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Assyrian Women of Letters

4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets illuminate the personal lives of Mesopotamian businesswomen

November/December 2023

Kanesh Turkey ExcavationsThe 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.


Kanesh Turkey MapThe 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.”



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