The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Amarna letters

The Amarna letters describes the cache of correspondence, mostly diplomatic, found at Amarna, the modern name for the capital of the Egyptian New Kingdom during the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten (1369 - 1353 BCE). The known tablets currently total 382 in number, 24 further tablets having been recovered since the Norwegian Assyriologist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon's landmark edition of the Amarna correspondence, Die El-Amarna Tafeln in two volumes, (1907 and 1915).

These letters, consisting of cuneiform tablets mostly written in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy for this period, were first discovered by local Egyptians around 1887, who covertly dug most of them from the ruined city and sold them on the antiquities market. Once the location where they were found was determined, the ruins were explored for more. The first archeologist who successfully recovered more tablets was William Flinders Petrie in 1891-92, who found 21 fragments. M. Chassinat, then director of the l'Institut francais d'archeologie orientale du Caire acquired two more tablets in 1903. Since Knudtzon's edition, some 24 more tablets, or fragments of tablets have been found either in Egypt or identified in the collections of various museums.

The tablets originally recovered by the natives have been scattered into museums in Cairo, Europe and the United States: 202 or 203 are at the Vorderasiatischen Museum in Berlin; 49 or 50 at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; seven at the Louvre; three to the Moscow Museum; and one is currently in the collection of the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

The full archive, which includes correspondence from the preceding reign of Amenhotep III as well, contained over three hundred diplomatic letters; the remainder are a miscellany of literary or educational materials. These tablets shed light on Egyptian relations with Babylonia, Assyria, the Mitanni, the Hittites, Syria, Palestine and Cyprus (see Alashiya), and provide an important basis for establishing both the history and chronology of the period. Letters from the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil I and the Hittite king Suppiluliumas I anchor Akhenaten's reign to the mid-14th century BCE. Here was found the first mentions of a Palestinian group known as the Habiru, whose possible connection with the later Hebrews remains debated. Other rulers include Tushratta of the Mittani, one Lib'ayu whom David Rohl has argued should be identified with the Biblical king Saul, and the extensive correspondence of the querulous king Rib-Hadda of Byblos, who over 58 letters constantly pleads for Egyptian military help.

William L. Moran summarizes the state of the chronology of these tablets as follows:

Despite a long history of inquiry, the chronology of the Amarna letters, both relative and absolute, presents many problems, some of bewildering complexity, that still elude definitive solution. Consensus obtains only about what is obvious, certain established facts, and these provide only a broad framework within which many and often quite different reconstructions of the course of events reflected in the Amarna letters are possible and have been defended.

From internal evidence, the earliest possible date for any of this correspondence is late in the reign of Amenhotep (possibly as early as his 30th regnal year ); the latest date any of these letters were written is the desertion of the city of Amarna, which is commonly believed to have happened in the first year of the reign of Tutankhamun. (However, Moran notes that some authorities believe one tablet -- EA 16 -- may have been addressed to Tutankhamun's successor Ay.)


  • William L. Moran. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8018-4251-4
Last updated: 02-10-2005 08:17:07
Last updated: 05-02-2005 19:21:54