El Amarna letter 35: Early trade relations between Egypt and Cyprus

The El Amarna letters (EA) are valuable textual evidence especially when investigating trade and maritime connections in the eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age. Careful examination of their content enables the archaeologist to draw conclusions on geographical, political and socio-economic conditions of that era and allows him to compare and accord them with the archaeological record. EA 35, which is an example of correspondence between the king of Alashiya and the Pharaoh of Egypt, yields not just details on the geopolitical and economic situation of Cyprus in the Late Bronze Age, but also invaluable information on the size and merit of traded items and the diplomatic status between those kingdoms.

El Amarna tablet 35
El Amarna tablet 35


Information about El Amarna 35

The clay tablet EA 35 found in El Amarna, Egypt in 1887, measuring 5,75 x 3,875 inches, was written in Akkadian cuneiform around 1375 B.C and was acquired by Sir Ernest A. T. Wallis Budge for the British Museum in 1888. The omission of the names of the king of Egypt and of the king of Alashiya in EA 33-39 indicates that the names of both rulers were well-known on either side. At the beginning of the letter in line 10 the king of Alashiya apologises for the low amount of 500 talent of copper he has sent. However, it is still the largest shipment recorded in any of the El Amarna tablets. Nergal* is mentioned as the divine force behind the shortage of shipment and is made responsible for the death of “all“ the people in the kings land which left no one to mine copper. Further along in the letter, the Alashiyan king asks for silver, an ox, oil, and an eagle conjurer, and finally politely demands an outstanding payment for already delivered wood from his lands. To the end of his letter he advises the king not to contact the kings of Hattie and Šanher, which implies that Alashiya has not sworn loyalty to the Hittite king and tries to manipulate allegiances.

The Cyprus-Alashiya question

The conformity of ancient Alashiya with the island of Cyprus has been widely accepted among scholars although reference to other areas, such as S- or E-Anatolia, N-Syria and Cilicia still remain. Through elimination and comparison of the textual evidence of 8 El Amarna letters and Hittie and Ugaritic documents referring to Alashiya with the geographical, politico-social and economic position of Late Bronze Age Cyprus and the other suggested areas as well as petrographic analysis of EA 34 and 35, it has been presented convincingly that ancient Alashiya can indeed be identified with Cyprus. The El Amarna tablets (EA 33-39) attest that Alashiya was an equal among other contemporary powers such as Assyria, Mitanni and Babylon, rather than a single city. The mention of „all“ the perished workforce in Alashiya by the hand of Nergal points firstly to an identification of Alashiya with a specific mining area rather than the whole island of Cyprus – exaggeration is also a possibility – and that the people died of an unknown illness or plague. Furthermore, Alashiya was an independent state during that period and the Egyptian king was addressed as “brother“, implying equality of both rulers. Their correspondence (EA 33-39) also reveals that Alashiya was an island using ships to travel to and from Egypt, held economic and political relations to Egypt and N-Syria, produced and exported large quantities of copper, and also served as a place of exile for political prisoners.

The reference to the “small“ amount of 500 talents (7500 kg) of copper can be indicative of standards in shipments and the continuous recurrence of these assets suggests a certain trading frequency between Egypt and Cyprus. Moreover, the archaeologist can draw conclusions about the average tonnage of cargo and possible capacities of Late Bronze Age ships. The demand for payment of delivered wood indicates that their relationship was based on commerce rather than tribute and that Cyprus exported copper, wood, and ships to Egypt and obtained silver, oil, and other luxuries in return.

The advantageous locations of Cyprus along the most frequented sea routes in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as its resources of raw material and several pre-existing centres of commerce, made it an important maritime trading point in the Late Bronze Age. The demand for Cypriot copper constantly increased especially in the 14th century B.C. and provoked a more thorough form of organisation in administration and probably convergence of power on the island. The archaeological record supports several centres with mining and processing activity on Late Bronze Age Cyprus with its coastal and inland centres linked through commutation. The island maintained a relationship of socio-economic and cultural exchange with its neighbours from the Aegean to Babylonia and from Anatolia to Egypt.

The El Amarna letters provide an authentic insight into this economic and apparently friendly connection with Egypt. The two kingdoms were bound through Egypt’s need for copper, as well as Cypriot wood and ships, and Cyprus’ desire for silver and other luxury goods. The information obtained from EA 35 can add to our archaeological record of Cyprus and hopefully stimulate further investigation into Cypriot shipbuilding and its role as wood supplier. With these declarations in mind, previously recorded shipwrecks as well as their cargo in the area of interest could be perceived from a different perspective and new research questions on shipbuilding traditions on Cyprus. and ship export and distribution can be posed.

[*] God of death and the underworld


http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=327098&partId=1&searchText=amarna+letters&page=1, 02.02.2014

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[2] God of death and the underworld

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