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Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 15.1 (2002) 75-99


ISSN 0952-7648

Ambiguous Identities: The Marriage Vase of Niqmaddu II


and the Elusive Egyptian Princess
Marian H. Feldman
Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
E-mail: feldman@socrates.berkeley.edu

Abstract
A fourteenth-century BC alabaster vase found at Ugarit on the coast of Syria bears a representation of
a man and a woman often interpreted as husband and wife. The man is identified as Syrian both in an
inscription stating he is Niqmaddu, ruler of Ugarit, and in his physical rendering. The identity of the
lady, dressed in Egyptian court fashion, remains uncertain. The image has been used both to support
and refute a claim made in a contemporary international letter that Egypt never gave its princesses in
marriage to foreign rulers. This article examines how the image deploys the indeterminate identity of the
woman within an explicitly identified scene of royal representation. The rationale for such intentional
ambiguity lies in Ugarits role in the political relations of the Late Bronze Age, a world of diplomacy in
which the Ugaritic king operated on both the foreign and domestic levels. The element of ambiguity
serves as a critical component in status negotiations, and images present an ideal vehicle for coding
flexible messages in diplomatic maneuvers.

Introduction
Rulers of the ancient Near East arranged interdynastic marriages among themselves and their
offspring as a primary mechanism for developing and preserving international alliances. This
practice, in its intensified and formulaic structure, is well documented in the written sources
of the fifteenth through thirteenth centuries BC
(the extended Amarna age). In general, these
transactions involved the giving of a kings
daughter to another king to be installed in his
court. The event was preceded by elaborate
negotiations and accompanied by the exchange
of great quantities of wealth in the form of both
bride-price and dowry. At least four of the
major powers of this time are known to have
participated in such marriage alliancesMit-

tani, Babylonia, Hatti, and Egyptas well as


many of the less powerful kingdoms (Figure 1).
Reciprocity of relations and equality of rank
characterize certain diplomatic relations of the
extended Amarna age. The kings who entered
into marriage negotiations viewed themselves
and their fellow rulers as occupying exalted
ranks of international status and interacted
with one another in supposedly balanced relations. The rhetoric of parity should therefore
have included reciprocity of exchanged royal
women. Yet Egypts participation, as one of the
preeminent powers, remains uncertain with
respect to its attitude toward these interdynastic marriages. Subtle expressions of imbalance
appear throughout the documentation for
international relations, but none so blatantly
as that of Egypts declaration against giving a

The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002, The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX and 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA.

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Figure 1. Map of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East during the extended Amarna age (After Cohen and
Westbrook 2000).

princess in marriage, which is quoted in a


diplomatic letter from the king of Babylonia,
from time immemorial no daughter of the
king of Egy[pt] is given to anyone (EA 4,
translation by Moran 1992). Coupled with the
lack of any other textual evidence for such
behavior, some scholars have postulated that
in this particular area, Egypt did not play by
the rules of international protocol. The introduction of visual evidence, specifically fragments of an alabaster vase depicting a possible
diplomatic marriage between an Egyptian
princess and a foreign ruler, complicates the
interpretation (Figures 2 and 3).
The vessel fragments, found in the palace at
Ugarit (present-day Ras Shamra on the coast of
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

Syria), bear an incised representation of an


encounter between a woman and a man. The
man is identified by an accompanying Egyptian
hieroglyphic inscription as Niqmaddu, ruler of
Ugarit. The lady appears in Egyptian court fashion as she stands before him pouring liquid from
a small vase. Debate over the identity of this
woman has raged concerning whether she is or
is not an Egyptian princess given in marriage by
an Egyptian king (for most recent discussion see
Singer 1999: 624-26). The possibility that this
figure may represent an exchanged Egyptian
princess has fueled arguments both for and
against Egypts willingness to reciprocate in the
game of diplomatic alliances. While the man in
the scene is explicitly identified as Syrian in

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Figure 2. Photograph of alabaster vase fragments from royal palace at Ugarit (Ras Shamra), Syria, Damascus
National Museum (courtesy of the Mission de Ras Shamra).

Figure 3. Drawing of alabaster vase fragments from royal palace at Ugarit (Ras Shamra), Syria, Damascus National
Museum (after Schaeffer 1956: fig. 118).

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both the inscription and in his physical rendering, the womans identity remains indeterminate. It is precisely this visual ambiguity of
identity and rank that this paper explores in
light of diplomatic marriages and political negotiation. Ambiguity and multivalency are relied
upon as tools in the process of negotiation that
is central to political relations, and evidence of
their deployment survives in written diplomatic
documents of the time (Meier 2000: 173). Yet
visual forms and images present more conducive vehicles for coding ambiguous messages,
being removed from the verbal realm by which
the ancient participants evaluated claims
(Baxandall 1985: 1-11; Uehlinger 2000: xxvii).
As has been noted by many art historians,
unlike words, even those fixed in a written text,
visual images have an almost infinite capacity
for verbal extension, because viewers must
become their own narrators, changing the
images into some form of internalized verbal
expression (Brilliant 1984: 16). In other words,
no image, and especially not one depicting an
elite person on a prestige object, reflects a simple, literal reality. Rather, it presents a view that
was carefully constructed by the patron and/or
artist with the intention of conveying particular
signification. Because of this, we must accept
that images were important means of expression, and like all forms of expression, could be
more or less explicit depending on the desires of
the producer (here, the patron, rather than the
manufacturer, is taken as the primary agent in
determining the iconography of the work). It is
suggested in this article that the ladys visually
ambiguous identity and lack of inscription permitted implicit messages that were intentionally deployed for purposes of status negotiation.
The enigmatic imagery on the vase fragments,
when connected with the Late Bronze Age
world of political (both international and
domestic) relations, can be understood as a
vehicle for expressing diplomatic rhetoric.

The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

Niqmaddus Marriage Scene


The alabaster fragments in question were
recovered along with other alabaster vessels
from the royal palace of Ugarit (RS 15.239/
Damascus Museum 4160; Caubet 1991: 230).
The two pieces were found in room 31, which
opens onto court IV (Schaeffer 1956: 164).
Court IV as well as its adjoining and upper
rooms housed the so-called central archive
that included records of the gifts and exchanges
of land overseen by the king, most of which
date to the reign of Ammistamru II (ca.
12631220 BC; Bordreuil and Pardee 1989: 81152; van Soldt 1991: 74-96). Room 31 and its
neighboring room 30 contained fragments of
approximately five other alabaster vessels,
including three bearing Egyptian royal cartouches of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Ramses II,
as well as another bearing the cartouche of
Amenhotep III (found in Court IV), which
link them to the international world (Schaeffer
1956: 164; Caubet 1991: nos. 15.201-203, 15.
258, and 16.340). A recent analysis of the
alabaster vases has reiterated the difficulty in
distinguishing between actual imports from
Egypt and local Levantine products, or even
Egyptian pieces manufactured specifically for
Levantine export, although those vessels bearing Egyptian royal names are generally considered to be products of Egyptian workshops
(Caubet 1991: 218). Material analysis of the
stone cannot resolve the problem since unworked Egyptian alabaster could be imported
into Syria for local production. Found in the
main palace as well as in elite residences and
tombs, the Egyptian/Egyptianizing vases of
alabaster would have carried a high degree of
prestige (Caubet 1991: 219). Those that bear
Egyptian royal cartouches are only found in the
royal palace or, in two cases, close by the palace
(Caubet 1991: 214). The fragmentary vessel in
question, which probably belonged to a large
amphora-type table vessel, is unique among the

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Ras Shamra finds both in its imagery and its reference to a specific Ugaritic ruler (Caubet
1991: 213).
The carefully incised design preserves the
upper part of a meeting between a woman and
a man that takes place beneath a portico or
kiosk supported on either side by columns surmounted with ornate lotus, papyrus and
volute capitals of Egyptian type. The cornice
and columns frame the upper and side boundaries of the image, while the lower extent does
not survive. Five columns of Egyptian hieroglyphs run below the cornice and read from
right to left, the chief [ruler] of the land of
Ugarit, Niqmaddu (wr n h st Jkrt,
Nyq mdy). Immediately below the inscription is the upper part of a mans head; the rest
of his body is lost beyond the break. Facing
him to the right stands the woman in Egyptian
dress, coiffure and headdress. She holds a
cloth in one hand and with the other pours
liquid from a slender vessel. In between the
two figures sits a profile rendering of a spotted
cows head that resembles rhyta of Aegean
type known from examples found on Crete
and pictured as tribute in early 18th Dynasty
Egyptian private tombs (Desroches-Noblecourt 1956: 191). Comparable scenes of
women pouring wine for the king seated under
a columned portico appear in Egyptian art.
One example, from the tomb of Meryra II at
Amarna, presents an almost identical composition, though in reverse, to that on the
alabaster vase fragments (Figure 4; Davies
1905: pl. 32). In the tomb relief, Queen Nefertiti bends slightly forward as she pours wine
from a tall slender vessel, through a strainer
and into a shallow cup held by the seated
Akhenaten. The two are enclosed in an elaborately ornamented portico supported by two
columns. The double cornice features two
rows of closely set uraei.
In addition to the inscription on the vase fragments, which explicitly identifies the man as an
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79

Ugaritic ruler, the representation provides physiognomic and dress-related markers of his Syrian
identity (Desroches-Noblecourt 1956: 190;
Caubet 1991: 213). Although only the upper
part of his head survives and the alabaster fragments are relatively small in size, the features of
the upper profile and headdress are clearly visible. The face and head (bearing headdress) are,
moreover, generally the most important locations for signaling personal/group identification
(Wobst 1977: 328-35). His full rounded head
and prominent nose recall images of men from
the Syro-Palestine area, as well as depictions of
Syrians in Egyptian tombs, as does the hairstyle
bound by a wide fillet.1 The larger size of his
head relative to the womans figure indicates
that he was probably seated. The proportions of
the womans body and the detailing of the cornice and columns when compared to dated
Egyptian examples provide a late fourteenthcentury date, roughly contemporary with the
end of the 18th Dynasty, from the reign of
Akhenaten through Ay (Desroches-Noblecourt
1956: 209-18). The vase can therefore be placed
in the reign of Niqmaddu II (ca. 1350-1315),
the only Ugaritic king by that name to have
reigned during the time to which the imagery
stylistically belongs.
A brief review of scholarly art historical opinion regarding this piece serves to emphasize the
competing interpretations and general lack of
consensus. In all cases, interest has rested with
the identification of the woman and its implications for the work as a whole. In the initial
1956 publication, Christine Desroches-Noblecourt proposed that the scene might commemorate a marriage between an Ugaritic king and
an Egyptian princess. Although the lady would
be smaller than the seated man should he stand,
she occupies an important position within the
portico and faces him at eye level, which
Desroches-Noblecourt (1956: 191) interprets as
indicating roughly equal rank. According to
Egyptian parallels such as that from the tomb of

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Figure 4.

Drawing of Queen Nefertiti pouring wine for Akhenaten, Tomb of Meryra II, Amarna, Egypt (after
Davies 1905: pl. 32).

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Meryra II, the woman shown on the fragment
from Ugarit might be interpreted as a subject of
high enough rank to occupy a royal portico, a
favorite daughter, or an attentive wife
(Desroches-Noblecourt 1956: 197). DesrochesNoblecourt rejects the second possibility, claiming that the Egyptian-looking lady could not
possibly be the daughter of an Ugaritic king as
they are two different ethnic types, that is,
physiognomically they appear ethnically differentiated.2 She excludes the first possibility
because if the woman in question is a subject,
then she is an Egyptian sent to Ugarit on official business (e.g. as a messenger or ambassador)
and such a role is not known for a woman

81

except as a wife. Thus, only the third identification remains as a possibility for DesrochesNoblecourt. The iconography of the scene may
further support this interpretation. The act of
pouring liquid before a man carries potentially
erotic or sexual overtones in Egyptian art, seen
for example in a panel on a gold shrine from
Tutankhamuns tomb (Troy 1986: 59, fig. 38).
For Desroches-Noblecourt (1956: 198), the
headdressa box-like platform surmounted by
circular flowersis the most critical iconographic element in the identification of the
figure, and she uses it to support her interpretation: that the woman is an Egyptian married to
Niqmaddu. The best-known Egyptian image

Figure 5. Drawing of detail of the daughters of Menna, Tomb of Menna (Theban Tomb 69), Egypt (after Troy
1986: fig. 50).
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

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that depicts women wearing such a headdress is


in the tomb of Menna, whose daughters are
designated in the inscriptions as h krt nsw or
ornaments of the king, a phrase commonly
associated with royal women and members of
the harem (Figure 5; Davies 1936: 104, pl.
LIII). In a discussion of this title, Troy (1986:
78) associates these women with royal wives
and the cultic rites of Hathor. One can also
compare the headdress of Niqmaddus companion with that worn by the princess Sitamun,
daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiyi.
On the back reliefs of two chairs found in the
tomb of Tiyis parents Yuya and Tuya, the royal
daughter is shown as a young, presumably
unmarried, girl wearing the platform (or modius) crown ornamented with flowers (Figures 6
and 7; Davis 2000: 37-44; Quibell 1908: 52-53,
nos. 51112 and 51113; Eaton-Krauss 1989: n.
g.). Sitamun is described elsewhere as a royal
wife of her father, Amenhotep III (Arnold
1996: 8). The headdress, however, remains elusive with regard to its meaning, especially
because variations mark each known example.
For instance, in the tomb of Menna, the foremost daughters platform is surmounted by circular flower ornaments, while the second
daughters is not. In both, the platform crown is
associated with a wide fillet fronted by a gazelle
protome.3 On the larger chair of Sitamun, the
platform crown is surmounted by open and
closed lotus flowers, not circular rosettes, and
she wears a long sidelock of youth (Figure 6). A
closer comparison with the headdress depicted
on the alabaster fragments occurs on the
smaller chair of Sitamun, where she wears the
platform crown with circular ornaments and a
fillet fronted by a lotus flower; although, again
she is shown with the youthful sidelock (Figure
7). The platform crown without any ornaments
on top appears not just on Mennas second
daughter, but also on the daughters of Amenhotep III and the so-called great ones depicted
in the tomb of Kheruef (TT 192; Epigraphic
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

Survey 1980: pls. 32 and 57). Troy (1986: 121)


discusses the platform crown, which was popular in the 18th Dynasty. She notes that in the
visual record, it is worn by royal women (that
is, what Troy calls the feminine aspect of kingship, which includes the kings mother, wife,
sister, and daughters; 1986: 2) and by prominent members of the harem. Therefore, surmises Desroches-Noblecourt (1956: 204), the
lady wearing a platform crown is shown in the
attitude of a wife and could be either an Egyptian princess or the daughter of a very high
Egyptian official placed in the kings harem.
Because it was inconceivable to DesrochesNoblecourt (1956: 204) that a king of Ugarit
would settle for a wife of non-royal blood, she
concludes that an Egyptian princess was sent
to Ugarit as a token of Egypts esteem for the
Syrian kingdom and that this image commemorates the union. This conclusion of course
remains speculative, and there appear to be
several possible examples of queens of nonroyal lineage during the New Kingdom in
Egypt itself, including Amenhotep IIIs wife
Tiyi (Kozloff and Bryan 1992: 41-43). Based
on the reasoning of Desroches-Noblecourt,
any of three possibilities persist: she could be
an Egyptian royal woman, she could be an
Egyptian harem lady of royal favor, or she
could be a simple Egyptian lady arrayed in the
clothes of status of her native land. That she
was not Egyptian, however, is never considered by Desroches-Noblecourt.
Despite her conclusion that the vase commemorated an interdynastic marriage, Desroches-Noblecourt argues that the scene was
probably not carved by an Egyptian artist. For
her, several details, such as slightly misinterpreted features of the headdress and dress in
addition to the use of ibex heads along the
upper cornice of the portico instead of the traditional Egyptian royal iconography of uraei,
suggest a non-Egyptian manufacture. Bryan
(1996: 60) reiterates this point of view, The

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Figure 6. Drawing of relief from back of larger chair of Sitamun, from the Tomb of Yuya and Tuya, Egypt (after
Troy 1986: fig. 59).

Figure 7. Drawing of relief from back of smaller chair of Sitamun, from the Tomb of Yuya and Tuya, Egypt (after
Davis 2000: 43, fig. 4).
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alabaster bowl fragment of Niqmaddu (late


18th Dynasty) is so faithful to the original
source that it uses a hieroglyphic inscription
but at the same time carefully avoids using
[Egyptian] royal iconography for the Ugaritic
king by substituting a Syrian ibex head frieze
for the original uraei. Desroches-Noblecourt
(1956: 219) interprets these irregularities as
signs that this vessel was a copy by a local
Ugaritic artist after an original Egyptian vase
sent as a wedding present. Such an explanation seems rather cumbersome, and I prefer to
consider this work as a carefully composed and
planned scene.
The excavator Schaeffer concurred with
Desroches-Noblecourt, viewing this piece as
commemorating an alliance between Egypt
and Ugarit, an opinion maintained by many
scholars today (Singer 1999: 625). Schaeffer
(1956: 168) contended that Niqmaddu II, a
contemporary of Akhenaten in Egypt and
Shuppiluliuma in Hatti (central Anatolia),
married a daughter of Akhenaten, implying,
although not explicitly stating, that this
unusual event might be attributable to
Akhenatens generally unorthodox reign.
While the alabaster vessel image was thus
presented in the 1950s as an interdynastic
marriage scene, debate concerning the accuracy and likelihood of this interpretation has
since developed. Schulman (1979) provided a
counterpoint to the scenes interpretation in
his article on Egyptian diplomatic marriages.
He concludes that during periods of political
strength, such as the 18th Dynasty, Egypts
attitude toward diplomatic marriages was
one-sided, receiving foreign princesses without reciprocating. He introduces the claim
made in the international letter sent to Egypt
from Babylonia, Amarna Letter (EA) 4 noted
above, stating, As a case in point, there is the
reply of Amunhotpe III to Kadasman-Enlil I
[king of Babylonia] when the latter sought a
bride from Egypt: from old, the daughter of
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

an Egyptian king has not been given in marriage to anyone (Schulman 1979: 179, 18791). The lack of any other textual evidence
for Egyptian brides sent abroad during the
New Kingdom further supports Schulmans
conclusion.4 He himself, however, does not
dissent from Desroches-Noblecourts interpretation of the vase imagery, but rather sidesteps the issue by seeing her as an Egyptian
court lady, not an actual daughter of the king
(Schulman 1979: 185 and n. 39).
A catalog entry for the alabaster fragments
when they were displayed in a major exhibition of Syrian archaeology in the early 1980s,
written by Marianne Eaton-Krauss, states the
change in opinion and introduces a new possibility that the ladyregardless of rankis not
an Egyptian at all. An early theory was that
the woman depicted was an Egyptian princess
(Weiss 1985, cat. no 156; Museum fr Vor- und
Frhgeschichte 1982, cat. no. 144). Citing the
same passage in EA 4 as Schulman, she continues, If the important king of Babylon was
refused an Egyptian princess, it is very unlikely
that this right would be granted to a mere Syrian prince. Probably the wife of Niqmaddu was
Syrian The most likely explanation is that
Niqmaddu ordered this vessel depicting himself and his Syrian wife to be made in the
Egyptian style.
This explanation, however, fails to account
for Niqmaddus explicitly non-Egyptian depiction and the substitution of ibex heads for uraei
on the portico cornice. A fragmentary ivory
plaque found at Megiddo from the end of the
thirteenth or beginning of the twelfth century
BC furnishes a useful comparison (Figures 8 and
9; Loud 1939: pl. 63). A scene at the top depicts
a man seated on the right while a standing
young woman presents flowers to him. The
entire scene is executed in a homogeneously
Egyptianizing manner, yet the inscription
identifies the man as prince of Ashkelon, a
small Levantine kingdom (Bryan 1996: 57-9).

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Figure 9.

Figure 8.

Photograph of fragment of ivory showing


prince of Ashkelon, from Megiddo (Loud
1939, pl. 62; courtesy of The Oriental
Institute Museum, The University of
Chicago).

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85

Detail of ivory showing prince of Ashkelon, from


Megiddo (Loud 1939: pl. 63; courtesy of The Oriental Institute Museum, The University of Chicago).

Figure 10. Photograph of fragment of alabaster vase


from Assur (VA8379); courtesy of the
Vorderasiatisches Museum, Staatliche
Museen zu Berlin.

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Part of the ivorys inscription, wr (chief of),


is located in the same position as the inscription of Niqmaddu on the alabaster vase,
directly in front of the seated figures head.
Another ivory, an uninscribed plaque from Tell
el-Farah South (in the southern Levant),
depicts a similar Egyptianizing scene of a
woman pouring liquid before a seated figure
(Bryan 1996: 62-64). A rather different situation may obtain on a fragment of an alabaster
vessel excavated from the foundations of Adadnirari Is (13051274 BC) palace at Assur in
northern Mesopotamia (Figure 10; Bissing
1940: 152-53, no. 5, VA 8379). In this case, the
fragment shows two seated figures facing one
another, the one on the right preserved from
the waist down, the one on the left retaining
only the foot and leg up to the knee. The figure
to the right wears a triple-flounced robe closely
resembling the flounced robes worn by Syrian
women depicted in 18th Dynasty Egyptian private tombs at Thebes, for example that of
Nebamun (TT 17; Smith 1965: 29). The
woman probably faced her husband, the vestiges of whose robe appear to show the typical
wrapped garment of Syrian men, also known
from Egyptian imagery.5 In other words, in the
Assur vase fragment, the attire of both participants seems to belong to the Syrian sphere.
There is no inscription surviving to provide further identification of the individuals. Even in
these few examples, we see a range of cultural
modes signaled from the entirely Syrian to the
entirely Egyptian, so that we may accept a high
degree of conscious selection on the part of the
producers (whether the artist[s] or patron[s]).
The 1980s exhibition of Syrian archaeology
also produced a French-language catalog, and
Christiane Zieglers entry for the vase fragments from Ugarit assesses the issue of the
womans identity (Petit Palais 1983: cat. no.
206). She notes, On na pas manqu de sinterroger sur la signification de la scne. She
asks, Did Niqmaddu marry a Syrian and dress
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

her up like an Egyptian, or did an Egyptian


king (possibly Akhenaten) consent to a
unique privilege in giving one of his daughters
to the petty king of Ugarit? While she adds
that the latter hypothesis is appealing, because
it illuminates details of the international relations of the fourteenth century BC, the evidence supporting it, namely the headdress of
the lady, is tenuous since court women wore it
in addition to royal princesses. She therefore
concludes that while we must acknowledge
the significant place the piece occupies regarding relations between Ugarit and Egypt, we are
not in a position to determine with any degree
of certainty whether this is an Egyptian artistic work or not. Implicit in this conclusion is
that if the piece were produced in Egypt, then
the lady could be assumed Egyptian; if not,
then Zieglers first hypothesis would be more
likely.
In spite of and in many ways because of the
ultimate uncertainty surrounding the identity
of the lady, the alabaster vase fragments have
been used both to support and refute the contention that Egypt never gave away princesses
and in turn to raise or lower the status of the
Ugaritic king. If the lady depicted is an Egyptian princess then this vessel may have been
commissioned specifically to commemorate
the marriage, the artist/patron actively seeking
to associate Syrian and Egyptian elements. In
such a reading, the statement in EA 4 refusing
to give an Egyptian princess because of lack of
precedent might represent a pointed diplomatic affront to Babylonia by the Egyptian
king rather than a simple matter of fact. Or
one might also follow the suggestion of the
excavator, that Akhenatens highly unconventional reign permitted such transgressions
of previously inviolable traditions. If, however, one accepts the written statement in EA
4 as the literal truth (having no other textual
evidence contradicting it), then the imagery
on the alabaster vase fragments might appear

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as a clumsy attempt by a lesser ruler at imitating an Egyptian scene of domestic intimacy
between the king and his wife. The selective
nature of Egyptian versus non-Egyptian iconographic elements including the rendering of
Niqmaddu, however, suggests that this image
was carefully constructed in association with
the Ugaritic king.
I would like to propose an alternative interpretation, one that walks a fine line between
the aforementioned theories. Rather than
point in absolute terms to either the foreign
policy of the Egyptian kings or the ineptness of
the Ugaritic artists, the imagery can be understood as containing an ambiguous element
(the womans identity) within a clearly defined
scene of royal representation (Niqmaddu II).
To better grasp the rationale behind such
intentional ambiguity, the alabaster vase fragments must be viewed within the larger context of the kingdom of Ugarit and its position
in the political relations of the Late Bronze
Age. In the arenas of international and domestic rhetoric, ambiguity occupies a prominent
role as a means of maneuvering, and visual
media provides an ideal venue for it since, in
the absence of an inscription, an image never
explicitly commits to a single reading, while at
the same time it contains multivalent allusions. As Barthes (1977: 37-41) notes, all
images are polysemous; they imply, underlying
their signifiers, a floating chain of signified,
the reader able to choose some and ignore othersthe text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene
itselfthe denominative function corresponds exactly to an anchoring of all possible
(denoted) meanings of the object by recourse
to a nomenclaturethe text directs the reader
through the signified of the image, causing him
to avoid some and receive others. The case of
Niqmaddu and his inscription serves to highlight the floating identity of the lady who is
not mentioned in any inscription. The king The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

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dom of Ugarit actively participated in political


relations at the international, local, and
domestic level.6 Its rulers aspired to higher status with respect to both the great international
powers, such as Egypt and Hatti, and the small
kingdoms neighboring Ugarit like Amurru to
its south. At the same time, an expression of
kingship was being molded within Ugarit itself
beginning in the late fourteenth century with
the reign of Niqmaddu II (Klengel 1992: 13134). The alabaster vase fragments speak differently to each of the different constituents,
although perhaps most strongly to the local
and domestic audiences. Thus I shy away from
trying to determine a fixed meaning for the
womans identity, acknowledging instead its
floating messages within a context of multiple
potential diplomatic exchanges.
Diplomatic Relations and Interdynastic
Marriages
The fifteenth through thirteenth centuries BC
witnessed a remarkable period of diplomatic
interactions among kingdoms of the eastern
Mediterranean sometimes referred to as the
extended Amarna Age (Artzi 1978: 34-36).
The period derives its name from the significant archive of international correspondence found at the site of Amarna (ancient
Akhetaten, capital of Egypt under Akhenaten) in Middle Egypt, which provides some
of our best evidence for diplomatic interactions (Cohen and Westbrook 2000; Moran
1992). While the Amarna letters cover only a
short period of time, from 20 to 30 years in the
mid- to late fourteenth century, similar
archives found at the Hittite capital of Hattusha (present-day Boghazky) extend the
diplomatic period through the thirteenth century, and royal inscriptions of Tuthmose III
suggest a higher chronological horizon in the
fifteenth century (Artzi 1978: 34-36). The
alabaster fragments under discussion date to
the restricted time-frame of the Amarna let-

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ters as evidenced by at least one letter from


Niqmaddu to the Egyptian king (EA 49). The
polities involved include the set of self-classed
great powers of Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria,
Mittani, and Hatti, as well as smaller kingdoms such as Ugarit occupying the intersticies
(Figure 1; Tadmor 1979: 3).
During the time in question, rulers and their
households participated in a complex political
system based on reciprocal exchange and the
metaphor of brotherhood. A select group of
the highest ranking powers, known as great
kings, set the standard, which was emulated by
the lesser polities. It is, therefore, instructive to
examine the diplomatic relations of the great
kings in order to understand to what the Ugaritic kings aspired. Letters sent between the great
kings, best represented by the archives found at
Amarna and Hattusha, express a coherent concept of international kingship. Written in the
lingua franca of the time, Babylonian Akkadian, they describe a supraregional sphere of
royal interaction that bound the rulers
together despite separate cultural loyalties. In
particular, they document relations as highly
formalized and based on reciprocal exchanges.
Good relations were predicated on the continuous exchange of written salutations carried
from one court to another by messenger-diplomats.
Within the circle of interaction established
by these exchanges, rulers called each other
brother and operated within a community of
brotherhood (Liverani 1990a; Cohen 1996:
11-28; Cohen and Westbrook 2000). This
metaphor of blood ties was given physical reality through interdynastic marriages. For example, a marriage alliance sealed the conclusion of
peace negotiations between Hatti and Egypt in
the thirteenth century. In a letter to Ramses II,
the Hittite queen Puduhepa writes, the daughter of the king of Hatti arrived in the land of
Egypt, and two great countries became a single
countryand two great kings became a single
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

brotherhood (ah h u tu) (KUB III 24+59:


3-4, 7-8; translation by Liverani 1990a: 282). In
addition to such marriages, a special kind of gift,
called in Akkadian s ulma nu , helped to
cement the bonds of friendship (CochaviRainey 1999). The giving and receiving of
these gifts, recorded in the letters as valuable
prestige objects, identified the participants as
belonging to the highest level of rulership. On
the reverse of a damaged tablet found at Hattusha is what is thought to be a draft or copy of
a letter sent from a Hittite king (Hattushili III
or Tudhaliya IV) to an Assyrian king that
clearly sets forth the protocol of gift giving: Did
[my brother] not send you appropriate gifts of
greeting (s ulma nu )? But when I assumed
kingship, you did not send a messenger to me. It
is the custom that when kings assume kingship,
the [other] kings, his equals in rank, send him
appropriate [gifts of greeting], clothing befitting
kingship, and fine [oil] for his anointing. But
you did not do this today. (KBo I 14, recto 310; translation by Beckman 1996: no. 24 B).
S ulma nu , from the root S LM, to make
well, functioned as literal well-wishing items
that materially embodied a permanent manifestation of friendly diplomatic relations (Zaccagnini 1973: 202-3; Chicago Assyrian Dictionary
S , vol. III 1992: 244-45). Luxury goods that
have been excavated in royal contexts around
the eastern Mediterranean may have functioned as such gifts (Feldman 1998; Lilyquist
1999: 211-18). The letters themselves remain
laconic in their description of specific items,
noting primarily the material and type of object. On occasion, a more forthcoming account
follows. For example, one small container of
aromatics of gold with one ibex in its center
(EA 14) that can be compared to an alabaster
ointment jar from the tomb of Tutankhamun or
one dagger, the blade of which is of iron, its
guard of gold with designs, its haft of ebony
with calf figurines overlaid with gold (EA 22)
also comparable to items from Tutankhamuns

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tomb assemblage (Metropolitan Museum of
Art 1976: cat. nos. 16 and 20). Some of the
excavated objects of gold, ivory, alabaster and
faience were executed in a hybridized style that
was derived from styles of the constituent
regions, but combined in such a manner as not
to belong to any one in particular. By means of
such hybridization, these luxury goods that may
have been exchanged as gifts perfectly expressed a supra-regional community of rulers
who rhetorically professed their ties to one
another through the metaphor of brotherhood
(Feldman 2002: 17-24; 1998).
Such prestige objects have been found at
Ugarit, several in the royal palace where the
alabaster vase lay. These include ivory inlays of
a tabletop, a fragmentary ivory wing, the upper
plaques of a pair of ivory furniture panelsall
from the palaceand a gold bowl from a cache
buried on the acropolis (Feldman 1998).
Although Ugarit never attained the rank of
great power, sources indicate that its rulers
actively aspired to increase their status through
a number of diplomatic vehicles. Acceptance
and participation in the international network
of exchange was foremost among these. The
luxury goods found at the site, therefore, may
have operated on the level of emulation and
uncertain identification (Feldman 1998: ch.
5). Their formal features of hybridism appear
like prestige objects of the highest rank,
although their identification as greeting gifts
remains indeterminate. Because the designation of an object as a greeting gift depends on
an ultimately ephemeral act, that is the transfer from one party to another, once at their
place of rest, it becomes impossible to ascertain
or verify how the object arrived at its final
location. And because the international hierarchy was structured around such ephemeral
acts, manipulation of the system could effect
changes in real or perceived status.
Within this hierarchical and formalized
diplomatic system described by the letters,
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princesses and their female attendants constituted a principal item of exchange (Artzi 1987;
Meier 2000; Pintore 1978). The subject of
interdynastic marriage occupies a large part of
the discussion in the letters, in which foreign
rulers negotiated for princesses in order to
place them in their harems. In the Amarna letters, the Mittanian king Tushratta recounted
how his daughter, given to the Egyptian king,
served to strengthen their ties, When I gave
my daughterand your father saw her, he
rejoiced. Was there anything he did not rejoice
about? He rejoiced very, very much! (EA 29:
28-30; translation by Moran 1992). Similarly,
Queen Puduhepa of Hatti, who was instrumental in negotiating a marriage between Egypt
and Hatti, wrote in one letter, The daughter of
Babylon and the daughter of Amurru, whom I,
the Queen, took for myselfwere they not
indeed a source of praise for me before the people of Hatti? It was I who did it. (KUB 21.38,
obv. 47-49 = CTH 176; translation by Beckman 1996: no. 22E).
In such situations, foreign princesses functioned in an analogous manner to the greeting
gifts. Not only did marriage create kinship
bonds, but like the gifts, their physical presence served as a lasting material embodiment
of the reciprocated friendly feelings established between two kingdoms. This analogy
with greeting gifts, in combination with the
establishment of familial relations, made foreign princesses primary markers of high status
for their new homeland. While the preceding
description of diplomatic relations is drawn
from the highest rankthat is, the great
kingsit is critical to recall that lesser polities
engaged in similar tactics. Among themselves
they exchanged letters, daughters, and gifts.
The lesser ranking kingdoms of Ugarit and
Amurru conducted such reciprocal relations,
including several interdynastic marriages
between the two states (Klengel 1992: 137,
141-42). What is rare is reciprocity between

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ranks, that is for Ugarit as a lesser kingdom to


enter reciprocal relations with a great power.
As a marker of rank, the presence of a foreign
princess would have served as a major mechanism in any attempt at status enhancement.
Further, one might postulate that the emulation or appearance of status, as is suggested by
the presence of luxury objects at Ugarit, might
help to boost a states perceived prestige.
Ambiguity and Status in the Extended Amarna
Period
That the Ugaritic king should both want to
increase his status and believe that he could
do so is suggested by the awareness of and deference to status among the members of the
international network. The pervasive concern with, knowledge of, and acknowledgment of status recurs both implicitly and
explicitly in the letters, highlighting its centrality in diplomatic relations, as seen in the
statement on gift exchange protocol quoted
above (KBo I 14, recto 3-10). In one of the
more blatant statements, Puduhepa, corresponding with Ramses II, wrote, If you should
say, The King of Babylonia is not a Great
King, then my brother does not know the
rank of Babylonia (KUB 21.38, obv. 55-56 =
CTH 176; translation by Beckman 1996: no.
22E). The importance and self-consciousness
of status among these rulers demonstrates the
highly structured nature of the international
network and suggests an awareness of negotiating or manipulating the system.
As such, status is also recognized as relative
and changing. Kingdoms lose ranking as great
or attain it through complex negotiations, military prowess and accepted participation in the
reciprocal exchange system (Liverani 1990a:
71). The state of Assyria gained status through
the defeat of Mittani, but required careful negotiations with Egypt and Hatti before being fully
accepted as a brother (Artzi 1978: 1997). An
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

early letter sent by Ashur-uballit of Assyria to


the Egyptian king (EA 15) contains irregularities of structure and misconstructions of the
established modes of address that illustrate the
inexperience of the Assyrian king. A second
letter (EA 16) carefully employs all the proper
titles and salutations, demonstrating a new
familiarity with international protocol and
Assyrias rising status. Although with the hindsight of the later Assyrian empire it may seem
unlikely to compare the position of Ugarit to
Assyria, it is worth remembering that in the
fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Assyria
was a vassal of Mittani, having less wealth,
power and autonomy than Ugarit. The kingdom of Ahhiyawa, probably to be equated with
some or all of Mycenaean Greece, seems to
have fallen from the rank of great power, a status it apparently held in the early thirteenth
century as indicated in texts from Hattusha
that refer to the Ahhiyawan king as my
brother and include him as a participant in the
royal gift exchange network (Gterbock 1983:
135-36; Bryce 1989: 300; Liverani 1990a: 227).
The erasure of Ahhiyawas name from a late
thirteenth century list of great kingdoms
recorded in a treaty between Tudhaliya IV of
Hatti and Shaushgamuwa of Amurru suggests a
subsequent decline in status (CTH 105; Beckman 1996: no. 17: 11; Gterbock 1983: 13536; Bryce 1989: 304-305). Status changes and
negotiations most often occurred on the peripheries and the interstices of the network, such
as the highly contested zone of western Syria
that lay between Egypt, Hatti, Mittani, and
Assyria.
The region of western Syria was geographically important because of its access to major
trade routes at the intersection of both the
north-south and east-west routes linking the
eastern Mediterranean maritime channels
with the inland caravan roads. Control over
the kingdoms comprising western Syria,
including the wealthy mercantile center of

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Ugarit, constituted a primary concern for the
great powers. The kingdom immediately to
the south of Ugarit, Amurru, exemplifies the
active strategies these smaller kingdoms
enacted in their own quests for political betterment (Singer 1991). Although Amurru is
poorly known archaeologically, textual evidence documents the maneuvers of its wily
rulers, Abdi-Ashirta and his son Aziru. Aziru
reveals himself as a master of manipulating the
two great powers of Egypt and Hatti, claiming
loyalty to Egypt while at the same time forging
a treaty with the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma
(Liverani 1983). Liverani (1983: 119-21) has
stressed the use of verbal ambiguity in Azirus
letters to Egypt as a primary component in his
political double game playing and has suggested that this ambiguity may account for the
widely divergent interpretations by modern
scholars of Amurrus early history (Singer
1991: 143). Ugarits proximity to and intimate
relations with Amurru, in addition to evidence that Niqmaddu II corresponded with
both the Egyptian pharaoh and Shuppiluliuma, suggest that, at least during the reign of
Niqmaddu II, Ugarit engaged in its own political maneuvers (Singer 1999: 624-36). The
format and phrasing of Ugarits letters and
treaties with the two great powers reveal
rhetorical nuances that walk a line between
the suggestion of parity and the reality of
imbalanced relations (Zaccagnini 1990: 60).
For example, in the Amarna letters to Egypt,
Ugaritic kings, including Niqmaddu II, adopt
a subservient stance in the first part of the
salutations (I fall at the feet of the king, the
Sun, my Lord), but then wish the Egyptian
king well using the formula generally reserved
for equals (Singer 1999: 626-27). Aside from
the great kings, only Ugarit, the kingdom of
Tunip, and an independent Hittite prince
wish the Egyptian king well (EA 44, 45, 49,
and 59; Moran 1992: xxix and n. 83). These
manipulations could be achieved because of
the element of ambiguous meaning that
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served as a primary mechanism by which


change could be effected. Such active manipulation of the international network is seen
elsewhere at Ugarit, as in the appearance of
luxury objects executed in the international
style that signaled membership into the ranks
of the great kings.
A clue for understanding the imagery on the
alabaster vessel can be found in the same letter
in which the Egyptian king declared his countrys unwillingness to relinquish princesses (EA
4; Singer 1999: 625; for a recent discussion of
EA 4 with a slightly different interpretation see
Westbrook 2000). The Egyptian kings refusal
to give a princess in marriage did not deter the
Babylonian king in his quest. He responded,
Someones grown daughters, beautiful women,
must be available. Send me a beautiful woman
as if she were your daughter. Who is going to
say, She is no daughter of the king! (EA 4;
translation by Moran 1992). In other words, as
long as she fulfilled certain expectations of
being an Egyptian princess, specifically that
she be a beautiful maiden, why shouldnt she
assume that identity when she is in a new context in Babylonia? Her identity was deemed
mutable because it did not reside inherently in
any of her features (apart from being a woman
and being beautiful, that is a virginTroy
1986: 78), but rather was ascribed to her
through external attributes and the actual
process of exchange. One might compare this
scenario with Brilliants (1991: 9) comments
on identity and portraiture:
Here are the essential constituents of a persons identity: a recognized or recognizable
appearance; a given name that refers to no
one else; a social, interactive function that
can be defined; in context, a pertinent characterization; and a consciousness of the distinction between ones own person and
anothers, and of the possible relationship
between them. Only physical appearance is
naturally visible, and even that is unstable.
The rest is conceptual and must be expressed

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symbolically.

Thus, identity is most clearly conveyed


through visual signs, which are unstable and
might be manipulated. For a local and internal
audience, deceptions of foreign identity might
be relatively easily concealed through the
symbolic coding of dress and ornament.
An intriguing echo of this scenario of
changeable identities is found much later in
Herodotus (Pintore 1978: 57). Book 3 begins
with an anecdote explaining why the Persian
king Cambyses invaded Egypt at the end of the
sixth century BC. According to Herodotus,
Cambyses, on the advice of a disgruntled Egyptian physician, sent a messenger to Egypt to ask
its king Amasis for his daughter in marriage.
Amasis did not want to give his daughter to
the Persian king, but neither did he want to
anger the ruler of such a powerful state, and so,
Herodotus goes on to say, this is what he did:
There was a daughter of the former king,
Apries, a girl tall and beautiful. Amasis
clothed this girl in finery and gold and sent her
to Persia as his own daughter. However,
unlike the situation proposed by the Babylonian king 800 years earlier, Cambyses was not
party to the switch, and upon meeting the
young Egyptian woman found out the trick.
She informed him you do not grasp how you
have been put upon by King Amasis. He
decked me out in all this apparel, as though I
were his own daughter whom he was giving to
you, thus propelling Cambyses to invade
Egypt (Herodotus, Book 3.1; Grene 1987).
Even the phrasing used by Herodotus parallels
that used by the earlier Babylonian king, as if
she were your daughter. Of relevance to our
study of the alabaster vase image is the emphasis in Herodotuss account placed on the
changed apparel of the woman by which
means she assumed the appearance of an Egyptian princess. As the daughter of an earlier
Egyptian king, Apries, she was already a royal
woman, but without blood ties to the current
ruler her marriage would offer no political
The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

benefit to Cambyses. Hence, her identity as an


Egyptian princess was unstable. In both the
Late Bronze Age and Achaemenid instances,
visual forms coded multivalent and ambiguous
messages regarding the identity of these
women.
It also appears fairly evident that what actually happened to these women once they
entered a foreign kings court might have little
to do with the rhetoric of marriage and alliance
put forth in the correspondence. Their identity
and status, as an external manifestation, could
be redefined to suit the interests of the receiving ruler. Several letters from the Mittanian
king Tushratta to Amenhotep III address negotiations for a Mittanian princessa daughter
of Tushrattato be sent to the Egyptian court
(EA 19-22). EA 20, from Tushratta, quotes
Amenhoteps request for this woman, saying
that his messenger came to take my brothers
wife to become the mistress of Egypt, indicating the expected high-status that the Mittanian princess would hold in the foreign court.
From these letters, we also hear about an earlier marriage alliance between Amenhotep III
and Tushrattas sister, which was finalized
while Tushrattas father ruled (EA 17). This
exchange sent Gilu-Hepa to Egypt, an event
that is documented in Egyptian sources in
quite different terms from those expressed in
the international correspondence. Rather than
celebrating the event as an alliance with an
equal king through the marriage of his daughter, scarab inscriptions found in Egypt boast of
the marvels that Amenhotep brought back
from Mittani including Gilu-Hepa, identified
only as the daughter of the chief of Mittani,
along with 317 harem women (Bryan 2000:
80-82). Moreover, the royal titles used on the
scarab inscriptions name Tiyi as the great
royal wife. While stopping short of claiming
Gilu-Hepa as tribute or booty, the mere implying of this would have bolstered the power of
Amenhotep within his own state. This con-

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trasts with his presentation of the same event
to an external audience of royal peers as an
interdynastic marriage alliance, which would
have garnered prestige and status within the
international community (Liverani 1990a:
276-77).
Such recontextualizations provided opportunities for the negotiation of status and,
when uncovered by other parties, were often
met with resentment. While the Babylonian
king writing in EA 4 made explicit his
intended opportunistic use of the exchanged
woman, in other instances contempt for such
activity is evident. For example, possibly the
same Babylonian king, Kadashman-Enlil,
complained that chariots he sent to Egypt had
been displayed along with the tribute of vassal states, thereby devaluing them and consequently lessening his status (EA 1, quoted by
Amenhotep III; Liverani 1990a: 265; Liverani 1990b: 209-10). As with Gilu-Hepa, it
appears that Amenhotep III was implicitly
claiming to an internal Egyptian audience
that these items were tribute from a vassal.
In the same letter, Amenhotep responds to
concerns of Kadashman-Enlil for the health of
a Babylonian princess who was already settled
in the Egyptian harem. Once again, we see the
correlation between an exchanged womans
mutable identity and a potentially changed
status. Kadashman-Enlil, implying that the
princess had died and a substitute had been
installed in her place, wrote to Amenhotep
saying, Perhaps the [woman] my messengers
saw was the daughter of some poor man, or of
some Kaskean, or the daughter of some Hanigalbatean, or perhaps someone from Ugarit.
Denying the accusation, Amenhotep replied,
Did you, however, ever send a dignitary of
yours who knows your sister, who could speak
with her and identify her? (EA 1; trans. by
Moran 1992). In an ironic twist, the precise
trickery that the Babylonian king proposed in
EA 4 in order to acquire an Egyptian princess
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was bitterly resented when he suspected that


the Egyptian king had done the same thing
(Liverani 1990a: 274-75). The problems of
identification based primarily on apparel and
context come to the surface in this exchange.
That such machinations took place on a fairly
frequent basis seems confirmed by a close reading of the written evidence.
Discussion and Conclusion
An analysis of the representation on the
alabaster vase fragments from the palace at
Ugarit raises a series of questions. First one
wonders whether this lady shown in Egyptian
attire really was Egyptian or not. If she was not,
then one assumes she was presented as if she
were Egyptian. If, however, one accepts that
she was Egyptian, a second set of questions
arises from the iconography of her headdress
and the intimate scene in which she participates: was she a royal princess, the daughter of
the Egyptian pharaoh, or was she a member of
the royal harem, a royal ornament? Despite
our attempts, the textual evidence does not
help us solve the dilemma. While EA 4 reports
pharaohs statement as an absolute denial of
any possibility of sending a princess abroad, the
ban does not necessarily extend to non-royal,
palace-dependent women such as members of
the harem. Moreover, the rebuttal by the Babylonian king that any Egyptian woman would be
acceptable suggests that alternatives were available and actively pursued, and that the system
was not as inflexible as the rules might lead us
to believe.
The iconography of the ladys apparel also
frustrates attempts at identification. The headdress is unusual, and even within the large
repertoire of Egyptian art it cannot be precisely
connected with a specific social group beyond
a general association with elite women. Yet it
is an unambiguous marker of things Egyptian,
as are the broad collar, tripartite wig and liba-

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tion vessel. In fact, I would argue that the


excessive attention given to interpreting the
meaning of the headdress has obscured the
more important aspect of the overall Egyptianness of the elegant lady.7 Such Egyptianness is reinforced in the depiction of the
cornice, column capitals, and hieroglyphic
inscription. An inherent non-Egyptianness
emerges in the ibex frieze, which never occurs
on a cornice in Egyptian examples, the Syrian
features and hairstyle of the man, and the
direct reference to the ruler of Ugarit. The
central issue seems to be less whether she is or
is not either Egyptian or a princess, but more
the fact that she has been left unidentified,
suggesting that the provision of a specific identity was either not possible or not desirable.
I have suggested in this paper that our inability to identify the cultural origin of the lady in
question may be due to an indeterminacy consciously deployed in the imagery itself. The
extended Amarna age represented a period in
which metaphors of brotherhood and kinship
served as constitutive paradigms that affect
attitudes to and conduct of international negotiation (Cohen 1996: 11). Entry into the
brotherhood was a crucial step not only in the
acquisition of status, but more importantly that
which resulted from this status, the ability to
participate in the top-level diplomatic negotiations of the region. In the mid-fourteenth
century, Ugarit, in a not-too-dissimilar position to Assyria, stood just on the periphery of
the club, and the deployment of imagery that
included ambiguous elements may have functioned as part of its maneuvers. While the scenario that I propose may not provide a
satisfactory solution to some, it would be presumptuous of us to underestimate the subtlety
of nuance and manipulation that the ancient
patrons controlled in their artistic expression.
We are not looking through a window onto an
actual event, but through the proverbial filter
of a carefully constructed realm of representa The Continuum Publishing Group Ltd 2002.

tion. Our own longing for tidy explanations


and literal interpretations should not blind us
to the slippery nature of visual imagery. When
it was deemed necessary to convey an unambiguous message, as in the case of the explicit
identification of Niqmaddu, it was done
through a combination of text and image. Yet
there are times when indeterminacy has its
benefits, and political relations, even today,
rely heavily on it.
It is not clear what audience actually would
have seen this vessel. As a small-scale portable
item kept in the royal palace, it is likely that its
audience was highly controlled, and I suspect
that it was intended primarily for an internal
Ugaritic audience. Nevertheless, one would
predict quite different responses depending on
the origin (and agenda) of the viewer. One
imagines that if the depicted lady were a Syrian
woman in Egyptian dress, an Egyptian viewer
would know the deception as in the case of the
disappearing Babylonian princess who could
not be identified in the Egyptian harem by
Babylonian messengers (EA 1). However, the
vagueness of images mitigates any specifically
negative reaction, since an Egyptian viewer
who knew there was no Egyptian lady at the
Ugaritic court might feel pride in the evident
desire of a lesser polity to emulate the greatness of Egypt. Would officials of other great
powers who might see the vessel recognize any
duplicity on the part of Ugarit? Certainly these
courts had their spies and received information about third party dealings (Meier 1988:
233; Cohen 2000), yet the lack of an explicit
identification for the woman would undermine
any direct accusations of false pretenses. For
internal or local audiences, imprecise elements
may have been fairly easy to cloak.
We may never know with certainty who
commissioned this work; although, it appears
to have suited the interests of Niqmaddu in
defining a representation of royal privilege, and
I view him as the most likely candidate. One

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might also speculate, perhaps again without
ever finding proof, that had an Egyptian
princess been granted in marriage to Niqmaddu
by an Egyptian king, the fact would have been
widely celebrated both by means of an inscription on this piece and in other documents. Situating a representation of Niqmaddu in an
Egyptian-looking scene complete with an intimate portrayal of an Egyptian-looking lady signaled the Ugaritic rulers cosmopolitan
position, without making an explicit claim to
what would have been a highly unusual interdynastic marriage. Visual ambiguity derives its
potency from the evidence that trappings
(visual appearance) were primary markers of
both identity and status. These outward, external attributes could be altered and manipulated, conveying imprecise messages that could
imply a range of meanings. The body of the
kings wife, moreover, served as a prime carrier
of the symbols of rank and was the perfect location for implied meaning, she being intimately
connected to the king yet not the king.8 As
Alan Schulman remarked in a footnote to his
seminal article, if Kadashman-Enlil was willing
to pass off any woman as an Egyptian princess,
who is to say that Niqmaddu was not unwilling
to do the same? (Schulman 1979: n. 39).
Acknowledgements
The ideas in this article were first presented at
the symposium, Courtly Ambiguities: Harems
and Gender in the Eastern Mediterranean,
held at the University of California, Berkeley
on 4 March 2000. Subsequent versions were
presented at the annual meetings of the
American Research Center in Egypt and the
American Schools of Oriental Research. I am
grateful to those who provided comments after
these talks, to several individuals who looked
at drafts of the manuscript, in particular Gregory Levine and Leslie Peirce, and to the
anonymous referees. For all their assistance
during the period of my research, I would like
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to express my thanks to Dr. Abd al-Razzaq


Moaz, Dr. Michel al-Maqdissi, and Dr. Sultan
Muhesin of the Antiquities Department of the
Ministry of Culture, Syria and Dr. Yves Calvet
and the other members of the Mission de Ras
Shamra, France.
About the Author
Marian H. Feldman is an assistant professor in
the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the
University of California, Berkeley. She received
her PhD in art history from Harvard University
in 1998. She has excavated in Turkey and Syria
and is currently writing a book on artistic interconnections, prestige objects and gift exchange
during the Late Bronze Age.
Abbreviations Used in Text/Notes
CTH
E. Laroche
1971 Catalogue des Textes Hittites. tudes et Commentaires 75. Paris: Klincsieck.
EA
1992 El-Amarnawith reference to the numbering of the texts (letters) in Moran 1992.
Kbo
Keilschrifttexte aus Boghazky. Berlin: Wissenschaftliche Verffentlichungen der Deutschen
Orient-Gesellschaft.
KUB
Keilschrift Urkunden aus Boghazky. Berlin:
Institut fr Orientforschung.
RS
Ras Shamraprefix for field numbers of
tablets and other registered finds of the
French Archaeological Mission to Ras
Shamra (Ugarit).
VA
Prefix for objects from Vorderasiatische
Staatlichen Museen, Berlin

Notes
1.

Compare the hairstyle with that of a victorious warrior on a carved ivory plaque from a
furniture panel excavated in the palace at

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2.

3.

4.

5.
6.

7.

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Feldman
Ugarit (Damascus Museum RS 16.56; Schaeffer 1954: pl. X). For some Egyptian examples,
see Smith (1965: fig. 41 [tomb of Nebamun],
and fig. 162 [Syrian ships at dock]).
The concept of ethnic groups has been the
subject of many studies in recent years (e.g.
Jones 1997), and the problems surrounding
the use of the term have been highlighted.
The gazelle protome has been associated with
foreign (that is, non-Egyptian) princesses;
however, it also appears with the platform
crown worn by Sitamun on the larger chair
from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, where she is
clearly identified as the daughter of the king.
It should be noted that there is no connection
between these gazelle heads (with their
slightly S-shaped horns belonging to the antelope family) and the ibex heads on the top of
the cornice (with backward sweeping horns
and bearded chin of the goat family); for discussion and illustrations of Nubian ibexes and
Dorcas gazelles, see Houlihan (1996: 58-59,
61, 109-112).
Schulman (1979: 187) does present evidence
for Egyptian princesses marrying abroad during periods of Egyptian weakness, such as during the Hyksos period preceding the New
Kingdom and in the Third Intermediate
period following.
See same images as supra n. 1.
The term international is, strictly speaking,
anachronistic for the Bronze Age, since
nations did not exist according to current
definitions (Anderson 1991; Gellner 1983;
and Hobsbawm 1992). More properly, it might
be called intercultural. Nevertheless, the
ubiquitous nature of the term international
and its widespread association with interpolity
exchange best convey the desired connotation
of a supraregional system. Thus, it is retained
in this paper.
I purposely avoid the passive connotations
implicit in the term Egyptianizing here in
order to emphasize the highly active inclusion of things Egyptian.

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8.

Compare with Troys (1986: 149-50) discussion of the Egyptian queen as representing
the feminine aspect of a royal duality.

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