Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ancient Amarna Letters of Egypt Now Online

High-resolution images of the famed Amarna letters, the ancient 14th-century B.C.E. diplomatic correspondence between the New Kingdom pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of various Canannnite city-states, among others, have been placed online by Berlin's Vorderasiatisches Museum, which houses more than 200 of the total of over 300 tablets that define the ancient corpus.

Among the images are those representing letters written by Abdi-Heba, king of Canaanite Jerusalem, to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. In that correspondence the Canaanite king, allied with Egypt, requests the Pharaoh to send troops to Jerusalem for the defense of the city against other threatening Canaanite kings. In other correspondence, King Biridiya of Megiddo complains about the King of Gezer's attacks on his territory and attempts to improve his status with the Pharaoh. Although these events are but a small portion of the variety of issues and events presented through the ancient writings, they have represented a tantalizing window on the political affairs and times of 14th-century rulers in the ancient Middle East.

The letters, consisting of baked clay cuneiform tablets written primarily in Akkadian (the language of diplomacy for this period), were initially discovered in 1887 in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna (ancient Akhetaten, the capital city founded by the "heretic" Pharaoh Akhenaten), by local Egyptians who secretly dug and then sold them on the antiquities market. The first controlled excavation of the site by archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1891–92 recovered 21 more fragments. Later, additional tablets or tablet fragments were recovered from various sources. The Amarna letters are now scattered among museums in Cairo, the United States, and Europe, although the majority of them are in the possession of the Vorderasiatisches Museum. Spanning a correspondence period of fifteen to thirty years, the tablets have been dated to the period between about 1388 to 1332 B.C.E., which included the reigns of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and the first year or two of Tutankhamun's reign. Dating is still a matter of some scholarly debate.


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