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The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are a group of several hundred clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) writing that date to the fourteenth century B.C. and were found at the site of Tell el-Amarna, the short-lived capital of ancient Egypt during the reign of Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten (ca. 1353–1336 B.C.) (22.9.1; 21.9.13). Since Egypt is outside the area where cuneiform writing developed, the Amarna Letters testify to the use of the Mesopotamian script and the Akkadian language across the eastern Mediterranean during this period. The majority of the tablets are letters (hence the modern designation “Amarna Letters”) written from rulers of the lands north of Egypt, but a few are letters from the Egyptian king, and there are also tablets inscribed with myths, epics, syllabaries, lexical texts, and other lists—the kinds of texts that were used to learn cuneiform writing. These texts are housed today in museums and collections across the world, including two examples in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (24.2.11; 24.2.12).

Most of the tablets were found in 1887, but details concerning their discovery are vague and contradictory. Secondhand accounts indicate that the tablets were uncovered either by a peasant woman or a group of local farmers; it is also possible that they came from private, undocumented excavations. Archaeologists working at Tell el-Amarna following the initial find tried to ascertain the exact spot of the tablets’ discovery but were met with conflicting evidence. Locals identified a particular building—named “The Place of the Correspondence of Pharaoh, l. p. h.” on stamped bricks (also called the “Records Office” in modern scholarship)—as the site of the original discovery. A few fragments of letters and school texts were excavated in this administrative building, but tablets were also recovered from nearby buildings over the course of various archaeological expeditions. It seems likely that the Amarna Letters were discovered in these buildings, all part of a larger administrative complex located near the royal palace in what is now known as the “Central City” of Amarna.

Letters comprise the majority of the Amarna tablets and have been extensively studied in the modern period by scholars interested in ancient history and international relations. Two types of letters can be distinguished. The first (more common) type comprises letters written from rulers of cities and small kingdoms in the Levant—an area controlled by Egypt in the New Kingdom period—that were vassals of the Egyptian king. These rulers write deferentially to the king (identifying him as “the Sun, my lord,” and referring to themselves as “your servant”) and relate squabbles with other Levantine rulers, list concerns with Egyptian administration, or discuss trade and tribute. One letter in the Museum’s collection from Abi-milku, ruler of the coastal city of Tyre, shows how these Levantine kings depicted themselves as dependent upon their Egyptian overlord (24.2.12). In addition to the many letters sent by Abi-milku of Tyre, the Amarna tablets include letters from the rulers of many Levantine cities from Ugarit in the north to Gaza in the south.

The second (less common) type comprises letters from rulers who were powerful kings in their own right and controlled large territories such as Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni, and Hatti. In both tone and content, these letters differ considerably from those of the Levantine rulers. These rulers use terms of equality, referring to the Egyptian king as a “brother,” and discuss the mutual exchange of gifts, including raw materials such as gold from Egypt and lapis lazuli from modern Afghanistan (26.7.21) and expertly produced luxury objects ranging in size from small jewelry items to chariots (27.6.1), as well as more direct exchanges, such as royal marriages. While most of the so-called great kings of the Amarna Letters could trace contact with Egypt back to their forefathers, the other letter in the Museum’s collection unusually claims to mark the beginning of correspondence between the king of Assyria and the king of Egypt (24.2.11). Here, Ashur-uballit I indicates that his message is accompanied by gifts of a chariot, two horses, and a carved precious lapis lazuli stone, and requests that his messenger be allowed to visit the king and his country.

Like other rulers who wrote to the king of Egypt, Abi-milku and Ashur-uballit sought to achieve specific goals—one practical (i.e., the assurance of safety and protection), the other ideological and status-oriented (i.e., establishing contact with Egypt and acquiring knowledge of the foreign land). These concerns, however, were presented only after a formulaic and sometimes elaborate address that could include the titles of the Egyptian king, expressions of the sender’s subject status (in vassal letters only), and good wishes for the king and his household (especially in the letters of the great kings). Such expressions were probably taught to scribes as part of their training.

While the Amarna Letters have been studied primarily as historical documents attesting to social and political developments in the ancient Near East, injunctions at the beginning of the letters to “speak” suggest that these messages were read aloud in the royal court and thus should also be studied as ceremonial objects. Clay tablets inscribed in an abstract, wedge-shaped script would have been immediately recognizable as foreign missives, as Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was more picture-like (05.4.2; 21.9.9) and letters were typically painted onto papyrus with ink in a cursive script (22.3.516; 27.3.560). Some of the clay letters seem to have been made to be visually impressive, with larger tablet sizes and bold handwriting as well as carefully planned margins or marked-off sections. The careful production of many of the tablets may indicate that they were designed for viewing. It is even possible that particular clay colors, tablet shapes, and turns of phrase were features that could be identified with particular places or rulers. Arriving in court with messengers in possibly foreign dress and language (1985.328.13), and accompanied by tribute or lavish gifts, the reading of a letter was probably an important part of courtly rituals related to diplomacy, and provided the Egyptian king an opportunity to demonstrate his power through contacts with the outside world.

The recovery of the Amarna Letters in modern times was the result, in part, of their storage in ancient times in the royal “Records Office.” Several letters dating back to the rule of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (r. ca. 1390–1353 B.C.), were among those found at Amarna, meaning that they were brought to the new royal city from an older archive. The primary reason for the storage of some 350 letters may be explained practically by the information the texts recorded—recent promises, requests, and gifts and tribute—that may have needed to be checked or verified in the future. Yet the texts also may have served as mementos of correspondence with “brothers” and “servants” the Egyptian king might never meet, tangible traces of important political connections forged across long distances.