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The Amarna letters are a collection of Cuneiform tablets discovered in the ruins of ancient Akhetaten (“The Horizon of the Sun-disc” or “The Horizon of Aten”, modern Tell el-Amarna, in Middle Egypt. The earliest letters in the collection were written during the final years of Amenhotep III (r. ca. 1388–1351 bce), and it is possible that the very latest letter was addressed to king Tutankhamun (r. ca. 1333–1324), indicating a span of approximately twenty years for the existence of the archive.

The first and largest group of tablets found at Amarna was unearthed accidentally by local inhabitants, probably late in the summer of 1887; most of the tablets thus come from archaeologically undocumented contexts. There is almost no doubt that the tablets were originally stored in a building in the vicinity of the King's House enclosure (P42.2) in the Central City, identified by means of stamped bricks as “The Place of the Correspondence of Pharaoh, life-prosperity-health” (in modern terminology known as the “Records Office,” Q42.21). This building represented a royal archive and probably also functioned as the scriptorium. The existence of the tablets became known soon after their discovery, and as early as December 1887 a set of tablets was purchased by Ernest A. Wallis Budge for the British Museum. More than three hundred tablets were found during the illicit excavations at the site. Through the work of antiquities dealers, numerous sets of tablets arrived in the museums of several countries, including the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Archaeological excavations directed by W. M. Flinders Petrie yielded another group of tablets during 1891–2. The Amarna corpus was later enlarged by tablets found during the excavations of the German Oriental Society (led by Ludwig Borchardt) and the Egypt Exploration Society (first headed by T. E. Peet, and subsequently by J. D. S. Pendlebury).

At present the Amarna corpus consists of 382 tablets and fragments (Knudtzon 1907-15; Rainey 1978); these include a tablet from the same period that was discovered in 1891 at the site of Tell el-Hesi in southern Canaan. The largest groups of tablets are kept in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin (altogether 202 or 203 tablets plus a number of fragments), followed by the British Museum (96 tablets), the Egyptian Museum (52 tablets), the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (23 tablets), the Louvre in Paris (7 tablets), the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow (3 tablets), the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2 tablets), the Oriental Institute in Chicago (1 tablet), and the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels (1 tablet). The majority of the tablets are documents of an epistolary nature; that is, letters and inventories. The remaining tablets consist of scholarly texts (Izre'el 1997) or documents somehow related to the activities of Amarna scribes and include literary texts (myths and epics), syllabaries, exercises, lexical texts, and lists, as well as an inscribed clay cylinder.

Most of the letters are written in a peripheral form of Akkadian Languega that reflects many shared innovations along with archaisms. Exceptions are one letter written in Assyrian (EA 15); one letter from the Mittani correspondence (EA 24) that is written in Hurrian; and two letters from the Arzawa correspondence that are written in Hittite (EA 31–32). The language of the letters varies greatly depending on the substrate language of the individual scribes, as well as their experience and skills. Two main variants may be recognized, a so-called Hurro–Akkadian dialect in the northern areas and a Canaanite–Akkadian dialect in the south. In the texts coming from the southern region, the vocabulary is mainly Akkadian, while the grammar is essentially Canaanite (Moran 1992: xviii–xxii; Kossmann 1994; Rainey 1996: II, 1–16, 31–32; Izre'el 2007).

The Amarna letters are traditionally divided into two main groups based on the sociopolitical status of the correspondents (Cohen and Westbrook 2000). The first group comprises letters exchanged between the king of Egypt and the rulers of the other Great Powers (Assyria, Babylonia, Hatti, and Mittani) as well as minor “independent” states (Alashiya and Arzawa). These documents are usually considered to be international correspondence. The second and larger group, however, comprises the letters of Egypt's vassals. The vassal correspondence reflects the activities of the petty rulers of Syria-Palestine, their domestic affairs, disputes with each other, and their relationship with the Egyptian administration in the region, as well as local political and administrative systems.

Within these two groups the inner structure of the individual texts is relatively standardized, and it is the letter format that largely confirms the dyadic division of the corpus. A distinct position among the letters is occupied by the correspondence of the rulers of Ugarit, which constitutes an intermediate form between the international and the vassal letters. Generally, every letter consists of two parts: the opening passage, containing the address and greeting, and the body of the letter. Both parts are indispensable for understanding the Amarna letters as diplomatic documents. While the body of the letter contains the information to be conveyed, the opening passage provides the information necessary for correct comprehension of the communication, and any nonstandard elements within this part may affect the interpretation of the message's content. The opening passages are formulated using a standardized set of structural elements, but individual realizations of these formulas reflect particular scribal traditions (Mynářová 2007).

Bibliography:


  • Cohen, R. and Westbrook, R. (2000Amarna diplomacy: the beginnings of international relations. Baltimore.
  • Izre'el, Sh. (1997The Amarna scholarly tablets. Groningen.
  • Izre'el, Sh. (2007“Canaano-Akkadian. Some methodological requisites for the study of the Amarna letters from Canaan.” [Accessed March 14, 2010]. Available from http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/semitic/canakk2007.pdf
  • Knudtzon, J. A. (1907–15Die El-Amarna Tafeln. 2 vols. Leipzig.
  • Kossmann, M. (1994) “Amarna-Akkadian as a mixed language.” In P. Bakker and M. Mous, eds., Mixed languages: 15 case studies in language intertwining: 16973Amsterdam.
  • Moran, W. L. (1992The Amarna letters. Baltimore.
  • Mynářová, J. (2007Language of Amarna–language of diplomacy: perspectives on the Amarna letters. Prague.
  • Rainey, A. F. (1978El-Amarna tablets 359–379. Kevelaer.
  • Rainey, A. F. (1996Canaanite in the Amarna tablets: a linguistic analysis of the mixed dialect used by scribes from Canaan, 4 vols. Leiden.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Ancient History