In 1887, Egyptian peasants rummaging in ruins on the plain of Amarna found inscribed clay tablets. The script was Near Eastern cuneiform—at the time, a startling and unprecedented discovery. The site was the city of Akhetaten, founded by Amenhotpe IV (Akhenaten) of the eighteenth dynasty, and the find-spot proved to be the “Place of the Letters of the Pharaoh,” the storehouse of Egypt's diplomatic correspondence with its Near Eastern neighbors along the Fertile Crescent—another startling discovery. Eventually, the corpus of letters, with four attached inventories, would number 350. Discovered elsewhere on the site were thirty-two more tablets in a miscellany of genres.

The language of the Amarna Letters, with a few exceptions in Assyrian, Hurrian, and Hittite, is Babylonian, but not the standard language of contemporary Babylonia. It is, rather, a provincial language that had become a lingua franca, a language of international diplomacy and trade. Within this language are two principal traditions. One is called “Hurro-Akkadian,” a name that reflects the role of the Hurrians in the formation and diffusion of the language. This was the usual language of correspondence of the major powers. The other tradition is confined to the Levant, southern Syria, and Palestine, and it is radically different. The transforming influence of the underlying Canaanite speech of the area is everywhere, manifest and profound, especially in morphology and syntax. The Babylonian component is mainly lexical and therefore relatively superficial, whereas the grammar is radically Canaanitized. These Amarna Letters are therefore an important source for the reconstruction of early Canaanite dialects such as Proto-Hebrew.

Correspondence with independent powers to the north is attested from late (about the thirtieth year) in the reign of Amenhotpe III to early in the reign of Tutankhamun, a period of about twenty-five years. It should be read in the light of a central and pervasive metaphor that goes back about a millennium: the household. Allies were members of the same household and were therefore “brothers,” hence the dominance of the themes of the love and friendship that bind the “brothers,” and of gifts, the visible expression of this bond. “Send me much gold, and you, for your part, whatever you want from my country, write me so that it may be taken to you” (the king of Babylonia to the pharaoh). The notion that they hold all in common is the ideal; the reality includes squabbles, misunderstandings, and disappointments with gifts, all frankly expressed.

The correspondence with vassals in Syria and Palestine, about three hundred letters, tells us much about the Egyptian administration, but a number of major problems remain. How many provinces were there—two, three, or four? What was the pharaoh's role and the nature and frequency of his intervention? Were these troops in transit, on an annual tour, or on their way to a great campaign in the north? Answers to these questions are fundamental to the interpretation of a large part of the vassal correspondence.

This much is clear, however: Egypt's claims of service were total and absolute, denying the vassal all autonomy and receiving his ready acknowledgment. Just as clearly, vassals pursued their own goals of expansion and self-interest. A healthy pragmatism provided a modus vivendi. Practically, Egypt accepted limits to its power, and the vassals continued to acknowledge an absolute power that no longer existed, if indeed it ever had.


  • Knudtzon, J. A. Die El-Amarna-Tafeln. Vorderasiatische Bibliotek, 2. Leipzig, 1908–1915; reprint, Aalen, 1964. A classic, still the only reliable version of the cuneiform text.
  • Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore, 1992. The only up-to-date translation of the entire corpus.
  • Rainey, Anson F. El Amarna Tablets 359–379. 2d. ed. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 8. Kevelaer und Neukirchen-Uluyn, 1978. A careful edition and translation of the post-Knudtzon Amarna tablets.

William L. Moran