How Did Globalism Begin during the Bronze Age

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Cuneiform Letter from the Mitanni King Tushrata

In recent years, the topic of globalism has become a major political and cultural issue throughout most Western countries. Although one does not have to peruse the internet long to find an article concerning the subject, it is difficult to find a precise definition of globalism. The most basic definition of globalism is a world or part of the world, where the elites of various kingdoms and nation-states are in continual contact with one another and there is a relative opening of national borders. During an era of globalism, trade, ideas, and people flow more freely from country to country and the period is usually marked by a prolonged time of relative peace. In the most complex and widespread eras of globalism, it is not just kingdoms and nation-states that trade ideas and commodities, but entire civilizations are thrust into contact with each other.

Throughout human history there have been several eras of attempted or actual globalism, although on a much smaller scale than is seen today. The Roman Empire is one of the first examples of globalism that comes to mind for most people as the Romans were able to meld a number of disparate tribes, kingdoms, and even the remnants of Near Eastern civilizations into one empire. Before the Romans accomplished their feat, Alexander the Great’s generals created a global system that stretched across the Near East and Europe. Other early examples of globalism can be found in medieval China and even Mesoamerica, but no pre-modern attempt at globalism was as effective, long-lasting, or influential as that of the “Great Powers Club” of the ancient Near East during the late Bronze Age. For a period of over 300 years, the leaders of the greatest kingdoms of the Near East maintained regular diplomatic communications with each other, which resulted in less war in the region and the exchange of commodities and ideas.

The Great Powers Club of the Ancient Near East

The Ruins of Ancient Amarna/Aketaten

The Great Powers Club is the name that modern scholars have given to the late Bronze Age system of globalism that existed from approximately 1500 until around1200 BC. The system was first established by the kings of Egypt, Hatti (the Hittites), Kassite Babylon, and Mitanni (the Hurrians). Later, towards the end of the system, Assyria replaced Mitanni and the kingdoms of Alashiya (ancient Cyprus) and Arzawa (southwest Anatolia) were added. [1] How the system began remains a mystery, but by the time the Egyptians joined the system during the eighth year of Thutmose III’s rule (reigned ca. 1479-1425 BC) the Hittites, Hurrians, and Kassites had been maintaining the system for some time. [2]

Despite existing during a period in world history of relatively low technology, the Great Powers Club was actually quite complex in its structure and operations. Much of the modern knowledge about the Bronze Age global system is the result of a fortuitous archaeological discovery made in 1887 in the Egyptian village of Amarna, which was known in ancient times as Aketaten. The discovery uncovered more than 300 clay tablets of correspondence between the kings of the Great Powers Club and their various vassal states in the Levant. The inscriptions on the tablets were written in the Akkadian language using the cuneiform script, which was commonly used during the Bronze Age among the various cultures and dynasties in Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Akkadian, which was a member of the Semitic linguistic-cultural group, truly became a global language during the late Bronze Age as it was the lingua franca of the Great Powers Club. [3]

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There was a very specific protocol in the letters regarding how the various kings referred to each other. If a letter was addressed from one great king to another great king, then they referred to each other as “brother,” while if the letters exchanged were between a great king and a Canaanite vassal state then the ruler in the inferior position usually groveled at the beginning of the letter. [4] The Canaanite city-states in the Levant essentially served as buffers between and sources of material goods for the Great Powers.

The Purpose of the Bronze Age Global System

One of the Two Colossi of Memnon (Amenhotep III) outside of Luxor, Egypt

The Bronze Age Great Powers Club functioned in much the same way and for the same reasons as many other global systems throughout history. One of the primary reasons for any global system to exist is the desire to prevent war between the major members. In the case of the Great Powers Club, the tiny strip of land known as the Levant (the modern day nation-states of Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria) was a prize coveted by all the kingdoms. The ancient Levant was known for its cedar trees, horses, and trade routes, so any kingdom possessing at least part of the region, or exercising influence over it, would see a boon to its own economy and powerbase. Proxy wars were quite common, but the Great Powers were loath to get into direct conflict with each other over the politics of the Canaanites. In one interesting letter sent from the Babylonian King Burnaburish II (ruled ca. 1359-1333 BC) to an Egyptian king, probably Akhenaten (reigned ca. 1364-1347 BC), the Babylonian king assures the Egyptian king that he will not take part in any Canaanite rebellion against Egypt. The letter states:

“In the time of Kurigalzu, my ancestor, all the Canaanites wrote here to him, saying, ‘C[om]e to the border of the country so we can revolt and be allied [wi]th you.’ My ancestor sent them this (reply), saying, ‘Forget about being allied with me. If you become enemies of the king of Egypt, and are allied with anyone else, will I not then come and plunder you? How can there be an alliance with me?’ For the sake of your ancestor my ancestor did not listen to them.” [5]

Although war did break out between the Egyptians and Hittites in the northern Levant around the year 1274 BC, the system usually kept the major powers from engaging each other directly and the period is generally considered to be one of peace and prosperity. [6]

Besides preventing major wars from breaking out among its members, the Great Powers Club developed large-scale, trans-national trade in the region. In order to do this, the kings had to make sure that the roads that connected their kingdoms were safe and free of highway robbers and other bandits. Based on examination of the Amarna Letters, the major kings apparently worked out a type of visa system with each other whereby subjects of one kingdom could legally travel to another kingdom for the purpose of diplomacy and commerce. In one letter, the Mitanni king, probably Tushratta (ruled during an uncertain length in the late fourteenth century BC), ordered the Canaanite kings of the Levant to give his diplomat a visa so that he could visit the king of Egypt. “No one is to hold him up. Provide him with safe entry into Egypt and hand (him) over to the fortress commander of Egypt,” read the letter. [7]

The subject of many of the letters between the great kings involved the exchange of goods, which were depicted as presents. The items that a king requested were usually contingent upon what resources were available in his kingdom and what the king he was writing was known to possess. For example, the Egyptians possessed copious amounts of gold that all the other powers coveted, while the Egyptians desired lapis lazuli, which is a dark blue stone that they often used in their jewelry. [8] In one letter from the Egyptian King Amenhotep III (reigned ca. 1386-1349 BC) to the Babylonian King Kadashman-Enlil I (ruled ca. 1374-1360 BC), the wealth of Egypt was on full display:

“I herewith send you, in the charge of Shutti, a greeting-gift of things for the new house: 1 bed of ebony, overlaid with ivory and gold; 3 beds of ebony, overlaid with gold; 1 headrest of ebony overlaid with gold; 1 lar[ge] chair [o]f ebony, overlaid with gold; 5 chairs of [eb]ony, overlaid with gold; 4 chairs of ebo[ny], overlaid with gold. These things, the weight of all the old: 7 minas, 9 shekels, of gold. The weight of the silver: 1 [mi]na, 8 ½ shekels, of silver. (In addition), 10 footrests of ebony; [. . .] of ebony, overlaid with gold; [. . .] footrests of ivory, overlaid with gold; [. . .] . . . of gold. [Total x] minas, 10 and 7 shekels, of gold.” [9]

The system worked well and kept precious items circulating throughout the Near East, giving economic stimulus to each of the kingdoms’ economies in the process. As the global system became more developed and intricate, so too did the routes. Based on archaeological evidence, along with the Amarna Letters, modern scholars have surmised that global trade followed a counter-clockwise pattern during the late Bronze Age. Goods would begin in the northern Levant and then move north, branching off into Mesopotamia, before continuing north into Hatti and Arzawa. From Anatolia, the routes would then become sea-borne and skip over the many Aegean islands, stopping in the Great Power of Alashiya before crossing the Mediterranean and entering Egypt. From Egypt, the routes would then follow the system of roads the Egyptians developed known as the “Roads of Horus” back through the Levant. [10]

But as much as the Babylonians may have coveted Egyptian gold, or the Egyptians desired Hittite horses, all of the Great Powers enjoyed collecting royal princesses. Many of the letters make direct demands for princesses in return for other goods. Interestingly, although the Egyptians enjoyed receiving foreign princesses into their harems, they never sent their own women to the other Great Powers. [11] As the Great Powers Club traded goods and negotiated peace settlements, they probably thought that their system would last forever, but a threat was on the horizon that would quickly put an end to the world’s first experiment with globalism.

The End of Bronze Age Globalism

The era of the Great Powers Club was the result of a gradual evolution by the powers of the major kingdoms of the Near East toward a global system. As arduous as the journey was to establish the world’s first era of globalism, it was destroyed in a relatively short period of time. In the late thirteenth century, for reasons that are still not completely known, a major migration of various peoples took place in the eastern Mediterranean region. Although the migrating tribes were disparate in origins, they have come to be known collectively as the “Sea Peoples” due to the name given them in the Egyptian accounts. In about a thirty year period, the Sea Peoples managed to collapse the Mycenaean confederacy, destroy the legendary city of Troy, annihilate Hatti, and threatened Egypt twice with major attempted invasions. [12] Although the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians survived the attacks, the Near East slipped into an interregnum period where contact between the major kingdoms was minimal and sporadic.

Today, many people think that globalism is a fairly recent phenomenon, but an examination of world history reveals that there have been many attempts at and cycles of globalism. Perhaps the most important and certainly the earliest pre-modern globalism era was that of the Great Powers Club of the ancient Near East. For about 300 years, the kings of the greatest kingdoms in the region developed a system whereby conflicts between the major powers could be resolved peacefully and trade and travel between the kingdoms was made easier, which made it the first successful attempt to create a truly global system.


  1. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 129
  2. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. Volume 2. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 323
  3. Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. xiii
  4. Mieroop, p. 136
  5. Moran, p. 18
  6. Mieroop, p. 136
  7. Moran, p. 100
  8. Mieroop, p. 140
  9. Cochavi-Rainey, Zipora. Royal Gifts in the Late Bronze Age Fourteenth to Thirteenth Centuries B.C.E.: Selected Texts Recording Gifts to Royal Personages. (Jerusalem: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 1999), p. 140
  10. Mieroop, p. 140
  11. Mieroop, p. 138
  12. Sandars, Nancy K. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean, 1250-1150 BC. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 105-55

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