Discovered in 1887, the archive of El‐Amarna in Egypt has yielded 379 cuneiform tablets that are among the most precious finds of Near Eastern archaeology. Tell el‐Amarna, located about 500 km (310 mi) up the Nile from the Mediterranean, is the modern name of ancient Akhetaten, King Akhnaton's capital. The letters constitute diplomatic correspondence from the reigns of Amenophis III and Aknaton in the first half of the fourteenth century BCE. Except for two in Hittite and one in Hurrian (See Nuzi Tablets, The), their language is Babylonian. Some are from the rulers of the other great powers of the day—Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni, and Hatti—but most are written by Egyptian vassals in Canaan and Syria. The former group largely concerns exchanges of ambassadors and expensive gifts, but the letters from Canaanite vassals bespeak a period of unrest, as the vassal kings, caught in the power struggles of the great kingdoms, form short‐lived coalitions against one another. The texts frequently refer to a disruptive group called the ḫapiru (pronounced ʿapiru), a word equated by many with the Hebrew ʿibrî, “Hebrew” (See Hebrews, The). Although the name may be the same, the nature of the ʿapiru precludes a simple identification with the Israelites. Scholars are divided on whether the term refers properly to a specific people or to a social class; most see them as militant outcasts, that is, as brigands or mercenaries. We also read of the depredations of the Syrian kingdom of Amurru, later to give its name to the Amorites of the Bible. The Amarna letters describe the vicissitudes of cities such as Hazor, Akko, Megiddo, Taanach, Shechem, Gezer, Ashkelon, Gaza, Lachish, and Jerusalem in the pre‐Israelite period. Because the Canaanite scribes had an imperfect command of Babylonian, their lapses have also taught scholars much about their native dialects, and thus about the prehistory of the closely related Hebrew language.
Though they do not mention the still inchoate Israelites, the Amarna letters are an invaluable window on the world from which Israel was to emerge in the following century.
William H. Propp