22 March 2017

Herstory: An Ancient Cold War Resolved by a Marriage

By Judith Starkston

Toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the decade after their colossal confrontation at Kadesh in
Ramses II,  Temple at Abu Simbel
1274 BCE, the two major world powers, Egypt and the Hittite Empire, eyed each other with hostility. Rather like the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, neither could afford to restart open warfare, but the treaty they had signed formed an uneasy peace.

(If you are caught by surprise at the mention of the Hittites as a major world power at any period, you are merely a victim of what we might call the Forgotten Empire Syndrome. The Hittites got buried and lost to memory until not so long ago when modern archaeology dug them up.)

Rock carving of Queen Puduhepa (far right) making an offering
Into this diplomatic breach stepped Great Queen Puduhepa, the indomitable leader of the Hittites, who frequently took state and judicial affairs into her own hands on behalf of her husband Great King Hattusili III. Theirs was a genuine partnership of equals. Hittite law and custom allowed queens plenty of latitude but few took every inch of that power the way Puduhepa did. She reigned until she was at least 80 and probably started before she passed 20. An impressive run, with many impressive accomplishments.

We often think of the power of women through much of history as arising from their use as brides to kings, sealers of bonds between two dominant men. This reeks more than a bit of chattel. Certainly it isn’t the role we most admire and celebrate when we study women’s history.

But in Puduhepa’s case we get the bizarre mixture of a powerful woman using a lot of mostly anonymous young women as guarantors of her country’s peace and power. She arranged politically adept marriages for her husband’s many daughters and sons, both sending out Hattusili’s girls and bringing in foreign potentates’ daughters for his sons. (Only some of these children were literally Puduhepa’s. Concubines were the norm, but only for the royal family. Before Puduhepa arrived in the palace, there was already a good stock of future political brides and loyal generals. The loins of the king were the supplier of the state department staff and military leadership, so to speak…)

Of all the marriages Puduhepa arranged, the most complicated and tricky was between Pharaoh Ramses II and one of Puduhepa’s own daughters. She had to negotiate for months—years—the appropriate size of dowry, the travel arrangements, the status once of this wife within Pharaoh’s court, and most challenging, she had to first convince Pharaoh that he wanted a new wife.

This marriage was the crowning achievement of her peacemaking. The Hittite Empire needed this surety that Pharaoh would not back Hattusili’s challengers far more than Pharaoh needed anything from the Hittites. Hattusili and Puduhepa had usurped the throne from a secondary son of a concubine who as near as history can tell us was singularly untalented at ruling judiciously. They may have been right to take the throne, but that didn’t eliminate all the challenges of establishing a legitimate claim. Marriage with Pharaoh settled the question.

Rameses smiting the Hittites
A really BIG Pharaoh
in Egyptian iconography
Puduhepa’s other difficulty in making this peace-sealing marriage happen lay in Ramses’s personality. He shows clear signs of an ego even bigger than the one of a certain recently elected U.S. president. Not an easy guy to talk into doing something that might imply that he is equal to, not greater than, his least favorite “Brother” king. (If you were important enough, you got to address your fellow king as brother. Most kings didn’t qualify.)

In defense of Puduhepa’s chattel-like use of her daughter, other than that it was the norm and the best expected outcome for said daughter, the queen took extreme precautions to assure her daughter’s status as Ramses’ “first wife.” He was an old man with a large harem and women tended to disappear into oblivion at his court. They probably led comfortable lives, but who knew for sure? None of the ambassadors Puduhepa sent could reassure her on this point. The Babylonian princess had been denied access to her family’s messengers once the marriage was consummated. Sadly, Ramses went back on his promise to keep this newest wife as the top lady. But Puduhepa tried. If he hadn’t lied, she’d have won that one, too. Along with world peace and economic well being for her country. Not too bad with one marriage deal.

Here are some trimmed excerpts from her most famous letter to Ramses, giving him a hard time
A cuneiform letter similar to Puduhepa's
next to its clay envelope
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
about his complaints. He has accused her of stalling, but she points out putting a dowry together is tricky because the king before Hattusili (whom Hattusili usurped and who is now living in exile with Ramses) stole most of the state treasury (or something like that, the words aren’t totally clear, as is true with pretty much every word in every Hittite document for reasons I won’t go into, but that are fascinating.)

After her dig about the missing treasury, which she tells Ramses to ask his pal the ex-king about, she carries on with some salesmanship:
“To whom shall I compare the daughter of heaven and earth whom I will give to my brother: Should I compare her to the daughter of Babylonia, of Zulabi, or of Assyria? [absolutely not, she’s way better]

[Then back to the dowry quarrels, Ramses wants a lot] Does my brother have nothing at all? Only if the Son of the Sun God, The Son of the Storm God, and the Sea have nothing, do you have nothing! Yet, my brother, you want to enrich yourself at my expense! It (i.e., such behavior) is unworthy of name and lordly status.”

A later bit of salesmanship about the daughter Puduhepa has chosen for Ramses comes in this sentence: “And may the gods likewise endow the daughter whom I will give to my brother with the Queen’s experience and capacity for nurture.”


As she hints in the letter, Puduhepa counted as one of her greatest accomplishments her mothering and loving raising of her children and, quite inclusively, Hattusili’s children by his concubines. Sometimes that poses challenges for the modern mind to get around—just what was this equal partnership really like?

About the author

Judith Starkston is the author of Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

Her website is a great place to subscribe to if you enjoy engaging windows into ancient history and archaeology. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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