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Ancient Man and His First Civilizations

The Amarna Letters

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The Amarna Letters were discovered in 1887 by a village woman digging ancient mud-brick for use as fertilizer. They are an important record of Egypt during a period of 15 to 30 years during the later part of Amenophis III's (1391-1353 BC) rule and the rule of Akhenaten (1353-1336 BC). We know of 382 tablets, but many others were probably destroyed, or may even be a part of unknown private collections. 

Basically, their content, mostly written in provincial Babylonian, can be divided into two sections. Though there is some dispute on the matter, the first section seems to be a record of various rulers of Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni, Arzawa, Alashiya (Cyprus) and the land of the Hittities Hattians and their dealings with Egypt and each other. The second and larger group of documents describes the petty rivalries and disputes between Egypt's vassal states in Syria and Palestine. The letters give insight to political conditions, diplomatic marriage, trade and commodities such as glass, gold and iron during this period of time. For example, the letters make it clear that Amenophis III was a powerful king, as demonstrated by negotiations for his marriage to a number of foreign ruler's daughters. But it is also clear that each ruler during this time frame held himself equal with the others. Letters most often began with one king addressing another as "brother". For example:

"To Naphururiya, king of Egypt, my brother, say: thus speaks Burnaburiash, king of Karduniash, your brother. I am well. To you, your land, your house, your wives your children, your Grandees, your horses, your chariots, many greetings!..."

At first, the importance of the Amarna letters were overlooked. They looked more like stale dog biscuits than anything else. It was unusual to find relics such as these along the Nile River and the village woman who originally discovered the tablets destroyed a number of them prior to selling the remainder to a neighbor for 10 piastres. This was fortunate because the neighbor sold the letters on the antiquities market. Otherwise, these invaluable records may all have been lost, and one wonders how many other finds were.

Experts such as the Professor Archibald Henry Sayce even dismissed the tablets. He, advancing in age, thought they were fakes. But eventually the samples ended up in the hands of E. A. Wallis Budge, who was then an Assistant Curator at the British Museum. Budge recognized their importance, who stated that:

'on the largest and best written... I was able to make out the words "A-na Ni-ib-mu-a-ri-ya," i.e., "To Nibmuariya", and on another the words "[A]-na Ni-im-mu-ri-ya shar matu Mi-is-ri," i.e., "to Nimmuriya, king of the land of Egypt"... I felt certain that the tablets were both genuine and of very great historical importance.'

Nibmuariya was otherwise known as Amenophis III, the father of one of the most intriguing kings of Egypt, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenophis IV). Following Budge's authentication of the documents, world leaked out and a number of museums including the Berlin Museum, the Louvre and the Egyptian Museum at Bulaq quickly snatched up as many of the tablets as they could find on the market. 

Later, Flinders Petrie would finally rediscover the actual spot where the tablets were originally found at el-Amarna. This was the city that Akhenaten built, and that soon after his death was abandoned. Here, Petrie would unearth more of the tablets in a chamber and two rubbish pits. Yet it was not until some time later that members of the Egypt Exploration Society would finally identify the location as 'The House of Correspondence of Pharaoh". This was the ruins of the ancient Egyptian foreign office.


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