Late Bronze Age International Relations

Sphinx lion of Thutmose III, 1479-1425 BCE / Louvre Museum


By Dr. Megan Lewis (left) and Dr. Marian H. Feldman (right) / 01.19.2017

Lewis: Assistant Professor Theater and Ancient History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Feldman: Professor of the History of Art and Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University

International Contact

The Late Bronze Age (1600–1200 BCE) in the Ancient Near East was a period of unprecedented international contact. This was foreshadowed in the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1600 BCE) by the shared international community of Mesopotamia and Syria, which also had looser contacts with Anatolia, Egypt and the Aegean. During the Late Bronze Age this network was expanded and formalized. This is also the first time in which there is definite direct contact between Mesopotamia and Egypt, as previously contact between the two regions was probably mediated through the Levantine coast. International contact in the Late Bonze Age included military conflict, diplomatic communication, private and royal trade, and international marriage. The political stage was dominated by a few powerful states, often referred to as the ‘Great Powers’ Club’. These states were Egypt, Mittani, Hatti, Babylon, and later Assyria (fig. 1, fig. 2).

Egyptian kings campaigned heavily in Palestine and Syria, which brought them into direct conflict with the Hittites to the north. This finally came to a head in the Battle of Qadesh in 1285 BCE, in which the Egyptian king Rameses II and the Hittite king Muwatalli II fought near the Syrian city of Qadesh. This probably ended in a stalemate, though exact details are unclear and it was certainly presented as an Egyptian victory by Rameses II (fig. 3)! Eventually the two countries reached an agreement, which was cemented by an inter-dynastic marriage. For a concise political history of this period, please see Collins, 2008.

The diplomatic arena is known from the Amarna Letters (fig. 4). Dating to between c. 1365-1335 BCE, this archive was found in Tell el-Amarna, the new capital of the Egyptian king Akhenaten, and contains correspondence between the Egyptian kings and the kings of the other ‘Great Powers’, as well as Egypt’s vassal rulers in the Levant (Moran 1992: xxii-xxxiii, Van de Mieroop 2007: 135). The kings addressed each other in familial terms – kings of the same rank addressed each other as ‘brother’, while ‘father’ and ‘son’ were used between kings of different ranks (fig. 5, fig. 6, Liverani 2000: 18). One of the primary concerns revealed in the letters is the exchange of luxury gifts and the letters record kings complaining about the quality, quantity, and speed of delivery of these objects (fig. 7). Women were also exchanged, as marriages between royal families were a key form of the diplomacy in this period (see Meier 2000). More information on relationships between the Great Powers can be found in Podany 2010, and Cohen and Westbrook 2000.

Trade can be seen in two shipwrecks, which have been excavated on the floor of the Mediterranean. These show trade in large amounts of copper and other materials. The first, the Uluburun shipwreck, dates to around 1315 BCE and sank off the Turkish coast while sailing in the direction of Greece. It was carrying around 10 tons of copper and 1 ton of tin – the approximate ratio for the alloying of bronze – as well as a collection of artifacts from various regions, including glass ingots. The second shipwreck at Cape Gelionyia dates to around 1200 BCE and was also predominantly made up of copper ingots. These ingots are known as ‘ox-hide’ ingots, due to their distinctive shape (fig. 8, fig. 9, fig. 10).

Figure 1: Map showing the territories of the Great Powers in the 14th century. Created by M. Lewis after Roaf 1990.  

Figure 2: Map showing the territories of the Great Powers in the 14th century. Image credit: M. Lewis after Roaf 1990.

Figure 3: Relief from Rameses II temple at Karnak, celebrating the king’s ‘victory’ over the Hittites at Qadesh. Image credit: J. C. Hinrichs in W. Wreszinski, 1923-1935, pl. 101.  

Figure 4: Amarna letter EA 19, from Tushratta of Mittani to the Egyptian king Amenhotep III exchanging greetings and requesting gold. This letter refers also to Tushratta’s daughter, who had previously been married to Amenhotep. Image courtesy of the British Museum.  

Figure 5: An extract of Amarna letter EA 20. Translation from Moran 1992: 47.  

Figure 6: Amarna letter EA 82. Translation from Moran 1992: 152.

Figure 7: Selections from Amarna Letters 16, 19, and 27, reflecting the gift-exchange of the Great Powers. Translations from Moran 1992: 39, 44-45, 87.

Figure 8: A short video providing information on the Uluburun shipwreck.

Figure 9: Left: oxhide copper ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck. Image courtesy of M. Feldman. Right: an oxhide copper ingot from the ‘Foundry Hoard’ at Enkomi, Cyprus. Image courtesy of M. Lewis. Object in the British Museum

Figure 10: A map showing the location of the Uluburun and Cape Gelionyia shipwrecks. Created by M. Lewis.

The Great Powers’ Club


During this period, Babylonia was ruled by the Kassites. The Kassites were a tribal group, organized into clans, and are known in the historical record from the Old Babylonian Period (2000 – 1600 BCE) to the time of Alexander the Great (c. 1800 – 330 BCE). They spoke a non-Semitic, non-Sumerian language which is only known from personal names and a few bilingual texts, and they appear to have been horse-breeders, possibly with links to the Indo-Europeans. The Kassites unified southern Mesopotamia after the Hittite Empire sacked Babylon in 1595 BCE, and ruled Babylonia for longer than any other group. Ruling for nearly 450 years, they oversaw a period of economic and political stability, assimilating a lot of Babylonian culture and adopting local royal ideology.


The Mittanian federation is a poorly understood political entity, in part because the capital, Washukanni, has not yet been located (it may be located at the modern site of Tell Fakariyah in northeastern Syria). It was apparently a group of city-states in northern Syria and Mesopotamia that allied under a single ruler. The city-states themselves were ruled by a minority group known as the Hurrians, who were possibly an Indo-Aryan group. The evidence for the Hurrians is mostly linguistic, and several Mittanian sites have provided cuneiform tablets with Hurrian elements and names. These names are, like the Kassite names, non-Semitic and non-Sumerian. They show similarities with later Vedic Sanskrit names (e.g. Tushratta and Artatama) and some of the Hurrian divine names are close to those from later Indo-Aryan texts, such as ‘Mitrasil’ and ‘Mithra/Mithras’. The material culture most associated with the Mittani is Nuzi ware, an impressive ceramic style characterized by intricate white designs on a dark red or black background (fig. 11).

Figure 11: An example of Nuzi ware. Image courtesy of “Daderot” via Wikimedia Commons


The state of Hatti was ruled by a group of people known as the Hittites and was established around 1600 – 1650 BCE. The heartland of the state was in the high plateau of central Turkey. The Hittites spoke an Indo-European language which is known from personal names and some cuneiform tablets written in Hittite (Bryce 1999: 420-422). Two of the most well-known Hittite rulers are Suppililiumas I (c. 1350 – 1320 BCE) and Hattusili III (c. 1267 – 1237 BCE), both of whom were important figures on the international stage. Suppililiumas I campaigned in Anatolia and the Levant and contributed to the collapse of the Mittani federation. He was involved in diplomatic relations with Egypt and Babylon, and even married a Babylonian princess. He may also have sent a prince to marry the widow of Tutankhamun, though the marriage never took place and the prince was probably murdered on his way to Egypt. Hattusili III was responsible for finally negotiating peace with Egypt and is known also for rebuilding Hattusa, the capital of Hatti.


The state of Assyria was ruled from the city of Assur, located in northern Mesopotamia. In the early second millennium BCE it emerged as a prominent trading town due to its location on important east-west and north-south trading routes. During the 15th and early 14th c. BCE it was a vassal of the Mittani federation, but had asserted its independence by the time of the Amarna Letters and established itself as an equal of the other powerful states (Cohen and Westbrook 2000: 7). Their participation in the group as a ‘Great King’ was protested by the Babylonian king Burnaburiash II who argued that Assyria was actually a vassal of Babylon, but this went unheeded. Ultimately, Assyria resorted to outright territorial acquisition for imperialist purposes, rather than adhering to the diplomatic ideals of the Great Powers’ Club and became the preeminent state in the subsequent Iron Age, known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000 – 612 BCE).


Egypt during the Late Bronze Age (also known as the New Kingdom period in Egypt) was an immensely powerful state, with control over parts of the Levant and southern Syria. Following the expulsion of the Hyksos, a group of Asiatic rulers who controlled Egypt during the so-called ‘Second Intermediate Period’ (c. 1720 – 1550 BCE), Egyptian kings regularly campaigned in these areas and extracted tribute from vassal kings, especially in the Levant. This practice started under Tuthmosis I (1504 – 1492 BCE), who reached the Euphrates with his army and hunted elephants in Syria. His regular campaigning in the Levant meant that by the end of his reign, Egypt controlled large amounts of the region through vassal kings. Other notable Egyptian kings of this period include Akhenaten (c. 1364 – 1347 BCE), known for his religious and artistic reforms, Tutankhamun (c. 1345 – 1335 BCE), whose tomb produced many famous treasures and Ramses II (c. 1290 – 1224 BCE), one of the longest-reigning kings of the period. The principal textual evidence for the period, the Amarna archive, was discovered in Akhenaten’s new capital of Akhtetaten (modern el-Amarna). The archive consists of 350 letters written in cuneiform concerning Egyptian control of the Levant, and relations with kings of other powerful states (Roaf 1990: 136).

The International Artistic Koiné

At the same time as the Great Powers’ Club were exchanging correspondence and elite gifts, a new art style was being developed. This international artistic koiné was a shared visual language used by the elites and rulers of the Great Powers. It can be seen in the appearance of objects that are not tied to a single politically or culturally defined entity, but contain motifs and elements from a variety of regions. Found at sites around the Near East and Mediterranean, they are small-scale, portable objects made of precious materials in a highly skilled manner. Included are furnishings or furniture attachments, containers, military implements and textiles (Feldman 2006a: 10). These objects were made in materials including gold, elephant ivory, alabaster and faience using techniques of repoussé and chasing, incising, relief, and inlay (Feldman 2006a: 10, fig. 12.). Objects in this style are overwhelmingly associated with elites, occurring especially in wealthy burials, including that of Tutankhamun and Assur tomb 45, which will be discussed below. Artists may have been attached to royal palaces and could have been sent from one court to another – craftspeople were ‘traded’ just as the objects they produced (Feldman 2006a: 100-101). This trade in people and goods could result in stylistically similar objects being found at great geographical distance from each other.

The motifs and themes utilized can generally be split into two categories, but are loosely related to the royal ideals of military prowess and care of the land. The first category is attack scenes featuring wild or mythological animals, and very occasionally human hunters (Feldman 2006a: 10-11, fig. 13). The second category focuses on images of rampant animals (usually herbivores) and lavish vegetation in a form known as ‘volute palmettes’ (Feldman 2006a: 11, fig. 13, fig. 14, fig. 17, bottom of dagger sheath). These themes are all hybrids and cannot be assigned to any one culture or art tradition, and are instead related to numerous cultures. For example, the volute palmette can be associated with the date palm of Mesopotamia, the papyrus of Egypt, and the sacred lily of the Aegean (Feldman 2006a: 11).

Marian Feldman has identified the international style as a crucial tool in the formation of relationships between elite members of different states and as a marker of one’s membership in the international elite. The use of this shared visual language on easily-exchanged items helped to create an elite identity which transcended cultural boundaries and bound the group together (Feldman 2006b: 26). As the artistic tradition of no single state was predominant, a sense of equality between the participating cultures may have been created (Feldman 2006b: 39). Entry into the group of international elites may have required, or been facilitated by, knowledge of the style and possession of elite objects decorated with its motifs (Feldman 2006b: 39). At the very least, the possession of these objects was used to indicate one’s membership in this elite club, signaling ‘brotherhood’ with other Great Kings (Feldman 2006b: 39).

An excellent example of an object made in the international style is the gold dagger sheath from Tutankhamun’s tomb (fig. 15, fig. 16, fig. 17). The sheath is decorated with depictions of animal attack scenes with a large voluted palmette at the bottom (Feldman 2006a: 31). While these are generic scenes as befit the international style, the iconography at play still carried a specific message which appealed to the elites who owned them. This message has been described by Feldman as a ‘…general and generalized statement of kingship’ (original emphasis) referring to the role of the king as protector and benefactor (Feldman 2006a: 13). The animal combat scenes are associated with ideas of military victory and the king’s control over the natural world, while the herbivores and vegetation relate to the agricultural fertility of the land (Feldman 2006a: 13). They are generic motifs, specific to no one state but universally understood.

Figure 12: Ivory lid, probably from a cosmetic box, from Enkomi, Cyprus. An example of the international artistic koiné. Image courtesy of M. Lewis. Object in the British Museum.  

Figure 13: An ivory plaque from Spata, Greece, showing the international artistic koiné ‘attack scene’. Image courtesy of M. Feldman.

Figure 14: An example of the international artistic koiné ‘rampant animals’ scene. Image courtesy of M. Feldman.

Figure 15: King Tutankhamun’s dagger and sheath, currently housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Figure 16: Tutankhamun’s dagger and gold sheath. Image courtesy of M. Feldman.

Figure 17: Illustration of the decoration on Tutankhamun’s dagger sheath. Image courtesy of M. Lewis, based on photographs of the original object. Currently housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Case Study: Assur Tomb 45

Tomb 45, excavated in the city of Assur at the beginning of the 20th century by German excavators, is the richest of the roughly 1000 tombs dating to this period. It is associated with an official named Babu-aha-iddina, a chancellor under Shalmaneser I (1274-1245 BCE), who corresponded with the Hittite king. The tomb itself consisted of a rectangular burial chamber of 2.5 x 1.5 m with a vaulted ceiling. It was used over several generations, probably dating to the 14th-13th centuries BCE. The remains of 10 skeletons were found – 9 adults and 1 child – as well as various grave goods scattered around the bodies. Two of the objects found in the grave, a pyxis and a comb, can be related to the international style. They form a matching pair and are engraved in identical styles, indicating a single point of manufacture, but differ in composition and motif (Feldman 2006a: 132, Feldman 2006b: 25). These can be understood as evidence of Assyria’s attempt to insert itself into the Great Powers’ Club (fig. 18).

The pyxis, a cylindrical box with matching lid, can be placed firmly in the international style. The material, form, motifs and composition of the pyxis are all characteristic of the international style. The engraved decoration shows two pairs of horned gazelles, facing trees and floral vegetation. Palm trees separate the two groups of animals, and small sun-like discs appear directly above each gazelle. In the trees are birds and roosters, and the top and bottom of the pyxis are decorated with a border of rosettes (fig. 19). More floral vegetation is incised on the lid. The use of animals associated with vegetation (feeding or flanking) and the circular, repetitive composition are particularly notable as characteristic of the international style. The method of decoration, however, is common to later Assyrian decoration rather than the international style. The naturalistic depictions of the trees and vegetation, and the inflexible pose of the gazelles are also closer in style to later Assyrian art.

The matching ivory comb depicts six figures in long garments and headdresses, one carrying a harp and others holding date clusters (fig. 20, 21). Two others hold cups and circular objects, possibly wreaths or tambourines. While the image is faint, Feldman notes that the linear procession is suggestive of narrative, something that does not occur in the international style (Feldman 2006b: 25). The appearance of human figures is also non-typical, but both are common in Assyrian art, as is the interest in realistic portrayal of natural motifs (Feldman 2006b: 27).

The idiosyncrasies of the pyxis and comb set can be viewed as a reflection of the unconventional participation of Assur in the international community (Feldman 2006a: 132-133). Scholars have noted a number of irregularities in the correspondence between the kings of Assur and the other members of the Great Powers’ Club, including incorrect forms of address, unusual letter structure and a focus on military affairs rather than diplomatic greetings (Feldman 2006a: 132). This suggests a lack of awareness on the part of the Assyrian kings as to the ‘proper’ way of doing things, which appears to be mirrored in the ivory pyxis and comb. As small, portable objects made of ivory, they fit into the international style in terms of form and material. The carving on the pyxis is largely of the international style, though some Assyrian elements suggest an incomplete understanding of exactly how the style works – or possibly a refusal to conform to expected standards. The comb’s composition is entirely Assyrian and does not fit the expected parameters. The attributable elements in these objects work directly against the homogenous, non-specific nature of the international style, suggesting that either the Assyrian elite did not understand its use, or that they wished to remain distinct somehow from the international elite. These objects were not intended to create or maintain a non-regional elite identity, but were part of the process of forming an Assyrian identity – albeit in an international context. Feldman identifies this tension between international and national art elements as suggestive of the imperializing tendencies at work within Assyria in this period, which reach their culmination in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (c. 1000-612 BCE) a few centuries later (Feldman 2006b: 37). The pyxis and the comb illustrate both Assyria’s attempts at integration into the diplomatic world of the international elite, and the beginning of an imperial identity (Feldman 2006b: 21).

Figure 18: Amarna Letter EA 15. Assyria’s entry into the Great Powers’ Club. Translation from Moran 1992: 38.

Figure 19: Ivory pyxis from Assur tomb 45. Image from Andrae 1954: fig. 161. Courtesy of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.

Figure 20: Ivory comb from Assur tomb 45. Image from Andrae 1954: fig. 163a. Courtesy of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.

Figure 21: Ivory comb from Assur tomb 45. Image from Andrae 1954: fig. 163b. Courtesy of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft.


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