Assyrian Women of Letters

Features November/December 2023

4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets illuminate the personal lives of Mesopotamian businesswomen
(Attraction Art/Adobe Stock)
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The parents of an Assyrian woman named Zizizi were furious. Like many of their neighbors’ children, their daughter had dutifully wed an Assyrian merchant. Sometime around the year 1860 B.C., she had traveled with him to the faraway Anatolian city of Kanesh in modern-day Turkey, where he traded textiles. But her husband passed away and, instead of returning to her family, Zizizi chose to marry a local. “Before god, you do not treat me, your father, like a gentleman! You have left the family!” wrote her father, Imdi-ilum, using a reed stylus to press neat wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, characters into a small clay tablet. Zizizi’s mother, Ishtar-bashti, also signed the missive. Her parents did not explicitly state disapproval over Zizizi’s choice of husband—in fact, as they reminded her, they had financially supported her second marriage. But they resented the fact that after her marriage, she hadn’t done more to help their family business of exporting textiles to Anatolia.“ We are not important in your eyes,” they seethed.

The tablet would have dried in the sun near the parents’ home in the Assyrian city of Assur, on the banks of the Tigris River in modern Iraq, before being wrapped in a thin cloth and placed in a clay envelope. As was done with much Assyrian correspondence, one or both of Zizizi’s parents would have taken a stone cylinder that hung from a cord around their neck and rolled it across the envelope’s surface, creating a ribbonlike impression or seal. Her mother’s seal depicts tall deerlike figures with long horns standing upright, each one leaning on a staff. This seal was unique to Ishtar-bashti and functioned like an ID, signaling to Zizizi that the letter was indeed from her mother. Next, the tablet was packed on a donkey caravan and transported for six weeks across 750 miles of A tablet bearing an irate letter from the Assyrian merchant Imdi-ilum and his wife, Ishtar-bashti, was found in the archive of their daughter Zizizi, who lived in Kanesh. Syrian steppe, southeastern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, and, finally, the Anatolian plains to Kanesh, where Zizizi had launched a career as a successful moneylender. There, Zizizi, who had settled into her new life but perhaps still missed her parents, filed away the tablet in a private archive in her home.

Nearly 4,000 years later, archaeologists discovered the angry missive during excavations at the site of the ancient city in central Turkey, now known as Kültepe, a low, grassy plain crowned by a tall mound. More than 23,000 cuneiform tablets have been uncovered at the site. Of these, epigrapher and Assyriologist Cécile Michel of the French National Center for Scientific Research has curated and interpreted more than 300 that bear letters written by or to women who belonged to a highly literate Assyrian merchant class. “With private correspondence, we go deeper and get closer to the people,” says Michel. “It’s a contrast to official language, where there’s a big distance between what people write and what people think.”

The texts uncovered at Kültepe form the earliest significant corpus of correspondence in the world, but fewer than half of them have been translated and published. Most of the tablets were preserved by chance. Around 1835 B.C., a fire destroyed Kanesh, baking and hardening many of the clay tablets stored in the archives of private homes. While it’s possible the blaze was accidental, most researchers believe it may have been an act of war. “Kanesh was destroyed in exactly the right way,” says Gojko Barjamovic, a Harvard University Assyriologist who has focused much of his career on the tablets unearthed at Kanesh. “People got out— there are no dead people in the houses, there are no skeletons in the fire—they must have been warned. But they couldn’t take their archives with them.” These private archives contain not just personal letters from Assyrian merchants’ families, such as the one from Zizizi’s parents, but also records of financial transactions, debts, and contracts. Many tablets were unearthed during clandestine digs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then dispersed to museums all over the world. A team working at the site today, led by Ankara University archaeologist Fikri Kulakoğlu, continues to discover more.

At the time the tablets were written, the merchants’ home city of Assur was a minor independent city-state that had little regional influence—though some 1,000 years later it would lie at the heart of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire. These early Assyrian traders developed extensive commercial routes spanning from central Anatolia to the Zagros Mountains in modern-day Iran and set up trading stations in cities along the way. Cuneiform tablets that they sent home show that they kept up long-distance marriages with Assyrian women who maintained households in Assur. Some trading posts, such as the one in Kanesh, grew into entire commercial districts within foreign cities, where some Assyrian women including Zizizi came to live full-time. Michel believes that the letters from the merchants’ wives who stayed in Assur establish that they formed a unique generation of Assyrian women who stepped in to lead their households in an otherwise male-dominated society. “Their lives are organized around the fact that they’re mostly alone in Assur,” she says. “Once women are alone, they’re more documented because they participate in economic life and society.”

Assyrian tablets often open with a formulaic headline addressing the recipient and identifying the sender. Though scribes were widely employed throughout Mesopotamian history, the authors of many tablets found at Kanesh used a particular verb form that indicates they were writing the tablet in their own hand. In many instances, those writers were women. Women’s names appear as either sender or recipient in fewer than 10 percent of the letters found in Kanesh. For decades, Barjamovic says, these tablets were considered extremely difficult to translate. Tablets written by Assyrian women tend to explore topics rarely covered by their male counterparts—matters of the home and heart—and to use evocative words that are seldom found in other cuneiform writing. “The men in this society were not expected to express emotion,” Barjamovic says. “They occasionally do, and they’re admonished for it. Women could show a little more emotion.” In recent decades, as they have learned more about the vocabulary used in the tablets, Assyriologists have deciphered more of the women’s letters.

Although Assyrian legal codes from the time make clear that women were bound to their male relatives and didn’t enjoy the same freedoms as men, the Kanesh archives provide evidence that they were not always truly subservient. The tablets women wrote indicate that they served crucial roles in trading networks, managed finances and workers, and pushed against societal expectations to better their lives. “It’s their own thoughts and writing. It’s not our interpretation of them,” says Yale University Assyriologist Agnete Wisti Lassen. “There’s a deep value to that, to having their own voices heard.”

Kanesh was one of the largest settlements in the ancient world during the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C. Archaeologists believe it had a population of around 30,000 at its height. The city-state was led by a powerful king and queen who texts suggest jointly ruled the realm. Farmers sowed wheat in the autumn and barley in the spring. The Kanesh tablets show that they followed an agrarian calendar, while the Assyrian merchants operated on a system of weeks and months structured around financial matters. Though archaeologists do not know what these Anatolians called themselves, Assyrian traders called them the Nuwau. They had their own culture and worshipped gods and goddesses distinct from those celebrated in Mesopotamian cities. Centuries later, the Indo-European language they spoke would be known as the “language of Kanesh” throughout the Hittite Empire, which dominated Anatolia from about 1600 to 1200 B.C.

The royal couple of Kanesh ruled a strategic area where nearby mines provided copper that could be smelted with tin imported from the east to make bronze. As traders led caravans of donkeys packed with wares between cities, the king and queen of Kanesh collected taxes and tribute that helped fund the construction and maintenance of a massive citadel within the city walls. Excavations of a lower town outside the walls have revealed that Anatolian shopkeepers and families of workers lived there alongside Assyrian traders, whose settlement in Kanesh served as the center of commerce for the entire region. This is where the vast majority of tablets from Kanesh have been uncovered.

These tablets reflect a time in which literacy was becoming widespread among Assyrian traders. They used a type of relatively uncomplicated script, known as Old Assyrian cuneiform, characterized by simplified symbols that each represent a syllable or a whole word. Only around 120 distinct characters were used on the tablets found in Kanesh, which likely made it easier for people without formal schooling to learn on their own. “It’s very simple writing,” Michel says. “Some of the letters I’m reading, they’re written so poorly, it tells me this person has just learned on the spot and figured out how to write.”

The bulk of the tablets from Kanesh can be dated to between approximately 1900 and 1840 B.C. The sheer volume of the texts has allowed Assyriologists to reconstruct the business, religious, and personal lives of several families over the course of about three generations in minute detail. Zizizi’s father, Imdi-ilum, for instance, appears to have lived in Kanesh for some time. In his private archives discovered there, archaeologists found a letter from two of his sisters at home in Assur. They chided him for neglecting his religious duties to Ashur, the chief god of the Assyrian pantheon and the namesake of Assur. “We consulted the women dream interpreters, the women diviners, and the spirits of the dead,” the sisters wrote. “Ashur keeps on warning you; you love money so much that you despise your own life!”

Imdi-ilum’s sisters were probably concerned for his physical safety as well. Like many merchants, Imdi-ilum and his sons used smuggling routes through the mountains to transport tin and textiles to Anatolian markets. Other merchants wrote about paying bribes to avoid taxes, or even hiding metal ingots in their underwear. When caught by authorities in Kanesh, the merchants could face stiff cash penalties and house arrest. They could even serve jail time.

Some letters written by Assyrian women describe heartbreak. In one message, a woman named Ummi-Ishara wrote to her sister Shalimma, who had left her husband and children to visit their mother in Kanesh—and refused to return, abandoning her family in Assur. Ummi-Ishara wrote that she feared she would be turned out of her brother-in-law’s home if Shalimma remained in Kanesh. Shalimma’s husband had grown despondent after sending her several letters that went unanswered, Ummi-Ishara warned. “For five days he did not go out of his home,” her sister pressed. “Write me if you are looking for another husband, so I know it. If not, then get ready and leave for here.”

Like the angry letter Zizizi’s parents sent her, many of the texts addressed to or written by women deal in some way with the production of textiles, one of the most lucrative goods Assyrians traded with Anatolians. Together with the enslaved people who lived in their households, women in Assur wove large textiles that their male relatives sold in Kanesh.

Michel has worked with researchers at the Center for Textile Research in Copenhagen to conduct experiments using replicas of ancient weaving tools uncovered at Kanesh, such as the whorl of a drop spindle, to determine how long it would have taken Assyrian weavers to make each textile. Tablets record that the standard size of textiles sold in Kanesh was approximately 13 by 15 feet. Each one would have required more than 22 miles of thread. The team determined that spinning the raw wool alone would have taken as much as three months of full-time labor for one person. Next, Assyrian weavers would have woven strips of the textile on vertical looms. Each weaver, the researchers estimate, would have been able to produce just two and a half standard-size textiles each year.

With these efforts in mind, it’s easy to imagine the anger that a weaver named Lamassi must have felt when she received a letter from her husband, Pushu-ken, complaining about the quality of the fabric she had sent. As she dashed off a letter in response, her words were laced with frustration. “Who is this man who lives in your house and who is criticizing the textiles when they get to him?” the tablet reads. “I try my best to make and send textiles to you!”

Through their letters, it becomes clear that the women of Assur acted as business partners to their husbands, fathers, and brothers, sometimes debating profit margins and strategizing over which types of textiles would perform best in the marketplace. “The thin textile you sent me, make more like it and send them to me,” a trader named Puzur-Assur wrote to a woman named Waqqurtum, with whom he had an unknown relationship. In the letter, a copy of which he kept in his private archive in Kanesh, Puzur-Assur gave Waqqurtum several tips to improve her sales, based on what he was seeing sell well in the markets of Anatolia. “They should strike one side of the textile, and not pluck it. Its warp should be close,” he insisted. If she couldn’t produce thin textiles, he suggested that she buy them from the markets in Assur and send those instead, lowering her profits, but probably boosting her sales.

It’s likely that Waqqurtum was related in some way to Puzur-Assur. In Michel’s view, many of the tablets record the inside workings of some of the world’s first multinational family businesses. “The father is the head, the sons settle in Anatolia to trade, and the women are part of the organization, producing textiles,” she says. “All these international trade networks rely on family relationships—they have to trust people.”

Each branch of the family network was financially independent. Individual assets were managed separately, even between married couples. Husbands sent proceeds from their wives’ textile sales back to Assur, as well as gold and silver to cover household expenses and the cost of producing more bolts of cloth. Many of the Kanesh tablets document small loans of silver between household members, which were paid back with interest.

A wealthy businesswoman in Assur named Taram-Kubi sent a series of letters to her husband in Kanesh, a merchant named Innaya. She regularly updated him on a lawsuit he faced in Assur over an irregularity in the sale of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious deep-blue stone that was imported from mines in what is now northeastern Afghanistan. “The cases have been deferred,” she wrote. “Do not be impatient; reinforce your witnesses, certify your tablets, and send them to me by the next caravan.”

In their correspondence, Taram-Kubi and her husband quarreled frequently over money. When Innaya complained about his wife’s spending habits and her lavish lifestyle, Taram-Kubi accused him of clearing the household of its grain stores on a recent visit to Assur. After his departure, she wrote, a famine swept the city, leaving her without barley to feed their children. She insisted that her husband send silver to help her buy food—which he appears to have done. In another tablet, she expressed how much she missed him. “When you hear this letter, come, look to Ashur, your god, and your home hearth, and let me see you in person while I am still alive!” she wrote. “The beer bread I made for you has become too old.”

Life in the Assyrian merchant quarter in Kanesh, though, would not go on forever, and some tablets contain hints that the region was in crisis. Zizizi’s parents also regularly wrote to her two brothers, who worked as merchants in Anatolia. In one letter, their mother, Ishtar-bashti, wrote that she feared for the brothers’ safety. Their father had traveled to a distant city on business, and Ishtarbashti found herself alone in Assur. “I also heard about the rebellion of the country, and I become worried about you,” she wrote. “Your lives must be safe for your father’s sake!” She asked her sons to return to her in Assur “when the country is peaceful again.” In the meantime, she insisted they stop arguing over financial matters.

Almost no tablets have been found at Kanesh that date to after 1835 B.C. Perhaps the upheaval in the country that Ishtar-bashti fretted about finally reached the city. Perhaps the layer of fire damage that preserved so many tablets resulted from an outbreak of fighting or political upheaval in the lower town that doomed the settlement. Or maybe the center of trade in Anatolia simply moved west, prompting the Assyrian merchants to relocate.

Answers may lie in the tablets that were sent back home and stored in private archives in Assur—but these have never been found. Iraqi archaeologists recently reopened excavations at Assur but have not yet reached a layer of settlement dating to the period that might preserve the archives of Assyrian merchant families who had connections to Kanesh. “We don’t know where they are,” Michel says, “but they’re somewhere.”

Some archives in Kanesh, such as Puzur-Assur’s, do include copies of contracts or other significant tablets sent home to Assur. One such copy is of a letter sent from a lonely Zizizi to her parents in Assur some years before they wrote her to complain of her neglect. Written during an epidemic in Kanesh, after the death of her sister and while her first husband was suffering the illness that would prove fatal, it gives voice to both her personal anguish and hunger for the communication with distant loved ones that the tablets provided. “I can’t manage anymore,” Zizizi wrote. “There is no one with whom I can speak and no one to give me satisfaction. You are my father and my master; you are my mother; please write me a tablet with friendly words…and give me your encouragement! If your tablet does not come soon, I will die!”

Video: The Assyrian Women of Kanesh

To watch a video presenting work Assyriologist Cécile Michel of the French National Center for Scientific Research and her colleagues have conducted exploring the lives of Assyrian women who resided in the Bronze Age Anatolian city of Kanesh, click below. Michel has collected translations of more than 300 nineteenth-century B.C. cuneiform tablets by or to women in Women of Assur and Kanesh: Texts from the Archives of Assyrian Merchants. To watch another film exploring her work, go to "Thus Speaks Tarām-Kūbi, Assyrian Correspondence."

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