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Amarna Tablets


I. Tell el-Amarna.

II. The Tablets.

III. Authors and Contents.

IV. Value of the Tablets.

Historical (§ 1).

Geographical (§ 2).

Linguistic (§ 3).

I. Tell el-Amarna:

The Amarna tablets are a collection of cuneiform documents, so called from Tell el-Amarna, the name by which the place where the tablets were discovered is generally known outside of Egypt. It is really a conventionalized word, compounded of the Arab tell, “mound,” and a word formed either from the name of the Arabic tribe Amran or from a place near Amarieh. The place is 160 miles above Cairo, between Thebes and Memphis, or, more closely, between Assiout and Beni-Hassan. The mound is the site of the city built by Amenophis IV., known otherwise as the heretic king Khu-en-aten, that he might there develop untrammeled by the hostile priesthoods his favorite cult of the disk of the sun (aten) with which he hoped to supersede all other cults and to unify the religion of Egypt (see Egypt, I.). His attempt was of course opposed by all the priesthoods of all the other cults, and after his death his name was held accursed because of his efforts in that direction. His position in Egypt was very like that of Julian “the Apostate” among the Christians of Rome. The place which he built for his capital was allowed to fall into ruins, not being occupied after his death by any other king. It is this fact which accounts for the presence of the tablets there and also for their preservation. The foreign office of his reign with its archives was located there, and when the palace was disused, the chamber where the tablets were kept was covered by the débris of the disintegrating buildings. These facts constitute one of the strongest proofs of the genuineness of the documents, which indeed is established beyond all question. The mound was excavated in 1891-92 by W. M. F. Petrie and a corps of assistants under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund. The finds made were most valuable, although the site had been rifled by Arabs and travelers. The entire reign of the king whose capital was there was illuminated by the finds, and the activities, religious, political, and industrial, were laid bare. That excavation was the result, however, not the cause, of the finding of the tablets. One of the hopes was that other tablets would be discovered, a hope which largely stimulated the search but was not realized.

II. The Tablets:

The discovery was accidental. In 1887 a peasant woman while searching in the ruins for antiquities to sell to travelers discovered the place of deposit within the palace enclosure. The tablets were all taken out, naturally without the extreme care which skilled excavators would have used, were conveyed down the river, and sold. Eighty-two letters and fragments came into the possession of the British Museum, 160 went to Berlin, the Gizeh museum has sixty, while a few are in private hands. In all, about 320 documents of the series are known. Some fragments were afterward found in the place of deposit by Petrie, verifying the location as given by the peasants, but adding hardly anything to the knowledge already gained. The tablets are different in many respects, particularly in shape, from those recovered from Babylonian and Assyrian mounds. Most of them are rectangular, a few are oval, some are flat on both sides, some convex on both, some pillow-shaped, some are kiln-dried, others sun-dried. Many of them confirm by the texture of the clay the assertions of the inscriptions as to their sources. Six of them are the largest known of this species of tablet, measuring ten inches by eight. The language, except in three of the documents, is the neo-Babylonian, closely related to Assyrian, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic, approximating most closely the Assyrian. One letter is in the Hittite language but in the cuneiform script. Sometimes a Sumerian ideograph is used, of which the explanation occasionally follows either in Assyrian or in Canaanitic. In all but half a dozen tablets the general character of the writing is inferior, showing the work of unskilled scribes. 148 The differences are often individualistic, and mannerisms which run through a whole series combine with other details to point infallibly to identity of source for that series. The spelling is poor, and modifications of characters occur which have not been discovered in other cuneiform documents. The tablets are all to be dated within the reigns of Amenophis III. and IV., father and son, about 1500-1450 b.c. Besides the foregoing, a tablet recognized by nearly all scholars as belonging to the series was found by Bliss in his excavation of Tell el-Hesy (Lachish) in Palestine. This contains the name of Zimrida of Lachish (almost certainly the writer of letter No. 217 in Winckler’s arrangement, and mentioned in Nos. 181 and 219 of the same), not to be confounded with Zimrida of Sidon, who is also a correspondent (as is apparently done by Bliss, Mounds of Many Cities, London, 1896, pp. 54 sqq.). Some of the letters contain Egyptian dockets mostly illegible, probably notes of date of receipt and other remarks. The condition of the tablets varies greatly; on some only a few characters remain; others lack only a few to be complete.

III. Authors and Contents:

With the exception of some fragments of a bilingual dictionary, compiled by order of the Pharaoh, and a mythological fragment, the tablets are letters, most of which deal with the political situation of Syria, Palestine, and Philistia. The most noteworthy are the following: One letter is from Amenophis III. to Kallima-Sin of the Babylonian Kasshite dynasty, asking the latter for a daughter as a wife and replying to the latter’s insinuation that there was no information that a former wife, sister of Kallima-Sin, was yet alive and well-treated. Four letters from Kallima-Sin to Amenophis III. complain that a Babylonian envoy was kept in Egypt six years, and when sent back brought only a small quantity of gold, and that of inferior quality. He asks more and better gold, which is needed at once for a building which he is erecting; he asks for a daughter of Amenophis as a wife, or if not that, then some one whom he can palm off as a daughter of the Pharaoh. One of the letters shows that he is sending his daughter to the harem of Amenophis. There are six letters of Burnaburiash of Babylon to Amenophis IV., assuring the latter of the former’s fraternal feelings, asking presents and promising others in return, also seeking help against his “vassal” Asshur-uballit of Assyria who revolts against the suzerain power. There is also a letter of Asshur-uballit to Amenophis IV., seeking presents, including gold for the decoration of a palace, similar to those which had been sent to his father Asshur-nadin-ahi, and promising others in return. Some of the finest, longest, and best-written are from Tushratta, king of Mitanni (see Assyria), to Amenophis IV., one of whose wives is a sister of Tushratta. One of these promises a daughter of the writer to the Pharaoh, but it is expected that a great deal of gold (not alloyed like the last that was sent) will be returned for her. After considerable delay and, apparently, bargaining also the daughter was sent. This series tells too, of a victory of Tushratta over the Hittites, and might be taken to prove that Mitanni was not a Hittite kingdom. Three from the same person to Amenophis IV. include in their contents condolence upon the death of the Pharaoh’s father, for which consolation is found by the writer in the fact that the son of that father succeeds to the throne; friendly relations are promised; two golden statuettes which have been promised are asked for (not wooden one likes those which have been sent); complaints are made about the detention of ambassadors in Egypt; and gold is requested. Tushratta also writes a letter to the queen dowager Ti, asking her good offices with the Pharaoh in urging the latter to fulfil the engagements entered into.

The rest of the tablets contain correspondence from petty kings and governors of Amoritic, Syrian, Palestinian, and Cypriote (?) cities to the Pharaohs, telling of revolts and assaults upon the Pharaoh’s authority, and of invasions by the Hittites and Habiri; or they make accusations against other of the Pharaoh’s governors, or defend themselves as loyal subjects of Egypt. The most noteworthy of these are a series from Alashia (either a district in north Syria or Cyprus); fifty-seven from Rib-Addi of Gebal (Byblos) to the Pharaoh, and eight to Egyptian officers high in position; eight from Abi-Milki of Tyre (the name compounded of the name of the god for which “Moloch” was given in the Old Testament; see Moloch); seven from Abd-iba of Jerusalem (the latter spelled U-rusha-lim, “city of peace"; Winckler, Tell-el-Amarna Letters, Letter 180, line 25), which tell of a confederation formed by Gezer, Ashkelon, and Lachish against Jerusalem, and asking help against them and the Habiri; two are from Ammunira of Beirut.

IV. Value of the Tablets:

The results gained from the study of the documents are threefold—historical, geographical, and linguistic.

1. Historical.

The most remarkable result of the discovery is the fact that the correspondence even between Egypt and its vassals was carried on not in Egyptian, but in an Asiatic tongue, and that the cuneiform. This implies that the entire area covered by the correspondence outside Egypt was controlled in culture by Babylonia. This control was so thoroughgoing that governmental transactions and diplomatic intercourse were necessarily carried on in the tongue of the lower Euphrates. The royal correspondence reveals the relations between the court of Egypt, on the one side, and the courts of Babylonia, Assyria, and Mitanni, on the other, consisting of intermarriages, with Egypt as the haughtier power in the earlier period, this strain of superiority giving way later to one of equality. The Pharaohs entered into marriage relations with the daughters of Asiatic regal houses, but at first refused and afterward granted the request for reciprocity in this respect. This division of the documents shows the kings making requests of each other for bakshish and complaining of the quality of that formerly given. Egypt seems the source of gold, and from the plaints appears guilty of attempting to cheat by alloying heavily the 149 metal which it sent as a present, in one case the proportion of pure gold being only six parts in twenty. The relation of Assyria to Babylonia receives side-light in the fact that the Babylonian asks help against his “vassal” Asahur-uballit of Assyria, who, however, seems to be in friendly relations with Egypt; a second point in this connection is contained in the reference in the Tushratta correspondence to the sending of the image of Ishtar of Nineveh to Egypt, which implies that Nineveh was then a part of Mitanni (see Assyria, vi., 2, and cf. C. Niebuhr, Studien . . . zur Geschichte des alten Orients, Leipsic, 1894, p. 92).

But the most important results historically are those which relate to the connections of Egypt with Syria and Palestine. Thothmes III. had carried the arms of Egypt as far as the Taurus Mountains. A period of Egyptian quiescence had followed, and, as a consequence, in the period of the letters Egyptian hegemony was threatened in three ways: first by revolts of the cities under governors who had been appointed by the Pharaoh or by the governors who were unfaithful; second, by a Hittite advance from the north and northeast; third, by the Habiri from the east. The correspondence abounds in charges by governors who claim to be faithful to the Pharaoh against other governors; and again and again they beg for help from him which apparently is not sent, though the news of continuous loss of territory is the burden of the letters. Some of the men charged with rebellion protest their fidelity and make countercharges, but in many cases practically confess their disloyalty by their excuses for not rendering service due or required. The whole situation is one of the weakening of Egyptian influence as its leadership and control slips away under the battering of the triplex adverse forces. The mention of the advance of the Hittites is most illuminating, showing the beginning of the empire established in the century following. The question raised by the frequent mention of the Habiri has been answered in three ways: (a) they were the Hebrews of the Exodus just arriving from the wandering; (b) they were Hebrews, but not those of the Exodus, representing rather the Abrahamic-Lot tribes prior to the settlement in Egypt which is described in the last chapters of Genesis; (c) they were not Hebrews at all, but people of nomadic strain whose exact affiliations are unknown. The first of these three answers is not now supported by any prominent authority; the other two are still under debate. In favor of the second is the single Egyptian inscription (Meneptah’s; see Egypt) which plainly mentions the Hebrews as already in Canaan during the reign in which most modern scholars place the Exodus and before the tribes under Moses could have entered the land.

2. Geographical.

The geographical information can not be given here at length, since almost every item would require extended discussion. A large number of known cities or localities is named, such as Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Beirut, Ajalon, Accho, Megiddo, Kadesh, Gath, Lachish, Jerusalem, Mitanni, and Edom, Other places are mentioned in such connections that the approximate locality is recognized, such as Tunip, south of Aleppo. Still other place-names appear in the correspondence, the exact or even approximate location of which is undetermined, such as Ḳaṭna and Irata. One hundred and thirty towns in all are mentioned. But the existence of these places is made known and their relative importance often appears from the character of the passage in which the names occur. For the political geography of the region and the time, these tablets are of the first importance.

3. Linguistic.

The linguistic data given in the letters afford a means of comparison of the Babylonian and Assyrian with earlier and with later forms, and so constitute a standard of comparison in what had been a dark period for both. For Aramean and Canaanitic the data are the earliest known and, therefore, of the highest value. These letters show the Semitic languages represented as differing only dialectically, and as in all probability mutually intelligible to the inhabitants of the different regions.

Geo. W. Gilmore.

Bibliography: H. Winckler, Der Thontafelfund von EI-Amarna, in Schrader, KB, v. 1, Berlin, 1896; idem, Tel-el-Amarna Letters, New York, 1896 (transliterated text and transl. in Germ. and Eng.); C. Besold, Oriental Diplomacy, London,.1893; C. R. Conder, Tel-el-Amarna Tablets, ib. 1893 (transl. and discussion of the tablets in the British Museum); W. M. F. Petrie, Tel-el-Amarna, ib. 1894 (account of the excavation and its results); idem, Tel-al-Amarna Letters, ib. 1898; C. Niebuhr, Die Amarna-Zeit. Ægypten und Vorderasien um 1400 vor Christus nach dem Thontafelfunde von el-Amarna, Leipsic, 1899; Assyrian and Babylonian Literature, New York, 1901 (gives transl. of selected letters). The discussion in periodicals has been very full; consult Presbyterian Review, x. (1888) 476-481; PSBA, x. (1888) 540-569; Babylonian and Oriental Record, iii. (1889) 286-288, v. (1891) 114-119; Bibliotheca Sacra, l. (1893) 696; Thinker, ix. (1894) 408; Nation, lix. (Jan. 5, 1894).

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