Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2003
Issue No. 659
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Ancient peace

Part of a cuneiform tablet showing diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and the Hittites has been unearthed near the Delta village of Al-Qantir, reports Nevine El-Aref

On the morning of 1 September, when the German archaeological mission of Hildesheim was clearing a dump next to a kiln used to produce glass near the ancient capital of Per-Ramses in the reign of Ramses II, a 5x5cm fragment of diplomatic correspondence came to light.

"This is an important discovery because it adds to the corpus of diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and the Hittite court after the signing of the famous Peace Treaty in the Year 21 of Ramses II's reign," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said. The tablet was found unexpectedly beside a 2m wide kiln dating to the Late Period. "Possibly it was thrown up from an earlier level," Hosni commented.

One of the faces of the tablet, which is burnt to dark red at its surface and has a red-orange inner core, is almost completely eroded, with only two or three signs preserved. The other shows the ends of 11 lines, eight of which are very well conserved.

Early studies of the wedge-shaped lines that make up the pictographic characters used in the writing, which developed in Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium, revealed that the text was written in Sumerian, most likely with the Hittite style of signs. "This means that the tablet was probably sent from the Hittite King Hattusili II to the Egyptian king Ramses II in Per-Ramses (1290-1224 BC)," said Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

Initial reading of the signs has led to several suggestions for the possible contents of the letter. Edgar Pusch, field director of the mission, said that the title "Lord of the Lands" was legible but the word "land" was repeated, while the plural of the sign MES (denoting Pharaoh) was also shown, which means that the title could be "the Lord of the Two Lands". A part of Ramses II's name is also written on the tablet while, from lines two to seven, phrases from the Hittite-Egyptian peace treaty appear.

"Therefore, the letter probably relates to that famous treaty," Pusch suggested. He said that to have more details on this tablet it must be compared with three others. First with the Amarna Tablets, which comprise the diplomatic correspondence of the Amenhotep III, IV and Tutankhamun with contemporary rulers north of Egypt. Second with the correspondence of the Royal Court of Ramses II with the Hittite Court of Hattusili III found at Hattusas- Boghaskoy in Turkey -- and which, Pusch explained, were written in Babylonian and concerned diplomatic marriages, matters of trade and general diplomatic affairs between both countries. "The Hittite correspondence from Boghaskoy is of a special interest because it comprises originals sent from Egypt as well as copies of letters sent to Egypt," he said.

The third source for comparison is the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Hattie, its Babylonian version again coming from Hattusas. There is a hieroglyphic version of this in the temple of Karnak.

The Hildesheim mission has been working in the area since 1980 in a partnership with the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo. Their work has proved extremely rewarding. They have discovered a vast industrial area for bronze production, workshops for the production and reparation of chariots and their outfits, and a royal horse stud farm with stabling for more than 480 horses of Ramses II and III.

Pusch explained that, beginning in 1996, magnetic surveys have been carried out in the region in cooperation with the Archaeological Department of Bavaria, Munich. These cover an area of more than 1.5 sq kms and have revealed, besides living quarters and palaces, an extensive area of buildings featuring architecture so far unknown in Egypt. Preliminary evaluation gave hope that one of these building might be a Hittite temple.

The last archaeological season revealed parts of an extensive structure measuring about 40m x25m on an elevated platform. The face of the building suggests it was lined with limestone slabs decorated in fine relief by Ramses II. Restoration and reconstruction of the fragments are currently being undertaken.

The stratigraphy of the site is under consideration and studies so far suggest that the building was in use for at least two periods: the time of Ramses II and his successors Ramses III.

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