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    Chapter Master Karak Norn Clansman's Avatar
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    May 2011
    Karak Norn

    Letters From Mesopotamia

    Back in 1967, the scholar A. Leo Oppenheim published a book filled with more reader-friendly samples of ancient Mesopotamian letters, which go some length toward bringing to life the everyday commotion, raiding, warfare, religion, commerce and political wrangling of those times. These letters were written in ancient Mesopotamia and beyond, in old Assyrian trading colonies in Anatolia and by kings in Canaan and Syria exchanging word with their liege, either the Hittite king or the Egyptian Pharaoh (Akkadian cuneiform was the universal diplomatic language of the bronze age).

    Here's the free PDF from the Oriental Institute of Chicago:

    The amount of cuneiform tablets (not to speak of petty fragments) uncovered by archaeologists during the last two centuries amount to well over 100'000, with probably more than a million tablets still in the ground. The sheer information preserved is enormous, and Assyriologists will have translation work to keep them occupied for many hundreds of years to come. However, vast though this clay treasure is, it is not the liveliest of ancient source material by a long shot. Writing started out as book keeping, and it shows in the Mesopotamian letters. When writing became used for more versatile tasks than keeping count of wares, it retained a stilted and formal manner, upheld by rigorous tradition in prestigious scribal schools over many centuries. The sheer age of Mesopotamian writing means that it's boring, dry and business-like, but pretty interesting at times nonetheless. You will have to search out ancient Greek authors to find some sort of lively language developed in old writing!

    I would like to share some of the more interesting Mesopotamian letters with you, should anyone wish to read it.

    Letters from Mesopotamia presents a cherry-picked collection of more or less intact clay tablet letters. There are a lot of bureaucratic stuff, some law cases, omen-gazing and lots of merchant letters. There are royal correspondence and military letters. There are glimpses of disease and calamities, of convoluted ritual practices and There are also personal disputes where the heated tempers of folk shine through the formal words.

    And there are some astonishing amount of flattery from the Pharaoh's Canaanite vassals to their boss. How would you like it to be addressed like this at the start of a letter?

    Quote Originally Posted by Excerpt from letter 60
    Envelope: A letter of Kalbu to his lord (the guenna-official of

    Tell my lord, the perfect, the gorgeous, the offspring of heaven,
    our protective angel, the expert and effective warrior, the light
    among his brothers, the shining gem, the trust of all important
    persons, endowed with nobility, the provider for scholars, the
    table laden for all people, outstanding among his peers, to whom
    the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea, and also the goddess Belet-ili, have
    granted a treasure of graces and riches—tell my lord: Kalbu, who
    is dust and but your favorite slave, sends the following message. ...
    Or like this? Sufficiently crawling in the dust?

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 67
    To the king, my lord, my god, my sun: A message of your servant
    Abi-milki (of Tyre):

    Seven times and again seven times I prostrate myself at the
    feet of Your Majesty—I, the dust under the sandals of Your
    Majesty. My lord is the sun (god) who rises over all the countries,
    day after day, according to the ordinance of the sun god his gracious
    father, whose sweet breath gives life and (which one)
    craves(?) when he is hiding, who makes the entire country rest
    under (the protection) of his mighty arm; who thunders in the
    sky like the storm god so that the entire country trembles at
    the sound of him.

    This is the message of a slave to his master after he had heard
    what the kind messenger of the king (said) to his servant upon
    arriving here, and (felt) the sweet fragrance that came out of the
    mouth of Your Majesty toward his servant. And he was craving(?)
    the king's fragrance before the arrival of the messenger of Your
    Majesty. How should one not crave(?) for a fragrance which one's
    (text: my) nose remembers (so well)? And indeed, I was extremely
    glad when the fragrance of the king wafted towards me
    and there was a festival(?) every day because I was so glad. Is not
    the entire world happy when it hears the kind messenger (who
    comes) from the very presence of my lord. Also the entire country
    was in awe of my lord when it heard about the sweet fragrance
    and the kind messenger who had come to me. If Your
    Majesty would have said "Rise up against a great army!" this
    servant would have said to his master: "Aye, aye!" I am carrying
    on my heart and my back the command of Your Majesty. The
    sun rises over anybody who listens to Your Majesty and obeys
    him in his place of office, and who craves(?) the sweet fragrance
    from the mouth of his master, but the city of him who has not
    listened to the command of your Majesty is (as good as) lost and
    his house is lost; his fame is gone forever in the entire country.
    Now look (at me), a servant who has listened to his master, his
    city is fine, his house is fine, his fame is to endure forever.

    You are the sun that rises above me and the wall of bronze
    that towers (around me). And for this very reason and on account
    of the mighty arm of Your Majesty, I rest secure.
    This is what I have (still) to say to the Sun, my father, Your
    Majesty: When will I see Your Majesty face to face?

    Now I am guarding for Your Majesty Tyre, the great city,
    waiting until the mighty arm of the king extends over me to give
    me (from the mainland) water to drink and wood to warm me.
    As to other matters: Zimrida, the king of Sidon, has been writing
    every day to that criminal Azira, son of Abdi-Asratu about
    everything he hears from Egypt. This I had to write to my lord
    for it is proper that he know about it.
    An important form of taxation in ancient Mesopotamia was corvée labour: Digging canals, building structures and doing other work for the state. Several letters are for fighting the bureaucracy:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 8
    Tell the governor of the Inland Region, whom the god
    Marduk keeps in good health: Dingir-saga sends the following

    May the gods Samas and Marduk keep you forever in good

    I was very pleased when the god Marduk elevated you to high
    office. I said to myself, "A man has been elevated who knows
    me; he will do for me what I want. Even those officials around
    here who do not know me personally will now do what I want
    when I send them a message.

    As to the case of the temple singer Nabium-malik, a native of
    the town of Habuz, the man made the following deposition to
    me. I quote him: "Nobody ever issued a summons for me
    to do service as a porter. Now the governor of the Inland Region

    has sent me notice, and (after I refused) they took a slave of mine
    as a pledge."

    This man, Nabium-malik, is a member of my household; he
    is not a stranger. He is already performing six other work-obligations,
    and he pays the fees incumbent on a high priest and a temple

    I am sending you herewith this tablet of mine; if you truly
    care for me, nobody must issue a summons for this man's
    Others are plain old nagging:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 16
    Tell the Lady Zinu: Iddin-Sin sends the following message:
    May the gods Samas, Marduk, and Ilabrat keep you forever in
    good health for my sake.
    From year to year, the clothes of the (young) gentlemen here
    become better, but you let my clothes get worse from year to
    year. Indeed, you persisted(?) in making my clothes poorer and
    more scanty. At a time when in our house wool is used up like
    bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam,
    whose father is only an assistant of my father, (has) two new sets
    of clothes [break] while you fuss even about a single set of clothes
    for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only
    adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love
    Some bear witness to the despair of human misery:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 17
    Tell my master: Your slave girl Dabitum sends the following

    What I have told you now has happened to me: For seven
    months this (unborn) child was in my body, but for a month now
    the child has been dead and nobody wants to take care of me.
    May it please my master (to do something) lest I die. Come visit
    me and let me see the face of my master! [Large gap ] Why did
    no present from you arrive for me? And if I have to die, let me
    die after I have seen again the face of my master!
    Hardship, indeed, on a large scale. It is easy to imagine the chaos, the fear, the sweaty efforts and the barking masters during raids and warfare:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 23
    Tell Belsunu: Qurdusa sends the following message :

    May the god Samas keep you in good health.

    As you have certainly heard, the open country is in confusion
    and the enemy is prowling around in it. I have dispatched letters to
    Ibni-Marduk, to Warad-..., and to yourself. Take a lamb from the
    flock for the diviner and obtain a divination concerning the cattle
    and the flocks, whether they should move into my neighborhood;
    if there will be no attack of the enemy and no attack by robbers
    the cattle should come to where I am—or else bring them into
    the town of Kish so that the enemy cannot touch them. Furthermore,
    bring whatever barley is available into Kish and write me
    a full report.
    What is the worth of a man? Back in those days, they could give the exact market value!

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 25
    Tell Ahu-klnum: Awll-Amurrim sends the following message:

    Immediately after you left for the trip, Imgur-Sin arrived
    here and claimed: "He owes me one-third of a mina of silver."
    He took your wife and your daughter as pledges. Come back
    before your wife and your daughter die from the work of constantly
    grinding barley while in detention. Please, get your
    wife and your daughter out of this.
    Theft is eternal:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 33
    Tell Nur-Samas, Awel-Adad, Sin-pilah, Silli-Adad, and the overseer
    of the ten-man team: Samas-nasir (the governor of Larsa)
    sends the following message:

    This is really a fine way of behaving! The orchardists keep breaking
    into the date storehouse and taking dates, and you yourselves
    cover it up time and again and do not report it to me.

    I am sending you herewith this letter of mine; bring these men
    to me—after they have paid for the dates. And also the men from
    the town Bad-Tibira [end broken]
    Vehicle worries are no novelty:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 40
    Tell my lord Yasmah-Addu: Your servant Ila-Salim sends the
    following message:

    The king gave me a chariot; this chariot broke at its middle
    section due to my constant traveling from the flatlands to the
    mountains and back. So now there is no chariot available for me
    to ride in when I have to go places. If it so pleases my lord, may
    my lord give me a chariot.

    I shall surely bring order into the land before my lord arrives.
    I am the servant of my lord. May my lord not withhold a chariot
    from me.
    And neither is human cruelty. Anyone else think of Hobgoblins upon reading this?

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 43
    Tell my lord: Your servant Bahdi-Lim sends the following message:

    The body of a small child which was hardly one year old was
    found lying in front of the old dike which is upstream from the
    lower ditch openings(?) on the embankment of the river (Euphrates).
    The body of the child was cut open at its waist and the [contents]
    of its chest were placed on its head and it was [mutilated]
    from head to foot. Nobody can tell whether it was male or female.

    Nothing is left from its middle down to its lower end. The very
    day I heard this report, I resorted to strict measures; I questioned
    the overseers of the city quarters, the craftsmen and the harbor(?)
    people, but neither any owner of this child nor its father or
    mother nor anybody who could [shed light] on this incident came
    forward. The very same day, I sent Bell-lu-dari to my lord with
    this news. Also during the seven days since I sent Bell-lu-dari, I
    have done much questioning but [end broken]
    War was always a popular pastime:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 48
    Tell Yasmah-Addu: Your brother Isme-Dagan sends the following

    The men of the Awlanum tribe assembled here, their entire
    contingent, under Mar-Addu, in order to give battle. We fought
    at Tu[.]wi and I inflicted a severe defeat on them. Mar-Addu and
    all the tribesmen of the Awlanum are dead; also their slaves and
    their clients are killed. Not even one of the enemy escaped with
    his life. Rejoice!
    Enjoy your luxury fridge! Having ice for drinks was the mark of wealthy and important families, since it had to be extracted with simple hand tools in mountainous areas during winter, then be packaged to minimize melting and then be transported to the customer. Activities of this sort might well take place in the lower reaches of the northwesterly Mountains of Mourns to provide Chaos Dwarf palaces with chilly drinks:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 53
    Tell Yasmah-Addu: King Aplahanda (of Carchemish) sends the
    following message:

    There is now ice available in Ziranum, much of it. Place your
    servants there to watch over it so they can keep it safe for
    you. They can bring it to you regularly as long as you stay
    there. And if no good wine is available there for you to drink,
    send me word and I will have good wine sent to you to drink.
    Since your home town is far away, do write me whenever you
    need anything, and I will always give you what you need.
    Sometimes the Pharaoh has need of your daughter and your possessions:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 65
    Tell [. . . ] the man in charge of the country Ammia: The King
    (of Egypt) sends the following message:

    I am sending you herewith this letter to command you: Be on
    guard, hold the city of the king which is your responsibility.

    Send your daughter straightaway to your king and lord; also
    send your presents: twenty healthy slaves, silver-coated chariots
    (and) fine horses. Then I, as your king and lord, shall address
    you, saying: What you have given to the king as a present in addition
    to your daughter is good.

    Be assured that the king is as well as the sun god in the sky;
    his soldiers and his chariotry are in very, very good condition.
    Better keep those solders and chariotry in good order, or else...!

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 80
    A message from the King of Carchemish: Tell Ibiranu, the king
    of Ugarit:

    Good health to you!

    Here is Talmi-TeSup, the charioteer of the Sun (the Hittite
    king), coming to you. He will inspect your infantry and your
    chariotry to establish how many there are. Put all the soldiers
    and the chariots which have been assigned to you by the palace
    in good order. The Sun will make a count. The Sun must under
    no circumstances be angered—(this is a matter of) life and death.
    Kingly wrath clad in sayings:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 116
    An order of the king (Esarhaddon) to the "Non-Babylonian" inhabitants
    of Babylon:

    I am fine.

    There is a proverb often used by people: "The potter's dog,
    once he crawls into the (warm) potter's shop, barks at the
    potter/3 There you are, pretending—against the commands of the
    god—to be Babylonians, and what unspeakable things you and
    your master have devised against my subjects! There is another
    proverb often cited by people: "What the adulteress says at the
    door of the judge's house carries more weight than the words of
    her husband." Should you ask yourselves after I sent back to you,
    with seals intact, your letters full of empty and insolent(?) words
    which you had dispatched: "Why did he return the letters to us?"
    I am telling you that I would have opened and read whatever
    message my loyal and loving Babylonians had sent me but. . .
    [end broken]
    Rule of arms and fear:

    Quote Originally Posted by Letter 120
    To the lord of all kings, my lord (Assurbanipal), from your servant

    May the gods Assur, Samas, and Marduk bestow upon the lord
    of all kings, the king of all countries, my lord, happiness, wellbeing,
    a long life, and a long reign.

    The day I left the Sea Land, I dispatched five hundred men,
    subjects of Your Majesty, to the town of Zabdanu with the order:
    "Guard the outlying command posts in the region of Zabdanu,
    make attacks against Elam, kill, and take booty." When they
    made an attack against the town of Irgidu—that town is four
    hours' march this side of Susa—they killed the sheikh of the
    Yasil tribe, Ammaladin, two of his brothers, three of his uncles,
    and two of his nephews; also Dalail, the son of Abiyadf, and two
    hundred citizens of that town, and, although this was a long distance
    for them, they took 150 prisoners. As soon as the sheikhs of
    the town Lahiru and the Nugud tribesmen saw that my police
    troops were making more and more attacks on the other side,
    their (own), they became afraid, pledged themselves, and entered
    into an agreement of vassalage with Musezib-Marduk, my sister's
    son, a servant of Your Majesty, to whom I have entrusted an
    outlying command post, declaring: "We are now servants of the
    King of Assyria." They started moving all their available bowmen,
    [joined] with Musezib-Marduk, and marched against Elam. They
    put their hands on their [break], they arrived at the command
    post which I has assigned (to them), and I sent them on to Your
    Majesty, together with the booty(?) they had taken. They have the
    following news about Elam: "Ummanigas, son of Amedirra, has
    rebelled against King Ummanhaldasu, and the country from the
    town of Hudhud as far as the town of Hadanu has sided with him.
    Ummanhaldasu has assembled his armed forces. Now they are
    encamped opposite each other along the river."

    The man Iqisa, whom I have sent to the palace, knows all about
    their news; one should question him in the palace.

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