Iris Kamil

Linguist and Assyriologist

Mesopotamian Letters Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime

History can sometimes feel very far away and hard to grasp, especially when it focusses on complex political affairs or dry economic developments.

When we look at the sources, while monumental inscriptions and economic texts are a fantastic and very interesting source for the historically interested, they are less ideal for the study of the more ‘natural’ registres of ancient languages. Undoubtedly, the closest we will ever get to understanding what spoken language might have looked like in ancient times—regardless of which language we are looking at—is by looking at personal correspondences. These can range from letters of personal nature, to business correspondences, or even to letters between officials and royals. Especially when strong emotions are involved, we can almost always expect the authors to slip up as they dictated their messages to their scribes.

Reading letters of ancient peoples is a wonderful way to connect with ancient times. Human kind has always had its problems and these problems have always been the same—from 2000 BCE to 2000 CE! To illustrate, I present to you here a list of my personal favourite Akkadian letters, I recommend every history fan should read.

8. On the Notion of Emotion

7. Hammurabi and his sister

6. The Assyrian Colonies


5. Welcome Back to: “Is it a Love Letter or a Business Order?”

Burakum was a Middle Assyrian man, unsure of the nature in which to write to a certain Aḫate, daughter of a man named Qibi-ili. Was he a flatterer who wanted to order some copper or was he genuinely close to and cared for her? We might never know. But she really must have had beautiful eyes!

This letter was edited and copied by Veysel Donbaz 2000 GS Cagni p. 240ff.

1 a-na DUMU.MÍ Qí-bi-DINGIR

2 qí-bí-ma

3 um-ma mBu-ra-kum-ma

4 a-na ku-a-ši lu-ú šul-mu

5 an-na-ka a-na ya-a-ši [šul]-mu

6 ma-an-nu IGI.MEŠ SIG5 [l]i-m[u-ur]

7 ù da-ba-ab-ki DÙG.G[A]

8 liš-me a-na a-ma-ri-ki

9 [li-b]i ma-di-iš

10 [i-ḫa-ša-ḫ]a-an-ni

11 [………] qa a-di

12 mEN-i-di-in

13 ul-te-bi-la-ak-ki

14 NIN a-ḫa-a-te

15 lu 2 ni-gal-la URUDU

16 ù lu UD.KA.BAR

17 NIN a-ḫa-a-te

18 lu tu-še-bi-la

19 NIN a-ḫa-a-te

20 ṭé-im-ša

21 šul-ma-an-ša

22 lu taš-pu-ra

“To Qibi-ili


“Thus: Burakum

“Good health for you (may you be in good health)

“Here, I am fine.

“Who may see your beautiful eyes?

“And your nice words

“(Who) may hear them? To see you

“My heart has a great

“Desire to see you.

“…… as for (the matter of)

“Bel-iddin, … liter of …

“He has sent to you

“(My) Lady Aḫate

“Two sickles be made of copper

“Or bronze

“(My) Lady Aḫate

“May send to me

“(My) Lady Aḫate

“Her letter

“(About) her wellbeing

“May send/write (to me).”

4. Ea-nāṣir’s Response to a Complaint

When people think of Babylonian letters, they typically think of the complaint tablet to Ea-naṣir, which continuously makes the rounds in social media. But what most people do not know, is that Ea-naṣir was notorious for trading off merchandise “of poor quality,” and so it comes as no surprise that on multiple occasions, he had to defend himself or try to otherwise appease unhappy customers. Lucky for us, not only did we find many of the multiple complaints he got, but some of his responses attested, too.

Ea-naṣir was in many ways the archetype of the corrupt businessman we envision and know still today. Although he was primarily a copper merchant, he also engaged in various side-hustles such as speculations in real estate and garden lands, deals in second-hand clothing (#sustainablefashion), usury, etc. So we are not too surprised that in his sleazy ways, he also found sleazy words to calm his customers’ anger or frustration with the situations he put them in. Let us now look at one such response to a distressed client. This is UET V 72 (commentary below):

Transcription adapted from Cdli, translation adapted from Rients de Boer, ARCHIBAB (accessed 11/10/2022)

1. a-na šu-mu-um-li-ib-ši

2. ù zabar-du8

3. qí-bí-ma

4. um-ma é-a-na-ṣir

5. ù dingir-šu-illat-sú-ma

6. a-na ša mku-ru-um

7. ù e-ri-sú-um-ma-tim

8. ša i-li-ku-nim

9. la ta-pa-la-ha

10. ú-še-ri-ib-šu-nu-ti-ma

11. i-na é dutu ú-ta-mi-šu-nu-ti-ma

12. um-ma šu-nu-ú-ma a-na a-wa-tim ši-na-ti

13. la ni-il-li-kam-ma

14. a-na ṣí-bé-ti-ni-ma

15. lu ni-il-<li>-kam

16. um-ma a-na-ku-ma a-ša-pa-ar-<ku>-nu-ši-im

17. ú-la i-qí-pu-ni-in-<ni>-ma


1. um-ma šu-ú#-[ma …]

2. it-ti dšu-mu-um#-[li-ib-ši]

3. e-ṣé-il-ma um-ma [šu-ú-ma]

4. li-tam a-di a-na tab-ba-e-šu# […]

5. el-qú-ma at-ta ú-la x […]

6. ia-ši-im ú-la# ta#-di-in-[ma]

7. iš-tu i-na-an-na a-na u4 3-kam

8. a-na larsaki a-al-la-kam

9. ù a-na e-re-sú-um-ma-tim

10. aq-bi-i-ma um-ma a-na-ku-ma#

11. mi-nu-um it-ta-ka

12. um-ma a-na-ku-ma a-na lú-urudašen-na

13. it-ti mddingir-ga-mil zabar-du8

14. a-li-ik-ma mi-ṭi-e-ti

15. li-qí-a-am-ma i-na iri é-nim-ma

16. šu#-ku-un

17. ù a-na# x-na-ti-ka la te-gi4

18. ù gu-ba-ri ša ni-iq-bu#-ma#

19. a-na a-wi-le-e

20. [x] ad-di-in


1. [la] ta-sa-la-ah

2. [x x] e-li-šu-nu ri-ši

3. la ta-šu-uš

4. ni-al-la-ka-ku

“To Šumu-libši

“And the coppersmith


“Thus: Ea-ṣir

“And Ilušu-illassu

“Concerning that of Kurum

“And Erissum-matum

“Who went (~have come (here))

“Do not fear!

“I have made them enter and

“In the temple of Šamaš I made them swear

“In their words: ‘Concerning these matters

“‘We did not come,

“‘But for our business

“‘We shall be coming.’

“I said in my words: ‘I will write to them’

“They did not believe me and


“(Kurum said) in his words:

“‘With Šumum-libši

“‘I had a quarrel.’ In his words

“‘… to his partner’

“‘I took and you (did) not’

“‘To me you did not give’

“Within three days

“I will come to Larsa.

“Also, to Erissum-matum

“I spoke in my words:

“‘What is your sign?’

“(I said) in my words: ‘To the tinker

“‘With Ilum-gamil the coppersmith

“‘Go and the missing

“‘Metal take and in Al-Enimma

“‘Place (it).

“‘Also, do not be negligent about your …’

“Moreover, the ingots about which we talked

“To the gentlemen

“I gave them.


“Do not be critical

“Claim … from them

“Do not worry!

We will come to you.”

Regarding Ea-nāṣir’s argument tactics, it seems that the problem concerns a transaction involving questionable third parties whose loyalties and intentions were not entirely clear to the sender. Now, Ea-naṣir tries to placate the first worry with the oath sworn in the temple of Šamaš, seemingly a valid solution. The second worry or claim made against him appears to be more complicated, and we see Ea-naṣir redirecting the ‘blame’ right back at the sender (ll. 17-20). Ea-naṣir apparently did try to do whatever the sender had asked him to, but he couldn’t! Because the third party had gotten in a quarrel with the sender, so really it is the sender’s fault, not Ea-naṣir’s!

On a different note, I find the oath in the temple of Šamaš especially interesting here. According to Oppenheim (JAOS 74), oaths of this nature were always made in the temple of Šamaš, even in Ur (note that the two biggest temple complexes in Ur were dedicated to Sîn/Nanna and An(u), not to Šamaš!).

3. The letters of Rib-Ḫadda, the most annoying king of the Levant

2. The Correspondence between Šamši-Addu and Yasmaḫ-Addu

We are back to Mari, this time with a very personal letter. If you are younger and your parents annoy you with chores and life-planning and everything one wishes not to think about, then reading this correspondence, you will think: “Man, some things never change!” If you are already a little older, perhaps a parent, and your children will not do what they are supposed to do, but are instead lazy and inobedient, then reading this correspondence, you will think: “Man, some things never change!” Anyways, here are my two favourites from the ARM corpus: Šamši-Addu and Yasmaḫ-Addu.

Šamši-Addu was the Amorite king of Upper Mesopotamia, a kingdom he more or less unified through a series of successful conquests. Originally the inheritor of the Amorite throne in Ekallatum he was forced to flee the city following an attack by Ešnunna.

It is a tale as old as time. Šamši-Addu had two sons. Išme-Dagan and Yasmaḫ-Addu. His oldest, Išme-Dagan, was a poster child. A competent conqueror and a responsible ally, his father gave him Ekallatum and the city of Aššur to rule. As for the younger Yasmaḫ-Addu … well. Yasmaḫ-Addu was sent to rule Mari, a very important conquest of Šamši-Addu, as geographically, the kingdom of Mari covered some very important trade routes. But Yasmaḫ-Addu was not quite up to the task. Instead, he rather enjoyed the sweet things in life: ANYTHING but work.

HUNDREDS of letters testify to Šamši-Addu’s great dissatisfaction. From rants about his son’s incompetence to comparisons to his perfect brother to micro-managing step-by-step instructions on how to handle basic tasks: we have it all on clay. As I’m currently working on Mari, I had the pleasure of reading them all; an incredibly funny experience. One time I read a letter by Šamši-Addu in which he instructed Yasmaḫ-Addu on a task. The very next letter, he wrote to him: “Nevermind, I already did it myself.” So let us look at one of the funniest letters we know of. This is ARM 1 73:

  1. A-na Ia-ás-ma-aḫ-d[adad]
  2. qí-[í]-m[a]
  3. um-ma dutu-ši-d[adad]
  4. a-[b]u-ka-a-[m]a
  5. tu[p-p]a-ka ú ṭup-pa-am dSin-ti-ri
  6. ú-[š]a-bi-la-kum tu-ša-bi-lam-ma eš-me
  7. aš-šum ši-im ša ḫa-la-aṣ Tu-ut-tu-ulki
  8. ša ana we-du-ti-ka ta-at-ta-ab-[ba-lu]
  9. ta-aš-pu-ra am
  10. ḫa-al-ṣu-um šu-ú ú-ul ḫa-la-as-[s]ú (!)
  11. še-um ša te-el-qú-ú ú-ul bi-la-a[s-s]u
  12. i-na MU 1 KAM kaspam 1 biltam 2 bilâtim kaspam ša i-ka-ṣa-[ru-m]a(?)
  13. i-na MU-TÚM-šu ú-ṭí-iḫ-ḫa-am
  14. a-ia-nu-um i-le-eq-qé-e-em
  15. ú-ul i-na še-im šamnim ú kurun[nim]
  16. a-na kaspim it-ta-na-[d]i-in-ma
  17. kaspam ša-a-ti i-ka-ṣa-ra-am-ma ú-t[í-iḫ-ḫa-am]
  18. aš-šum ki-a-am ša-pa-ra-am an-ni-ini i[š-p]u-[r]u
  19. tu-ša ḫu-ur-ru-um ša kas[pim]
  20. ina ḫa-al-ṣí-šu i-ba-aš-ši-ma
  21. kaspum e-le-qé-a-am-ma ub-ba-lam
  22. ú-ul i-na še-im šamnim ú kurunnim
  23. kaspam ša-a-ti i-ka-ṣa-ra-am-ma ub-ba-lam
  24. i-na-an-na du-up-pí-ir ha-al-ṣa-am ša-a-t[i]
  25. i-na qa-ti-[i]a
  26. [i]š-tu […]
  27. [ṣ]a-a[l(?) …]
  28. Ú […]
  29. […]
  30. […]
  31. uš-[…]
  32. x [ x x …]
  33. l[i-i]l-li-ik ù bi-l[a- …]
  34. a[k]-ku-šu-im-ma […]
  35. ú dSin-ti-ri ḫa-[la-as-sú li-wa]-e-er
  36. ú at-ta i-na ḫa-a[l-ṣí-ka(?) …]
  38. [x x x]-da-nim i-n[a …]
  39. š[a e]-li-ka ṭà-bu […]
  40. ú an-ni-e-tim dSi[n-ti-ri …]
  41. li-ib-ba-ka la i(l)-n[a(!)-aḫ-ḫi-id]
  42. ú k[a]-ti ad-ma-ti [ni-it-tu-na-ar]-r[i-k]a
  43. ṣé-eḫ-re-e-[e]t(!) [ú-ul e]ṭ(!)-le-e-[e]t
  44. ú-ul ša-ar-tum i-n[a l]i-ti(!)-ka
  45. ad-ma-ti bīti-ka la tu-wa-a-ar
  46. a-ḫa-ka-a ú-ul ta-na-aṭ-[ṭ]à-a[l]
  47. ša um-m[a-n]a-tim ra-ap-ša-tim ú-wa-e-[ru]
  48. ú [at]-ta é-kál-la-ka bīt-ka wu-e-[er]
  49. ṭup-[pi] an-ni-a-am Ta-ri-im-Sa-ki-im
  50. ma-a[ḫ-r]i-ka li-iš-me-[m]a
  51. at-ta ú Ta-ri-im-Sa-ki-im
  52. ši-ta-la-ma 1 mša-pí-ṭám
  53. 1 awīlam a-bu bītim ta-[ak-la-am]
  54. x x-[m]a(?) [x] na-ad-d[i(?)
  55. i-na ḫa-al-ṣi-im š[a-a-ti
  56. ḫa-al-ṣa-am ša-a-ti
  57. ša pí-ka ú qa-bi-ka li-p[u-úš]
  58. ú dSin-ta-ri a-na ḫa-a[l-ṣí-im ša-a-ti]
  59. [l]a i-ṭe4-eḫ-ḫe

1. The “Princess Do Your Homework!” Letter

My favourite letter of all time, is this letter sent to the Assyrian crown-princess, Liballi-Šarrat, wife of Assurbanipal, by her sister-in-law, Šeruʾa-eṭirat.

ABL 308, photo taken by CDLI staff. Copyright:

It reads as follows (translation and transcription taken/adapted from ORACC, SAAo 16 28;, accessed 11/10/22):

1 a-bat DUMU.MÍ—LUGAL a-na

2 Í.URU.ŠÀ—URU—šar-rat

3 a-ta-a ṭup-pi-ki la ta-šaṭ-ṭi-ri

4 IM.GÍD-ki la ta-qab-bi-i

5 ú-la-a i-qab-bi-ú

6 ma-a an-ni-tu-u NIN-sa

r1 ša MÍ.dEDIN—e-ṭè-rat

r2 DUMU.MÍ GAL-tú ša É—UŠ-MEŠ-te

r3 ša maš-šur—NIR.GÁL—DINGIR-MEŠ—GIN-in-ni

r4 MAN GAL MAN dan-nu MAN ŠÚ MAN KUR—aš-šur

r5 ù at-ti ma-rat kal-lat GAŠAN—É ša maš-šur—DÙ—A


r7 ša maš-šur—PAB—AŠ MAN KUR—

Word of the king’s daughter to


(Why) do you not write your tablets?

(Why) do you not do your homework?

If you don’t, they will say:

“Is this the sister

“Of Šeruʾa-eṭirat,

“The eldest daughter of the Succession Palace

“Of Aššur-etel-ilani-mukinni,

“The great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria?”

Yet you are (only) a daughter-in-law — the lady of the house of Assurbanipal,

The great crown prince designate

Of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria!

%d bloggers like this: