Tell el-Amarna (ancient Akhenaten) in middle Egypt was, in the fourteenth century BCE, the capital city of Akhenaten, or Amenophis IV. In 1887 local inhabitants discovered cuneiform tablets there while digging in the mounds. The tablets eventually found their way to antique dealers and museums. Subsequently, more tablets were unearthed in organized excavations. The existing corpus consists of 380 tablets now primarily in the British Museum in London, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The corpus of the Amarna tablets mainly includes letters sent to the courts of the Egyptian pharaohs Amenophis III and his son Akhenaten. The senders were other kings—namely of Babylonia, Assyria, Ḫatti, Mitanni, and Alashiya—and some minor princes and rulers in the Near East. The majority of the extant letters are from vassals of the Egyptian Empire in the Levant. Some copies or drafts of letters from the pharaohs are also preserved. Another part of the corpus consists of scholarly tablets (e.g., literary texts, vocabularies, and scribal exercises). Most of the Amarna texts were written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE (two of the letters were written in Hittite and one in Hurrian). The letters from Canaan reflect a language that is a mixture of the Akkadian lingua franca and the local Canaanite, the mother tongue of their scribes. The Amarna letters from Canaan are thus a unique, and invaluable source for understanding the Canaanite dialects of the second millenium BCE.
The international correspondence is usually concerned with exchanges of gifts; some letters deal with diplomatic marriages and thus give the impression of a time of peaceful relationships among the great political powers of that period. However, the rising power of the Hittites was already threatening the northern border of the Egyptian Empire, which is clearly reflected in the letters from Egypt's vassals in the northern Levant. A considerable number of letters from Byblos (in Lebanon) tell of the pressure put on the coastal plain by Adbi-Aširta and his sons after him. These letters, along with others from the northern Levant, and letters from the Amurrite kings themselves, tell the story of the rise of the state of Amurru, and the shift of allegiance of Aziru, the Amurrite king and son of Abdi-Aširta, from Egypt to the Hittites. Letters from local kings in most areas of Syria and Palestine reflect an almost constant state of conflict and requests to the pharaoh to intervene. Inner-city rebels and pressure from the ῾apiru, a class of outsiders, are also commonly mentioned. For example, ÌR-ḫeba, king of Jerusalem, complains about a coalition of other southern Canaanite kings against him led by Milkilu, king of Gezer. Later, in Gezer, Yapa῾u, a successor of Milkilu, complains that his brother rebelled against him and joined the ῾apiru. Similar descriptions of unsteady situations come from all over the area dominated by Egypt.
Through the Amarna letters we learn about the relationship both between the empires and among the local Canaanite rulers; about the ways the Egyptian Empire dominated its territories in the Levant; about the social diversity in Syria-Palestine; and about the political structure and struggles between the Hittite and the Egyptian empires at their borders in the northern Levant. The Amarna letters constitute a unique corpus for studying the social and political structure of Syria-Palestine in the second half of the fourteenth century BCE, a time that has accordingly been termed, the Amarna age.
Shortly after their discovery, all of the Amarna texts were published in cuneiform copies, in transliteration, and in translation. Jørgen A. Knudtzon (1915) compiled a full edition of the texts that is still authoritative with regard to their Akkadian texts. The second volume of this edition includes a historical commentary by Otto Weber and an analytic vocabulary by Erich Ebeling. The texts discovered later were published by Anson F. Rainey In 1970 (revised edition, 1978). The language of the Canaanite Amarna letters posited many difficulties, but William L. Moran achieved a breakthrough In 1950 in understanding it as a mixed language. This breakthrough and subsequent research by Moran, Rainey, and others have established the study of the Amarna letters on solid philological grounds. A new, authoritative translation of the Amarna letters by Moran appeared in French In 1987 (English edition, 1992). Historical research has concentrated mainly on the relationships between the great powers and much less on the internal affairs of Syria-Palestine. The first major attempt to tackle the complicated chronological disposition of the letters was made by Edward F. Campbell (1964). This paved the way for Nadav Na'aman's pioneering history of Palestine in the Amarna period (1975). Horst Klengel (1965–1970) was the first to handle comprehensively internal affairs in Syria.
- Campbell, Edward F. The Chronology of the Amarna Letters: With Special Reference to the Hypothetical Coregency of Amenophis III and Akhenaten. Baltimore, 1964.
- Kitchen, K. A. Suppiluliuma and the Amarna Pharaos: A Study in Relative Chronology. Liverpool Monographs in Archaeology and Oriental Studies, no. 5. Liverpool, 1962.
- Klengel, Horst. Geschichte Syriens im 2. Jahrtausend v.u.Z. 3 vols. Berlin, 1965–1970.
- Knudtzon, Jørgen A. Die el-Amarna-Tafeln (1915). Vorderasiatische Bibliothek, 2. Leipzig, 1964.
- Kühne, Cord. Die Chronologie der internationalen Korrespondenz von El-Amarna. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 17. Kevelaer, 1973.
- Moran, William L. “A Syntactical Study of the Dialect of Byblos as Reflected in the Amarna Tablets.” Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1950. The first breakthrough for the understanding of the language of the Canaanite Amarna letters. Available from University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor.
- Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore, 1992.
- Na'aman, Nadav. “The Historical Disposition and Historical Development of Eretz-Israel according to the Amarna Letters.” Ph.D. diss., Tel Aviv University, 1975. In Hebrew with English summary.
- Rainey, Anson F. Tell el-Amarna Tablets, 359–379. 2d ed., rev. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 8. Kevelaer, 1978.