Peace in Ancient Egypt
By Vanessa Davies
The existence of an ancient treaty is exciting enough. But when that 3,200-year-old treaty was concluded 16 years after the cessation of battle, it demands even greater attention. What did peace mean in that context for the Egyptians? As the result of proper action, it was a value frequently represented in the world of monumental depiction, one that united all beings.
The hieroglyphic copy of the treaty settled by Ramesses II and Hattušili III, Karnak, Egypt. (Wikimedia Commons)
The treaty was concluded by Ramesses II of Egypt and the Hittite king Hattušili III in the 21st year of Ramesses' reign, which was the 10th year of Hattušili's reign, corresponding to the mid-thirteenth century BCE. Prior to the settling of the treaty, a major confrontation between Egyptian and Hittite forces had occurred at the infamous battle at Qadesh. There, in the northern Levant, the forces of a young Ramesses II clashed with those of Muwatalli, the brother of Hattušili.
Ramesses in battle at Qadesh, Ramesseum, Egypt. (Wikimedia Commons)
In the intervening 16 years between the battle at Qadesh and the treaty, many changes occurred on the Hittite throne. Yet no record exists of any further major military engagement between the two sides. So it sounds incongruous that, as the beginning of the treaty tells us, a messenger arrived in the Egyptian capital with a silver tablet bearing a request from Hattušili for peace. Why then, and what was meant by "peace" in the Egyptian version of the text?
Hattusili III (right) pours a libation before a deity (left), Firaktin relief, Turkey. (Wikimedia Commons)
Copies of the treaty were found written on tablets in cuneiform at the Hittite capital, Hattusa. In Egypt, copies are found carved on the walls of the Temple of Karnak and the Ramesseum at Thebes. From these monumental contexts, we must deduce the meaning of the Egyptian word for "peace."
There are more than a few ancient Egyptian words that we translate as "peace" or with a similar synonym. In order to understand the meaning of peace in the treaty, one must focus on the word used in that text: hetep. In hieroglyphs, hetep is written as a loaf of bread placed in the center of a reed mat.
The word hetep written in hieroglyphs. On top is the bread loaf on reed mat (phonetic H-T-P), and underneath are the repeated phonetics, the square (P) and the half-circle (T). On the right is the nefer hieroglyph. (Wikimedia Commons)
Besides meaning "peace" in the Ramesses-Hattušili treaty, the word hetep has other senses, including "rest," "offering," and "contentment." Hetep is the "rest" of a deity in its shrine, the dead in the tomb, and the Egyptian king on the throne. As "offering," hetep is the food, drink, ointment, incense, and other goods presented by the king to deities and by the living to the dead. It is the "offering table," which often takes the shape of the hetep hieroglyph. Hetep is also the "contentment" that a deity experiences because of particular actions of the king, such as building a temple or increasing the number of festivals for the deity. It is also the "contentment" of two disputing parties who have come to an agreement and the "contentment" that the recipient of offerings (also hetep) experiences.
Stone offering table, Walters Art Museum 2291. Note that the table takes the shape of the hetep hieroglyph. Carved on the table top are a variety of types of food and another representation of the hetep hieroglyph (at the top of the table and upside down to the viewer). (Wikimedia Commons)
The underlying meaning that unites these different uses of the word hetep connects to the Egyptian idea of maat. The abstract concept of maat, embodied by the goddess Maat, refers to the proper order of life on earth and the proper order of the universe. The natural order of life encapsulated as maat is, for instance, the progression of stars across the night sky and the annual rising and falling of the Nile floodwaters. When individuals act towards another in accord with maat, the recipient experiences hetep. Hetep is the result of action in accord with maat.
The Egyptian goddess Maat. The feather in her headband is the hieroglyph for the word maat. (Wikimedia Commons)
The concrete meaning of hetep, the items that are "offerings" to deities and to the dead, are physical representations of the abstract concept of "peace, contentment, and rest," which is what the recipient experiences when an actor, such as the king building a temple or a child remembering dead parents, acts in a just or proper (maat) fashion. The offering scene is a way to represent an individual's maat-action and production of hetep for another.
The Meroitic king Aqramani presenting a burnt offering to deities, Dakka. In the center of the offering is the hetep hieroglyph. (Wikimedia Commons)
Thus, the "peace" described by the word hetep must be understood from a particularly Egyptian perspective. In his battle reliefs at Karnak, the Egyptian king Seti I is also hetep when he sees blood after chopping off the heads of troublesome Bedouin. The Bedouin, we can safely presume, were not so content or at peace with Seti's action.
Seti returning to Egypt with captured bedouin prisoners, Karnak. (Wikimedia Commons)
But hetep is not simply a way to indicate approval for any action of the Egyptian king. Maat-actions entail particular codes of behavior. So hetep is quite unlike the concept of peace described in the words of the Celtic tribal leader in Tacitus's Agricola: "Now we are between the ocean and the Romans, who in their greed of money and conquest spare no one; who call massacre and plunder, empire; and the desert they have made, peace."
Bronze offering table with model vessels, Abydos, British Museum EA 5315. On both the short and the long sides, the table takes the form of the hetep hieroglyph. (Wikimedia Commons)
An Egyptian account of events on the Qadesh battlefield gives us an additional glimpse of the complexity of hetep. With the Egyptian and Hittite forces failing to make headway against one another, Muwatalli sent Ramesses a message, asking for hetep. The Egyptian generals, when advising Ramesses to agree to the request, say, "There is no blame in hetep when you do it. Who will respect him (i.e., the Hittite king) when you are angry?" (A different account reads, "Who will resist you when you are angry?")
Statue group and offering table, Abydos, Louvre 228. The offering table is in the shape of the hetep hieroglyph, and it has a hetep hieroglyph depicted in its center (both upside down to the viewer). (Wikimedia Commons)
The Egyptian generals try to mitigate Ramesses's misgivings by reassuring him that there is no blame in agreeing to hetep rather than orchestrating a defeat on the battlefield. The generals' speech signals to us that someone, if not Ramesses then perhaps other Egyptian officials, military personnel, or even the divine, might assign him some blame in that situation.
Taharqa presents offerings to deities, Gebel Barkal. The hetep hieroglyph appears twice in the offering table, one on top of the other.
With hetep, the type of rhetoric and the creation of community are central. Whether in the offering of goods or in battle, the giving or causing of hetep involves the donor establishing a relationship with the recipient. Through their interaction, the donor recognizes the recipient and behaves towards the recipient in a manner appropriate to their respective social roles.
Stela depicting the lector priest Siamun and his mother, the singer Amenhotep, receiving offerings from Siamun's wife, the chantress Iretnofret. The hetep hieroglyph appears in the center of the offering table between the figures. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
From the Egyptian perspective, the Ramesses-Hattušili treaty produces hetep in just that way: the two kings establish a relationship with one another, they each recognize the other, and they affirm that they will behave in ways appropriate to their social roles. The two kings recognize one another when they list their genealogies going back two generations. In the treaty's terms, they detail the specific actions they will take with regard to one another, actions that are deemed appropriate (maat) from an Egyptian perspective. The two kings thus produce hetep for one another.
Nome deities presenting goods, temple of Ramesses II at Abydos. The hetep hieroglyph appears in the center of the goods. (Wikimedia Commons)
The cycle of maat-action and production of hetep played out in the monumental texts and art of Egypt: the stone temples and tombs of the elite and the statues and stelae of the elite and non-elite. But the actions, depictions, and statements of individuals in monumental depictions do not necessarily bear resemblance to a lived reality. In the same way that we do not imagine that Ramesses always looked as physically fit as his temple depictions suggest, neither should we presume that Seti was necessarily hetep in an emotional sense at seeing blood when he decapitated the Bedouin.
The world of monumental depiction had certain purposes and was not intended to be a "factual," eyewitness, or unbiased account, but a testament to a set of values. In that depicted world, all members could cause or give hetep to any other member, and so a community existed there that joined the living and the dead, Egyptian and foreigner, deity, king, and non-royal. Like offering scenes to deities, the Egyptian-Hittite treaty functions as a record of the Egyptian king's maat-action and production of hetep.
Artist's practice carving of a king holding up goods in the traditional pose of offering in front of a deity, Walters Art Museum 22266. (Wikimedia Commons)
Vanessa Davies has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
-- Sent from my Linux system.