The further we go back in time, the easier it is to forget that ancient people were, well, people. The most well-known texts of the Ancient Near East are royal inscriptions, decrees, treaties, hymns, inventory lists, and other documents that don’t tell us much about everyday life. Once in a while, a more relatable text will be discovered and shared around: most of Tumblr has heard about Ea-Naṣir and his subpar copper, for example.
But what most of Tumblr doesn’tknow is that this kind of text is far from rare. The correspondances of Mesopotamian merchants are abundantly preserved, and yes, that involves a lot of complaining, bargaining and justifying. And these texts are not alone! From letters to prayers to dream diaries, the ancient Near East is full of small glimpses into the private lives of its inhabitants.
Curious to see some examples? Let me take you to Anatolia (now Turkey) in the second millennium BC.
Enter Lamassī. Lamassī is the wife of an Assyrian merchant who regularly travels to Kaneš, in Anatolia, to trade. She is involved in her husband’s business, often sending him goods to sell, and she can even write. Of course, she isn’t just a businesswoman. She’s also a parent, and like most parents, her children come first:
As for why I didn’t send you the textiles you wrote about, please don’t be angry. Because the little girl is grown up, I had to make a pair of thick textiles for the chariot. I also made some for the household members and for the children. That’s why I wasn’t able to send you the textiles.** (CCT 3, 20)
Here we can glimpse a very mundane event: Lamassī’s little daughter isn’t so little anymore, so she has to use the textiles that were meant to be sold for “the chariot” (possibly involved in a coming of age ceremony) instead. Notice how she jumped on the occasion to give textiles to the rest of the household as well!
Next, let’s move further north and fast forward a few centuries. Tarḫunmiya is a scribe working for the Hittite king: one of his responsibilities is to write the king’s letters to the town of Tabikka. Many of these letters have small sections at the end, where Tarḫunmiya writes his own message to the scribe at the other end. At least once, it’s to ask for a bit of help:
Thus speaks Tarḫunmiya: tell Uzzu, my dear brother: may the Gods maintain your life, and may they keep you well and safe. My stylus from the scribal school is broken/lost. My dear brother, send me a stylus from the scribal school. (Mşt. 75/111)
It’s unclear what exactly happened to Tarḫunmiya’s stylus, as the verb he uses literally means “to perish”. Either way, he’s in a sticky situation - what’s a scribe without his writing instrument?
Moving away from letters, one of the most interesting collections of Anatolian texts we have is dream accounts. Many of these can be attributed to Puduḫepa, one of the most - if not the most - powerful Hittite queens. She’s known for being a shrewd, diplomatic and resourceful politician. But some of her dreams reveal quite a different picture:
And the horses […] were going to trample me. I, the queen, sat down and I started to scream. The horse drivers kept laughing at me. In the end, they did lead those horses away. None of them trampled me. None of them peed on me. (CTH 584)
Here Puduḫepa finds herself in a nightmare we can all recognise: something embarrassing has happened and everyone is laughing. Here she’s not Puduḫepa, queen of Ḫatti - she’s just a human being, vulnerable and afraid of being humiliated.
Lastly, let me take you to the bedside of an old man. His name is Ḫattušili, and he is the founder of the Hittite kingdom; but now he’s sick, and he has called a scribe to write down some last instructions before he dies. The ending doesn’t sound like the conclusion of a political document. Rather, it’s probably Ḫattušili’s confused, anxious last words:
I’m making my words known to you: wash me well, hold me to your breast, yes, to your breast… Protect me from the earth. (CTH 6)
A scribe took this down in the 17th century BC - probably without even expecting to hear it - and thirty-eight centuries later, we can still read it. The whisper of a dying king.
Because even in the Bronze Age, people were people. History has always been human.