To the King, My Sun, My God, the Breath of My Life… Amarna Letters Paint Remarkable Picture of Ancient Egyptian Rulership
“Your city weeps, and her tears are running, and there is no help for us. For 20 years we have been sending to our lord, the king, the king of Egypt, but there has not come to us a word from our lord, not one.” Amarna Tablet
The Amarna Letters offer a remarkable insight into the hopes, fears, challenges and diplomatic life in ancient Egypt - requests for gold, offers of marriage, warning of a traitor, and promises of loyalty to the pharaoh – these are just some of the themes that appear in this remarkable collection. Numbering almost 400 clay tablets, the content inscribed provides scholars with an unrivalled peek into diplomatic life in Egypt and across the Middle East during the 14th century BC.
The Amarna Letters (also referred to as the Amarna Tablets) is the name given to an archive of clay tablets discovered at Tell el-Amarna, in Upper Egypt. This archive contains several hundred clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform, and it represents a part of the correspondence between Egypt and other polities, i.e. other major powers, as well as Egyptian vassals, in the Middle East.
Amarna letter: Royal Letter from Abi-milku of Tyre to the king of Egypt. (CC0)
Discovering and Dividing the Letters
In 1887, a large number of clay tablets were unearthed by local residents at Tell el-Amarna. These were then sold on the antiquities market. Once scholars found out about the location where these tablets were found, the site was explored, in the hopes that more tablets could be recovered. The investigators did not have much success, however, as a total of about 50 tablets and fragments were found by them. The famous British Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie, for instance, recovered 21 fragments from the site. The initial finds by the locals in 1887 forms the bulk of the Amarna Letters, which today tallies at 382.
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The Amarna Letters have been divided between various museums around the world, most them (202 or 203) being displayed in the Vorderasiatischen Museum in Berlin. Roughly a hundred tablets are in the UK (95 in the British Museum, and 22 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), and 49 or 50 sit in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Several tablets have also been obtained by private collectors, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Deciphering the Amarna Letters
Scholars have displayed great interest in the Amarna Letters, and began working on them almost immediately after they were discovered. The tablets were deciphered, studied, and published, providing the world with a remarkable glimpse into ancient Egyptian rulership, as well as that of the major powers of the Middle East, Babylonia, Mitanni and Assyria. Here, Kadashman Enlil of Babylon writes to Amenhotep of Egypt:
“How is it possible that, having written to you in order to ask for the hand of your daughter - oh my brother, you should have written me using such language, telling me that you will not give her to me as since earliest times no daughter of the king of Egypt has ever been given in marriage? Why are you telling me such things? You are the king. You may do as you wish. If you wanted to give me your daughter in marriage who could say you nay?”
From Burnaburiash, king of Karaduniash (Babylon) to Napkhururia (Akhenaten):
“When my father and your father had dealings in good friendship, they sent each other beautiful presents, and nothing they refused. Now, my brother has sent me only two mines of gold. But this is a very small amount: send, then, as much as your father did! And if you have little (gold), send half of what your father sent! Why have you sent me only two mines of gold? My work in the houses of the Gods is abundant, and now I have begun an undertaking: Send much gold! And you, whatever do you need from my land, write and it will be sent to you.”
In 1907, an edition of the Amarna Letters was published by the Norwegian scholar Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon. Although several more letters and fragments were discovered after the publication of Knudtzon’s edition, his work remains the standard edition in use today.
The Amarna Letters were written mostly in Akkadian, the ‘international’ diplomatic language of that period, though a mixed language, ‘Canaanite-Akkadian’, is also evident in the tablets sent from Canaan. Most of the tablets have been dated either to the reign of Amenhotep III, or to the reign of his successor, Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten (in other words, the 14th century BC).
What the Letters Say
The contents of the Amarna Letters may be divided into two main parts, the first being Egypt’s interaction with other major powers in the ancient Middle East, and the second being the correspondence between the Egyptians and their vassals.
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The first group of tablets involves the correspondence between Egypt and other important powers, i.e. Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, and the Hittites. These tablets are less common. From these tablets, it may be observed that the rulers treated each other as equals, as evident in the pharaoh being referred to as ‘brother’ by the rulers of these states. The contents of these tablets usually revolve around such issues as the exchange of gifts and diplomatic marriages. In EA 15 and EA 16, for instance, the Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit wrote to Akhenaten informing him of the gifts he was sending with his envoy, as well as to ask for gold.
On the other hand, more exchanges between Egypt and its vassals are available, and these have a ‘master-servant’ tone to them. For instance, the vassals often refer to themselves as “the dust under your (the pharaoh’s) feet”, whilst referring to the pharaoh as “my lord, the sun in the sky”. Moreover, the obeisance paid by these vassals is evident in the phrase “seven times and seven times I prostrate myself both upon the belly and back”.
These correspondences also reveal the political and military situation in Egypt’s sphere of influence. For example, in EA 298, the pharaoh is warned of an insurgency by Yapahu of Gezer, whilst in EA 244, a request is made by Biridiya of Megiddo for military assistance to defend his city from a rival by the name of Labayu.
By Wu Mingren
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