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Alalakh Texts

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Alalakh Texts

British-led archaeological teams, directed by C. Leonard Woolley from 1937 to 1939 and again from 1946 to 1949, excavated more than 515 texts and fragments at Tell ῾Aṭchana, in northwestern Syria, the site of the ancient city of Alalakh. Of the seventeen levels of occupation found, dated from about 2400 to about 1195 BCE, two yielded nearly all the texts: level VII (mid-eighteenth–mid-seventeenth centuries) synchronized with the First Dynasty of Babylon; and level IV (fifteenth century) synchronized with the kingdom of Mitanni. Almost two hundred texts date to level VII, about three hundred to level IV, and about twenty to the succeeding levels.

All but a few of the texts are written in Akkadian cuneiform on clay tablets. A letter and a lengthy divination text are in Hittite, and an inscription of King Idrimi is written in Akkadian on a statue (see below). Nearly all the Akkadian texts were written locally in a western form of the language that betrays a Hurrian influence and, to a lesser degree, of the local West Semitic languages.

A few of the Akkadian texts were published preliminarily by Sidney Smith In 1939. The Hittite letter was published by H. Eheholf in the same year. The statue inscription of Idrimi was published in a separate volume by Smith In 1949; it has been reedited by Edward L. Greenstein and David Marcus, by Gary H. Oller, and by Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz. More than 460 texts were cataloged and most of them published in a handwritten copy and/or transliteration by Donald J. Wiseman in a 1953 volume, which included Oliver R. Gurney's transliteration of a lengthy Hittite divination report, and in a series of subsequent articles. Forty-three additional, fragmentary documents from level IV were published in transliteration by Dietrich and Loretz in three articles appearing In 1969–1970. One text, a name list, remains altogether unpublished. The majority of the tablets are held by the Antakya Museum in Turkey; most of the rest are held by the British Museum.

The level VII tablets, mainly from the reign of Yarimlim and his son Ammitaqum, were, for the most part, discovered in the palace archive and in the temple. Most of the level IV tablets were found in the palace of Niqmepa, but outside the archive, strewn about the floors as though they were being removed to safety at the time the palace was burned.

The majority of the texts are lists: censuses by name and in some cases also by place and occupation; inventories; ration lists; landholdings; and others. Two level IV texts list women. There are contracts of town purchases, mainly from level VII, and deeds of the exchange of villages, mainly from level IV. Several contracts, issuing loans or giving credit—many by the king or his agent—take persons as surety, as at Nuzi. The king serves as magistrate, but in level IV he must also appear as a litigant before the Mitanni overlord. The last king of level IV, Ilimilimma II, adopts a man as his “father,” providing him a son's service in life and death in return for a father's inheritance. A level IV marriage contract permits a man to designate a son other than the firstborn as principal heir, in accordance with practices at Nuzi and Ugarit. The presence of parts of the Mesopotamian lexical series ḪAR-ra=ḫubullu attests to a Babylonian scribal tradition.

The texts furnish an excellent picture of level VII and IV societies with respect to ethnicity, economic structure, and size. A substantial Hurrian sector in level VII becomes the predominant population group in level IV. The latter society is stratified into a small aristocracy, a middle class of “free(d) persons,” and a heterogeneous lower class, including peasants and rootless ῾Apiru.

In the level VII texts we find references to a certain Abban (or Abba-'Il), king of the north-central domain of Yamḫad, who granted Alalakh to his son Yarimlim as part of a division of power to decrease the chances of revolt. Yarimlim's gifts to the temple, apparently upon his accession, are also documented. Two treaties governing the extradition of fugitives are present in the corpus, one from level VII and another from level IV. In the latter treaty the Hurrian overlord, Barrattarna, oversees the agreement between two vassals, Pilliya, apparently of Kizzuwatna (Cilicia) and Idrimi of Alalakh.

The pseudoautobiography of King Idrimi was inscribed In 104 lines across the front of a statue of the subject that had stood, enthroned, in the sanctuary, and was securely buried nearby, apparently to protect it from the coming destruction that took place in level I. The text, which was composed in the mid-15th century by a well-known scribe in the palace of Idrimi's son Niqmepa, provides invaluable historical information within a unique specimen of ancient Syrian narrative prose. Its closest parallels are the Egyptian tale of Sinuhe and the biblical stories of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David. It tells how Idrimi, who escaped calamity in his native Aleppo with his older brothers, went on to live among ῾Apiru in northern Canaan until he could return to the land of Mukish and, by the assent of Barrattarna, assume the kingship of Alalakh.

This and other level IV Alalakh texts are of particular value, for they illuminate what would have otherwise been a continuation of the “dark age” created by the lack of epigraphic sources for the sixteenth century BCE.

[See also Akkadian; Alalakh; Hurrians; and Nuzi.]


  • Dietrich, Manfried, and Oswald Loretz. “Die Inschrift der Statue des Königs Idrmi von Alalaḫ.” Ugarit-Forschugen 13 (1981,): 201–268. Thorough re-edition of the inscription based on a new collation with some improvements in interpretation.
  • Draffkorn, Ann. “Hurrians and Hurrian at Alalaḫ: An Ethno-Linguistic Analysis.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1959. The most comprehensive investigation of Hurrian names and terminology in the Alalakh texts from levels VII and IV; it has a tendency to maximize the Hurrian presence and influence where evidence is lacking or ambiguous.
  • Drower, Margaret S. “Syria c. 1550–1400 B.C.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2, pt. 1, History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1800–1380 B.C., edited by I. E. S. Edwards et al., pp. 417–525. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1973. Sound interpretation of the historical context and significance of level IV at Alalakh. The reader must follow the bibliographic references for documentation.
  • Greenstein, Edward L., and David Marcus. “The Akkadian Inscription of Idrimi.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 8 (1976): 59–96. Detailed linguistic and philological commentary, but a few of its suggestions are not sustained by a collation of the text.
  • Hess, Richard S. “A Preliminary List of the Published Alalakh Texts.” Ugarit-Forschungen 20 (1988): 69–87. Catalog of all published texts and fragments, except the Idrimi inscription, with reference to places where hand copies, transliterations, and translations may be found. Thorough, but lacks some data.
  • Hess, Richard S. “Observations on Some Unpublished Alalakh Texts, Probably from Level IV.” Ugarit-Forschungen 24 (1992): 113–115. Note 2 provides references to additional transliterations and translations of texts, courtesy of Nadav Na'aman.
  • Klengel, Horst. Geschichte Syriens im 2. Jahrtausend v.u.Z., vol. 1, Nordsyrien. Berlin, 1965. Comprehensive presentation and analysis of the pertinent historical sources, which benefits from comparison with other, later discussions because of the often difficult nature of the material.
  • Kupper, J.-R. “Northern Mesopotamia and Syria.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2, pt. 1, History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1800–1380 B.C., edited by I. E. S. Edwards, pp. 1–41. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1973. Sound interpretation of the historical context and significance of the level VII Alalakh texts. The reader must follow the bibliographic references for documentation.
  • Oller, Gary H. “The Autobiography of Idrimi.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1977. Transcription, translation, and interpretation based on a new collation, with good discussion of historical and literary matters.
  • Smith, Sidney. “A Preliminary Account of the Tablets from Atchana.” Antiquaries Journal 19.1 (1939): 38–48. Initial sampling of diverse texts, superseded for the most part by later publications.
  • Smith, Sidney. The Statue of Idri-mi. Occasional Publications of the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara, no. 1. London, 1949. Initial publication of Alalakh's most remarkable text. Still valuable for hand copies and photographs, but many of Smith's readings and interpretations have been superseded.
  • Wiseman, Donald J., and Richard S. Hess. “Alalakh Text 457.” Ugarit-Forschungen 26 (1994): 501–508. Publication and discussion of this list of personal names and their geographic locations.
  • Woolley, Leonard. A Forgotten Kingdom. London, 1953. Popular, authoritative account of Tell ῾Aṭchana and neighboring excavations, providing historical background and interpretation. The history of level IV Alalakh is distorted by the author's acceptance of Sidney Smith's dating of Idrimi to the end, rather than the beginning, of the dynasty.
  • Woolley, Leonard. Alalakh: An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana in the Hatay, 1937–1949. Oxford, 1955. Fundamental, comprehensive excavation report; the conclusions (especially concerning chronology) must be balanced by later, critical discussions.

Hess (see below) provides a key to the various primary publications of texts, and these references are not repeated here:

Edward L. Greenstein

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