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Tell El Amarna

AMARNA, TELL EL (tĕll ĕl a-mar'na, the hill amarna). A name used to describe a mound of ruins in Egypt, halfway between Memphis and Luxor. It is the modern name for the ancient capital of Amenhotep IV (c. 1387-1366 b.c.). In a.d. 1887, a peasant woman, seeking the dust from ancient buildings with which to fertilize her garden, dug in the ruins of Tell El Amarna. She found some clay tablets, which she pulverized and took to her home. Finally an American missionary stationed at Luxor, Chauncey Murch, heard of this and notified some cuneiform scholars. After the site producing these tablets had been identified, it was excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie.

The excavation yielded 320 clay tablets of varying sizes with cuneiform writing on both sides. There are now 82 in the British Museum, 160 in Berlin, 60 at Gizeh Museum, and the rest in private hands. They contain the private correspondence between the ruling Egyptian pharaohs at the time and the political leaders in Palestine. It is believed they reflect the prevailing conditions that existed during the time Joshua carried on his campaigns in Palestine. Aside from confirming certain biblical facts, they reveal the plan of Egyptian houses, throwing light on the early activities of Joseph in Egypt. These tablets have also provided valuable aid to scholars in establishing the Egyptian vowel system.

TELL EL-AMARNA tĕl ĕl ə mär’ nə. The city of Akh-en-aton (q.v.). The name is a misnomer formed by combining a village name, “El-Till,” with “El-Amarna,” one of the names of an Arab tribe that had settled in the area. “El-Till” has no etymological relation with the term “tell” (Arab. “hill”) commonly used by archaeologists to designate a stratified mound. The city’s ancient name was Akhet Aton (Egyp. ’ḵt-’tn, The Horizon of Aton).


The site, Tell El-Amarna, has given its own name to the Amarna Age, the historical period described in the diplomatic correspondence found there. In addition, the name “Amarna” has become synonymous with bold experiment as a result of the cultural creativity of its founder. It is not an exaggeration to designate this radical cultural experiment as the Amarna Revolution.

Biblical scholars have several points of contact with Tell El-Amarna: Atonist theology is important for the backgrounds of Heb. monotheism. The Amarna Letters are indispensable for understanding Canaan just prior to the Heb. conquest. Finally, the possibility, usually rejected by contemporary scholars, that Akh-en-aton was the Pharaoh of the Exodus (q.v.) increases interest in the period.

Travelers had long known of the ruins at Tell El-Amarna; some of its ruins were discussed in scholarly lit. as early as 1842. However, interest in the site greatly increased with the accidental discovery of the first Amarna Letters in 1887. The peasant woman who first found them sold her rights in the discovery for ten piastres. First attempts to sell the tablets to European scholars resulted in silence or accusations of forgery, so the tablets were taken to Luxor to be sold to tourists. A large part of the original find was destroyed in transit. By this time some scholars were convinced that the tablets were genuine, and attempts to acquire the tablets began. Agents of the British Museum and of the Berlin Museum purchased most of the tablets, but smaller lots are found in museums and private collections throughout the world. With interest aroused by this discovery, excavations began in 1891 and were continued intermittently and by different agencies until 1937. The usable tablets of the original find amounted to about three hundred and fifty tablets. Later discoveries have added about another fifty.

The general antecedents of the Amarna Revolution are Egyp. Whereas the total combination of features in the Amarna Revolution was radically new, almost all of the constitutent details were anticipated in earlier Egyp. life. The individual religious motifs have their Egyp. antecedents; the luxury of the reign of Amen-hotep III looked forward to the ease of Akh-en-aton’s court; and even the artistic motifs can be regarded as the extension of trends already present in earlier Egyp. art. On the other hand, it is probable that exposure to foreign influences had a great role in defining the direction of the evolution of these native Egyp. trends.

Practical politics played a part in the Amarna Revolution. Akh-en-aton’s policies had the practical effect of suppressing the usual priesthoods, esp. that of Amon. On occasion, scholars have belittled the need to curb the power of Amon by noting that the king was the absolute ruler of the priestly establishments as well as the absolute ruler of the state. However, later Egyp. history witnessed the usurpation of royal authority by the priests of Amon despite their nominal submission to the crown. Thus Akh-en-aton was dealing with a real threat to royal power.

Cultural Significance

The city.

Akhet Aton was one of three cities sacred to the Aton. Gem Aton in Nubia survived for a thousand years, although both the name and location of the Aton city in Syria are lost. Akhet Aton was located roughly halfway between Thebes (present Luxor) and Memphis (near Cairo). The sacred precincts included a half circle of land, mostly desert, about three m. by eight m., on the E bank of the Nile with a large area of agricultural land on the W bank. This area was marked off by the boundary stelae that contained Akh-en-aton’s oath not to pass beyond these borders. It is not certain that this oath was intended to keep Ahk-en-aton from ever leaving the city; rather it may have indicated that he would not pass the boundaries “to make for him Akhetaton therein” (Baikie 268, 269), i.e. to add to the sacred precincts of Aton. It is significant for the spirit of Egyp. religion that the new site was relatively free of the claims of other gods.

The city itself was built on a long, narrow strip of desert parallel to the river, but just beyond the cultivable land on the E bank of the Nile. Thus, cultivable land was spared while keeping the city reasonably near its water supply. There were three long streets running the length of the city with a larger number of shorter streets crossing its width. Land within the city seems first to have been allotted for important royal and public needs such as temple sites, royal gardens, and villas of officials. Then lesser needs and people crowded into the intervening spaces, thus giving the city a somewhat disorganized character.

Akhet Aton was hurriedly built mostly of mud brick that was frequently covered with luxurious decoration. Among the more important structures of the new city were the temples to Akh-en-aton’s ancestors, the great temple to the Aton, the royal pleasure garden named Maru-Aton, and the palace and royal house. In addition, there were nobles’ villas, homes of commoners, and factories, notably those producing glaze.

The architectural emphasis of the great temple of the Aton was upon open courts. In the inner part of the temple, where one usually found the holy of holies where the image of the god dwelt in awesome seclusion, this temple had still another open court. Several altars for sacrifices were found in some of the courts of the temple. The emphasis on sun courts, of course, was not new. Earlier fifth dynasty (c. 2400 b.c.) sun temples were built around a single open court in which stood the benben, a huge sacred obelisk, which may have represented the deity. These earlier temples also lacked the holy of holies.

The palace was outstanding, both for its huge size and its rich decoration. Largest estimates of its size are 1,400 ft. by 500 ft. It seems to have contained a huge columned hall with 542 pillars. Available remains give only a limited picture of its lavish decoration, but the glaze and gold ornamentation of the capitals of the columns and of the naturalistic pavements that decorated many of the floors are known. The overall impression must have been one of extravagant wealth.

Maru-Aton, perhaps the official summer residence, featured an artificial pool and enclosed gardens as well as other structures. The decoration was more restrained; colored paste and yellow paint served instead of the glaze and gold of the palace.

After its brief period of glory during the life of its founder, the city slowly faded until Horemhab, in his zeal to eradicate the memory of the heretic king, completely razed the buildings that remained.

Amarna art.

The art of Tell El-Amarna was revolutionary; but, as noted above, most of the innovation was a matter of development of trends present in earlier Egyp. art. For example, certain aspects of nature had always been presented in a naturalistic manner by the Egyp. artist. Animals, fish, birds, and even grotesque human beings such as dwarfs had long been the subjects of accurate, naturalistic representation. The innovation lay in the extension of naturalism to new levels of execution and to new subjects such as the person of the king. A freedom and softening of the human form under Akh-en-aton’s predecessors foreshadowed the treatment of the human form in Amarna Art.

Some typical artistic representations are the following: nature scenes with abundant wildlife and vegetation, scenes of the king done in a new realism and freedom, and conventional scenes with unconventional naturalism in details, as in a temple scene in which each of the sacrificial animals is given individualistic treatment.

Plastered-over sunken relief represents an innovation in technique. It replaced the earlier high relief, perhaps to adapt to the quality of stone available to Amarna artists. In this technique, the scene was done in high relief, but the scene itself was recessed until the highest portions of the scene were about level with the contiguous unworked stone surface. Then the whole scene was plastered and painted.

The treatment of the king in Amarna art is distinctive. Earlier artistic representations of the king depicted the remoteness, dignity and majesty of the divine king. Amarna art invaded the king’s private life and showed him in very human activities. The king was seen at work, at play, caressing his wife or daughters, and in other human activities. One scene showed the royal family eating a meal with an amusing, perhaps even crude, enthusiasm. Expression of the king’s humanity went so far as to portray his grief.

Amarna art, however, is best known for its grotesque exaggeration of the human physique. This exaggeration is best seen in representation of the king. Several factors may have influenced this treatment of the king: (1) the tendencies toward softening of form and realism already referred to, (2) an excessive movement toward artistic freedom as a reaction to the very strict canons formerly binding the Egyp. artist, and (3) a limited degree of physical abnormality in the king’s person. Artistic representations of the king show an extended neck, a protruding V-shaped chin, bulbous hips and limbs, and spindly ankles. The effect of these characteristics is something normally expected only in brutal political caricature. Not only the king, but other human figures were likewise distorted.

In interpreting these characteristics, however, it is necessary to note that Amarna art displays two distinct artistic phases in its representation of the human figure. In the earlier period, the distortion is extreme, and it is this period that is represented by the wellknown artistic works referred to above. In the artistic representations of the later phase, mostly portrait busts and other statuary, these same characteristics were softened until they were merely “weak” or “effeminate” rather than grotesque. Some of the physical characteristics so grossly distorted in earlier Amarna art can be discerned even in the famous statue of Nefertiti, but there in a softened, more pleasant form. One may conclude that some, if not all, of the royal abnormalities were considerably exaggerated by the artists of Tell El-Amarna.


Even language and writing did not escape the revolution. Like Egyp. life in general, written Egyp. was rigidly conservative, preserving elements in writing which were obsolete in the spoken language. The Amarna desire for realism produced a modernization of written Egyp. to bring it in line with the spoken language. The stage of Egyp. language referred to by scholars as “Late-Egyptian” originated in this way.


Formative influences.

Clear Egyp. antecedents are found for most of the features of Atonism. The prominence of the sun disk, the Aton, was foreshadowed by the general prominence of the sun in earlier Egyp. religion; even Amon, the hidden one of Thebes, had to become identified with Re, the Sun, before he could become the national god of Egypt. The monotheistic trend of Atonism was anticipated both by the normal syncretism of Egyp. religion, i.e. the tendency to unite originally distinct deities into one figure, and by the tendency to explain other deities as specific manifestations of one chief deity. The name “Aton” had been previously used as a divine title.

Political factors prob. influenced theological thought. An international age like the Amarna Age usually produces a movement of international syncretism, though specific examples of such syncretism are not available for the Amarna Age. Furthermore, just as national unity had produced the need for a national god of Egypt, internationalism opened men’s eyes to the need for a universal deity. Finally, exposure to foreign ideas may have had some influence upon Egypt.

Lastly, there are evidences, including Atonism itself, that the Egyp. mind of that age had reached such a level of rational development that it sought to avoid some of the worst crudities and superstitions of traditional Egyp. religion.


Akh-en-aton’s monotheism has been over-stated; philosophical monotheism, in fact, is not the point at issue. The major premise of Atonism was not that there was only one god, or one divine principle; but rather that the other gods were usurpers who had seized prerogatives belonging only to the Aton. Usurpers were normally dealt with by effacing their names. Although the spirit of Atonism was such that it prob. would have developed into monotheism had it continued to develop, there is no conclusive evidence that pure monotheism was reached.

The evidence for Amarna theology is the following: (1) literary evidence consisting of the long hymn to the Aton and a number of shorter hymns, (2) scenes of life in Akhet-Aton in tombs and monumental scenes, and (3) such ideas as can be surmised from tombs, temples, and governmental policies.

The famous long hymn to the Aton (tr. in C. F. Pfeiffer, Tell el Amarna and the Bible, 38-42) gives the fullest exposition of Atonist theology. This hymn was inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Ai. Some believe it was a ritual recitation spoken by the king himself. In it is found the Aton, the sun disk, eloquently described as the universal, almost omnipotent, providential power sustaining the ordered universe.

The opening lines contrast the universal beauty and sway of the rising Aton with the chaos and fear that dominate the earth during the Aton’s nightly absence. This passage is in contrast to the Heb. poet who saw Yahweh as sovereign over both day and night (cf. Ps 104:20-23). The Egyp. hymn sees night as a break in the sovereignty and power of the Aton.

The poet then described the various phases of the Aton’s sovereignty: mankind’s joyful work and praise began with the appearance of the Aton. Other beings, animals, plants, sea and river life, also lived in the light of the Aton. The broader view of the Aton as creator and regulator of the universe was developed. Man was conceived and grew through the activity of the Aton. The chick in the egg was the Aton’s work. Aton’s control of the universe was so full and gracious that he provided a “Nile-in-the-sky” (i.e. rain) for those lands that did not have the river Nile. The seasons and “beauty of forms” were also his work.

The closing lines define the role of the king in Atonism. Only Akh-en-aton knows the Aton; the Aton has revealed knowledge to the king. Thus, the king, theoretically, is the sole mediator between the Aton and humanity (Akh-en-aton did, nevertheless, appoint a high priest to aid in the mediating). Here also appears the only remnant of older physical superstition in the hymn. The king is the Aton’s son who came forth from the Aton’s limbs. This, of course, could have been “spiritualized” to remove the incongruity.

The clear teaching of the hymn is of a beneficent, providential deity whose sovereignty extends over the entire universe—except during his nightly absence.

The shorter hymns, inscribed in various tombs, largely repeat the motifs of the longer hymn. Many of them are interspersed with references, praising the king since they were written in behalf of nobles who desired to express their personal appreciation to the king as well as to the Aton.

Pictorial scenes from Akhet-Aton, esp. from the tombs, amplify the theology of the poems. The Aton is pictured with his rays extending like outstretched arms to the earth. Akh-en-aton is usually the leading human figure in such scenes. The frequent presence of the “life key,” the hieroglyphic sign meaning “life,” in the hands makes more explicit the concept of the Aton as the giver of all life.

Tomb decoration and structure in general is striking, for the absence of the customary magical apparatus designed to guarantee the future well-being of the deceased. Magic spells carved on walls and furniture, magical scenes of benefits thus conferred upon the deceased, and all other such are absent. One may suppose that in Atonism the power of such magic was replaced by the effectiveness of the king’s personal good will. Thus, the purpose of the magic apparatus is served by hymns honoring the Aton and the king.

The prominence of open courts in the temples and the absence of the equipment for idolatrous ritual are in harmony with the high spiritual level of the hymns. The existence of other sacred cities, not only in Nubia, which was almost “Egyptianized” but even in Syria, which was quite clearly foreign, reflects Aton’s international character and points toward monotheism. The violence of Akh-en-aton’s proscriptions of other deities would lead to the theological doctrine of the jealous god who demands exclusive worship from his people.

The limitations of evidence should be kept in mind in evaluating Atonism. For example, the lack of ethical concepts indicates that the evidence is incomplete rather than that Atonism had no ethical sensibility.

Looked at from the perspective of its individual motifs, there is little that is new in the above materials. The innovation lay in the purging of baser religious elements so that the old ideas suddenly constituted a new, more spiritual religious concept. Overt polytheism and superstition were purged. The result was a landmark in the history of thought.

Impact of Atonism.

Neither Atonism nor the official cult of Amon had any great impact among the masses. The popular form of the cult of Osiris, Isis, and Horus held this distinction as is shown by the funerary stelae set up by commoners in honor of this cult. Atonism owed its existence only to the energy of Akh-en-aton, and after his death its component ideas were reabsorbed into the common stream of Egyp. superstition.

Atonism and Hebrew religion.

Some of the resemblances between Atonism and Heb. religion are the following: common tendency toward philosophical monotheism (philosophical monotheism, strictly understood, came fairly late in the development of Biblical Heb. thought), the attribute of jealousy on the part of the chief deity in his demand for exclusive worship and loyalty, the minimizing of funerary cult in both religions, the rejection of idolatry, and the intellectual advancement of both cults in contrast with the general superstition and idolatry of their historical settings. Furthermore, one should note the similarities in motifs between the longer hymn to the Aton and Psalm 104.

On the basis of these similarities, some have concluded that the “makers” of Heb. religion borrowed from Atonism at some point. Looking at the evidence more closely, direct borrowing seems unlikely. The strongest evidence for direct borrowing is provided by the similarities between the hymn to Aton and the psalm, but this evidence has been grossly exaggerated. Barely seven vv. of the psalm show clear resemblances, and in these seven vv. there is one striking contrast, Yahweh’s sovereignty over night as well as day. It is safer to see both the Egyp. psalmist and his later Heb. counterpart as utilizing similar bodies of international, interreligious, nature motifs that were available for the use of all religious poets, whatever deity may have been worshiped. Biblical Wisdom lit. also shows evidence that the inspired writer made use of such an international, interreligious body of wisdom motifs.

Other resemblances between the two religions also are better accounted for through general similarity in backgrounds and in intellectual climate than through direct contact. For example, the movement toward international syncretism, with attestation during the intervening period, had gathered several hundred years of additional momentum by the time of the Heb. prophets. Hebrew imperialism, like Egyp. imperialism, encouraged an international, universal concept of deity.

However, through its contribution to the general intellectual development of the ancient Near E, Atonism certainly contributed something to the intellectual climate out of which Heb. religion developed. In this indirect fashion, Atonism almost certainly influenced Heb. religious attitudes.

One last difference should be noted. Only Heb. religion combined the kind of historical factors noted above with an act of special revelation to produce inspired Scriptures. There is no reason to believe that Akh-en-aton’s spiritual insights went beyond those made possible by common grace and natural revelation.

The Amarna Letters


The Amarna Letters show that Akkad. was the language of international diplomacy even for proud, prestigious Egypt, although the kings of Mitanni sometimes wrote in Hurrian. Occasional Amorite glosses in letters from Pal. give the Sem. philologist insight into pre-Mosaic Canaanite. More relevant to present purposes, however, are three other matters: (1) the Amarna Letters are the most important primary evidence for the history of the Amarna Age; (2) they refer to the Hapiru (q.v.), a subject relevant for the study of Heb. origins; and (3) they show the internal socio-political situation of Canaan just prior to the Heb. conquest.

Historical setting.

Among the more important developments of the age were the rise of the Hitt. empire and the destruction of the Mitanni empire. In the reign of Amenhotep III, a Hitt. attack on Mitanni was turned back only by means of Egyp. military assistance. Subsequent Hitt. policy had two goals: the undermining of Egyp. influence in Asia and the destruction of the Mitanni empire. Largely due to Akh-en-aton’s inactivity, the Hittites succeeded in both goals. The Hittites and Assyrians divided up the Mitanni empire, and Egyp. arms were driven back to southern Pal.

The undermining of Egyp. authority in Syria and Pal. was facilitated by the internal state of affairs. Local princes desired to rebel against Egypt and gain their independence. Hittite encouragement made them all the more eager to rebel. The Amarna Letters give several cases of conflicts between such rebels and loyal vassals, both of whom were sending letters to Egypt in which they proclaimed their loyalty and complained of the disloyalty of others. The Egyp. court appears to have been unable to distinguish honest letters from false. This difficulty was increased by the fact that the rebels often had friends high in the court who looked after their interests, to the detriment of Egyp. interests. Among the loyalists was Ribaddi of Byblos whose vain struggle against the rebel Abdi-shirta and his sons is well known through the letters. Further S, Abdikhepa of Jerusalem stood loyally for Egypt as the surrounding princes allied themselves with the Hapiru and rebelled.

The Hapiru.

(q.v.). In the Amarna Letters the Hapiru appear as intruders and troublemakers from the outside. They were outside the normal social structure of the region. Their numbers were being augmented by dwellers in the cities who deserted their leaders to join themselves with the Hapiru. Members of the Hapiru were available for military service as mercenaries for anyone who wished to hire them. In general they were seen as a threat both to Egyp. power and to the existing social structure of Pal.

Socio-political conditions of Canaan.

Except for the presence of Egyp. authority in Pal. of the Amarna Age, the socio-political state of Canaan was quite similar to that of the time of the Heb. invasion of Canaan. The land was divided into many small city-states each with its own “king.” Both the Amarna Letters and archeological remains indicate that there was a measure of social stratification, with the letters giving evidence of social unrest in their references to citizens who were joining the Hapiru. The two different aspects of the Heb. conquest as seen in Joshua and Judges may be related to the prevailing social stratification. The initial campaign, with its relatively quick victory as described in Joshua, may have dealt with the somewhat small, but militaristic ruling classes. The longer, less successful process alluded to in Judges may have dealt with the longer process of reaching an accomodation with the subject peoples even after the ruling classes had been eliminated. Thus the cities destroyed but not held, in the original campaign, had to be reconquered and reabsorbed at a later date.


J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, II (1906), 382-419; J. Baikie, The Amarna Age (1926); H. Frankfort, The City of Akhenaten (1933); W. C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt, II (1959), 280-325; J. Voyotte, “Akhnaton,” “Amarna,” and “Aton,” in A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization (1962); C. F. Pfeiffer, Tell el Amarna and the Bible (1963); R. Silverberg, The Rebel Pharaoh (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Name

2. Discovery

3. Physical Character


1. Peculiar Cuneiform Script

2. Method of Writing Proper Names


1. Knowledge of Amorite, Hittite and Mitannian Tongues

2. Persistence of Canaanite Names to the Present Time

3. Verification of Biblical Statements concerning "the Language of Canaan"


1. Political and Ethnological Lines and Locations

2. Verification of Biblical and Egyptian Geographical Notices

3. Confirmation of General Evidential Value of Ancient Geographical Notes of Bible Lands


1. Revolutionary Change of Opinion concerning Canaanite Civilization in Patriarchal Times

2. Anomalous Historical Situation Revealed by Use of Cuneiform Script

3. Extensive Diplomatic Correspondence of the Age

4. Unsolved Problem of the Habiri


A collection of about 350 inscribed clay tablets from Egypt, but written in the cuneiform writing, being part of the royal archives of Amenophis III and Amenophis IV; kings of the XVIIIth Egyptian Dynasty about 1480 to 1460 BC. Some of the tablets are broken and there is a little uncertainty concerning the exact number of separate letters. 81 are in the British Museum = BM; 160 in the New Babylonian and Assyrian Museum, Berlin= B; 60 in the Cairo Museum = C; 20 at Oxford = O; the remainder, 20 or more, are in other museums or in private collections.

I. Introduction.

1. Name:

The name, Tell el-Armarna, "the hill Amarna," is the modern name of ancient ruins about midway between Memphis and Luxor in Egypt. The ruins mark the site of the ancient city Khut Aten, which Amenophis IV built in order to escape the predominant influence of the old religion of Egypt represented by the priesthood at Thebes, and to establish a new cult, the worship of Aten, the sun’s disk.

2. Discovery:

In 1887 a peasant woman, digging in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna for the dust of ancient buildings with which to fertilize her garden, found tablets, a portion of the royal archives. She filled her basket with tablets and went home. How many she had already pulverized and grown into leeks and cucumbers and melons will never be known. This time someone’s curiosity was aroused, and a native dealer secured the tablets. Knowledge of the "find" reached Chauncey Murch, D.D., an American missionary stationed at Luxor, who, suspecting the importance of the tablets, called the attention of cuneiform scholars to them. Then began a short but intense and bitter contest between representatives of various museums on the one hand, eager for scientific material, and native dealers, on the other hand, rapacious at the prospect of the fabulous price the curious tablets might bring. The contest resulted in the destruction of some of the tablets by ignorant natives and the final distribution of the remainder and of the broken fragments, as noted at the beginning of this article. (see also Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 186). After the discovery of the tablets the site of the ancient city was excavated by Professor Petrie in 1891-92 (Tell el-Amarna; compare also Baedeker, Egypt).

3. Physical Character:

The physical character of the tablets is worthy of some notice. They are clay tablets. Nearly all are brick tablets, i.e. rectangular, flat tablets varying in size from 2 X 2 1/2 in. to 3 1/2 X 9 inches, inscribed on both sides and sometimes upon the edges. One tablet is of a convex form (B 1601). The clay used in the tablets also varies much. The tablets of the royal correspondence from Babylonia and one tablet from Mitanni (B 153) are of fine Babylonian clay. The Syrian and Palestinian correspondence is in one or two instances of clay which was probably imported from Babylonia for correspondence, but for the most part these tablets are upon the clay of the country and they show decided differences among themselves in color and texture: in some instances the clay is sandy and decidedly inferior. A number of tablets have red points, a kind of punctuation for marking the separation into words, probably inserted by the Egyptian translator of the letters at the court of the Pharaoh. These points were for the purpose of assisting in the reading. They do now assist the reading very much. Some tablets also show the hieroglyphic marks which the Egyptian scribe put on them when filing them among the archives. The writing also is varied. Some of the tablets from Palestine (B 328, 330, 331) are crudely written. Others of the letters, as in the royal correspondence from Babylonia, are beautifully written. These latter (B 149-52) seem to have been written in a totally different way from the others; those from Western Asia appear to have been written with the stylus held as we commonly hold a pen, but the royal letters from Babylonia were written by turning the point of the stylus to the left and the other end to the right over the second joint of the first finger.

The results of the discovery of the Tell el-Amarna Letters have been far-reaching, and there are indications of still other benefits which may yet accrue from them. The discovery of them shares with the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi the distinction of the first place among Biblical discoveries of the past half-century.

II. Epigraphical Value

1.Peculiar Cuneiform Script:

The peculiar use of the cuneiform method of writing in these tablets in order to adapt it to the requirements of a strange land having a native tongue, and the demands made upon it for the representation of proper names of a foreign tongue, have already furnished the basis for the opinion that the same cuneiform method of writing was employed originally in other documents, especially some portions of the Bible and much material for Egyptian governmental reports. It is not improbable that by means of such data furnished by the tablets definite clues may be obtained to the method of writing, and by that also approximately the time of the composition, of the literary sources that were drawn upon in the composition of the Pentateuch, and even of the Pentateuch itself (compare especially Naville, Archaeology of the Bible).

2. Method of Writing Proper Names:

Most of the letters were probably written by Egyptian officers or, more frequently, by scribes in the employ of native appointees of the Egyptian government. The writing of so many proper names by these scribes in the cuneiform script has thrown a flood of light upon the spelling of Canaanite names by Egyptian scribes in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Egypt. It is evident now that certainly some, perhaps most, of these scribes worked from cuneiform lists (Muller, Egyptological Researches, 1906, 40). As the system of representation of Palestinian names by Egyptian scribes becomes thus better understood, the identification of more and more of the places in Palestine named in the Egyptian inscriptions becomes possible. Every such identification makes more nearly perfect the identification of Biblical places, the first and most important item in historical evidence.

III. Philologlcal Value.

1. Knowledge of Amorite, Hittite and Mitannian Tongues:

No other literary discovery, indeed, not all the others together, have afforded so much light upon philological problems in patriarchal Palestine as the Tell el-Amarna Letters. Something is now really definitely known of "the language of Canaan," the speech of the people of patriarchal days in Palestine. The remarkable persistence of old Canaanite words and names and forms of speech of these tablets down to the present time makes it plain that the peasant speech of today is the lineal descendant of that of Abraham’s day. The letters are in the Babylonian tongue modified by contact with the speech of the country, a kind of early Aramaic (Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets, X; Dhorme, "La langue de Canaan," Revue Biblique, Juillet, 1913, 369). There are also frequent Canaanite words inserted as glosses to explain the Babylonian words (Dhorme, op. cit.).

2. Persistence of Canaanite Names to the Present Time: The facts evinced by the persistence of the early Canaanite speech (compare 1, above) down through all the centuries to the peasant speech of Palestine of today furnishes a verification of the Biblical reference to the "language of Canaan" (lsa 19:18). That peasant speech is, as it manifestly has always been since patriarchal times, a Semitic tongue. Now, even so adventurous a work as a grammar of the ancient Canaanite language has been attempted, based almost entirely upon the material furnished by the Tell el-Amarna Letters (Dhorme, op. cit.), in which the speech of Palestine in patriarchal days is described as "ancient Canaanite or Hebrew."

3. Verification of Biblical Statements concerning "the Language of Canaan":

Some more specific knowledge is also supplied by the Tell el-Amarna Letters concerning the Amorite language through the many Amorite names and the occasional explanations given in Amorite words (compare especially the 50 letters of Ribadda), and some knowledge of Hittite (Letter of Tarkhundara; Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets, 225 f), concerning the Mitannian tongue (B 153, 190, 191, 233). One other tablet (B 342) is in an unknown tongue.

IV. Geographical Value.

1. Political and Ethnological Lines and Locations

There was a very wide international horizon in the days of the correspondence contained in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, a horizon that enclosed Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, Mitanni and the land of the Hittites; but the more definite geographical information supplied by the tablets is limited almost entirely to the great Syrian and Canaanite coast land. There is difference of opinion concerning the identification of a few of the places mentioned, but about 90 have been identified with reasonable certainty.

2. Verification of Biblical and Egyptian Geographical Notices

It is possible now to trace the course of the military operations mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna Letters with almost as much satisfaction as the course of a modern military campaign, and there is much verification also of Biblical and Egyptian geographical notices.

3. Confirmation of General Evidential Value of Ancient Geographical Notes of Bible Lands

The identification of such a large number of places and the ability thus given to trace the course of historical movements in that remote age are a remarkable testimony to the historical value of ancient records of that part of the world, for accuracy concerning place is of first importance in historical records.

V. Historical Value.

The Tell el-Amarna Letters furnish an amount of historical material about equal in bulk to one-half of the Pentateuch. While much of this bears more particularly upon general history of the ancient Orient, there is scarcely any part of it which does not directly or indirectly supply information which parallels some phase of Biblical history. It is not certain that any individual mentioned in the Bible is mentioned in these tablets, yet it is possible, many think it well established, that many of the persons and events of the conquest period are mentioned (compare 4 (1), below). There is also much that reflects the civilization of times still imperfectly understood, reveals historical events hitherto unknown, or but little known, and gives many sidelights upon the movements of nations and peoples of whom there is something said in the Bible.

1. Revolutionary Change of Opinion concerning Canaanite Civilization in Patriarchal Times

A revolutionary change of opinion concerning the civilization of patriarchal Palestine has taken place. It was formerly the view of all classes of scholars, from the most conservative, on the one hand, to the most radical, on the other, that there was a very crude state of civilization in Palestine in the patriarchal age, and this entirely independent of, and indeed prior to, any demand made by the evolutionary theory of Israel’s history. Abraham was pictured as a pioneer from a land of culture to a distant dark place in the world, and his descendants down to the descent into Egypt were thought to have battled with semi-barbarous conditions, and to have returned to conquer such a land and bring civilization into it. All this opinion is now changed, primarily by the information contained in the Tell el-Amarna Letters and secondarily by incidental hints from Egyptian and Babylonian inscriptions now seen to support the high stage of civilization revealed in the Tell el-Amarna Letters (see Archaeology and Criticism). The tablets make mention of " `capital cities,’ `provincial cities,’ `fortresses,’ `towns,’ and `villages’ with `camps’ and Hazors (or enclosures); while irrigation of gardens is also noticed, and the papyrus grown at Gebal, as well as copper, tin, gold, silver, agate, money (not, of course, coins) and precious objects of many kinds, mulberries, olives, corn, ships and chariots" (Conder, op. cit., 4).

The account of a bride’s marriage portion from Mitanni reveals conditions farther north: "Two horses, and a chariot plated with gold and silver, and adorned with precious stones. The harness of the horses was adorned in like manner. Two camel litters appear to be next noticed, and apparently variegated garments worked with gold, and embroidered zones and shawls. These are followed by lists of precious stones, and a horse’s saddle adorned with gold eagles. A necklace of solid gold and gems, a bracelet of iron gilt, an anklet of solid gold, and other gold objects follow; and apparently cloths, and silver objects, and vases of copper or bronze. An object of jade or jasper and leaves of gold. .... Five gems of `stone of the great light’ (probably diamonds) follow, with ornaments for the head and feet, and a number of bronze objects and harness for chariots" (ibid., 188-89). The record of Thothmes III concerning booty brought from Palestine fully confirms this representation of the tablets (Birch, Records of the Past, 1st ser., II, 35-52; compare Sayce, Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions, 156-57).

The Babylonian inscriptions show that Abraham was a part of an emigration movement from the homeland to a frontier province, having the same laws and much of the same culture (Lyon, American Oriental Society Journal, XXV, 254; Barton, American Philosophical Proceedings, LII, number 209, April, 1913, 197; Kyle, Deciding Voice of the Monuments in Biblical Criticism, chapter xv). The Egyptian sculptured pictures make clear that the civilization of Palestine in patriarchal times was fully equal to that of Egypt (compare Petrie, Deshasheh, plural IV).

That these things of elegance and skill are not merely the trappings of "barbaric splendor" is manifest from the revelation which the Tell el-Amarna Letters make of ethnic movements and of influences at work from the great nations on either side of Canaan, making it impossible that the land could have been, at that period, other than a place of advanced civilization. Nearly all the tablets furnish most unequivocal evidence that Egypt had imperial rule over the land through a provincial government which was at the time falling into decay, while the cuneiform method of writing used in the tablets by such a variety of persons, in such high and low estate, implying thus long-established literary culture and a general diffusion of the knowledge of a most difficult system of writing, makes it clear that the civilization of Babylonia had been well established before the political power of Egypt came to displace that of Babylonia.

2. Anomalous Historical Situation Revealed by Use of Cuneiform Script

The displacement of Babylonian political power in Palestine just mentioned (1, above) points at once to a most remarkable historical situation revealed by the Tell el-Amarna Letters, i.e. official Egyptian correspondence between the out-lying province of Canaan and the imperial government at home, carried on, not in the language and script of Egypt, but in the script of Babylonia and in a language that is a modified Babylonian. This marks one step in the great, age-long conflict between the East and the West, between Babylonia and Egypt, with Canaan as the football of empires. It reveals--what the Babylonian inscriptions confirm--the long-preceding occupation of Canaan by Babylonia, continuing down to the beginning of patriarchal times, which had so given Canaan a Babylonian stamp that the subsequent political occupation of the land by Egypt under Thothmes III had not yet been able to efface the old stamp or give a new impression.

3. Extensive Diplomatic Correspondence of the Age

The extensive diplomatic correspondence between nations so widely separated as Egypt on the West, and Babylonia on the East, Mitanni on the North, and the Hittite country on the Northwest, is also shown by the Tell el-Amarna Letters. In addition to the large number of letters between Canaan and Egypt, there are quite a number of these royal tablets: letters from Kadashman Bell, or Kallima-Sin (BM 29784), and Burna-burias of Babylonia (B 149-52), Assur-uballidh of Assyria and Dusratta of Mitanni (B 150, 191-92, 233), etc. There seems at first sight a little pettiness about this international correspondence that is almost childish, since so much of it is occupied with the marriage of princesses and the payment of dowers, and the exchange of international gifts and privileges (Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 189-90). But one might be surprised at the amount of such things in the private correspondence of kings of the present day, if access to it could be gained. The grasping selfishness also revealed in these tablets by the constant cry for gold is, after all, but a less diplomatic and more frank expression of the commercial haggling between nations of today for advantages and concessions.

4. Unsolved Problem of the Habiri

The subject of greatest historical interest in Biblical matters presented by the Tell el-Amarna Letters is the great, unsolved problem of the Habiri. Unsolved it is, for while every writer on the subject has a very decided opinion of his own, all must admit that a problem is not solved upon which there is such wide and radical difference of opinion among capable scholars, and that not running along easy lines of cleavage, but dividing indiscriminately all classes of scholars.

(1) One view very early advanced and still strongly held by some (Conder, op. cit., 138-44) is that Habiri is to be read `Abiri, and means the Hebrews. It is pointed out that the letters referring to these people are from Central and Southern Palestine, that the Habiri had some relation with Mt. Seir, that they are represented as contemporaneous with Japhia king of Gezer, Jabin king of Hazor, and probably Adonizedek king of Jerusalem, contemporaries of Joshua, and that certain incidental movements of Israel and of the people of Palestine mentioned in the Bible are also mentioned or assumed in the tablets (Conder, op. cit., 139-51). In reply to these arguments for the identification of the Habiri with the Hebrews under Joshua, it may be noted that, although the letters which speak of the Habiri are all from Central or Southern Palestine, they belong to very nearly the same time as the very numerous letters concerning the extensive wars in the North. The distinct separation of the one set of letters from the other is rather arbitrary and so creates an appearance which has little or no existence in fact. Probably these southern letters refer to the same disturbances spreading from the North toward the South, which is fatal to theory that the Habiri are the Hebrews under Joshua, for these latter came in from the Southeast. The reference to Seir is obscure and seems rather to locate that place in the direction of Carmel (Conder, op. cit., 145). The mention of Japhia king of Gezer, and Jabin king of Hazor, does not signify much, for these names may be titles, or there may have been many kings, in sequence, of the same name. Concerning Adonizedek, it is diffcult to believe that this reading of the name of the king of Jerusalem would ever have been thought of, except for the desire to identify the Habiri with the Hebrews under Joshua. This name Adonizedek is only made out, with much uncertainty, by the unusual method of translating the king’s name instead of transliterating it. If the name was Adonizedek, why did not the scribe write it so, instead of translating it for the Pharaoh into an entirely different name because of its meaning? The seeming correspondences between the letters and the account of the conquest in the Bible lose much of their significance when the greater probabilities raised in the names and the course of the wars are taken away.

(2) Against the view that the Habiri were the Hebrews of the Bible may be cited not only these discrepancies in the evidence presented for that view (compare (1), above), but also the very strong evidence from Egypt that the Exodus took place in the Ramesside dynasties, thus not earlier than the XIXth Dynasty and probably under Merenptah, the successor of Rameses II. The name Rameses for one of the store cities could hardly have occurred before the Ramesside kings. The positive declaration of Rameses II: "I built Pithom," against which there is no evidence whatever, and the coincidence between the Israel tablet of Merenptah (Petrie, Six Temples at Thebes, 28, pls. XIII-XIV) and the Biblical record of the Exodus, which makes the 5th year under Merenptah to be the 5th year of Moses’ leadership (see Moses), make it very difficult, indeed seemingly impossible, to accept the Habiri as the Hebrews of the conquest.

(3) Another view concerning the Habiri, strongly urged by some (Sayce, The Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments, 175 ff), is that they are Habiri, not `Abiri, and that the name means "confederates," and was not a personal or tribal name at all. The certainty that there was, just a little before this time, an alliance in conspiracy among the Amorites and others, as revealed in the tablets for the region farther north, gives much color to this view. This opinion also relieves the chronological difficulties which beset the view that the Habiri were the Biblical Hebrews (compare (2), above), but it is contended that this reading does violence to the text.

(4) Another most ingenious view is advanced by Jeremias (The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, 341), that the name is Habiri, that "the name answers to the sounds of `Hebrews,’ and that the names are identical," but that this name in the Tell el-Amarna Letters is not a proper name at all, but a descriptive word, as when we read of "Abraham the Hebrew," i.e. the "stranger" or "immigrant." Thus Habiri would be "Hebrews," i.e. "strangers" or "immigrants" (see Heberites; Hebrew), but the later question of the identification of these with the Hebrews of the Bible is still an open question.

(5) It may be that the final solution of the problem presented by the Habiri will be found in the direction indicated by combining the view that sees in them only "strangers" with the view that sees them to be "confederates." There were undoubtedly "confederates" in conspiracy against Egypt in the time of the Tell el-Amarna Letters. The government of Egypt did not come successfully to the relief of the beleaguered province, but weakly yielded. During the time between the writing of the tablets and the days of Merenptah and the building of Pithom no great strong government from either Egypt or Babylonia or the North was established in Palestine. At the time of the conquest there is constant reference made to "the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites," etc. Why are they so constantly mentioned as a group, unless they were in some sense "confederates"? It is not impossible, indeed it is probable, that these Hittites and Amorites and Perizzites, etc., Palestinian tribes having some kind of loose confederacy in the days of the conquest, represent the last state of the confederates," the conspirators, who began operations in the Amorite war against the imperial Egyptian government recorded in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, and, in the correspondence from the South, were called in those days Habiri, i.e. "strangers" or "immigrants." For the final decision on the problem of the Habiri and the full elucidation of many things in the Tell el-Amarna Letters we must await further study of the tablets by expert cuneiform scholars, and especially further discovery in contemporary history.

The Jerusalem letters of the southern correspondence present something of much importance which does not bear at all upon the problem of the Habiri. The frequently recurring title of the king of Jerusalem, "It was not my father, it was not my mother, who established me in this position" (Budge, History of Egypt, IV, 231-35), seems to throw light upon the strange description given of MELCHIZEDEK (which see), the king of Jerusalem in the days of Abraham. The meaning here clearly is that the crown was not hereditary, but went by appointment, the Pharaoh of Egypt having the appointing power. Thus the king as such had no ancestor and no descendant, thus furnishing the peculiar characteristics made use of to describe the character of the Messiah’s priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:3).


Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets; Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln, in Heinrich’s Vorderasiatische Bibliothek, II; Petrie, Tell el Amarna Tablets; idem, Syria and Egypt from the Tell el Amarna Letters; idem, Hist of Egypt; Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East.

M. G. Kyle