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Ancient Egypt: Might and right in international relations
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Might and right in international relations

Early days

    The earliest contacts of Egyptians with foreigners are the subject of speculation. Nothing certain is known about pre-historic international relations: artefacts have been found depicting long-necked serpopards which seem to have their origins in Elam, or ships - possibly carrying warriors - who are also said to be reminiscent of river craft recorded in Mesopotamia. While there is no evidence that armed Mesopotamians ever reached the Nile, long-range trade is quite certain to have taken place: natural products like shark teeth and sea shells seemingly originating in the Red Sea, and artefacts like seals similar to those found in Mesopotamia have been found. Seal, possibly Mesopotamian, Naqada Period; Source: petrie Museum website

Cylindrical seal, possibly Mesopotamian
Naqada Period
Source: Petrie Museum website

    These merchants must have made use of bartering techniques and conventions developed by neighbours exchanging surplus items with each other. These were based on very simple rules which were seemingly obeyed, even if the two parties could not communicate verbally: the bargain had to be agreed upon by both sides freely, the person of the trader was inviolate etc. In the case of international merchants, who dealt in luxury goods destined for the elite, such rules had behind them the authority of the rulers interested in continuing trade relations.
    Third parties not under the control of some interested authority or under the impression that they could get away with it, might try to make a profit from them by extracting tolls, robbing the merchandise, and enslaving or even killing the traders.
Hacking up the land of the Negroes. Bringing of 7,000 living prisoners and 200,000 large and small cattle...
Bringing of 40 ships filled (with) cedar wood.
Palermo stone
Reign of Snefru
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §146
    Recorded contacts with foreigners during the Old Kingdom are of two kinds: trade and war. War remained throughout pharaonic history a tool of foreign policy. It was legitimate because it served to defend the proper world order in which Egypt was the land where the will of the gods was realized, while the lands beyond and their inhabitants belonged to chaos. No need for justification was felt until the New Kingdom, when enemies who did not surrender to the pharaoh were called rebels. Djedkare-Isesi (5th dynasty, c.(2413-2381) who fought against beduin tribes proudly proclaimed himself to be
Smiter of all countries.
[The Great God] smites the [Asiatics]
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §267
    No international laws protected defeated peoples. Weni, who served under Pepi I rejoiced in the defeat of the Sand-dwellers and the destruction of their land, while at the same time proudly proclaiming that this army returned in safety. The defeated anywhere where completely at the mercy of the victor, who often did not hesitate to obliterate his enemies.
    Possible trading partners near-by often fared little better. Harkhuf's expeditions into Wawat were apparently little more than exercises in extortion:
I descended with three hundred asses laden with incense, ebony, heknu, grain, panthers, .... ..... , ivory, [throw-sticks], and every good product. Now when the chief of Irthet, Sethu, and Wawat saw how strong and numerous was the troop of Yam, which descended with me to the court, and the soldiers who had been with me, (then) this [chief] brought and gave me bulls and small cattle, and conducted me to the roads of the highlands of Irthet, because I was more excellent, vigilant, and ....... than any count, companion, or caravan-conductor, who had been sent to Yam before.
J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 336
    Harkhuf's success was based on an understanding he had reached with the chief of Yam. He had pacified him, until he praised all the gods for the king's sake, peaceably - as militarily the troop of Yam was apparently stronger than Harkhuf's band - and the two co-operated thereafter. This cooperation with some and confrontation with other populations set the tone for the future relationship between Egyptians and natives in Nubia.
    The power of Egypt at this time was still too insignificant to be intimidating to far-off Byblos or Punt, and one may suppose that relations with them were on a more equal footing.
    The extension of hospitality to strangers has been playing an important, at times vital, role in the lives of the inhabitants of the Middle East. It generally did not include being offered a princess for a wife and a top executive position in government, as happened to the first political exile in the history of fiction, Sinuhe, who, after being saved by beduins in the Sinai desert, found refuge at last with Enshi son of Amu, prince of Upper Retenu; but rulers often felt honour-bound to defend people who had placed themselves under the their protection. Among states this hospitality became the right of the king to grant asylum.

Ancient Egypt's heyday

The "Brotherhood" of the Great Kings

    During the 17th century BCE the native Egyptian nobility came into contact with foreigners they could neither despise nor ignore. The Hyksos had taken over the Delta and seem to have had some influence over Upper Egypt as well. During the struggle with a Theban noble family, the Hyksos tried to forge an alliance with the Kushites. After their defeat Ahmose pursued them into Canaan and his successors began the great adventure of empire building in the East. This brought the Egyptians into contact with Mitanni, a relationship which was confrontational during much of the 15th century BCE, became an alliance of equals - or almost equals, as the Egyptian kings apparently always refused to give one of their daughters in marriage - under Thutmose IV (c. 1412-1402 BCE), and ended with Mitanni being abandoned to its fate by Akhenaten (c. 1350-1334) and his successors.
The great powers of the 14th century BCE     Hatti replaced Mitanni as Egypt's northern neighbour, and it took a few generations of occasional outbursts of hostilities before a peace treaty was concluded. Relationships with the other Great Kings, who did not claim any territory in Egypt's sphere of influence at the time, were less fraught with tension.
    Thanks to the Amarna Tablets we have quite a good picture of Egypt's international dealings during the reigns of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamen. States did not have an existence independent of their kings: kings saw countries as personal property. The Egyptian pharaoh, the kings of Mitanni, Hatti, Alasiya [7], Babylon, and the emerging Assyria [6] belonged to the exclusive group of Great Kings:
  • They recognized each other as basically equal, addressing each other as brother. The Babylonian king Burnaburiash reminds Akhenaten
    I and my brother have signed a treaty.
    The pharaohs had apparently a greater problem with accepting other kings as equals than most.
  • They saw countries as domains, i.e. households, belonging to their kings [1] Thus the king of Alasiya sends his well-wishes:
    With your houses, your wives, your sons, your chief men, your horses, your chariots, and in your lands, may it be very well.
  • They dealt with each other on a familiar level, while at the same time remembering their positions as kings.
    To Nibmuaria, King of Egypt, my brother, say: Thus says Tushratta, King of Mitanni, your brother.
  • Contrary to appearances their dealings were rarely personal but concerned matters of state. Thus marriages were not concluded to unite a man and a woman, but two countries. Tushratta married his daughter to Akhenaten:
    To Napkhuria, king of Egypt, my brother, my son-in-law, who loves me and whom I love, thus speaks Tushratta, king of Mitanni, your father-in-law who loves you, your brother
  • Their emissaries were inviolate and should not be detained, unless their host had a good reason to treat them otherwise. If they had committed a crime, their punishment could be requested. The Assyrian king Ashur-Uballit was full of "understanding" for a whim of Akhenaten, who had made his whole court, including the Assyrian ambassadors, stand in the sun for hours:
    If they (i.e. the envoys) have passed in a foreign country a part of their time, and the king has taken advantage of it, they may then remain there and die; the king has, certainly, had a gain.
  • Security was their responsibility, and if they failed to ensure it, they had to right injustices committed by their subjects. Burnaburiash of Babylon complains:
    Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed. Bind them and return the money they robbed. And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
    and, after a different incident, Ashur-uballit was quick to promise redress:
    Those who detained your envoy were the Sutu, his attackers. Dead will I be until I have sent people to take the Sutu attackers.
  • They had little regard for rulers of client states [2]. Their messages were short and to the point:
    To Endaruta, the ruler of Akshapa say: Thus says the king: He sends this tablet to you, saying to you...
    and when Rib-addi of Byblos began to send too many requests for help, he was told to stop bothering the pharaoh.

The vassals

    During the latter half of the second millennium the small kingdoms of the Levant, often little more than fortified towns with some villages surrounding them, fell prey to the ambitions of their powerful neighbours. Thutmose III defeated a coalition of Canaanite princes at Megiddo, and reinstated the rulers after they had done homage [5]. All the local kings in Canaan became dependent to some extent on one or the other of the great powers, to whom they were bound by unequal treaties. They had to accept the conditions dictated by their suzerain and swear an oath, while their overlord did not take any obligations upon himself, but had to take into account that suppressing revolts due to harsh conditions of vassalage was costly.
    The Egyptians used Gaza as their centre of power in Canaan, stationing small military forces in some of the cities. They strengthened their hold by taking juvenile relatives of the rulers as hostages and bringing them up in Egypt. They thought of the local rulers, who considered themselves to be kings, as administrators, mayors of their cities. They interfered little in the internal or external affairs of their vassals, as long as there was no conflict with direct Egyptian interests. The vassal kings remained the supreme arbiters of their subjects, concluded treaties with each other, and tried to extend their power at the expense of their neighbours. Their societies, religions, customs and laws were little affected by the presence of the Egyptians.
    Kings were responsible for crimes committed in their territories and had to make restitution. If a ruler beyond the Egyptian sphere of influence wanted to lodge a claim against a vassal of Egypt, he had to address it to the pharaoh as the local prince's overlord. There were few direct contacts between a Great King and a vassal of another, but a some are recorded, such as the occasion when the Hittites had a hand in the decision of the Amorites to change their allegiance.

The colonies

    Unlike Canaan which always remained alien to the Egyptians, Nubia underwent a process of colonization. Egyptian officials, at their head the King's son of Kush, ran the country with the help of the local nobility. They built temples, settling their gods up to the fourth cataract. They followed their own customs and must have applied their own laws.

The law

    There was seemingly no written canon of law in Egypt; similarly, international relations were not regulated by a code of law, but usage:
And with regards to Salmu, my envoy, twice has his caravan been plundered. Once it was plundered by Biriazama, and his other caravan by Pamahu, a governor of a land that belongs to you. And this matter, my brother, you must put right! When my envoy appears before my brother, then let also appear Salmu. His ... has to be returned to him, and the damages have to be made good. precedent:
When my father, Ashur-nadin-ahe, ordered his messengers to go to Egypt, they sent him twenty gold talents. And when the king of Khanigalbat (Mitanni) sent his messengers to your father (Amenhotep III) in Egypt, they sent twenty gold talents to him. See, to the king of Khanigalbat I am ..., but to me you have sent only a little gold, which is not sufficient, in spite of the goings and comings of my messenger. undertakings:
You are the one who knows the words of Mimmuriya, your husband, but you have not sent me yet the gift of homage which Mimmuriya, your husband, has ordered to be sent to me.
...and by bi-lateral treaties:
I and my brother have signed a treaty, and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
    When the Egyptians attacked Amurru ruled at that time by Hatti under Mursili II, the Hittite king wrote to the pharaoh, complaining that the Egyptian had no right to attack him and his possessions in Amurru, implying that he should address himself to the Mitanni, as it had been the Hurrians who had taken Amurru from him:
You are taking [ve]ngeance upon the land of Amurru. But was it I who took the [land] of Amurru away from you, or was it rather my father who took it away from you? It was the king of the land of Hanigalbat (i.e. Mitanni) who took the land of Amurru away from the king of the land of Egypt, and then my father defeated the king of the Land of Amurru and [he took the land] of A[murru away] from the king of the Hurri land.
Jared L.Miller, "Amarna Age Chronology and the Identity of Nibhururiya in the Light of a Newly Reconstructed Hittite Text", in Altorientalische Forschungen, Vol. 34 (2007) Issue 2, p.253
    The peace treaty between Ramses II (c.1304-1237) and Hattusili III of Hatti included agreements concerning
  1. Mutual non-aggression
  2. A common defence against external enemies
  3. Support for a regime under attack from internal enemies
  4. Extradition of political refugees, even from vassal states
  5. A measure of protection for extradited persons and their families
    If one stood to gain from a promise made by a deceased king, one would remind his heir of his obligation, while he might well try and ignore it, if it did not fit into his own plans. Assur-uballit saw himself as the king of a realm which replaced Mitanni and expected to receive gifts from Akhenaten similar to those which the king of Mitanni had received from Amenhotep III; and he did not hesitate to remind the pharaoh.
    Treaties too were thought not to expire with the death of one of their signatories. They were sealed by an oath invoking the gods and therefore more binding than a simple promise or declaration of intent.
    There was no supreme human court to enforce rules, instead the gods were their guarantors [4], and the kings their executors. One might have expected them to be at least occasionally aware of a conflict of interests. But their deep belief in the omnipotence of the gods [3] was matched by their self-righteousness, nourished by a lifetime of being fawned upon. They were generally able to convince themselves of the justification of their own cause.
    At times the wrath of the gods was unmistakable and they might inflict a personal disaster, an accident or illness on the king. But in ancient times members of a domain, be it an ordinary household or the country of a Great King, often suffered punishment together with, or sometimes instead of, the guilty head of the domain, and so retribution might be exacted in the guise of a famine, plague, or military defeat affecting the whole society.


    In the course of the first millennium Egypt became more and more a victim of foreign interference. The balance of power, which had existed during the Late Bronze Age, was broken. Every now and again a new force appeared, a nation coming to the fore, often overcoming a former master first and then attempting to take over the whole Middle East: Assyria, Babylon which did not quite succeed, Persia, Macedonia and finally Rome. There were a few short periods when Egypt asserted itself, displaying a semblance of the power which it had had a thousand years earlier, and taking part in the power politics of the day. But these instances of self-rule were short-lived, and the Egyptian national spirit showed itself rather in a series of rebellions and guerilla wars against foreign invaders.
    Egypt, even at its nadir, was a big, unified country and it was at the periphery of the sphere of influence of Middle Eastern powers. Controlling the country was difficult and expensive, if its population was too antagonized. The foreign suzerains therefore often left its administration to the local nobility, though their reaction to a rebellion could be savage.
    The Ptolemies, after they had settled in, tried to use Egypt's resources to further their own influence internationally. But in their squabbles with the Seleucids it was finally the Romans who laid down the law and imposed their vision of the world on the whole region.

[1] One should not pursue this household analogy too far. The relationships between ordinary households and their heads and Egypt and its king were only very superficially alike. The pharaoh was, apart from having to act in accord with the will of the gods, completely autonomous (as the Babylonian Kadashman-Enlil put it so succinctly: If you wanted to give me your daughter in marriage who could say you nay?) and - theoretically at least - the fountainhead of all; he was the owner of all property; his subjects were dependent on his good will. The ordinary householder of course was subject to the authorities; he may have administered the family's property but often did not own it in its entirety; the other members of his household seem to have had quite a large measure of influence on decisions taken in the name of the family. Unlike the king who, as king, was a god among humans, or the Roman pater familias who had almost absolute power over his family, the Egyptian head of household was apparently only first among equals.
[2] The pharaohs called the Canaanite kings mayors, while they in their turn, if they knew their place, were his slaves and dust under his feet.
[3] The king of Alasiya may have wondered what sin of his had caused the wrath of the gods, but he was in no doubt as to what was killing his people:
I have sent 500 (talents) of copper to you; I have sent it to you as a gift - for my brother. Do not let my brother be concerned that the amount of copper is too little, for in my land the hand of Nergal, my lord, has killed all the men of my land, and so there is not a (single) copper-worker.
Occasionally it happened that a king came to the conclusion that he had been in the wrong. Mursili of Hatti thought that the plague which afflicted his people was the result of Suppiluliuma, his father, not honouring the treaty with Egypt. Mursili tried to make amends by freeing Egyptian prisoners.
[4] The gods were supposed to punish anybody in breach of a treaty and to reward those who upheld it:
They who observe the words that are in the silver tablet the great gods of the country of Egypt and the great gods of the country of Hatti shall allow them to live and prosper in their houses, their country and with their servants.
They who do not observe the words that are in this silver tablet , the great gods of the country of Egypt as well as the great gods of the country of Hatti will exterminate their houses, their country and their servants
Behold, the chiefs of this country came to render their portions, to do obeisance to the fame of his majesty, to crave breath for their nostrils, because of the greatness of his power, because of the might of the fame of his majesty the country came to his fame, bearing their gifts, consisting of silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite; bringing clean grain, wine, large cattle, and small cattle for the army of his majesty. Each of the Kode among them bore the tribute southward. Behold, his majesty appointed the chiefs anew.
[6] In his oldest surviving letter, EA 15, Ashur-uballit does not yet address the pharaoh as brother.
[7] The king of Alasiya never referred to himself as Great King, but addressed the pharaoh as brother.
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