In the Late Bronze Age, the pharaoh Ramesses II dominated most kings of the ancient Near East, but he had some competition with Queen Puduhepa. Born ca. 1290 B.C., Puduhepa ruled the Hittite Empire, also called Hatti, with her often-ill husband, Hattusili III. Her voice survives in letters from both Hittite and Egyptian royal archives.
Puduhepa first appears in “Apology of Hattusili,” which was written in autobiographical style and found in the Great Temple in the Hittite capital, Hattusa. The text praises the goddess Ishtar, who, Hattusili says, guided him to power. In the “Apology,” Hattusili, brother to King Muwatalli II, tells of his journey home after the Battle of Kadesh, which took place in 1274 B.C. between the Hittites and Egyptians in what is now Syria. Though Ramesses claimed he won the battle, the struggle appears to have been a draw.
Hattusili stopped at “the city of Lawanzantiyas,” located in the kingdom of Kizzuwatna in southeast Turkey, to sacrifice to Ishtar. While there, he took a local wife, supposedly at Ishtar’s command, called “Puduhepa, the daughter of Pentipsarris, the priest.” Nothing else is known of Puduhepa’s family and background, except that her name was Hurrian for “the goddess Hepat has engendered.”
The Hurrian people were natives of the Caucasus that drifted into Mesopotamia and Syria by the late third millennium B.C. In the 18th century B.C., “there was a power vacuum and this was filled by Hurrian groups, who moved in [and] crystallized a state called Mitanni,” observes Hittitologist Gary Beckman. The Hittites eventually absorbed part of Mitanni, as well as the Hurrian people and gods. “I think there are people who are born in Hatti, who have Hurrian names, including many of the kings even before [Puduhepa’s] time,” he adds.
The Great Queen
After Muwatalli II died, his son, Urhi-Teshub, came to the throne. He reigned for several years, but his uncle, Hattusili, soon ousted him. Hattusuli ruled the Hittites from about 1267 to 1237 B.C. Because he usurped the throne, his position as king was precarious. To solidify his rule, he extended a hand of friendship to important nearby monarchs, including Ramesses. In 1246 B.C., the pharaoh wed one of Hattusili's daughters, uniting the two formerly warring houses in blood.
A copy of the Treaty of Kadesh between the Hittites and Egypt (Monica Wong)
Hattusili makes an offering to the storm god on a Firaktin rock-relief. (Tayfun Bilgin) Hattusili appears to have been at death’s door many times during his kingship. Prayer tablets record Puduhepa making individual requests of different deities, pleading for Hattusili's health. In one, Puduhepa recalls how Hattusili rebuilt the city of Nerik for the storm god of Zippalanda, whom she entreats to be “favorably inclined towards Hattusili.” If the storm god of Zippalanda passed on her request to the higher gods, Puduhepa promised him a golden shield and other goods. In another text, Puduhepa asks the deities to heal “Hattusili, that servant of [theirs], who is ill.” In other prayers, Puduhepa asks the gods to heal Hattusili’s specific body parts, like his feet or an eye.
Traditionally, the queen of Hatti maintained a subordinate role. “What the Hittite queen seems to have done in general, or what her responsibilities seem to have been, was [managing] the royal household in the broader sense,” says Beckman. “It was just called the ‘palace’ in Hittite texts, but she seems to have been in charge of affairs within the royal establishment.” He adds that Puduhepa “certainly had a greater role in government than did most of the queens of Hatti. But this may have been due to circumstances—that is, her own personality, and to the fact that her husband was often ill.”
Ramesses’s chief wife, Nefertari, wrote to Puduhepa. “That correspondence was done in duplicates—that is, from Hattusili to Ramesses and from Puduhepa to the queen of Egypt,” says Beckman. He adds that “it’s not thought that the queen in Egypt had any thing really to do with it.” Puduhepa writes to Ramesses as an equal and discusses matters of international importance, but Nefertari never addresses Hattusili and uses only formulaic greetings.
In one letter found in Hattusa, Nefertari is named “Naptera” and addresses her letter to Puduhepa, her “sister.” Nefertari hopes that Ramesses “will make the brotherly relationship between the Egyptian king, the Great King, and his brother, the Hatti King, the Great King, last forever.” Puduhepa proved to be a savvy diplomat for Hatti. On the Egyptian copy of a Hittite-Egyptian peace treaty, Beckman notes that the final sentences specifically mention Puduhepa’s seal, an honor that no other Hittite queen obtained. In her letters, Puduhepa also mentions other children in the context of marriage alliances. She says she married one of her sons to a princess from Amurru and two other of her sons to Babylonian princesses.
When the plans were made for the marriage between Ramesses and Hattusili’s daughter, Ramesses wrote to Puduhepa, not the king: “The Great King, the king of the land of Hatti, has written to me thus: Let the people come and pour sweet-smelling oil on my daughter's head and let her be taken to the house of the Great King, the king of Egypt, my brother.”
The pharaoh addresses her in the familial manner of one monarch to another, calling Puduhepa his “sister,” just as Hattusili is his brother. “She is entirely entitled to call him ‘brother,’” says Beckman. “She shared the same status as her husband, yes. And it would be from the Hittite side that they would be letting her take this role, not from the Egyptian side, where it would be unthinkable." When Hattusili failed to send his daughter to Egypt around 1246 B.C., Ramesses complained to Puduhepa, who claimed that the delay was due to “the difficulties of getting the dowry together,” notes Beckman. In the letter, Puduhepa writes, “Don’t I know the treasury of Hatti as well as you do, my brother? It is a burned-out building.” The main concern, Beckman says, “is not about the girl. It was about the goods and the appearance of subordination by the Hittites by sending a daughter.”
Other correspondence by Puduhepa concerns troublesome city-states. She wrote a series of letters to Niqmaddu, king of Ugarit in Syria, reprimanding him for not sending enough tribute to his overlord, Hattusili. Found in the Ugarit archives, these letters also dealt with Niqmaddu’s complaints about caravans passing through his land. In judicial matters, Puduhepa settled a debate over reimbursement of goods on a sunken ship belonging to a different king of Ugarit.
Puduhepa makes an offering to the goddess Hepat on a rock-relief at Firaktin. (Tayfun Bilgin)
The royal house saw itself as closely connected to the divine. “The Hittite queen in general was, in a way, identified with the goddess who was at the head of the Hittite pantheon, just as the king was identified with the god who was at the head of the pantheon,” Beckman adds. A “festival text” bears witness to Puduhepa’s involvement in religious matters, commissioning a Hattusa scribe to collect tablets about a New Year Festival.
At the Hittite site of Firaktin, rock-reliefs depict Puduhepa serving the sun goddess and Hattusili serving the storm god. However, “the outfits in which the king and queen are dressed are identical to the clothing of the god and goddess,” suggesting “a kind of identification on the human level with these…figures on the divine level,” Beckman notes.
At Yazilikaya, this god-king dates from the reign of Tudhaliya IV. (Sarah Murray)
“The syncretism of Hurrian and traditional Hittite, or Anatolian, religion was already underway before the reign of [her son] Tudhaliya and before Puduhepa,” says Beckman. But Puduhepa continued the process of melding Hittite gods, like the Sun Goddess of Arinna, and Hurrian gods, such as Hepat. At the Hittite sanctuary of Yazilikaya, numerous stone reliefs and carvings depicting Hurrian gods probably date from Tudhaliya's reign.
The Queen Mother
Though Hattusili died around 1237 B.C., Puduhepa remained a powerful figure during Tudhaliya’s reign. “She was also ruling in conjunction with her son, Tudhaliya, so there's a seal impression with both of them on it,” notes Beckman. In 1936, a bulla, or seal-impressed clay, was discovered at Tarsus in southern Turkey. This seal belonged to Tudhaliya and dubbed the queen mother “Puduhepa, Great Queen, Queen of the Land of Hatti, beloved of Hepat.”
Puduhepa lived into Tudhaliya’s reign. “Well, all we know is that she is still alive and represented on seals early in his reign,” says Beckman. Her death is not recorded, but the last letter she wrote dates to 1215 B.C.