09 April 2009

The Lady of the Lionesses and a Pharaonic Wimp

Say to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of the Lady of the Lionesses [Belit-nesheti], your handmaid. May the king, my lord, know that war has been waged in the land, and gone is the land of the king, my lord, by desertion to the Apiru.
Thus the desperate queen of a small city in Palestine writes to Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was the supreme ruler of the region at the time.*

For, around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in Canaan. Canaanite vassal kings conveyed their fears via letters written on clay tablets to the pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. Among the 382 tablets from the imperial archive at Amarna (Akhenaten's capital, about midway between Cairo and Luxor), two rare letters stand out -- both letters from a female ruler, Belit-nesheti, whose name means Lady of the Lionesses.

She wrote to pharaoh about the attacks, counterattacks, and the treachery of native rulers of vassal cities who had thrown her own mini-state into danger at this time. She had paid her tribute to Egypt and, now, as the security situation continued to worsen, she wanted help (or, as another petty ruler put it, O my lord, let my lord dispatch the archers and let them come! )

She needed Egyptian soldiers ... and needed them soon. Nearby cities had already fallen, and this, as she warned pharaoh, was no time for dithering,
I beg the king to save his land from the hands of the Apiru, before it is too late.

The Apiru, Who?

The Apiru mentioned in her letters -- and in many others sent by local kings to Akhenaten -- were a (semi)nomadic people who lived on the fringes of Canaanite urban society. In the cutthroat world of mid-century politics, where Egyptian imperial control was minimal, dynastic rivalries and shifting coalitions left cities vulnerable. The Apiru operated as armed bands outside of the settled social structure, freebooting for their own profit or available for hire. Thus, when a rebel prince sought to grab the throne within his own city-state or when one king tried to overthrow or take over the territory of another king, they seemed easily able to raise a mercenary army of Apiru and use those forces to accomplish their own ends. Clearly, the Apiru who were threatening the Lady of the Lionesses must have been backed by dynasts who wanted to seize control of Belit-nesheti's own city.

Where was the queen's city?

The name of her city is not mentioned in her letters. Presumably, pharaoh's scribes would have known her by name -- and that was enough. Luckily, she mentions two Apiru raids that took place in the area, one on Ayyaluna (biblical Aijalon) and the other at Sarha (biblical Zorah). Both settlements are in the eastern territory of Gezer -- just south of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway in modern Israel, as it happens. In the Late Bronze Age, the city of Gezer controlled large areas in the central coastal plain and the northern lowlands, extending from the Egyptian centre of Jaffa in the northwest to the borders of Ashdod in the south.

Was the Lady of the Lionesses the queen-regent of Gezer, as some historians have assumed? Probably not. She tells pharaoh that two sons of the recently-deceased king of Gezer had barely escaped from the Apiru with their lives -- referring to them in the third person ("they"), rather than the first person ("my sons") as she would if she were their mother. Anyway, it appears that another adult son of the dead king was on his father's throne at this time. So, no queen-regent-in-charge.

Might Belit-nesheti have ruled a neighbouring city?

One Israeli historian, Nadav Na'aman, pointed to Beth Shemesh -- a Late Bronze Age city of about 1,500 souls on the southern border of the Gezer kingdom (some 20 km [13 miles] southwest of Jerusalem) -- as her possible seat. If so, her letters were telling the pharaoh about the dangers facing her own territory. And, given her concern for the two princes of Gezer, that city, at least, must have been an ally rather than a threat.**

In the House of the Sun

The name Beth-Shemesh means "House of the Sun", so the Sun-god was surely the main deity worshipped there by the Canaanite inhabitants (and the nearby Arab village of 'Ain Shems' still preserves the ancient name). Recent excavations at Tel Beth Shemesh, led by Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, may prove that this is, in truth, Belit-nesheti's city.

Figurines and plaques of the Canaanite goddess dressed up as Egyptian Hathor (top left) have been uncovered at the site.

And, just last week, the archaeologists announced an unusual ceramic plaque of a woman in male dress (right and left), suggesting that a mighty female "king" may have ruled the city. The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures (and gods) appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art, and standing on a basket called a neb -- which signifies a ruler or deity. The figure's hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers -- attributes given to women. If they are right, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region: not a queen-regent but a woman who ruled in her own right. Taken together with the evidence of the two Armarna letters, that can only mean our own Belit-nesheti -- the Lady of the Lionesses.

"Obviously something very different was happening in this city," says Dr Lederman.

"There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity," Lederman and Bunimovitz agree. "She is the only one."

He was her king, but he done her wrong

... if my lord does not wish to march forth, then let him send one of his [generals] with troops and chariots.

Akhenaten simply refused to apply himself to the task of sending an effective military force into Canaan. Living almost like a recluse in Amarna, the pharaoh had a single fixation --
the Great Living Sun-disc. He was only intermittently interested in foreign policy and the fate of his territorial vassals. So, he never 'marched forth' himself and was just as reluctant to let his army do so. His only irrevocable resolve pertained to his religious program.

Akhenaten did not respond to Belit-nesheti's cries for assistance. The unfulfilled pleas for troops that are so characteristic of the Amarna letters had dire results.

Beth Shemesh was devastated in a wave of violence shortly after 1350 BCE. The ruins of the Late Bronze Age city were discovered in the 2008 archaeological season. Entire walls had collapsed in a massive fire; toppled bricks showed the effects of exposure to the extreme heat of the blaze.

Belit-nesheti and her subjects didn't give up without a fight. Their desperate attempt to defend their city is witnessed by the huge number of bronze arrowheads discovered among the fallen bricks. The capture of Beth Shemesh was apparently preceded by a fierce battle. Belit-nesheti lost that battle. And her people did not even have time to save their belongings. "They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds," said Lederman, adding that the valuable objects found in the destruction level points to Beth-Shemesh as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.

Perhaps Akhenaten did not appreciate the danger or he was ready to risk it. Either way, the troops and chariots never arrived.

This story ain't got no moral
this story ain't got no end
this story only goes to show
that there ain't no good in men

And so the Lady of Lionesses disappeared from history, with just two tantalizing letters written on clay to show she had ever lived.

Until now.

In the Late Bronze Age, Canaan (Palestine) was an Egyptian province governed by Egyptian administrators and garrison troops stationed in a few centres. In the mid-14th century BCE these centres were Gaza, Jaffa, Ullasa and Sumur on the coast, and Beth-Shean and Kumidi inland.

The Amarna tablets were found at the royal residence built by Akhenaten (Amenophis IV) on a previously uninhabited site in Middle Egypt (Tel Amarna). He called the new capital Akhetaten, 'the horizon of the sun-disc'. The central part of the city was occupied by the main religious and administrative buildings. The archive of diplomatic correspondence between the kings of the Amarna period and rulers of the Levant was found in the records office.

** Belit-nesheti's letters are part of the Amarna archives, a collection of letters in the cuneiform script in the Akkadian language (the diplomatic language of the time) and written on clay tablets. Modern science offers a variety of techniques for analysing the origin of objects made of clay, from petrographic analysis to Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA).

Israeli scholars have recently carried out
mineralogical and chemical analyses on the +300 Amarna clay tablets now in museums in Berlin, London, Oxford and Paris, in order to pinpoint their geographic origin. Analysis of one of Belit-nesheti's tablets (EA 273) proves it to have been produced in Gezer. Presumably having no local Akkadian scribe, Belit-Nesheti had to have her letters written at neighbouring Gezer -- which can only have happened if she was indeed an ally of that city. There is evidence, too, that the same Gezer scribe travelled to other allied cities where he wrote letters on behalf of their rulers (Y. Goren, I. Finkelstein, N. Na'aman, Inscribed in Clay: Provenance Study of the Amarna Letters, 2004, 276-279).

On the Apiru, see Norman Gottwald, The tribes of Yahweh (part VIII).

My thanks to Archaeology News Report, first with the news. I have also made much use of their previous report on Beth Shemesh, Archaeology News Report (6 September 2008).


Top left: Ceramic plaque from Tel Beth Shemesh (Stratum IV-III) showing a Canaanite goddess, Astarte?

Right: ceramic plaque from Tel Beth Shemesh,
photo courtesy Dr. Zvi Lederman, Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavations (via National Geographic News) .

Bottom left: drawing of the
plaque found at Tel Beth Shemesh. Credit: AFTAU.


  1. Nice post. I do wonder about the name of her city. In EA 274:15-16 she specifically mentions the fall of Sapuma. Despite the arguments for Beit Shemesh, I can't help but think that she had a lot more than passing interest in Sapuma wherever it was and I doubt that it was identical with Beit Shemesh. I'm working on a post on this at my place but I'm not quite done.

  2. The problem, as you know, is identifying Sapuma: perhaps the village of Saffa in the foothills near Gezer's eastern border, or the unexcavated mound at el-Burj about 3km east of Saffa. Goren et.al. leave the question open, noting that "it was either a town in the territory of Gezer or a secondary town in the territory of Belit-nesheti, but not her seat."

    So, Sapuma is not Beth Shemesh, no. Unless, of course, you see her having taken refuge in Gezer after Sapuma has fallen. That's not the way EA 274 sounds to me, but I'd be glad to learn more. I look forward to your post (which I'll certainly see as I read your blog regularly).

  3. Duane Smith has now written What/Where Was Belit-nesheti's City? and it's well worth reading.

  4. Anonymous19/7/09 19:08

    I enjoyed reading your research on the "Lady of the Lionesses". I recently posted a blog about her. A female ruler in the region during that time period is an interesting find. If there was one female ruler, perhaps there were actually more.. only time will tell.


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