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Mitanni Enslaved: Prisoners of War, Pride, and Productivity in a New Imperial Regime

Morris, Ellen F.

The early to mid-Eighteenth Dynasty can be considered a transformational moment in Egypt’s social history. The first true northern empire was forged gradually over the course of a century — first through the vengeful conquests of Ahmose, then through the ambitious and exploratory expeditions of Thutmose I, and finally via Thutmose III’s relentless annual campaigning. The last stage, perhaps already anticipated during the joint reign with Hatshepsut,1 took place over the better part of two decades in the middle of the fifteenth century B.C. and occasioned such an influx of prisoners of war that the citizens of the imperial center at Thebes found themselves surrounded by foreign slaves.

In this transformational moment, then, Egypt’s economy was radically reworked, such that much of the hard labor on state projects and institutional land was now undertaken by a new population. But the point that I argue in this essay and illustrate through one specific case study is that this new population was in and of itself symbolic of a new world order. Now, thanks to this glut of foreign chattel, Egyptians of even relatively modest status could view themselves as microcosms of the state — as literal or symbolic masters over an enslaved enemy.

The foreign prisoners of war whose entrance and acculturation into Egyptian society are traced in this essay are first depicted at work on the estates of some of Hatshepsut’s most esteemed nobles. To the best of my knowledge, images of these highly recognizable men appear in Egyptian art abruptly during this reign, although admittedly the numbers of decorated tombs constructed prior to this point in the early Eighteenth Dynasty is small. They reach the zenith of their numbers in the sole reign of Thutmose III and gradually disappear from view over the next two generations.

In this essay, it is first argued that among the great mass of prisoners that entered Egypt at this time a distinct foreign population is indeed identifiable in these tombs. Second, the dissemination and eventual assimilation of this cadre of prisoners, turned slaves, is charted. Finally, the case is mustered that these men were, in all likelihood, Hurrian warriors fighting on behalf of Mitanni and that the commemoration of their enslavement reflected both a historical reality and at the same time a celebration of Egypt’s newfound and hard-won position of dominance over its neighbors to the north.

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Also Published In

Creativity and Innovation in the Reign of Hatshepsut
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

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Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago
Published Here
June 14, 2018