Bowing and scraping in the Ancient Near East: an investigation into obsequiousness in the Amarna Letters

Morris, Ellen F.

The single most valuable source of information for understanding Egypt’s administration of its northern empire during the Amarna period is a corpus of roughly 350 cuneiform tablets, known collectively as the “Amarna letters.” These documents, which come mostly from an archive found at Tell el-Amarna in the 1880s, were exchanged between the Egyptian court and Near Eastern rulers of polities both large and small. Although the chronology is still debated, the letters are thought to span a period of at most three decades in the latter half of the fourteenth century b.c.—between the 32nd year of Amenhotep III and the 4th year of Tutankhamun.1

While certain aspects of these letters have been extensively studied, their potential to illuminate the internal structure of the empire at this time has by no means been exhausted. As I hope to demonstrate herein, the results of a systematic study of the greeting formulas used by Egypt’s vassals when addressing the pharaoh can reveal a great deal about the varying degrees of political control within the Egyptian empire. After a brief description of the methodology employed in this study, I will discuss the clustering in social rank that I believe is discernible among the different geographic areas of Egypt’s northern empire. Whether these proposed rankings may potentially shed light on the preparation of individual treaties between the Egyptian state and particular vassals is the subject of the concluding section of this article.

Geographic Areas


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Also Published In

Journal of Near Eastern Studies

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
Published Here
June 13, 2018