Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi
Mon Jul 12, 2010 11:26 AM ET
Archaeologists in Jerusalem have unearthed the most ancient written document ever found in the Holy City – a tiny fragment of a letter thought to be addressed to Akhenaten, the “heretic” pharaoh who ruled Egypt during the 14th century B.C.
Discovered outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the document consists of a minuscule clay fragment — about one square inch — covered with cuneiform script in ancient Akkadian.
Thought to date back some 3,400 years, the fragment appears to have been part of a tablet from the royal archives.
Indeed, the script on the chip, which includes the words “you,” “you were,” “later,” “to do” and “them,” is of a very high level, according to Wayne Horowitz, a scholar of Assyriology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology.
“It was written by a highly skilled scribe that in all likelihood prepared tablets for the royal household of the time,” said Horowitz, who deciphered the script with colleague Takayoshi Oshima of the University of Leipzig, Germany.
The fragment is believed to be a contemporary of the 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century at Amarna in Egypt in Akhenaten’s archives.
The son of Amenhotep III and also the father of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten (1353-1336 B.C.) is known as the “heretic” pharaoh who introduced a monotheistic religion by overthrowing the pantheon of the gods to worship the sun god Aton.
The Amarna archives include tablets sent to Akhenaten by the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria, and provide details about the complex relationships between them.
Among these tablets are six that are addressed from Abdi-Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jerusalem.
“The tablet fragment in Jerusalem is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt,” said Eilat Mazar, the Hebrew University archaeologist who carried the excavation.
“The find testifies the importance of Jerusalem as a major city in the Late Bronze Age, long before its conquest by King David,” Mazar said.
The oldest known text previously found in Jerusalem was a tablet unearthed in the Shiloah water tunnel in the same area. Celebrating the completion of the tunnel, it dated back to the eight century B.C.
This tiny clay fragment predates that tablet by about 600 years.
Picture: Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.