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Special Envoys in the Middle East, Thousands of Years Ago

By Amanda H. Podany


In President Obama’s speech last December when he received the Nobel Prize, he observed that, “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease—the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.” This comment almost seems to need no supporting evidence; it’s just common knowledge and common sense. And, for the most part, it’s true. That point, though, about war being the way that ancient civilizations “settled their differences”—that isn’t in fact the whole story. Ancient kings could, and did, send their armies into battle against one another. But some of them also talked to one another, wrote letters, sent ambassadors back and forth between their capitals, and drew up peace treaties. Sometimes, as a result, they avoided war and benefited from peaceful alliances, often for decades at a time.

Recently, as is so often the case, the focus of American diplomatic efforts has been on the Middle East. In a recent meeting, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed the relationship between the US and Israel, then President Obama telephoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to voice his support for Abbas as well. Just days before that, Vice President Biden had met with Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. It might surprise some modern political observers to learn that the invention of diplomacy probably took place in the Middle East over 4,300 years ago and that diplomatic interactions flourished there throughout the centuries of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, long before the era even of the Greeks and Romans. Affirmations of alliance and friendship similar to those spoken by President Obama and his allies in the Middle East can be found in ancient cuneiform documents between the kings of Egypt and Mittani (now Syria) and between the kings of Hatti (now Turkey) and Babylonia (now Iraq). And just as, today, President Obama relies on his envoy George Mitchell or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to set the groundwork for agreements among Middle Eastern countries and the United States, so ancient leaders depended on their envoys for exactly the same reason.

Like modern envoys, these ancient ambassadors traveled to foreign lands, accompanied by translators and assistants. Like Mitchell or Clinton, the ancient officials often found themselves walking the line between assertiveness and compromise, between representing their government and taking a measure of control in negotiations, between accepting formal gestures of friendship and not wanting to be seen as favoring one ally over another. Fortunately for us, they left copious records of their diplomatic encounters.

For example, 3,350 years ago, a man named Keliya represented the king of the Mittanian Empire, in ancient Syria, traveling regularly to the court of the powerful Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III. Prior to his time, Egypt had been an enemy of Mittani for almost a century, starting around 1500 BCE. Egyptian kings had invaded Mittani, looted cities and taken back prisoners and booty. Mittani, in turn, was no vulnerable victim. It too had been expanding aggressively into neighboring lands. But around 1420 BCE the two lands made peace and instigated an era of extensive diplomatic contact. Other former enemies of Mittani—Hatti in what is now Turkey, and Babylonia in what is now Iraq—joined in as well. The great kings saw themselves as “brothers,” or equals, and they relied on their ambassadors, like Keliya, to keep communication open between them. Thanks to such men, what had seemed to be an irredeemably hostile situation became one in which the most controversial topics of discussion were the quality of the gold sent by Egypt to its allies and the hurt feelings of a Babylonian king who was not invited to a festival in Egypt (even though he had no intention of going). It was a time of peace and cooperation.

In some ways, of course, Keliya’s experiences were vastly different from Hillary Clinton’s. Keliya traveled to Egypt on foot, so his diplomatic missions lasted many months, not a few days. He had no way of instantly contacting his king after he had left the capital city. Any messages he sent home took weeks to be delivered, so he had to negotiate without the benefit of consultation. The letters he carried from his king to the pharaoh were not on paper (or in electronic files as they might be today) but on clay tablets (which were mostly the size of a small paperback but could occasionally assume the size of a hefty coffee table book, when his king was in a prolix mood). Whereas today world leaders like Obama and Netanyahu, Biden and Maliki can meet easily in person, in Keliya’s time the great kings almost never traveled to meet one another. This put even more responsibility on the shoulders of their ambassadors, who had to serve as their substitutes, representing the kings’ wishes and bringing back all the information they needed. The ambassadors were, accordingly, treated almost as though they were kings themselves. Keliya even negotiated marriages between the king of Egypt and the daughters of the king of Mittani, something that a modern Secretary of State no longer has to concern herself with.

Other aspects of Keliya’s job would however seem more familiar to Secretary Clinton. When Keliya arrived in the foreign capital, he was provided with comfortable quarters and a banquet was held in his honor. He had translators among his entourage, and an easy rapport seems to have developed among fellow envoys from different lands. One of Keliya’s closest friends was Mane, his Egyptian counterpart. Once negotiations began, Keliya had to faithfully represent the goals of his own government while also finding ways to accommodate the pharaoh’s wishes. Keliya’s own wisdom and experience were crucial in finding areas of common ground.

A set of traditional and accepted behaviors applied to such encounters right across the Near East. All letters were written in the cuneiform script and almost all of them were in the Akkadian language (spoken in Babylonia) no matter who sent or received them. Ambassadors could almost always count on being treated well, even if their kings were on the verge of war. Keliya traveled safely across the hundreds of miles that separated the capital of Mittani from Egypt, bringing back home with him a friendly letter from the pharaoh. The king of Mittani commented, on Keliya’s return from his first trip to Egypt: “I rejoiced very, very much, saying, ‘Certainly there is this between us: we (the kings of Egypt and Mittani) love [each other] very, very much, and between us let there be friendship.”

Keliya was not even among the world’s first diplomats. A thousand years before him, in 2300 BCE, earlier Syrian and Mesopotamian ambassadors left evidence of their efforts at creating alliances. Their diplomatic letters and peace treaties are among the first state documents ever written.

For as much as war has been a fact of life among most societies, it is reassuring to know that humans, and governments, have been striving to find ways of coexisting peacefully ever since the beginning of human history, and often doing so successfully. Keliya would no doubt be pleased to know that his approach to international relations has its echoes among his successors in the modern world.

Amanda H. Podany is Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her new book, Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East, is a vivid tour of a thousand years of ancient Near Eastern history, from 2300 to 1300 BCE, focusing on the establishment of international diplomacy and the relationships between the great kings of the day.

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