Some of the most important facts about political events and everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia have come from the contents of surviving letters. Unlike modern versions, these were not written on paper. Rather, the words were carved onto baked clay tablets, which explains why so many of them remain intact; if they had been written on paper they would have disintegrated long ago. The bulky clay letters were often placed within “envelopes,” essentially carrying cases also made of baked clay, and delivered by servants or messengers. For the most part, letters were composed by scribes for kings, government officials, and members of the nobility. Most average people could not read and therefore had no use for letters, although there were undoubtedly occasional exceptions.
The setup of ancient Mesopotamian letters followed a standard, accepted formula, just as modern letters do. Today a typical letter begins with a salutation such as “Dear X” or “Dear Mr. X.” The standard form for a Mesopotamian salutation was “X says the following: Tell Y that . . .” or words to that effect. After the salutation, the letter writer expressed wishes for the recipient’s good health, then proceeded to get to the point of the letter. The social status of the correspondents also affected the style of the letter. If the letter writer belonged to a lower social class than the recipient, he took a subservient tone and used phrases such as “I grovel at your feet.” If the two people were social equals, the letter writer addressed the recipient as “brother.” If the letter writer was socially superior to the recipient, the tone of the letter might be very direct, even stern or cold.
There were numerous kinds of letters. One important category was royal correspondence—exchanges of letters between rulers. Hundreds of letters from the city of Mari, located on the upper Euphrates, dating to the early second millennium b. c. have survived, many of them written by King Zimri-Lim (reigned ca. 1775-1761 B. C.) and the early Assyrian monarch Shamshi-Adad (ca. 1813-1781 b. c.) and his sons. (For an example, see Ishme-Dagan.) Another important collection, the so-called Amarna Letters, consists of some 380 documents written in the 1300s b. c. by two Egyptian pharaohs to and from their royal counterparts in Hatti, Mitanni, Babylonia, and Assyria. Also, a number of later Assyrian letters were found in the ruins of the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.
Other common categories of letters included business correspondence, letters used as exercises for student scribes (generic letters copied and recopied), and those addressed to the gods. The latter were generally written by kings and were often read out loud before their assembled subjects. The ruler might thank the deity for sending divine aid or ask for guidance in a time of trouble. Letters were also written to praise the gods and thereby stay in their good graces, as in this example, addressed to the moon god, Nanna, from a Sumerian ruler:
Say to Nanna... You, who are perfect in lordship and wear the legitimate headdress, the one with gleaming appearance and noble countenance, holy form endowed lavishly with beauty: Your greatness covers all countries.
Your fearsome radiance overwhelms the holy sky. Your great awesomeness is imbued with terror. . . . You are indeed glorious from east to west. ...
You are the king of heaven and earth.
It is you who decide their fate.
Some personal letters have also survived. The following example was written by a Babylonian student named Iddin-Sin to his mother, Zinu, in the eighteenth century B. C. It proves that modern students’ concerns about looking fashionable in school are nothing new:
Say to Zinu: Thus says Iddin-Sin. May the gods Shamash, Marduk, and Ila-brat preserve you safe and sound for my sake. The clothes of the other boys [at my school] get better and better year by year. You let my clothes get plainer and plainer each year. By making my clothes plainer and fewer, you have enriched yourself. Although wool is used in our house like bread, you have made my clothes worse. Addad-iddinam’s son. . . [has just received] two new suits of clothes, but you are continually worried about merely one suit for me. While you actually brought me into the world, his mother adopted him. But the way in which his mother loves him, in such a way you do not by any means love me.
See Also: libraries; literature; Mari; writing