It was a hot day in 1887 when a local peasant woman ventured to the site of Tell el-Amarna on the east bank of the Nile, its ancient ruins still poking out of the sand. She was searching for sebakh, the decayed mud brick prized as fertiliser. If she came across some treasure in the process, so much the better. The ruins at Amarna, once known as Akhetaten, had attracted a number of scholarly travellers and adventurers over the years, and many of them were willing to pay a tidy sum for artefacts from the site. For Akhetaten was the fabled city of the Eighteenth Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten, the man who overthrew the old gods to worship the sun disc, the Aten.
The Amarna Letters come to light
At first sight, the find didn’t look that impressive. It was a cache of clay tablets, their surfaces covered in strange markings. We don’t know how many were lost or destroyed, but those that survived soon made the rounds of antiquities dealers, who initially thought they were fakes.
Amarna had yet to be fully excavated at this point. Scholars knew it was built by Akhenaten to worship the sun god Aten in the middle of the 14th century BCE, but the details remained obscure. What was a cache of cuneiform tablets doing in the middle of Akhenaten’s capital?
When it came, the answer was revelatory. Wallis Budge of the British Museum was in Egypt and recognised the script as cuneiform and the language as Akkadian, the language of international diplomacy in the second millennium BCE. The tablets are an archive of diplomatic correspondence between the Pharaoh, his fellow great kings and his vassals. They are a precious archaeological discovery, shedding light on Egypt’s administration of its empire and its relations with rivals.
Further tablets have been found in subsequent excavations, making a total of 382 which are now spread between a number of museums from Cairo to London to Berlin. The chronology is still debated, but the general view is that the letters cover a period of around thirty years at most, from the last decade of Amenhotep III’s reign to the beginning of Tutankhamun’s reign. The archive was abandoned along with the city, when Tutankhamun oversaw the end of Akhenaten’s religious revolution and the return of the royal court to Thebes.
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International Diplomacy during the Eighteenth Dynasty
The majority of the tablets are letters and inventories addressed to the Pharaoh from the great powers to the north – Assyria, Mittani, Hatti and Babylon – and from vassal rulers in Syria and Palestine. The Pharaoh’s fellow kings are his equals and address him as “My Brother”, although it is clear that the Pharaoh has an edge. Egypt was the pre-eminent power of the day, with a great empire stretching from Nubia to the Euphrates and a near monopoly on the production of gold.
The other kings are acutely aware of this and the letters reveal a variety of approaches to negotiations with the Egyptian king. The language used ranged from the subtle to the startlingly undiplomatic.
“If your purpose is graciously one of friendship,” wrote the Assyrian king, “send me much gold.”
The Assyrian king was nothing if not direct.
Tushratti, king of Mitanni, was equally forthright. In one letter to Amenhotep III, he writes: “In your land, gold is as plentiful as dirt.”
Gold was the currency of diplomacy, acting as both a status symbol and a measure of friendly relations.
The vassal leaders had to be much more circumspect. They could not afford to upset the Pharaoh, but neither could they always be counted on to act in Egypt’s best interest. In one letter, the ruler of Qatna asked the Pharaoh for a sack of gold to fashion a statue of the god Shimigi. The Hittites, the rising power to the north in Anatolia, had stolen the old statue, and the request can be understood as implying the sack of gold would purchase Qatna’s continuing loyalty.
Many of the vassals’ letters opened with variations on an obsequious formula: “Say to the king, my lord: Message of Akizzi, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord, my Storm-god, seven times,” reads one.
Akhenaten and the Neglect of Empire
The tablets shine an interesting light on Akhenaten’s reign. He was pre-occupied with his religious and cultural revolution, overthrowing Egypt’s traditional pantheon in favour of worship of the Aten, and foreign affairs suffered accordingly. Many vassals wrote to him asking in vain for help against ambitious rivals and against the Hittites, only to throw in their lot with this new power when help was not forthcoming.
One fascinating letter from the Assyrian king complains about Akhenaten forcing the whole court, including his envoys, to stand in the sun for hours on end as part of the worship of the sun god Aten.
“Why should messengers be made to stay constantly in the sun and to die in the sun?”
He is careful not to complain too much, as religious sensibilities, then as now, could be politically problematic.
Amarna Letters End
The Amarna Letters come to a stop in the early years of Tutankhamun’s reign. The city of Akhataten is abandoned, and all reference to Akhenaten and his heretical revolution is erased. The archives of diplomatic correspondence lie buried in the sand, waiting for a peasant woman to discover them.
Moran, W L. The Amarna Letters. (1992). John Hopkins University Press.
Morris, E F. Bowing and Scraping in the Ancient Near East: An investigation into obsequiousness in the Amarna Letters. (2006). Journal of Near Eastern Studies.
Westbrook, R. Babylonian diplomacy in the Amarna Letters. (2000). Journal of the American Oriental Society.