The Amarna Letters are a group of inscribed clay tablets discovered around 1887 at Amarna, a site in Egypt on the east bank of the Nile about 190 miles south of Cairo. The city was founded by the Egyptian king (pharaoh) Amenhotep IV, who later became known as Akhenaten. Akhenaten was known as a heretic king; he worshiped only the Egyptian god Aten, perhaps becoming history’s first monotheist, and he apparently attempted (unsuccessfully) to impose this monotheism on Egyptian religion more broadly.
The tablets total almost 400 in number and are written (almost without exception) in Akkadian. Most of these letters come from vassal cities in Syria-Palestine, including Byblos, Tyre, Gezer, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), Ashkelon, Megiddo, and Jerusalem, and contain diplomatic correspondence with officials in Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni (an area of northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia), Alashia (Cyprus), and Hatti (central Anatolia). They date to the 14th century B.C.E., primarily to the reigns of the Egyptian kings Amenhotep III (reigned circa 1382–1344 B.C.E.) and Amenhotep IV (reigned circa 1352–1336 B.C.E.).
The letters from Jerusalem (written as “Urusalim” in the Amarna texts) are from a Canaanite ruler named Abdi-Heba. He states that he is a “soldier for the king, my lord” and requests that the Egyptian monarch send him a messenger and some military men to help resist his enemies. In multiple letters he states that he “falls at the feet of my lord the king, seven times and seven times,” a stock phrase and common ancient Near Eastern motif that conveys his faithfulness to his Egyptian suzerain. He also makes clear that it was not his “father or mother who put me in this place” (on the throne), but rather the “strong arm of the king.” Here Abdi-Heba reveals that he was not the heir to the throne but given the throne of Jerusalem by the Egyptian king himself. He goes on to state that for this reason he will always be a faithful vassal of his Egyptian lord, regardless of any accusation by an enemy to the contrary. Among the enemies he refers to in his correspondence are the “Apiru” (people living on the fringes of society in the second millennium B.C.E., sometimes serving as mercenaries) and the Kashites (a Hittite people from Anatolia).
The Amarna Letters from Jerusalem have attracted substantial attention because of their dialect. It is normally argued that they are quite different in terms of cuneiform signs used, orthography, and syntax from the rest of the letters from Canaanite cities and more sophisticated in certain ways, which may indicate the scribal culture at Jerusalem was of a particularly high quality.
The Amarna Letters from Jerusalem are of interest for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they come from Jerusalem a few centuries before King David would ostensibly vanquish the Canaanite (Jebusite) population of Jerusalem and make it his own capital (2 Samuel 5). Also, the correspondence with a Jerusalem ruler in the 14th century provides evidence for occupation in the city in a period (Late Bronze Age II) for which there is little archaeological evidence. Recently a fragment of an Akkadian tablet (now called “Jerusalem Tablet 1) was found in excavations at Jerusalem, and some scholars have claimed that this tablet contained some correspondence between a king of Jerusalem and a king of Egypt. But this tablet is ultimately too fragmentary to determine if it was a letter. Among the most important things that these tablets demonstrate is that there was a vibrant and sophisticated scribal apparatus in Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age. This Canaanite city was certainly not a backwater, but precisely the reverse.