These pharaohs' private letters expose how politics worked 3,300 years ago

The Amarna Letters preserve an inside look at Egyptian diplomacy, revealing how power brokers maneuvered, alliances were forged, and pharaohs were flattered.

Scribes jot down the words of the powerful in a relief from the Tomb of Horemheb, Saqqara, circa 1400 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Florence, Italy.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Sometimes, archaeologists stumble on not just one, or a few, but an entire cache of documents that utterly transforms their understanding of an ancient period, and whose fascinating details bring that distant time into sharp focus. The trove that transformed Egyptology is undoubtedly that of the Amarna Letters, 382 clay tablets considered the oldest documents of diplomacy ever found.

Written in the 14th century B.C., they consist of correspondence between the pharaohs and their rival kings, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Mitanni, as well as letters from puppet kings under Egyptian rule. Beginning in the reign of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 B.C.), Egypt’s great builder king, the archive also tracks the reign of his son, Akhenaten (1353-1336 B.C.), whose religious revolution convulsed ancient Egypt for a generation. The letters open a window into 18th-dynasty Egypt and give a detailed snapshot of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East in the Late Bronze Age, just as Egypt was consolidating its greatness and the new power of Assyria was beginning to flourish.

Revealing the writers’ flattery, arrogance, jealousy, and groveling, the letters also provide an insight into the developing complexity of international diplomacy. The growth of large empires jostling for supremacy had created the need for a system of rules, and the Amarna communiqués give historians unparalleled insights into how these early rules worked.

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