Monday, February 27, 2017
How an ancient Egyptian letter could have changed the world
First, I'll admit that I have often found Egyptian history kind of boring. The same with Greek. The truth was that I simply hadn't found the right teacher. I'm watching a 48 part course on Egypt from The Great Courses with Bob Brier as the instructor, and it is fascinating. The classes are about a half an hour each, and I am half way through them, which means I've already watched 12 hours worth of material. I'm not even through it, and I already want to watch it again. Instead, I'm going to watch is 32 (or maybe it is 24) part class on reading hieroglyphs.
Last night I had a raging headache, and it kept me awake. So as I curled up under the blankets, I thought about Tutankhamun's young widow and how she came very close to completely changing history as we know it -- at least in the way my imagination worked.
First, it's important to know how someone became King of Egypt -- Pharaoh -- if you wanted the strongest hold on the throne. You might have been named the heir, but it was important that you marry the woman with the most royal blood and she became your Great Wife. This is why there were so many marriages to sisters and half-sisters. It was not always the case -- Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father, was married to Nefertiti, a beautiful commoner, though of high rank. Tutankhamen might not have been her son, but was the child of a second wife. He does not show up in any of the material about his father and Nefertiti, though all the daughters and the son who died young are mentioned. The most famous Pharaoh of all time, though, is never referred to in the historical records before he was Pharaoh -- and long after his death, a successor (Horenheb) erased his name from practically everything. Not just his name, though -- his heretic father's history and the history of the man who followed Tutankhamun also disappeared.
Anyway, Akhenaten and Nefertiti's daughter Ankhesenamun married Tutankhamun. The two had no children who came to term. When her husband died, Ankhesenamun was the only person with truly royal blood still alive. That meant she was the key to the throne for someone. Whoever married her was going to become the next Pharaoh.
She wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites. This was a very powerful nation in the area of modern Turkey and a long time enemy of Egypt. She asked that he send one of his numerous sons to marry her and she would make him Pharaoh. She said she would not marry a servant and that she was afraid.
Suppiluliuma I, the king of the Hittites, didn't believe the letter, so he sent someone to investigate. Word finally reached him that it was true. He sent off a son and his retinue to Egypt, but they were met at the border, and the son was killed.
The former Vizier of Egypt, a man, named Aye, becomes Pharaoh. He is shown as such even in Tutankhamun's hastily created tomb. Tutankhamun died at about the age of 18, and they had only seventy days to prepare the burial place, which is the official time that the preparation of the mummy takes place. Shortly after she wrote the letter, Ankhesenamun disappears from history. Aye's own tomb lists a different wife. No tomb to Ankhesenamun has ever been found, but it is evident that Aye had married the most royal woman to become Pharaoh ... that she was forced to marry the servant.
(If her name sounds somewhat familiar, you've probably seen the Brendan Fraiser Mummy movies.)
So what would have happened if the Hittite king had sent his son right away? What if Ankhesenamun had succeeded in her plan?
Maybe everything would have changed.
Through the marriage, the Hittites made a permanent link with Egypt and the fabled Egyptian wealth. With it, there were able to fight back the peoples of Mesopotamia (Assyrians, Kassites, Hurrians -- I can't remember what nations were actually powerful at this point) and conquered all that part of the ancient world. They gain more from Egypt than just her wealth, though. Nearly every conqueror of Egypt became seduced by the culture. A Hittite became Pharaoh, and he and his successors helped to spread the glory and the gods of Egypt from the Nile valley all the way up to Troy and down to Babylon.
Now, this Egyptian-Hittite empire might have pressed west as well, but I'm going to pretend that they had their hands full with everything eastward and along the southern Mediterranean shore. The Greeks might not have had their Troy, or they might have had some battle against this new empire. The Greeks might have developed in much the same way as they did in our reality, but there would not have been a Persian Empire that had tried to invade. Maybe the Egypt-Hittite empire would have done so, but let's say that this melding of the empire was already a thousand years old when the Persians would have invaded and maybe had its hands full with rebel provinces and trouble to the east and south. Though our real Egypt had some tumultuous times, they still held on remarkably well all the way down to the Romans. Even the Greeks played at the Egypt game.
Maybe there would still be an Alexander if the Greek lands had been left to their little wars between the multiple kingdoms. Phillip might have united them. Alexander might have taken his father's throne.
But the Persians had not attacked Greece. Alexander didn't have the mandate to invade and burn Persepolis in revenge for their attack on Delphi. If the Egyptian-Hittite power still reigned strong and kept its attention eastward, someone as wise as Alexander would not want to draw that giant's attention.
However, Alexander would have done something.
What if he looked West instead? Those upstart Romans might have become a bit of a problem. If he moved against that area of the world, he would have saved his cousin from that disastrous Pyhrric Victory later. So instead of paving the way for the Romans into the east, he subjugates them and keeps heading west. What if he reached the end of the world in Ireland in the company of Druids?
This is an entirely different world. In this one, Caesar is part of the Greek World and Romans might well be slaves. Or maybe he is part of the army recruited from the Roman peninsula. I don't believe a person is created just by his genes so the circumstances would have had to work just right for Caesar to be anything like what he was in the real world, whether he was successful or not. The same with Alexander and anyone else.
What if the Egyptians take over everything and Alexander is, in essence, Egyptian? Phillip (his father) had made the Macedonian capital a haven of Greek Culture -- but even so, the Greeks of places like Athens never considered them to be more than northern barbarians. What if Phillip brought in Egyptian culture instead? How odd would that be to see the Gods of the sunny south standing in the winter lands of Macedonia?
I'm not even seriously considering anything like shifts made by Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. I am not looking at the lands of India and beyond and what they might have done when faced by these giants to their west. I am only looking at historical people and pretending that they would be much the same regarding drive if not position.
In this pretend world, the Egyptian-Hittites hold the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean shore (and inland from there). The Greeks hold the northern shore and the western islands. Or the Egyptians take all and rule from their river-fed lands. Egyptians never liked to travel far, partly because you had to be buried in the land of the pharaohs in order to partake in their resurrection and eternity. Perhaps they could expand the idea of being buried on the west bank to include anything west of the Nile, but the Northern, European edges of the Mediterranean would have been far harder to include in that world (and death) view.
Egypt as an empire lasted for thousands of years. Yes, they fell sometimes, but they always rose again in the same mold. They had an unyielding sense of self -- so strong, that even the Greeks after Alexander fell under their spell. Alexander succumbed to the glory of Egypt to some degree as well, though in a different way. Did the Oracle at Siwa set Alexander on his way to the east by proclaiming he would be supreme ruler of all those lands? That might be a handy way to get rid of a troublesome Greek, wouldn't you think? At least until it turned out to be true.
Oh, but that's more real-world stuff. I am infatuated with my 'Let's Pretend' world where the Egyptians have the south, the Greeks have the north -- the Romans are troublesome slaves (but maybe great at designing and building things), and the Druids were the beloved of Alexander.
I want to write in this pretend world. I want to see the Romans rebel against their Greek masters. I want to see pyramids on the Straits of Gibraltar, and the 35th Tutankhamun proclaimed Pharaoh amidst rumors of another band from the Chinese hinterlands heading into the eastern edges of the empire. Are the Mongols coming? How far into Europe will they get? If the Romans revolt, will Egypt help the Greeks get it settled? They would be wise to unless some fool of a Pharaoh thinks it's time to take over all the known world.
There could be a lot of stories in this world, but it would also take considerable work to get the foundations built. I am going to play with it, but I honestly don't do well with historical fiction despite the amount of history I read. This is the kind of project that would take years just to set up, though. And what if I added a sprinkling of magic to take it into the world of true fantasy stories. Egypt certainly had its tales of magic, after all.
So if everything changed with a letter, where would it lead?
I think this one is going to stay with me for some time.