Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: LETTERS AND LETTER-WRITING AMONG THE BABYLONIANS AND ASSYRIANS - Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters
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I: LETTERS AND LETTER-WRITING AMONG THE BABYLONIANS AND ASSYRIANS - Rev. Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters 
Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904).
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LETTERS AND LETTER-WRITING AMONG THE BABYLONIANS AND ASSYRIANS
External form of the lettersThe ancient Babylonians early discovered the convenience of written communication between friends at a distance. The origin of letter-writing is not yet clear; for, when we first meet with letters, they are fully developed. A piece of clay, usually shaped like a miniature pillow, was inscribed and then enclosed in an envelope made of a thin sheet of clay. On the envelope was written the address. As a rule, the letter was baked hard before being put into its envelope.Their envelope Powdered clay was inserted to prevent sticking. The envelope, after being inscribed, was also baked hard. Of course, the letter could not be read without breaking the envelope, which was therefore a great protection to the interior letter. The envelope was naturally thrown away after being broken. Hence, extremely few envelopes have been preserved.
Their datesThe practice of dating letters does not seem to have been common. We have dated letters at all epochs, but they are few. In some cases the date may have been on the envelope. It is more common for the writer to give the day of the month, sometimes also the month. But the date of a letter was probably not then of any great importance.
Another method of insuring privacySome letters seem to have been covered with coarse cloth, on which was impressed a lump of clay, to act as a seal and bind down the edges. The lumps were then sealed with a signet-ring, or cylinder-seal. The clay envelopes were also sealed, before baking, with the sender’s seal. So usual was this habit, that the word for seal, unu, is often used to denote a sealed letter. Thus when an official acknowledges the receipt of the king’s “seal,” it means a sealed order or rescript.
Style of the opening addressThe early Babylonian letters usually open with the formula, “To A say: Thus saith B.” The formula probably goes back to the times when the message was verbally delivered. These would be the words used to a messenger who had to remember the message. The verb “saith” is not expressed exactly. The word used is umma, which is often rendered “saying”; it introduces a direct quotation. We might render, “In the name of B.” But the written letter replaced the spoken message. Some think the letter was read by a professional reader. Such readers are common still, where education is not widely diffused. It is very clear that the letter was generally written by a scribe. Thus, all ammurabi’s letters show the same hand, while those of Abêshu or Ammi-ditana are quite different. In the case of private letters we have less proof. But it is possible that the king sometimes wrote with his own hand. Some terms of expression render that very likely. It is, however, quite impossible to be certain on such points.
Variations of the formulaThe same opening formula also appears in the Tell el Amarna letters. It is not known in Assyrian letters, but survived in Babylonia to a late period. In Assyria the formula is nearly the same; with the omission of the ibi, or “say,” it reads “To A thus B.” In addresses to superiors, usually adds “thy servant.” Polite letters generally add good wishes for the recipient. These are exceedingly varied. The word šulmu plays a great part in them. Literally it denotes “peace.” “Peace be to thee” is very common. But it soon came to mean the “greeting of peace.” Thus “I have sent ana šulmika” means “I have sent to wish thee peace,” “to greet thee.” But it also takes the more general meaning of well-being. Thus šulmu iâši means “I am well,” “it is peace with me”; not only absence from war, but health and all prosperity was included. Hence Joram’s inquiry of Jehu, “Is it peace, Jehu?” means “Is everything all right?” “Be thou at peace” may be rendered loosely, “I hope you are well,” in the fullest sense that “all is well with you.” No consistent rendering can be given for such phrases as these.
References to a former correspondenceVery often letters quote the previous message of the present recipient, ša tašpuranni, “what thou didst send me.” But the quotation is often omitted and then this becomes an awkward rendering. We have to fill up some general sentence such as, “as to what you sent about.” A very difficult sort of construction arises when the writer sets down a list of questions, which he has been asked, and the answer to each. As there are no capitals, periods, or questionmarks, there is often some difficulty in separating a question from its answer. This may be done differently by different translators, with startlingly different results.
Elliptical phrasesVery many sentences are elliptical. Thus, it was common to add at the end of the letter something like, “I leave it to you to decide.” This might be put, “As the king, my lord, sees fit, let him do.” But a scribe would often merely say, “As the king sees fit.” Such elliptical sentences are often very difficult to complete. They were obviously clear to the recipient. To us they leave a wide margin for conjecture.
Inscribed seals on packagesVery early indeed in the history of Babylonia a sort of postal system had been developed. At any rate, in the time of Sargon I., bc 3800, an active exchange of commodities existed between Agade and Shirpurla. Packages or vessels of produce or goods were forwarded and with them small blocks of clay, impressed with seals and inscribed with the address of the recipient. These were probably used to prevent the fastenings of the packages from being untied, and on their backs may be seen the impressions of the strings which fastened the packages.1 As it happens, no letters have yet been published from the era preceding the First Dynasty of Babylon; but we can hardly doubt that such exist.
Letters of the First Dynasty of BabylonIn the time of the First Dynasty of Babylon letters appear frequently in the collections of tablets brought to our museums. The volumes of Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets, etc., in the British Museum, published by order of the Trustees,2 contain a large number of letters from copies made by Mr. T. G. Pinches. These have been made the subject of a study by Dr. Mary Williams Montgomery.3 Mr. L. W. King, in his work, The Letters and Inscriptions of ammurabi, published fifty-five letters of ammurabi to his subordinate officer, Sin-idinnam, six letters of Samsuiluna, thirteen of Abêshu’, two of Ammiditana, five of Ammizaduga, and two private letters. These were all transcribed, translated, annotated, and, with a number of other contemporary inscriptions, issued with admirable introductions, glossary, and index.4 Nowhere can a more vivid picture be obtained of the great empire and the manifold duties of a Babylonian king. A number of the texts published in the first volume were translated and commented upon by Dr. G. Nagel under the title, Die Briefe ammurabi’s an Sin-idinnam.5 Professor Delitzsch added some valuable notes. Dr. B. Meissner had already published the text of four letters as Altbabylonische Briefe.6 Professor V. Scheil gave the text of two letters of this period, found by him at Sippara, in the Recueil de Travaux1 and noticed others, and some more in his Une Saison de fouilles a Sippar.2 These are preserved at Constantinople, but the text has not yet been published. They are chiefly private letters and of a business nature. There are a great many other letters in American and European museums, the publication of which should not be longer delayed.
Of the subsequent periodFor the long period before the Tell el Amarna times, circabc 1500, nothing of any extent seems to have been published, though letters are also known to exist of this period. A late copy of one such letter, addressed by Adadi-Shumnâṣir, King of Babylon, to Ashur-narara and Nabû-dâni, kings of Assyria, about bc 1250, is partly preserved in the British Museum.3
The Tell el Amarna lettersThe Tell el Amarna tablets, some three hundred in number, were discovered in 1887-88, at the ruins of the palace of Amenophis IV., in Egypt. They will form the subject of a separate volume of this series. They consist of the letters or despatches sent to kings of Egypt by the kings of Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, and the subject-rulers of many Syrian and Palestinian cities and states. From these can be obtained a very clear view of the state of Syria and Palestine just before the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Naturally, these letters have formed the subject of a very large literature. The most complete edition of the texts is by Winckler, Der Thontafelfund von el Amarna.4 With these should be compared Dr. J. A. Knudtzon’s Ergebnisse einer Collation der El Amarna Tafeln and Weitere Studien zu den El Amarna Tafeln.5 A full transcription with translation and glossary to these texts has been given by Winckler, as Die Thontafeln von Tell el Amarna.1 An excellent English translation by J. P. Metcalf is to be had. There are a few of these tablets, which found their way into private hands, or to other museums than London, Berlin, and Gizeh, whence Winckler’s copies were obtained. It is a duty to science that these should now be published. In the Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie orientale, t. II., published at Cairo, Professor Scheil gives the text of two more of these important letters. The explorer, Dr. F. Bliss, found another in the ruins of Lachish. It is included in Winckler’s work above. Professor Sellin has lately found several tablets, which by their script and personal references are shown to belong to this period. They were found at Ta’annek, and are published by Dr. Hronzy in the Anzeige der philos. hist. Klasse der Wiener Akademie.2 The interest of these additions lies in the fact that they were found in Palestine itself.
Cappadocian lettersThe numerous Cappadocian tablets are now generally recognized by their language and script to belong to this period. They also show considerable affinity with the documents of the First Dynasty of Babylon, and the Tell el Amarna letters preserve many characteristic expressions.
Assyrian lettersThe subsequent periods in Babylonia are represented by few letters. It is not until we come down to the end of the eighth century and the Sargonide times that we meet with many letters. The archives of Nineveh contained immense numbers. A great many of these are now in the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum. There they early attracted attention. Being written by the imperial officials to the kings of Assyria, they contain most valuable material for history.Published texts George Smith in 1871 gave extracts from several of them in his History of Ashurbanipal. A number were published in Rawlinson’s Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Mr. S. A. Smith, in the Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology, 1887-89,1 and in the second and third volumes of his Keilschrifttexte Asurbanipals gave some seventy more. Professor Delitzsch also published a number in his Zur assyrisch-babylonischen Briefliteratur,2 and in his translations and comments laid the real foundation for their interpretation. In 1892 Professor R. F. Harper began the colossal task of publishing the text of all the letters from Nineveh, in his Assyrian and Babylonian Letters belonging to the Collections of the British Museum, of which eight volumes are already published.3
TranslationsA considerable number of scholars have busied themselves with the translation and elucidation of these texts. Professor C. Johnston in his work, The Epistolary Literature of the Assyrians and Babylonians;4 C. van Gelderen, Ausgewählte babylonisch-assyrische Briefe;5 A. J. Delattre, Quelques Lettres Assyriennes;6 G. R. Berry, The Letters of the Rm. 2 Collection, in American Journal of Semitic Literature, xi., pp. 174-202; F. Martin, Lettres assyriennes et babyloniennes—besides the many articles by other scholars on particular words or subjects—have contributed to the understanding of these difficult texts. Professor R. F. Harper has published a few preliminary studies on these texts.7 Dr. H. Winckler not only gave several important texts in his Texte verschiedenen Inhalts,8 but translations and comments on them in his Altorientalische Forschungen.1
Late Babylonian lettersThe letter-texts of the latter Babylonian period at present published are extremely few. Some may be found in Strassmaier’s great collection of Babylonische Texte, among the contracts. A list of those for the reigns of Nabonidus and Nebuchadrezzar is given in Dr. K. L. Tallqvist’s Die Sprache der Contracte Nabû-nâ’ids, p. xviii.
Historical value of the lettersOne of the uses to which the letters may be put is to illustrate the history of the time. From the letters of ammurabi we can gather a great deal of information as to the civil policy of the reign. From the Tell el Amarna tablets we may reconstruct almost a complete survey of the condition of politics in Palestine. From the Assyrian letters we can rewrite the history of affairs in Armenia at the end of Sargon’s reign, or the wars with Elam in Ashurbânipal’s time.
General valueThe letters are also a rich mine of information on all sorts of topics, and those very often on which almost all other literatures are silent. We gain here a closer and more intimate acquaintance with humanity than at any other period of ancient history. We must not expect finality in our translations for a long while to come. Fresh documents will continually be found or published that will help us to revise our views. But that is the perennial interest of the letters. We may read and reread them, always finding something fresh to combine with every new piece of information.
Methods of classificationSeveral different methods of classifying the letters suggest themselves. One plan would be to group those letters which illustrate some phase of civil life. Thus we may collect the references to medical cases, or the illustrations of religious life, or the contributions to astronomy and astrology. But none of these methods will be exhaustive or generally applicable. A letter rarely deals with only one subject. The only scientific classification seems to be that adopted by Professor Harper in his edition of the Nineveh letters, or Mr. King in his letters of ammurabi. This is to place together all the letters written by one scribe. Here we have two difficulties. There may be more than one scribe of the same name. Thus it is practically certain that in Professor Harper’s groups of letters apparently assigned to one man, more than one person is often really involved. Again, a very large number of letters no longer preserve the name of their scribe. Only a prolonged study can reduce these difficulties; it is not likely that we shall ever quite eliminate error.
Royal lettersThere is one large group that has a claim to separate consideration. Many letters are written by, or to, a king. They are on various subjects. A subdivision might be made of reports sent by officials concerning public affairs. But even these often contain side-references; and at the last we have really to consider each letter as a separate document.
[1 ] Heuzey, Revue d’Assyriologie, iv., pp. 1 ff.
[2 ] Vol. II., 1897; Vol. IV., 1898; Vol. VI., 1898; Vol. VIII., 1899.
[3 ]Briefe aus der Zeit des Babylonischen Königs ammurabi, Leipzig, 1901.
[4 ] Three volumes, 1898-1900, Luzac, London.
[5 ] , iv., p. 434-500.
[6 ] , ii., pp. 557-64, 573-79.
[1 ] XVI., p. 189.
[2 ] Pages 105, 106, 107, 116, 123, 124, 125, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137.
[3 ] Published III. R. 4. No. 5.
[4 ] Heft I. of Mittheilungen aus den Orientalischen Sammlungen der Königliche Museen zu Berlin, Speman, Berlin.
[5 ] , iv., pp. 101-54, 279-337, and 410-17.
[1 ] Vol. V. of Schrader’s Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek, Reuther and Reichard, Berlin, 1896.
[2 ] June 17, 1903.
[1 ] IX., pp. 240-56; X., pp. 60-72, 155-77, 305-15.
[2 ] , i., pp. 185-248, 613-31; ii., 19-62.
[3 ]University of Chicago Press; Luzac, London.
[4 ] Baltimore, 1898.
[5 ] , iv., pp. 501-45.
[6 ] , 1901, pp. 331-59.
[7 ] , x., pp. 196-201; xiii., pp. 209-12, xiv., pp. 1-16, 171-82; xv., pp. 129-44.
[8 ] Pfeiffer, Leipzig.
[1 ] II., pp. 52, 58, 184 f., 302 f.