I’ve been perusing the secret diplomatic messages of Egypt— top-level messages between the rulers of all the major Middle Eastern states. These were acquired via an egregious lapse in security. The Egyptians just left the tablets in a room, 3300 years ago.
That is, I’m reading The Amarna Letters, translated by William Moran. Amarna is the modern name— really el-ʿAmārna. The ancient name was Akhetaten, and it was the new capital established by Amenhotep IV, pictured above, better known as Akhenaten, as part of his plan to re-orient Egypt toward the sole worship of Aten. Or to give him his proper name, “the living one, the Ra-Horus of the horizon, who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disk [Aten].” You may be able to see why we abbreviate it.
The letters are almost all written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day. Very bad Akkadian, I should add, with a good deal of West Semitic interference. A few are in Hittite or Hurrian. Curiously, though Egypt controlled Canaan at this time, it never occurred to anyone to write to the Egyptian king in Egyptian.
There are over 300 letters. There are a couple from the Egyptian king, probably drafts or copies of letters sent. Apparently there was another place where Egyptian records were kept, and we don’t have that, so most of the correspondence is from abroad. (So my statement above may be wrong. If anyone did write to the king in Egyptian, it wouldn’t have been filed with the Akkadian documents.)
Your first question is undoubtedly, how do I, a Middle Eastern king, start a letter to the king of Egypt? Like this:
Say to Nimu’wareya, the king of Egypt, my brother: Thus Kadašman-Enlil, the king of Karaduniyaš, your brother. For me all indeed goes well. For you, your household, your wives, and for your sons, your country, your chariots, your horses, your magnates, may all go very well.
I like the way you wish well to the king’s horses and chariots. This is like telling a modern president that you wish his nuclear weapons to be in good working order.
Other kings wrote Mimmuwareya, or Napḫurureya, or Nibḫurrereya. These are attempts at Neferkheperura, Akhenaten’s throne name. As for Karaduniyaš, that was the Kassite name for Babylon. The Kassites were originally nomads from the Zagros, who took over Babylon in 1590, and ruled for nearly half a millennium— pretty impressive as Mesopotamian dynasties go.
What did the kings talk about? Overwhelmingly, gifts and marriages. They rarely talk about peace or borders or trade, though they assure each other that they love each other. This period was fairly peaceful anyway, so there’s no political grandstanding.
The Kassites knew how to be diplomatic about their requests. One king, Burra-Buriaš, assures Amenhotep, “In my brother’s country, everything is available and my brother needs absolutely nothing. Furthermore, in my country everything too is available and I for my part need absolutely nothing.” That said, he sends Amenhotep four minas of lapis lazuli and five teams of horses. (A mina is 1/2 kg.) For his part, he is “engaged in a work” and needs “much fine gold.” He complains that the last gift of 40 minas of gold, when put into the kiln, yielded “not even 10 minas”. He discreetly suggests that the king did not personally check the shipment, so some minor official altered it.
The Assyrian king is more direct:
Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up. Why are you so sparing of it? I am engaged in building a new palace. Send me as much gold as is needed for its adornment.
There’s an almost comic series of letters from Tušratta, the Hurrian king. He claims that Amenhotep had promised him two solid gold statues. However, he received only wooden statues plated with gold. He repeatedly asks for the missing statues, writes to the Queen about it as well, and when Amenhotep dies he writes to his heir, Tutankhamun.
I can’t find a reference to the size of the statues, and we may not be able to get to the bottom of the mystery after 3300 years, but I can’t help thinking that the whole mess rests on a misunderstanding. Even for their own use, so far as I know, the Egyptians didn’t make large statues of gold. The famous mask of Tutankhamun is hollow, the gold being no more than 3 mm thick. Even so, it weighs 10 kg, or 20 minas. What would you want a solid statue for anyway? I think Tušratta just assumed that the statue would be solid. And perhaps the Egyptians didn’t want to disabuse him because the idea of a solid statue fit their image, and what was the king going to do anyway, scrape the gold off?
Tušratta feels particularly entitled because he sent his daughter as a wife for the king. This was the other major preoccupation of kings. They sometimes seem to assume that the daughter or sister they provided would be queen of Egypt, rather than just one resident of the harem. (Kings didn’t all have harems: it doesn’t seem to have been a custom in Babylon, for instance.)
A little ironically, Egypt didn’t produce the gold it was famous for. It had a near-monopoly because it had exclusive access to sources farther south in Africa. Similarly, the Kassites produced neither horses, which came from the Iranian mountains, nor lapis lazuli, which came from Afghanistan.
One curiosity of Amarna diplomacy: kings sometimes complain that their messengers are detained, sometimes for years. One even threatens to detain an Egyptian messenger until his own are freed. It’s not clear why all this was a problem, since surely everyone would have benefited if their messages could go through faster. It doesn’t seem that it gave the detaining king any special leverage. Perhaps it was a matter of prestige: having some foreign ambassadors at court showed that you were a formidable world power.
There are also a large number of letters from Egyptian vassals in Canaan. Curiously, the initial salutation is simpler, though humbler:
Say to the king, my lord: Message of ‘Abdi-Aštarti, servant of the king. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, seven times and seven times, here and now, both on the stomach and on the back.
On the front and then the back? Did you roll over in front of the king? I don’t know.
Most of these letters are agitated, because Egypt was neglecting her colonial possessions, and they were threatened by a local rebellion and/or by the Hurrians. Their needs are small— just 200 archers or so. They don’t seem to have received these, perhaps because Akhenaten was too busy with his religious project.
As it happens that rebellion was led by the same ‘Abdi-Aštarti who wrote the above letter, perhaps in better days. His little kingdom or chiefdom was known as Amurru, and spoke Amorite. His son Aziru allied the kingdom with the Hittites.
I find the letters fascinating, though there’s a reason most histories, like this blog post, just quote the juicy bits. They’re highly repetitive, and of course they form no coherent narrative. Moran has done his best placing letters from the same person together, but without Egyptian replies, and without much historical context, it’s not very satisfying as history. Still, the glimpse into day-to-day affairs and ways of speaking is quite interesting.