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A Tell el-Amarna Diplomatic Letter

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Sometime around 1887, groups of small clay tablets with cuneiform writing began to appear on the antiquities markets in Egypt.  Alert scholars traced the group of tablets to the site of Tell el-Amarna, leading W.M.F. Petrie to subsequently survey and begin excavation work at this large site.  Accounts persist claiming that a peasant woman accidently uncovered the cache of tablets while collecting soil for her garden, but more likely, this was a fabricated story to cover up or conceal the actual circumstances; illegal excavations for antiquities. The discovery of tablets in cuneiform script was unprecedented in Egypt and created quite a stir among Egyptologists and Orientalists in Egypt and across Europe.  These scholars, backed by their respective benefactors, governments and museums, purchased groups of the Amarna tablets as they became available.  The exact amount of tablets actually recovered is uncertain as several were lost or destroyed during the intervening years. At present, the Amarna corpus numbers 382 known tablets, but these remain scattered in various museums and collections. In 1915, J. A. Knudtzon translated and published most of the corpus in German.  Exactly one hundred years later, A. F. Rainey posthumously published a new edition with fresh collations and English translations of all extant texts (Rainey 2015).  

As intensive studies of these texts reveal, the Amarna tablets represent part of a rich diplomatic archive of the Egyptian Foreign Office of the “heretic” eighteenth dynasty pharaoh Akenaten (Amenhotep IV).  The language of this diplomatic correspondence is a provincial variation of Babylonian that served as the lingua francaof Near Eastern diplomacy and trade during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1200 BC).  Two underlying linguistic traditions are evident.  One tradition is called “Hurro-Akkadian,” a name reflecting the role of Hurrians in the formation and diffusion of the Babylonian language.  The other tradition is markedly different and heavily influenced by Canaanite (Rainey 1996; Moran 2001).


Akhetaten, translated as “the Horizon of the Aten” was the ancient name of Tell el-Amarna.  The constructed the city as the showcase capital and religious center for his monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten in ca. 1360 BC.  The city went into a decline after Akhenaten’s death in 1355 BC and sat largely abandoned little more than a decade later.  Scholars have long debated as to whether Israelite monotheism and Moses influenced Akenaten’s choice to worship a single deity and his wide-ranging religious reforms.


Relevance to the Biblical Account


The Amarna diplomatic correspondence or letters are extremely important to the biblical account as they contain letters from Canaanite kings and officials written during the general period of the conquest narratives of the book of Joshua.  The Amarna letters provides a priceless window into the geo-political intrigue and atmosphere in Canaan during the first half of the fourteenth century BC (ca. 1360 BC).  The texts include requests and pleas for assistance, as well as testimonies of loyalty to their Egyptian overlord.  However, reading between the lines of these letters reveal that Egypt’s power and influence in Canaan was deteriorating.  Interestingly enough, fragments of similar tablets have been unearthed in Israel at sites such as Ta’anach, Tell el Hesi, Aphek and Jerusalem.  Much attention had been given to the mysterious bands of “Habiru” repeatedly mentioned in the Amarna letters and their possible association with Hebrew tribes.  Regrettably, the two names, seemingly similar in English, have no linguistic relation.  Rainey convincingly demonstrated that Habiru must be rendered as ‘apiruand translated as a social class of bandits or outlaws. The term has no linguistic similarity with ‘ibrim(Hebrews).  Thus, despite persistent attempts to link these two groups, the Amarna correspondence does not provide a smoking gun for Israelite incursions into Canaan (Rainey 2015: 31-35).  One must add however, that these letters only reflect about twenty-five years of diplomatic communication and does not present a comprehensive picture of Canaan during this tumultuous period.


Physical Description


The Horn Museum Amarna letter is a replica of tablet EA xxx, which contains a letter from x to x, mentioning these points.  The tablet measures xx x xx inches. 


Historical Significance


The Amarna tablets provide one of the first examples of international diplomacy and relations, dating to the second millennium BC and reveal political conditions in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Mitanni, Arzawa and Hatti (Turkey), Alashiya, (Cyprus), and the Levant. The bulk of the tablets (EA 45-382) relate to greater Canaan.   Small regional and local kingdoms, their rulers and many interactions and intrigues are recorded providing a priceless testimony documenting the Late Bronze Age in the Near East and especially the Levant during a critical period in biblical history. 




The best contemporary parallel to the Amarna letters are the copies of the Egyptian-Hittite treaty dated to 1259 BC cementing an alliance between Rameses II of Egypt and Hittite king Hattusili III discovered at Thebes in Egypt and at Hattusa in Turkey.  However, for royal correspondence between subjects and overlords, the Neo-Assyrian archives provide the closest, albeit much later parallels.




Cohen, R., and Westbrook, R., eds.

2000    Amarna Diplomacy:  The Beginnings of International Relations.  Baltimore: Johns                      Hopkins University.


Moran, W. L.

            1992    The Amarna Letters.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University.

2001    Amarna Letters.  Pp. 65-66 in Vol. 1 of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt,ed.                Donald B. Redford.  New York:  Oxford University.

2003    Amarna Studies:  Collected Writings,eds. J. Huehnergard and S. Izre’el.  Harvard                        Semitic Studies 54.  Winona Lake:  Eisenbrauns.


Rainey, A. F.

1996    Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets:  A Linguistic Analysis of the Mixed Dialect used by                Scribes from Canaan.  4 Vols.  Handbook of Oriental Studies 52.  Leiden: Brill.

2015    The El-Amarna Correspondence:  A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the                    Site of El-Amarna based on Collations of all Extant Tablets.  2 Vols. Eds. W. M.                            Schniedewind and Z. Cochavi-Rainey.  Handbook of Oriental Studies                                            110.  Leiden:  Brill.

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