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EL-AMARNA, modern name of the site of Akhetaton, the capital city of Egypt, founded by Amenophis-Amenḥotep IV (*Akhenaton), the "heretical" pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (14th cent. B.C.E.). On this site was discovered the El-Amar na archive.

El-Amarna Letters

The El-Amarna Letters comprise a collection of cuneiform tablets named after al-ʿAmārna, a plain on the east bank of the Nile about 190 mi. (304 km.) S. of Cairo, in the territory of the Beni-ʿAmrān, or ʿAmārna, tribe. (Though often referred to as Tell ʾAmārna, or Tell el-ʿAmārna, the location is not a tell, or mound.) Amarna was the site of the Egyptian capital, Akhetaton, for about 15 years around the middle of the 14th century B.C.E.; here, in 1887, through the chance discovery of a peasant, a part of the diplomatic correspondence in the royal archives was unearthed. The clandestine explorations of the natives which followed, and the later scientific excavations (1889–92, 1912–14, 1921–22, 1926–36), yielded about 355 letters – some might be better classified as lists (of gifts) – besides more than 20 other cuneiform documents (scribal exercises, vocabularies, mythological and epical texts). The entire Amarna (cuneiform) corpus numbers 379 tablets. Though incomplete and lacking nos. 359–379, the standard edition, with transliteration of the cuneiform and a German translation, remains that of the Norwegian scholar J.A. Knudtzon, Die el-Amarna Tafeln (1915 = EA; for nos. 359–379 and other translations, see bibl.). An authoritative annotated French translation by W. Moran appeared in 1987 followed by a revised English version by the same author in 1992.

With only three exceptions (EA 24, Hur 32, Hittite), the letters are all written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East in the second millennium B.C.E. In general, the language belongs to the "peripheral Akkadian" found at Nuzi, Alalakh, Ugarit, etc. Eloquent and moving as it may be at times, it lacks all elegance; it is awkward, often barbarous, betraying the scribes' ignorance not only of Akkadian but of their own native speech. This is especially true of the letters from Phoenicia and Palestine, and for this reason they are one of the most important sources for the early Canaanite language (and therefore for the background of biblical Hebrew). From the glosses to Akkadian words, the non-Akkadian morphemes, the non-Akkadian use of morphemes common to the two languages, and the syntax in these letters, it is possible to reconstruct much of the Canaanite grammar in this period.

The Amarna letters are also an invaluable historical source. Together with contemporary Ugaritic and Hittite documents and other Egyptian records, they make the two decades or so which they cover the best known in the early history of Syria and Palestine. They span, in absolute dates, around 1385/1375–1355 B.C.E.: about the last decade of the reign of Amenophis III, the 17-year reign of Amenophis IV, and the three or four years before Tutankhaten (Tutankhamun), to whom EA 9 is addressed, abandoned the capital. (The difference of a decade in estimating the period is due to the still very mooted question of the co-regency of Amenophis IV with his father and predecessor; according as one accepts or denies a co-regency, the chronology of the Amarna letters must be lowered or raised.) Some (at least nine) of the letters, which are probably copies of the originals, have a pharaoh as author; the rest were written outside Egypt, and, with few exceptions, are addressed to the pharaoh or, less commonly, to a high Egyptian official at court. The correspondents are the kings of major states (Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia, Ḫatti and Arzawa in Anatolia, Cyprus) and Egyptian vassals in Syria and Palestine. The letters (41) to and from the larger powers are in striking contrast with the vassals' correspondence, and hardly hint at the political situation which motivates so many of them. According to the custom of independent nations at peace, their majesties exchange messages of mutual friendship, which are carried by their emissaries and accompanied by gifts; often their principal concern is the discussion and working out of marriages, a conventional bond of international amity. Were it not for the vassals' letters and other contemporary sources it would be impossible to measure the real significance of the efforts of Tushratta of Mitanni to reestablish diplomatic relations with Amenophis III (EA 17) and to maintain them with his successor (EA 26); of his passing reference to a victory over the Hittites (EA 17); of the presence of Assyrians at the Egyptian court (EA 15–16), with its implications of rising Assyrian power (cf. EA 9:31–35) and Mitannian weakness; of the murder of Babylonian merchants in Palestine (EA 8); of the reported request of the Canaanites for Babylonian support in a rebellion against Egypt (EA 9), etc. The general impression these letters give is one of legendary Egyptian wealth in an era of relative peace and political stability.

This impression is dispelled by the remaining Amarna letters. The vassals from Tyre across to Damascus and northward were caught, directly or indirectly, in the struggle of the Mitannians to defend their control of northern Syria and even their own independence, and of the Egyptians to maintain their rule in the rest of Syria, against their common enemy, the resurgent Hittites under Suppiluliuma. Though their letters to the pharaoh are all filled with protests of unswerving loyalty, it is evident from the accusations against their fellow vassals that many of them were exploiting the situation to secure and expand their own power while toadying to both sides and avoiding for as long as possible an irrevocable commitment to one or the other. Most prominent in this group of letters, and most successful in this game of intrigue, sedition, and popular and palace revolts, were Abdi-ashirta and his sons, particularly Aziru, who made of Amurru an important minor state in central Syria east of the Orontes. The almost 70 letters of Rib-Adda of Byblos are a long, increasingly nervous denunciation of their advances along the coast and of Egyptian inaction. The latter is probably to be attributed, in part at least, to the tendency of the vassals' accusations to cancel each other out; but it is also likely that the court felt Egyptian interests would be safeguarded best by a strong Amurru as a buffer against the Hittite thrust. Events proved Rib-Adda right: like so many of his neighbors (Ugarit, Kadesh, etc.), Aziru became a Hittite vassal.

In Palestine the situation reflected by the vassals' letters, if less dire in its consequences for Egyptian rule, was not less chaotic. The letters reflect the same rivalries of the local rulers, the same charges against one another of perfidy, and the same signs of deep popular unrest. These petty kings are constantly at war with one another, plundering and seizing villages, at times forming small coalitions against a common enemy, which soon break up, regroup, and exchange the roles of enemies and allies. In central Palestine, in the struggles involving Gezer, Megiddo, Taanach, Acre, Jerusalem, Lachish, and (perhaps) Hebron, the main instigators were the rulers of Shechem, Labʾayu and his sons, who in a movement comparable to that in contemporary Amurru, attempted to expand their city-state into a territorial state, with one important objective being the possession of the fertile Plain of Esdraelon. The local Egyptian administration, when not corrupt and supporting treason, was apparently really concerned only with the payment of tribute and with a few other Egyptian interests like the provisions for troops moving northward, and this policy seems to have had the court's approval.


EXCAVATIONS: Wm. F. Petrie, Tell el-Amarna (1894); L. Borchardt, in: Mitteilungen der deutschen orientalischen Gesellschaft, 46 (1911), 1–32; 50 (1912), 1–40; 52 (1913), 1–55; 55 (1914), 3–39; 57 (1917), 1–32; T.E. Peet and C.L. Wooley, The City of Akhenaten, 1 (1923); D.D.S. Pendelbury et al., The City of Akhenaten, 1 (1923); B. Porter and L.B. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings … (1934), 192–239; H. Kees, Ancient Egypt (1961), 288ff. PRIMARY PUBLICATIONS AND COLLECTIONS: H. Winckler and F.M. Abel, Der Thontafelfund von el Amarna, 1–3 (1889–90); C. Bezold and E.A.W. Budge (eds.), The Tell el-Amarna Tablets in the British Museum (1892); O. Schroeder, Die Tontafeln von El-Amarna (1915); idem, in: OLZ, 20 (1917), 105–6; F. Thureau-Dangen, in: Revue d'assyriologie, 19 (1922), 91–108; P. Dhorme, in: RB, 33 (1924), 5–32; G. Dossen, in: Revue d'assyriologie, 31 (1934), 125–36; S.A.B. Mercer, The Tell el-Amarna Tablets, 1–2 (1939); C.H. Gordon, in: Orientalia, 16 (1947), 1–21; A.P. Millard, in: PEQ (1965), 140–3; A.F. Rainey, El Amarna Tablets (1970), 359–79; R. Borger, Handbuch der Keilschriftliteratur (1967), 237–40; W. Reidel, Untersuchungen zu den Tell el-Amarna Briefen, 1–2 (1920); F. Bilabel, Geschichte Vorderasiens und Aegyptien vom 1611 Jahrhunderten … (1927); Maisler, Untersuchungen, 43–46; idem, in: JPOS, 9 (1929), 80–87; W.F. Albright, in: JEA, 23 (1937), 190–203; idem, in: BASOR, 87 (1942), 32–38; 89 (1943), 7–17; 104 (1946), 25–26; idem, in: JNES, 5 (1946), 5–25; idem, in: Pritchard, Texts, 483–90; idem, in: CAH2, 2 (1966), ch. 20 (incl. bibl.); W. von Soden, in: Orientalia, 21 (1952), 426–34; Y. Aharoni, in: IEJ, 3 (1953), 153–61; Aharoni, Land, 87, 157–64; idem, in: VT, 19 (1969), 137–45; Alt, Kl Schr, 3, 158–75; E.F. Campbell, in: BA, 23 (1960), 2–22; idem, in: G.E. Wright (ed.), Shechem (1965), 191–207; D.O. Edzard, in: Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, 3 (1960), 38–55; M.L. Verani, Storia di Ugarit (1962), 18–30; idem, in: Revista degli studio Orientalo, 40 (1965), 267–77; idem, in: Revue d'assyriologie, 61 (1967), 1–18; Ph. H.J. Houwink Ten Cate, in: BOR, 20 (1963), 270–76; M.C. Astour, in: For Max Weinreich (1964), 7–17; H. Klengel, in: MIO, 10 (1964), 57–83; P. Artzi, in: Revue d'assyriologie, 58 (1964), 159–66; idem, in: JNES, 27 (1968), 63–71; idem, in: Bar-Ilan Decennary Volume, 2 (1969); idem, in: Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Orientalists (1969); A. Goetze, in: CAH2, 2 (1965), ch. 17; H. Klengel, Geschichte Syriens, 1–2 (1965–68); A.F. Rainey, Christian News from Israel, 2 (1966), 30–38; 3 (1966), 23–24; idem, in: IEJ, 18 (1968), 1–14. LINGUISTIC STUDIES: F.-M. Th. Boehl, Die Sprache der Amarnabriefe (1909); E. Ebeling, Das Verbum der El-Amarna Briefe (1910); E. Dhorme, in: RB, 10 (1913), 369–93; 11 (1914), 37–59, 344ff.; O. Schroeder, in: OLZ, 18 (1915), 105–6; S. Smith and C.J. Godel, in: JEA, 11 (1925), 230–40; J. Friedrich, Kleina siatische Sprachdenkmaeler (1932), 8–32; W.F. Albright, in: BASOR, 86 (1942), 28–31; idem and W.L. Moran, in: JCS, 4 (1950), 163ff.; B. Landsberger, ibid., 8 (1954), 55–61; W.L. Moran, in: Orientalia, 29 (1960), 1–19; idem, in: G.E. Wright (ed.), The Bible and the Ancient Near East (1961), 54–72; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 9 (1969), 94–99; R. Youngblood, in: BASOR, 168 (1962), 24–27; E. Salonen, Die Gruss-und Hoeflichkeitsformeln in babylonisch-assyrischen Briefen (1967), 61–70; P. Artzi, in: Bar-Ilan, 1 (1963), 27–57; idem, in: JNES, 28 (1969), 261ff. CHRONOLOGY: A. Kitchen, Suppiluliuma and the Amarna Pharaohs (1962); E.F. Campbell, Jr., The Chronology of the Amarna Letters (1963); D.B. Redford, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (1967). STUDIES ON THE HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, GEOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND: B. Maisler, Toledot Ereẓ Yisrael (1938), 125–52; H. Reviv, in: BIES, 27 (1963), 270–5; P. Artzi, in: Eretz Israel, 9 (1969), 22–28; Z. Kalai and H. Tadmor, ibid., 138–47. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. Moran, Les Lettres d'El Amarna (1987); idem, The Amarna Letters (1992) (reviewed by A. Rainey, in: Biblica, 70 (1989), 568–72); idem, Amarna Studies (2003); R. Hess, Amarna Personal Names (1993); A. Rainey, Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets (1995). See also the bibliography under *Akhenaton.