The Amarna Letters

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How this collection of clay tablets containing the diplomatic records of the last Pharaoh’s of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty came to shape histories image of Bronze Age politics.

The Amarna Letters are a collection of cuneiform tablets found at the site of what was once Akhetaten. This city was the Egyptian royal residence for about fifteen years in the middle of the 14th Century BC during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. The modern inhabitants of the region, the Amarna tribe, have given their name to the letters and to the ancient site. A total of 379 tablets associated with this archive have been discovered piecemeal, beginning at the end of the 19th century CE.

Ancient Empires

At the height of its power, ca. 1350 BCE, the Empire of the Egyptian New Kingdom reached up the Levantine coast as far as Ugarit. This Empire controlled the vital trade routes that carried goods to and from the coast into central Syria. Inland, on the other side of the Orontes River, the Syrian vassals of the Mittani Kingdom, allies of Egypt, held power. It is with this arrangement that the first half of the 14th century BCE passed, with the disparate city-states of Syria and Canaan relatively stable given there often fractious nature. Meanwhile as the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III became increasingly crippled with age and ill health, Suppililiuma, a vigorous warlord was uniting Anatolia into a Hittite Empire.

As it stands, modern scholarship has come to rely upon three primary sources for our knowledge of these events. These are the records from the Hittite Archives from Hattusa, textual and archeological evidence from Ugarit, and the corpus of texts known as the Amarna Letters.

The Amarna documents, with three exceptions, are written in a localized form of Akkadian, the lingua franca of the Late Bronze Age. These texts, together with records from Ugarit, Hatti, and other Egyptian sources, make the roughly twenty years that they cover the best documented period of Late Bronze Age Syria.

Trade Between Kingdoms

The letters consist of exchanges between great kings as well as the internal communications between vassals and overlords. The attention paid to luxury goods such as gold, lapis lazuli and timber fits with the expected imperial foreign policy of regimes that were built to serve the insular needs of stratified social elites. As long as such trade goods were available the frontiers of the Kingdom were deemed secure. Any likely discomfort from affairs abroad, such as a disruption in the flow of timber from Lebanon would have been, could place the Pharaoh at risk of having the illusion of universal empire crumble.

Universal Kingship

The Amarna letters can be used to examine the concept of universal kingship that prevailed during this period. From an insular perspective this meant that the limits of the king’s authority were the edge of the civilized world. As noted by Mario Liverani, in International Relations in the Ancient Near East, 1600-1100 B.C., when studying the Amarna Letters it is necessary to consider this notion of “universal kingship”, coupled with traditional Egyptian ideology. The Egyptian ideal of the Pharaoh being the champion of MAAT- law and order- versus the foreigners, who embodied ISFET- chaos, is therefore an essential part of understanding the sometimes confusing messages that can be conveyed in the Amarna Letters.

The letters contain numerous references to the provisioning of troops moving northwards. Several references to rebellious vassals and incursions by foreign kings confirm the indications that all was not well along Egypt’s northernmost frontiers. It is known that, despite proclamations of action, Egypt lost power in northern Syria while these letters were being written.

An analysis of the complete corpus shows Egypt to be an empire of image and prestige that was gradually loosing the ability to maintain its frontiers. This slow erosion of power would lead to the rise of the Hittite and eventually Assyrian empires that would fill the power vacuum left by Egypt in Northern Syria.

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