International Age of Major Kingdoms Begins in the Near East

The International Age of Major Kingdoms in the Near East was characterized by diplomacy and long-distance trade; out of this political and economic interaction came significant cultural exchange.

Summary of Event

The International Age of Major Kingdoms (c. 1450-1350 b.c.e.) encompasses the second quarter of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1150) in the Near East. Paradoxically, it followed a century and a half of chaos and strife. In central Mesopotamia, a mysterious new people, the Kassites, filled the vacuum created by the fall of the First Dynasty of Babylon (c. 1595). In Syria, Indo-Aryan immigrants mixed with the local Hurrian population, forged the kingdom of Mitanni, and dismembered the kingdom of Assyria (c. 1600-1450). In Anatolia, the Hittite royal family lost control of its eastern territories and degenerated into sultanism (c. 1595-1420). Finally, Egyptian princes dislodged the Hyksos intruders from the Nile Delta and pursued them across the Sinai Peninsula into Canaan (c. 1550-1540). Thutmose III
Amenhotep III

The International Age of Major Kingdoms arose directly out of Egypto-Mitannian competition in Canaan and Syria. Under Thutmose III, the Egyptian army campaigned seventeen times in the region, reaching as far as the Euphrates River. Egyptian records state, with typical exaggeration, that other rulers became frightened and begged Thutmose III’s son, Amenhotep II, for the “breath of life.” Reading between the lines, scholars surmise that the Kassites, Mitannians, Hittites, and Egyptians concluded an agreement on boundaries, spheres of influence, and diplomacy. Tensions were eased and peace prevailed.

The Amarna letters, diplomatic documents written in Akkadian cuneiform that were found in Egypt in 1887, reveal the precise mechanisms that sustained the peace. Kings regarded (or pretended to regard) their counterparts as “brothers” and exchanged gifts: metals, precious stones, luxury goods, animals, and slaves. Especially prized were gold (for its decorative uses) and tin (because it was alloyed with copper to make bronze). In theory, kings were supposed to give freely and generously to their brethren, but in reality, they tried to amass presents while avoiding their own obligations. In one letter, the Kassite Burna-Buriyash (early fourteenth century b.c.e.) boasted that he had all he needed but went on to request “much fine gold,” noting that an earlier shipment of bullion had been both insufficient and debased. In a whole series of epistles, the Mitannian Tushratta (mid-fourteenth century) complained furiously about receiving a pair of gold-plated statues instead of solid gold ones.

Besides exchanging gifts, royal houses also intermarried. This was a complicated process. The request for a princess-bride usually met with contemptuous surprise, and subsequent petitions were often necessary. Even if these were forthcoming, arrogance, a quality especially common in Egyptian kings, sometimes prevented unions. The pharaoh Amenhotep III, for example, emphatically refused to send his daughter into the harem of the Kassite Kadashman-Enlil I. Humbled, the latter then requested an Egyptian commoner who had been dressed up like a princess. No one in Babylon, he said, would know the difference. Incredibly, Amenhotep III again refused. “From time immemorial,” he noted, “no daughter of the king of Egy[pt] is given to anyone.”

The fact that princess-brides did not have promising futures may have rendered marriage-alliances even more objectionable. Simply put, such women never became queens. Normally, they were interred among suspicious concubines and scheming eunuchs and disappeared from history. Occasionally, an ambitious princess managed to acquire some power. At the court of the pharaoh Akhenaton, the royal favorite Kiya, who may have been a Mitannian, wielded considerable influence. Still, her life was an exception, not the rule.

Head of the mummy of Thutmose III.

(Library of Congress)

As for the mayors and chieftains of Canaan and Syria, they acquired the status of vassals. The more remote their territories were, the more unruly they became. They competed with one another for land, bargained with marauders called Apiru (alternately Hapiru or Habiru), and even conspired against their lords. One of the most notorious strongmen was Abdi-Ashirta, the chief of Amurru in the Bekáa Valley (in modern-day Lebanon), whose constant scheming compelled Amenhotep III to arrest him and convey him to Egypt for questioning. Abdi-Ashirta’s son and successor, Aziru, was himself an accomplished rascal, menacing the port of Byblos and pledging loyalty to different masters.


Thanks to diplomacy, gift-giving, and intermarriage, the Near East flourished during the International Age of Major Kingdoms. Royal envoys shuttled back and forth through Canaan, caravans crossed Mesopotamia, and trading vessels plied the Aegean Sea. With messengers and merchants went ideas, and an eclectic culture evolved in the region. The cylinder seal of King Shaushtatar of Mitanni (fifteenth century b.c.e.), for example, features an Egyptian winged sun disk, a Hurrian demon, and a generic lion in combat. Similarly, a wall painting from Nuzi, a town near Kirkuk in northern Iraq, depicts the Egyptian goddess Hathor as well as Syrian plants and twists.

Developments in Egypt are particularly interesting. Emissaries, merchants, and princesses, along with captives and hostages, brought new gods into the country. These included the war god Resheph, the sea (and possibly fertility) goddess Astarte, and the sea god Baal Zaphon. In addition, foreign words entered the Egyptian language. In fact, the Egyptian expression “to haggle” became literally “to do business in the Syrian tongue.” Finally, new materials such as glass and black bronze inlaid with gold and silver, together with new motifs such as the flying gallop, running spiral, and palmette, inspired vigor, naturalism, and sensuality in art. Perhaps the most striking exemplar of the style is a banqueting scene from the tomb of Nebamun in Thebes (early fourteenth century b.c.e.). In this scene, the artist tried to capture the undulations of two nude dancers, swaying and clapping their hands. He also violated artistic convention and depicted two musicians face-front.

Cultural experimentation in Egypt reached its peak during the reign of Akhenaton. This king founded a new religion with a single god, the Aton (Aten, or solar disk) who nurtured all lands. In addition, he appreciated contemporary trends in art and patronized elegant, gracile sculptures. A painted relief of unknown provenance (possibly from Memphis), shows his daughter, Meritaton, and his coregent, Smenkhare in a garden. The princess offers a bouquet of flowers to her companion, who leans back naturally, almost languidly, on his staff.

The International Age of Major Kingdoms ended with the intrigues and wars of the Hittite king Suppiluliumas I in the mid-fourteenth century b.c.e. Nonetheless, diplomatic mechanisms continued to function until the attack of the Sea Peoples at the end of the thirteenth century. The Hittites encroached on Egypt’s sphere of influence and defeated Mitanni, actions that led ultimately to the Battle of Kadesh (c. 1275) between Muwatallis and Ramses II, but they were not savages. Indeed, the famous Ulu Burun shipwreck, which was discovered off the south coast of Anatolia and which carried royal gifts of copper, tin, glass, and other commodities, dates to c. 1325.

Along surviving diplomatic/commercial conduits, elements of Akhenaton’s religious hymns appear to have reached Canaan. There, the Hebrews (their name may be derived from Apiru) dovetailed them into the Old Testament, specifically into Psalm 104, which likens the Lord God to the sun in the sky, nourishing all creation with his rays.

Further Reading

  • Bass, George F. “Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Splendors of the Bronze Age.” National Geographic Magazine 176, no. 6 (December, 1987): 269-296. A look at the Ulu Burun shipwreck and its cargo. Several photographs.
  • Cohen, Raymond, and Raymond Westbrook, eds. Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Essays by various scholars. Bibliography and indices.
  • Liverani, Mario. Three Amarna Essays. Translated by Matthew L. Jaffe. Malibu, Calif.: Undena Publications, 1979. Studies of the Amarna Letters by a brilliant analyst.
  • Moran, William L., ed. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. The standard English translation of the Amarna Letters. Indexes.
  • O’Connor, David, and Eric H. Cline, eds. Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Studies of the world of Amenhotep III. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Snell, Daniel C. Life in the Ancient Near East. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. A study of society and economics in the ancient Near East. Chapter 4, “Retrenchment and Empire, 1600-1100 b.c.e.,” is germane. Bibliography and index.