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A map of the southern Levant in antiquity with Eqron about 20 km inland from and a bit north of Ashkelon and 30 km west of Jerusalem

If one were reduced to a single atlas of the ancient world as I am, this one would not be a bad choice. From Anna-Maria Wittke et al., Historische Atlas der antiken Welt (J.B. Metzler Stuttgart 2012) Seite 45 Karte B.

Sometimes life is really like a romance. One of the oldest letters in Aramaic to survive from Egypt goes like this:

(1) To the lord of kings pharaoh; your subject Adon king of E[qrom wishes you well. May … the lady of] (2) heaven and earth and the lord of the heavens, [great] god, [make the throne of the lord of kings] (3) pharaoh like the days of heaven and seed [… Your subject wishes you to know that the forces] (4) of the king of Babylon have come and have reached Apeq and … (5) they have seized and brought … with all … (6) because the lord of kings pharaoh knows that his subject [cannot stand alone he begs you] (7) to send a force and rescue us and not abandon us. [If the lord of kings pharaoh does this,] (8) your subject will remember this kindness and this princeling … [If the king of Babylon takes it, he will establish] (9) a governor in the land, and alter the record …

(tr. Manning after the text in TADE, as I am only a beginner I urge readers with a serious interest to find a professional translation while keeping in mind that this edition of the Aramaic is different from some earlier ones)

One of pharaoh’s scribes in Egypt dutifully added a note in demotic on the back which mentions the “lady of Eqrom,” but pharaoh’s answer is unknown. While most ancient letters are the sort of text which only a special kind of nerd could love, I think that this one has potential. Scholars call it the Adon letter after its author or the Saqqara papyrus after the place where it was found in 1942. Although I don’t expect that any of the excavators were locked in a tomb full of snakes, conducting an excavation in quasi-independent Egypt while the Afrika Korps dashed back and forth between Tripoli and Alexandria must have had some excitement.

I can’t give much help with the geography. Apeq was a common name but the letter might refer to Tel Afek near Acre on the northern coast (BiblePlaces.com, for the general area see Mount Karmel on the map above top left). Eqron was inland about a third of the way from the port of Ashkelon to the old hill-town of Jerusalem, in the lower left of the map above. As page 55 of the same atlas shows, at this time most of the Levant was more or less subject to the kings of Babylon. The editors want to associate this letter with the wars of Nebuchadnezzar against the pharaohs of Egypt, perhaps with the campaign which Babylonian sources record in the year 604/3 BCE.

One of my old professors in Victoria noticed that for the whole of the “middle passage” from the Late Bronze Age to the nineteenth century, there were regular wars between the lord of Egypt and the lord of the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Again and again one side would storm along the Levant and cross the seas to Cyprus, or wash their weapons in the enemy’s river, and again and again after a few years or a few reigns the ebbing tide in the affairs of men tore their furthest conquests out of their hands. About most of these wars we know very little, but every time the people living in the lands in between heard the trumpets, looked to their patrons and their rivals, sent some hasty letters, and decided how to duck and weave to live through the fighting and maybe gain some advantage over their neighbours. Most of their stories are lost forever, but sometimes the Egyptian sands have preserved the complaints of a local king or the sycophancy of a city governor. And that is better than nothing.

Further Reading: Ada Yardeni and Bezalel Porten ed. and tr., Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Egypt, document A1.1 (Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1986) [publisher’s website; free transcription of the Aramaic at the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon number 21550], Stephen Ruzicka, Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BCE. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2012), William M. Moran tr., The Amarna Letters (London, 1992) [Bookfinder link]. The atlas is currently available for about EUR 40 courtesy of many fine online bookstores.