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Old Babylonian Letters


The Old Babylonian period (ca. 1900-1600 BC) comprises the first large corpus of Akkadian letters sent between rulers, officials, and private individuals. Although highly formalized these messages contain invaluable data for everyday vernacular. Besides a huge amount of excavated material, which mainly originates from Mari on the Middle Euphrates and some Babylonian sites, great quantities of letters came into cuneiform collections via antiquities dealers. Letters show often archival links to other administrative and legal documents, although they are usually treated quite separately. The data gained from economic records helps, however, to establish identifications of individuals more precisely. This kind of data is often shrouded from view in the messages, for mentioned individuals and even the two main parties of a written communication are generally not indicated by more than their name and/or occupation. This, in particular, demonstrates the quite narrow social context, in which letters have been sent from one individual or institution to another.

Basic Typology

Written messages in the Old Babylonian period are quite uniform and follow specific protocols. These rules have been established in the school curriculum, where composing a letter was among the tasks for the apprentice scribe. Though rare in comparison with other school exercises, such practice letters do exist in our record, but are not always straightforward to identify. One such letter is in the Cotsen Collection of Cuneiform Tablets. SC 3, 004 contains on its reverse a catch line with the starting lines of another letter. This is a good starting point for looking onto the layout of Old Babylonian letters.

The usual format is to start a letter with the preposition ana followed by the recipient of the message. This recipient might be an individual either referred to by his or her name or the occupation respectively the official title (e.g., rabiānum, "mayor"). Usually the second line contains an imperative qibi-ma, "speak". This is directed towards the messenger conveying the message and therefore reading its content. Last but not least the address is concluded by the addressee's name and/or title, which is introduced by the particle umma, "as follows". Of course a letter can be addressed as well as received by a group of individuals. They might be referred to by a collective term (e.g., šībūt ālim, "elders of the city") or individually. OECT 3, 1 belongs to the famous archive of Šamaš-hāzir, an high official in Larsa during the reign of Hammurabi of Babylon. The first three lines read as follows:

(1) a-na dutu-ha-zi-ir
(2) qi2-bi2-ma
(3) um-ma ha-am-mu-ra-pi2-ma

(1) To Šamaš-hāzir (2) speak, (3) as follows (says) Hammurabi.

Rulers writing to their subordinates usually leave it with the address and go directly over to business. But it was the good tone between individuals of either the same or different rank to include a blessing, which follows directly after the address. Besides personal names mentioned in the address local customs often influence the type of blessing and, in particular, the choice of deities invoked in it. Thus, a letter composed in Nippur frequently invokes the deities Enlil and Ninurta, a letter from Ur might call on Sîn and Ningal, and often Šamaš and Marduk are mentioned in blessings. Blessings often seem to be made up of buildings blocks:

  • Šamaš u Marduk liballitūka
  • Šamaš u Marduk dāriš ūmī liballitūka
  • Šamaš u Marduk aššumiya dāriš ūmī liballitūka
  • etc.

Blessings might be accompanied by information about the well-being of the letter's sender and the wish to receive news about the well-being of the recipient as well.

At first glance the body of the letter is not as formulized. However, there are some typological features such as the introduction of topics or direct speeches, which follow certain customs. The most common way to introduce a topic is the preposition aššum, for instance in TCL 17, 48: (4) aš-šum dna-bi-um-šu-ul-li-ma-an-ni (5) s,u2-ha-ri-ia aš-pu-ra-ak-ki-im-ma, "Regarding my boy Nabium-šullimanni I wrote to you." The letter writer may also refer to a past event by using some temporal adverb such as amšali, "yesterday," or šaddaqdi, "last year."

Sample Text

Address: (1) a-na da-mi-iq-damar.utu (2) qi2-bi2-ma (3) um-ma šu-mi-er-s,e-tim-ma

(1-3) To Damiq-Marduk speak, as follows Šum-ersetim.

Blessing: (4) dutu u3 damar.utu li-ba-al-li-t,u2-ka

(4) May Šamaš and Marduk keep you in good health.

Body of the letter:

(5) ša gešma2 santan (6) ma2.DU.DU dumu ib-ni-dmar.tu (7) be-el pi2-ha-tim u2-ul il-li-kam#

Overview of corpus

More than five thousand Old Babylonian letters have been recovered. A majority of the letters originating from Babylonia are easily accessible through the series Altbabylonische Briefe (AbB) introduced by Fritz R. Kraus. This series limits itself to editions of letter corpora and does usually not group them by their archival nature. The AbB volumes contain approximately 2,700 individual letters in cuneiform collections in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

To this already sizeable corpus the rich text finds from Mari on the Middle Euphrates and other sites in Syria need to be added.

(return to Text Typologies)
(return to Letters from Mesopotamia)

Go here for Old Babylonian letters in the CDLI.

Go here for Early Old Babylonian letters in the CDLI.

old_babylonian_letters.txt · Last modified: 2015/09/14 10:00 (external edit)
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