Hierarchy and Letter-Writing

Within ancient Mesopotamia are certain behaviors that reveal the place of knowledge within the apparatus of social hierarchy. For example, when writing letters, "the correspondent of inferior social position communicated information to his superior as if his superior already knew it" (Foster 261). This acquiescent behavior extended to correspondence between individuals of equal rank: "what one did not know, the other did, while whatever the one knew the other knew as well" (ibid). 

Political hierarchy also determined tone and requests. However, conflicts can arise when kings hold different views of hierarchy within the realm of international relations. Some kings treated other kings as equals. However, others do not see themselves in relation to other nations in that manner. 

In the case of Egypt, the pharaoh did not understand how an ally could be a 'brother' or an equal. Podany explains: 

"Without agreement on that point [being equals], one didn't have an alliance at all. But the Egyptian kings had never been the equals of anyone. After all, the pharaoh wasn't just an earthly king, he was the Good God, someone who, after death, would join the cosmic gods" (Podany 176). 

The Assyrian king Ashur-ubalit wrote a letter to the pharaoh of Egypt accompanied well wishes and gifts. He also stated in his letter: 

"...I send my messenger to you to visit you and to visit your country. Up to now, my predecessors have not written; today I write to you. [I] send you a beautiful chariot, two horses, [and] one date-stone of genuine lapis lazuli, as your greeting gift. Do [no]t delay the messenger whom I send to you for a visit. He should visit and then leave for here. He should see what you are like and what your country is like, and then leave for here" (Podany 174). 

In his letter, Ashur-ubalit did not ask for anything in exchange, nor did he "presume to ask for friendship, let alone brotherhood" (ibid). Amanda Podany does point out, however, that Shaushtatar II (the king of Mittani) would have been more likely to request an oath-bound relationship. Shaushtatar II would not have groveled the way the Assyrian king did. He did not employ the typical language "I fall at the feet of the Lord, my Sun, seven times and seven times" (Podany 175), and would have assumed equal standing with the pharaoh. 

However, a good spirit of alliance can triumph cultural differences in regard to hierarchical etiquette in letter-writing. When the king of Mittani wrote to the pharaoh assuming him to be an equal, the pharaoh "could have had the diplomatic delegation killed on the spot. Or he could have sent back an angry response demanding more gifts" (ibid). However, "he accepted the overture" (Podany 176) and his "enthusiastic mention of the Mittani chieftains in his inscription suggests that he was pleased with the idea of an alliance" (ibid).

Podany, Amanda H. Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Foster, Benjamin R. "Transmission of Knowledge", A Companion to the Ancient Near East, ed. Daniel C. Snell. (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2007), ch. 18.


Popular Posts