You are here

Biblical Archaeology Review 46:3, Summer 2020

First Person: What Does Archaeology Say about Effective Peace Treaties?

Ancient history can tell us a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to successful treaties

By Robert R. Cargill

I recently lectured on ancient treaties. These fall into two main categories: parity treaties between two relatively equal parties and suzerain-vassal treaties between a dominant, usually foreign polity (suzerain) and a subject tributary state (vassal). We have evidence for both types from the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

The lecture was part of a course I teach on global religious conflict into which I incorporate as much biblical archaeology as I can. By giving my students ancient examples of peace treaties, I hoped they could glean key elements present in the effective treaties and absent from the ineffective ones.

We talked about two treaties discussed in the Bible for which we have no archaeological evidence: the treaty between King Hiram of Tyre and King Solomon in which both parties received benefits (1 Kings 5:1-12) and the deceptive treaty proffered by the Gibeonites to the Israelites (Joshua 9:3-27), which led to the mistreatment—but not the death—of the Gibeonites. While the first treaty is described positively, the second is cast in a negative light—even though it benefitted the Israelites.

Then we looked at treaties for which there is archaeological evidence. First, I showed them the account from Sennacherib’s Prism, which is roughly paralleled in 2 Kings 18. This was a largely one-sided treaty where the suzerain, the Assyrian king Sennacherib, agreed not to destroy Jerusalem in exchange for Judah’s king Hezekiah submitting to Assyria, pledging loyalty, and paying Sennacherib an obscene amount of ransom. Second Kings 18:13-16 says Hezekiah stripped the Jerusalem Temple of all of its gold and silver to pay off Sennacherib. Of course, Hezekiah rebelled because no one wants to live under the kind of oppression that Assyria imposed on Judah. After Sennacherib put Jerusalem under siege, which yielded his famous “like a bird in a cage” reference concerning Hezekiah on his prism, the remainder of 2 Kings 18 and 2 Kings 19 recounts Hezekiah’s rebellion and successful preservation of Jerusalem.

The lesson learned here is obvious: One-sided “peace” treaties, with terms dictated from a stronger power to a weaker one, do not last. When it was done to the Judahites, they rebelled.

On the other hand, I showed them the Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, the only west Asian treaty for which we have archaeological remains of both sides’ versions. The Egyptian version was engraved in hieroglyphs on the walls of the Ramesseum and the Precinct of Amun-Re at the Temple of Karnak in Thebes. The Hittite version was discovered in the central Anatolian Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Boğazkale, Turkey) on clay tablets.

This treaty is of interest because it didn’t result in an immediate peace treaty. Instead, it set the tone for fair relations between the two kingdoms and allowed the two traditionally warring parties—which had clashed for nearly two centuries using Canaan as a battlefield—to begin focusing on other matters, both foreign and domestic. It was only 16 years after the catastrophic Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E., in which both sides suffered heavy losses, that a warm peace between the two actually began. Once the two parties came to understand the futility of perpetually attempting to conquer and occupy the other, the two states signed a peace accord that came to be known as the Eternal Treaty. The Egyptians were able to turn their attention to the invading Sea Peoples and infrastructure projects. The Hittites, on the other hand, were able to focus on the rise of the Assyrian kingdom to the east.

The treaty spelled out some key stipulations. Each side pledged “peace and brotherhood” to the other. They agreed not to invade each other’s land, which required establishing borders. They also entered into a military alliance, agreeing to come to each other’s defense and send military support should either be attacked by a third party or internal rebellion. Because a rival claimant to the Hittite throne had fled to Egypt for protection, another stipulation dictated that all political refugees would be extradited back to their country of origin, and each king would support the proper dynastic succession of the other kingdom. They then invoked the standard blessings for keeping and curses for breaking the treaty and called on their gods as witnesses.

This treaty appears to have lasted nearly a century and only ended with the fall of Hatti to the Assyrians.

What can we learn from these peace treaties? For one, they appear to work when both parties involved agree to mutually beneficial terms. Suzerain-vassal treaties, where the stronger party dictates terms to the weaker party, tend not to yield successful peace treaties, because the vassal state ultimately gets fed up with the unfair terms and rebels. We see this time and time again in history and in the Bible.

Peace treaties are most effective when all parties involved decide that perpetually fighting each other yields only suffering and death, work through their disputes together, and cultivate terms to which all parties can agree. It’s the only way it has ever worked. There is nothing new under the sun.—BOB CARGILL

Biblical Archaeology Review