Dear Reader,

13 September, 2008

The oldest examples of writing we have are documents that are concerned with money, goods and trade. Records of taxes pre-date even the most ancient of stories. In the near east the development of cuneiform writing was a major boon to the city states who needed to keep track of a complex administrative system. The writing that developed in southern Mesopotamia was used throughout the near east for thousands of years. Eventually scribes were writing in languages that were no longer spoken but were preserved through the schooling that all scribes undertook. Many of the most ancient documents we have are texts used by scribes for learning. These tablets contained what are called lexical lists, long lists of words which belong to the same category. So for instance one list may be The Standard List of Professions, while another may list animals or objects.

Later developments in writing include long king lists – records that were used to legitimise a new ruler to the throne. Stories about ancient kings and heroes such as Gilgamesh were also written down. Eventually the written word was put to use beyond tax collection, story recording and the creation of praises to the local king. It was only a matter of time before writing was used for communication between people across large distances. The first letters had arrived.

Many letters that we have today are royal correspondences. A large cache of these were discovered in Amarna, the capital of Egypt during the notorious reign of Akhenaten. These letters were written in several languages but mainly in cuneiform. They contain fascinating insights into the people as we see how they dealt with each other rather than how they wished to be recorded for all eternity. The rulers of the so-called ‘Great Kingdoms’ of the time (Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, Mittani, Babylonia) referred to each other as ‘brothers’ and sent gifts as well as letters. These gifts were very much a sort of trade as can be seen by the whining that occurs when the great rulers felt they deserved more than they had received. “You have sent me as my greeting gift, the only thing in six years, thirty pounds of gold that looks like silver” wrote the King of Babylon to the Pharaoh. The King of Mittani wrote “In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt.“. When the King of Assyria neglected to send gifts to the King of Hatti, Hattusili III wrote: “When I assumed kingship, you did not send a messenger to me. It is the custom that when kings assume kingship, the kings, his equals in rank, send him appropriate gifts of greeting, clothing befitting kingship, and fine oil for his anointing. But you did not do this today.

Letters were also exchanged between the Great Kings and their vassals, kings of smaller regions or city-states. The subservient minor kings still liked to complain of course and had ready excuses for why taxes and tributes were late: “Tell the king, my lord, my Sun; Rib-Adda, your servant, says: I fall at the feet of my lord seven and seven times over. Let the king, my lord, know that Pu-bahla, the son of Abdi-Ashirta, has taken the city of Ullassa by force … What can I do? I cannot go to Sumur … They would attack me and I could not get out. Byblos would be joined to the Apiru.“. Various other servants would send information about diplomatic treaties that were being agreed to – or not agreed to. And of course the treaties themselves would become letters with copies kept by all involved parties.

But it wasn’t just Kings who wrote letters. In the early second millennium the Assyrians had established a trading outpost in central Anatolia (modern day Turkey) called Kanesh. In Kanesh were discovered many letters sent by wives left back in Assur to their trader husbands who were living in Kanesh. Often the wives would be in charge of the household at home and responsible for creating the goods that were being sold in far of Kanesh. And sometimes they weren’t happy about their husbands performance. Some examples of wives writing to their husbands:

Tell Pushuken; Lamassi says:
Kulumaya is bringing nine textiles to you, Iddin-Sin three. Ela has refused to take care of textiles while Iddin-Sin has refused to take care of five more. Why do you keep on writing to me: “The textiles that you send me are always of bad quality!” Who is the man who lives in your house and criticizes the textiles that are brought to him? I, on the other hand, keep on striving to produce and send you textiles so that on every trip your business gains ten shekels of silver.

Tell Innaya; Taram-Kubi says:
You wrote to me as follows: “Keep the bracelets and rings that you have; the will be needed to buy you food.” It is true that you send me half a pound of gold through Ili-bani but where are the bracelets that you have left behind? When you left, you didn’t leave me one shekel of silver. You cleaned out the house and took everything with you. … Why do you keep on listening to slander, and write me irritating letters?

Irritating the letters may be but they provide an insight into the ancient world that we do not get from monumental inscriptions and praises to the Gods. A far more down to earth vision of daily life is revealed. Indeed it says a lot that a king of Babylon was less praised for performing the sacred ritual that would ensure good crops than for cancelling everyone’s debts when the economy was going sour. Sometimes, especially through peoples words to each other, the ancient world can seem very familiar.

[See My Dearest Sister for an example of an ancient epistolary story!]