, it proved to be in remarkable condition. Most ancient cities were continuously occupied for centuries or millennia, making it difficult to extract the details about a particular era from the many layers of occupation. Chogha Zanbil seems to have been dreamed up by Untash-Napirisha,78 built at enormous expense, but then pretty much abandoned after his death. The same was true of Akhenaten’s capital city. Both are frozen in time at the point when they were no longer of interest to the kings’ successors. Just in case there might have been any doubt about who was responsible for the wonders of his new town, Untash-Napirisha subtly inserted his name all over the place. Brick inscriptions identifying him show up in the buildings; terracotta pommels glazed in blue and green that decorated the shrine at the top of the ziggurat bore his name (see Fig. 15.2).


Fig. 15.2 Glazed pommel with the name of King Untash-napirisha of Elam, from Chogha Zanbil, 1340–1300 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

That ziggurat was remarkable. Whereas most Mesopotamian ziggurats have eroded away over the millennia to just their lowest level (if that), four of the possible five stages of the ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil were still standing when excavated, encased inside the mound at the center of the site, like an insect preserved in amber. The archaeologists discovered staircases on which one could still climb, exterior ones for the first two levels and interior above that, along with the remains of a door decorated with a mosaic of black and white glass,79 and even a doorway with its arch still intact.80 At the top of the structure, a shrine to the great god of Susa, Inshushinak (his name literally means “god of Susa”) would have shone in the sunlight, with glazed bricks flecked with silver and gold, and with those shiny terracotta pommels bearing the king’s name.

The ziggurat stood more than 51 meters (165 feet) tall81 and had been constructed in a surprising way. Before the tower went up, a large, square, one-story structure was built around a big courtyard. It incorporated two temples to Inshushinak and some storerooms.82 The courtyard was later chosen as the location of the ziggurat. All the millions of bricks for the solid stepped tower83 therefore must have been carried through the gates and doorways of the square building at the base. The interior doors of the square temple, which had previously led to the courtyard, now led just to the brick mass of the ziggurat, and many of these doors were blocked.

Like the earlier Mesopotamian ziggurats of the Ur III period, Untash-Napirisha’s was made largely of sun-dried brick, but with a 2 meter (6.6 foot) thick façade of kiln-baked bricks. The bricks in every eleventh layer were inscribed to identify the king and the god Inshushinak.84 Reed mats placed among the layers gave strength to the structure, and the unknown architect also incorporated thirty-eight drainage canals to prevent damage from rainfall.85 It was a beautifully engineered building that weathered the elements until it eventually became entombed in a mound of dirt.

Untash-Napirisha fulfilled the role of king-as-builder better than almost any king in the Near East. Inscriptions survive attesting to his work on more than fifty buildings, many of which he initiated in Chogha Zanbil. He, like other kings of the era, seems to have benefited from the dearth of military conflicts; he had the time and money available to create spectacular edifices. He also had control over the necessary manpower. As in every period of widespread construction projects, men from across the land would have been called up for corvée labor duty and put to work in all the many jobs required in construction.

The excavators initially thought that the ancient city at Chogha Zanbil was only a place of pilgrimage, not a place where people lived, but that theory is now in doubt. Residential buildings certainly seem to have existed within the city’s 100 hectare (c. 247 acre) extent, so people did live there. But it seems that Untash-Napirisha’s administrators didn’t share his enthusiasm for the new city. Apparently, as soon as word came that the king had died, the building materials that had been prepared for further construction were abandoned, unceremoniously, right where they were being stored. They were still there when the archaeologists arrived thousands of years later.

Underneath a palace-like building in the ceremonial complex of Chogha Zanbil, the archaeologists discovered five well-built, vaulted tombs that were reached by stairways.86 These might possibly have housed the burials of the royal family.87 One strange thing about the burials is that eight of the bodies were cremated, which does not seem to have previously been an Elamite tradition.88 Just one of the bodies was undisturbed—that of a woman who was forty to sixty years old at the time of her death.89 She had been carefully placed on a brick platform, lying on her left-hand side. Near her, on the same platform, were the cremated remains of two other individuals, accompanied by jewelry and weapons that seem to have been included in their cremations, with everything wrapped in red fabric.90 It is tempting to agree with the interpretation of the excavators, who concluded that only members of the Elamite royal family were cremated, and that the body of the woman was that of a foreign princess whose culture prohibited cremation.91 Since the foreign princesses known to have married Elamite kings were Babylonian, perhaps this was Napir-Asu herself, buried next to the remains of her husband Untash-Napirisha. If so, she was buried with the family she had acquired by marriage and she was still venerated at the time of her death.

The building above the tombs contained many goblets, dishes, and spoons.92 Perhaps these were used during feasts in honor of the dead royals who were buried below.93 The courtyard of the building may have been the location of animal sacrifices. In Elam at this time, as had been true in Mesopotamia for many thousands of years, past kings were not forgotten. They continued to be worshiped, remembered at festivals, and provided with gifts. Napir-Asu’s bronze statue might originally have stood here above her tomb with the statues of other dead kings and queens, keeping their spirits and memories alive.

The era after the death of Untash-Napirisha of Elam was somewhat chaotic, but he was eventually succeeded by his son Kidin-Hutran II (early thirteenth century BCE). It seems that Kidin-Hutran must have been a boy when his father died, because two other relatives ruled before he took the throne.94 The young king’s mother was Napir-Asu, so he was Burna-Buriash II’s grandson on his mother’s side, and King Kurigalzu I’s great-grandson on both sides of his family. Though he grew up in Elam and spoke Elamite as his native language, Kidin-Hutran II’s genetic heritage was three-quarters (or more) Babylonian.

By now there were children and grandchildren of the Babylonian king Burna-Buriash II in almost every major royal family in the Near East, just as he had wanted.

You will not be surprised to hear that Kidin-Hutran II married yet another Babylonian princess. He may also have been the author of a remarkable letter, written by a king of Elam to a king of Babylonia (neither of whose names appear in the letter). After so many generations of intermarriage with Babylonia, this Elamite king felt that he had a right to rule not just his own land, but the land of his wife, mother, and grandmother as well: Babylon. He ranted that, as a “descendant of the eldest daughter of the mighty (Babylonian) King Kurigalzu, (why) do I not sit on the throne of the land of Babylonia?”95 The royal families had become so intertwined, not just between Babylonia and Elam but across the Near East, that the old platitude that “my house is your house” (which was so often spoken after a diplomatic marriage) had come to seem like a promise. Why was a man like Kidin-Hutran II, with so many Babylonian kings among his ancestors, not in line for the Babylonian throne? Why should a minor detail, like the fact that he was already the king of Elam, get in the way?

This new sense of entitlement to the Babylonian throne on the part of Elamite kings created a rift between the old allies. In the next century, it led to war.

Muballitat-Sherua: The Assyrian Wife of Burna-Buriash II in Babylonia

While the three Babylonian princesses were negotiating their ways through the worlds into which they had married, their father Burna-Buriash II had made one more match with a foreign leader, but this time it did not involve one of his daughters. Burna-Buriash himself, probably well into middle age and already having sent grown daughters to other courts, decided to marry a foreign princess. Her name was Muballitat-Sherua, and she was the daughter of the Assyrian king Ashur-uballit I (1365–1330 BCE).96

Even before the disintegration of the land of Mittani, the Assyrian king (who was at that time still a vassal of Mittani) had been itching for independence and campaigning to join the great king brotherhood. Ashur-uballit had adopted the title “king of Assyria” (he was the first ruler to do so), apparently while King Tushratta was of Mittani still alive, and he had even sent messengers to Egypt with a short, tentative letter and some gifts for the pharaoh Akhenaten.97 Burna-Buriash II of Babylon, who was protective of the privileges enjoyed by the great kings, was annoyed when he heard about this. He wrote to the pharaoh telling him to send the Assyrians away: “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.”98 According to Burna-Buriash, Ashur-uballit had no business sending ambassadors to Egypt, he was not important enough. But that sentence about “my Assyrian vassals” is odd. If the Assyrians were the vassals of anyone at this point, it was of Mittani. Unless we are missing an episode in which the Babylonian king took over Assyria (which seems highly unlikely), Burna-Buriash II was bluffing. (See Fig. 15.3)

But after the collapse of Mittani, when Assyria really was independent, pharaoh Akhenaten apparently gave in and welcomed Assyria into the brotherhood as a new great power. In his next Amarna letter to the pharaoh, Ashur-uballit I of Assyria referred to himself as a “great king” and as the “brother” of Akhenaten.99 He was also just as demanding as the other great kings, even including their common observation that “gold in your land is dirt,”100 before asking for a vast amount of it.

At some point, perhaps soon after the death of Tushratta of Mittani, Ashur-uballit I also must have sent messengers to Babylonia to inquire about an alliance and a diplomatic marriage. It seems that Burna-Buriash II overcame his annoyance with the upstart king and relented. He certainly sought alliances with every other major power, and Assyria lay right across his northern border. He would not have wanted a hostile relationship with an aggressive, independent kingdom so close to home. Princess Muballitat-Sherua of Assyria moved to Babylonia and later she gave birth to at least one son.


Fig. 15.3 Letter from King Ashur-uballit I of Assyria to the king of Egypt, found at Amarna, Egypt, c. 1340 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When Burna-Buriash II died around 1333 BCE, the prince who succeeded him was Kara-hardash (1333 bce), his young son with his Assyrian wife, Muballitat-Sherua.101 Perhaps this son had jumped ahead in the line of succession, past his older brothers, because the Assyrian king had insisted upon it. We can’t know for sure because very few documents survive.

The Babylonians were not pleased with this choice, however, and did not accept young Kara-hardash as king. He was overthrown within a year and replaced by a usurper.102 We know this from a later chronicle called the Synchronistic History, which also tells us that Ashur-uballit I of Assyria was equally displeased with the Babylonians’ decision to oust his grandson. He decided to do something about it: he promptly sent troops into Babylonia. His Assyrian forces managed to depose the usurper and to replace him with another son of Burna-Buriash II. This son’s reign was a success; he ruled in Babylonia for twenty-five years.103 These events are described by a few terse phrases in the chronicle, but it’s clear that within one year, 1333 BCE, the Babylonians were ruled by three successive, and mutually antagonistic, kings. It must have been a nerve-wracking time, very different from the calm years of Burna-Buriash II’s reign.

The chaos of the year had also set a new precedent—Assyria had intervened militarily in Babylonian politics. This was not the last time that this would happen. The Assyrian kings who succeeded Ashur-uballit I wanted to create an empire. The polite diplomatic system of the previous Amarna period was not going to constrain them.

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