Where Was the Kingdom of Alashiya?

Map Depicting the Major Kingdoms in the Fourteenth Century BC Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus Is Shown as the Location of Alashiya

The Late Bronze Age Near East (c. 1500-1200 BC) is known for the remarkably sophisticated geopolitical system that its most powerful kingdoms established. Stretching from Greece to Persia and from Anatolia to Egypt, it was the first truly “global system,” where the leaders engaged in alliances, long-distance trade, and occasionally fought each other, although they more often used proxies. A collection of cuneiform tablets dated to the fourteenth century BC discovered in the Egyptian village of Amarna in AD 1887, now known as the “Amarna letters,” details how the kings of Egypt, Hatti, Babylon, Mittani, and Alashiya corresponded with each other as “brothers,” or kings above all the other kings. In the century plus since the letters were first discovered much has been learned about the kingdoms and their relations to one another and to the lesser kingdoms in the Levant, although Alashiya continues to be enigmatic.

The extent of Alashiya’s power, the language its people spoke, and its very duration are all questions that currently remained unanswered, largely due to the fact that texts believed to be associated with the Alashiyan language remain undeciphered and the texts of the Alashiyans’ contemporaries never specifically mention the physical location of the kingdom. Scholars have debated the location of Alashiya for decades, but in recent years, due to archaeological, textual, and circumstantial evidence, most scholars believe the island of Cyprus was its location.


Alashiya the Great Power

Amarna Letter Sent by the King of Alashiya to the King of Egypt

Egyptian, Hittite, and Mesopotamian texts, as well as the Amarna letters, describe Alashiya as a powerful commercial kingdom that probably emerged in the transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age, or sometime from 1700 to 1400 BC. Cuneiform tablets specifically from the Mesopotamian cities of Maria and Babylon state that Alashiya was supplying parts of Mesopotamia with copper as early as the eighteenth century BC, indicating that the mineral was the source of the kingdom’s wealth and power. [1]

Although the location of Alashiya is never indicated outright in any of the Hittite or Mesopotamian texts, a number of clues can be found in them. A text from Mari mentions a “mountain of Alashiya,” which some scholars have taken as being in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. [2] Possibly adding to this argument is a Hittite text from the Late Bronze Age that mentions how copper from a mountain in Alashiya was used to build a temple.

“They have laid foundations of silver and gold; the gold they brought from Birunduma, the silver they brought from . . . The lapis they brought from Mount Takniyara. The marble they brought from the country of Kanisha. The jasper they brought from the country of Elam. The diorite they brought from the earth. The black iron of heaven they brought from heaven. Copper (and) bronze they brought from Mount Taggata in Alasiya. [3]

Alashiya was mentioned by name in a number of Egyptian texts beginning in the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1500-1295 BC), although it appears the Egyptians differentiated between the kingdom of Alashiya and the land where it was located, which they referred to as “Isy.” Regular correspondence between the Alashiyans and Egyptians began during the reigns of the Egyptian kings Amenhotep III (ruled c. 14-3-1364 BC) and Akhenaten (c. 1364-1347 BC), coinciding with the Great Powers system. In an Amarna letter sent from the King of Alashiya to the Egyptian king, probably either Amenhotep III or Akhenaten, the king is addressed on equal terms as “brother” and an alliance is suggested.

“Message of the king of Alašiya to the king of Egypt, my brother: Be informed that I prosper and my country prospers. And as to your own prosperity, may your prosperity and the prosperity of your household, your sons, your wives, your horses, your chariots, your country, be very great. Look, yo(u) are my brother. As to your having written me, ‘Why did you not send your messenger to me?’, the fact is that I had not heard that you were going to perform a sacrifice. Do not ta[ke]e this at all seriously. Since I have (now) heard (about it), I herewith send my messenger to you. And behold, I (also) send to you with my messen(g)er 100 talents of copper. . . So an alliance should [be ma]de between the two of us, and my messen(g)ers should got to you and your messengers should come to me.” [4]

In addition to showing that Alashiya was on an equal footing with the other Great Powers in the fourteenth century BC, the text also indicates that it was a major copper producer. The Alashiyan king agreed to send his ambassador with a generous gift of 100 talents of copper to seal the deal of the alliance.

The Kingdom of Alashiya controlled the Late Bronze Age copper trade not only through its apparent location in copper rich territory, but also through an innovative way of trading and moving copper. By the Late Bronze Age, oxhide shaped ingots that weighed about sixty pounds each became the standard way in which copper was traded and transported. Ingots dated to the Late Bronze Age have been discovered throughout Crete, the Aegean, and the eastern Mediterranean, which offers another clue to Alashiya’s location. It is believed that the ultimate source of most Late Bronze Age copper ingots was the island of Cyprus. [5] Since the Kingdom of Alashiya was depicted as a copper rich kingdom in the Hittite, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian texts, therefore it would have to be located in a copper rich region. Although copper was extracted from a number of places throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, Cyprus was by far the leading copper producer in the region.

Excavations on the island of Cyprus have uncovered large, ornate Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age period tombs that were supplied with large numbers of copper and bronze tools, weapons, and decorations. In addition, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of copper smelting on Cyprus as early as 2500 BC and smelting workshops that used iron oxide as a flux during the smelting process between 2300 and 2150 BC. [6] Excavations also show that copper production and export on Cyprus peaked from 1600 to 1200 BC, which coincided with the emergence of the Late Bronze Age “Great Powers” geopolitical system and the importance of the Kingdom of Alashiya. [7] Certainly the circumstantial evidence of Alashiya as a copper producing and trading power points toward Cyprus as its location, but there are other evidence and ideas to consider.

Alashiya as Ancient Cyprus

A Bronze Age Copper Ingot

The fact that the textual evidence certainly paints the picture of Alashiya being the major copper producer and exporter in the Late Bronze Age Near East and eastern Mediterranean, and the archaeological evidence shows that Cyprus was a major producer of copper throughout the Bronze Age, when taken together they point toward Alashiya and Cyprus being one and the same, but distinguished modern scholars have advanced other theories for Alashiya’s location. The most notable alternate explanations have placed Alashiya either in the southeastern Anatolian region of Cilicia or somewhere in Syria. The most notable scholars to propose these theories from the late nineteenth the to mid-twentieth centuries were G. A. Wainwright, Max Müller, Gaston Maspero, and Anton Jirku. [8]

These theories were popular for some time, but as Aegean and Cypriot archaeology advanced in the twentieth century, along with advances in Near Eastern archaeology, they began to fall out of favor for several reasons. In addition to Cyprus being the premier copper producing location in the region, there are several other anecdotal and minor references in texts that point toward Alashiya as Cyprus. The Hittites often mentioned Alashiya as a place where they sent exiles, which would make sense if Alashiya was an island but much less so if it were located in Cilicia close to Hatti. [9]

Toward the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC, as the Sea Peoples were ravaging the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean, the king of Alashiya sent a letter to the king of Ugarit requesting ships to help protect his kingdom. This would certainly indicate that Alashiya was at least a coastal kingdom, if not an island, which would more than likely rule out a Syrian location. [10] Finally, two texts relating to travel between Egypt and Alashiya almost certainly indicate that Alashiya was an island.

In an Amarna letter from Rib Addi, the king of the Levantine coastal city of Byblos, to his overlord the king of Egypt, he mentions that he sent an ambassador to Egypt via Alashiya.

“In Waḫliya are the ships of the rulers of Tyre, Beirut, and Sidon. . . They have blocked all the roads against him. That fellow looks with pleasure on the war against me and against Ṣumur. . . The enemies of the king are at war with me, as are his mayors, to whom he gives thought. For this reason my situation is extremely grave. Look, ask the other Amanmašša if it was not (from) Alašiya that I sent him to you. Give thought to your loyal servant. [11]

According to the pseudo-historical Egyptian story of the sailor-merchant Wenamum, the titular character also found himself in a situation similar to Rib Addi’s around the year 1100 BC. According to the Tale of Wenamun, Wenamum was robbed by Sea Peoples and then fled to Egypt via Alashiya.

“When morning came, he had his assembly summoned. He stood in their midst and said to the Tjeker: ‘What have you come for?’ They said to him: ‘We have come after the blasted ships that you are sending to Egypt with our enemy.’ He said to them: ‘I cannot arrest the envoy of Amun in my country. Let me send him off, and you go after him to arrest him.’ He had me board and sent me off from the harbor of the sea. And the wind drove me to the land of Alasiya. Then the town’s people came out against me to kill me. But I forced my way through them to where Hatiba, the princess of the town was. I met her coming from one of her houses to enter another. I saluted her and said to the people who stood around her: ‘Is there not one among you who understands Egyptian?’ And one among them said: ‘I understand it.’ I said to him: ‘Tell my lady that I have heard it said as far away as Thebes, the place where Amun is: ‘If wrong is done in every town, in the land of Alasiya right is done.’ Now is wrong done here too every day?” [12]

As Shelley Waschman noted in a 1986 article, based on those two texts alone it would only make sense if Alashiya was located in Cyprus. If the Levantine coastline was patrolled by enemy marauders and Sea People as it was in both of these texts, it would make no sense to sail north to Cilicia or Syria, and then back south past those marauders, then past Byblos, before going south through even more marauders before making it to Egypt. [13] No, the only logical location of Alashiya based on these texts was the island of Cyprus.

Conclusion

The location of the Kingdom of Alashiya has proved to be a source of intrigue and scholarly dispute among many modern archaeologists and historians. Many notable scholars believed that the economically powerful kingdom was located in Cilicia or Syria, but due to a number of factors most scholars now believe it was located on the island of Cyprus. Alashiya became a powerful kingdom because it controlled the lucrative copper trade, which was a major industry on ancient Cyprus. In addition, a number of anecdotal factors and logic point toward Cyprus as being the location of Alashiya.


References

  1. Keswani, Priscialla Schuster. “Death, Prestige, and Copper in Bronze Age Cyprus.” American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005) p. 387
  2. Knapp, A. Bernard. Visiliki Kassianidou, and Michael Donnelly. “Copper Smelting in Late Bronze Age Cyprus: The Excavations at Politiko Phorades.” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001) p. 2004
  3. Pritchard, James B, ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third Edition. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 356
  4. Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), pgs. 105-6, EA 34
  5. Gale, N. H., and Z. A. Stos-Gale. “Oxhide Copper Ingots in Crete and Cyprus and the Bronze Age Metals Trade.” Annual of the British School at Athens 81 (1986) p. 2004
  6. Keswani, pgs. 385-92
  7. Knap et. al., p. 204
  8. Holmes, Y. Lynn. “The Location of Alashiya.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91 (1971) p. 426
  9. Holmes, p. 427
  10. Holmes, p. 427
  11. Moran, p. 189, EA 114
  12. Lichtheim, Miriam, ed. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 2, the New Kingdom. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), p. 229
  13. Waschman, Shelley. “Is Cyprus Ancient Alashiya? New Evidence from an Egyptian Tablet.” Biblical Archaeologist 49 (1986) pgs. 38-39