March 01, 2006

Jerusalem in the Amarna Tablets

Following up on a discussion on the ANE 2 discussion list, Yitzhak Sapir at Hebrew Bible and ANE History Lists Commentary blog notes the way the place name Jerusalem is written in the Akkadian of Amarna tablet EA 287. He even has a picture from The Encyclopedia of El Amarna Research Tool website. He correctly notes that the place name is written with the "City" determinative URU before urusalem. At least this is true in five of the seven instantiations of the place name in the Amarna tablets.

Yitzhak's exact point is not clear (he wants to ask questions rather than give answers) but he puts his remarks in the context of Niels Peter Lemche's 2003 lecture "Jerusalem and King Solomon: How Writers Create the Past" where Lemche says the following;

The second part of the name of Jerusalem is easy to explain: Salem. The first part, jeru-, is contested or left unexplained. In the Amarna letters Jerusalem appears as URU Salimmu, the city of Salem (e.g., EA 287/LA 38:25, 46, 61, 63). However, if URU should in this case be treated as the normal determinative in Akkadian of “city” and pronounced as alu, this URU is not part of the name of Jerusalem.

Well, at least in five of the seven cases cited above ú-ru is clearly part of the name and not a determinative. As far as I can tell, the name never appears as URUsalimmu at Amarna. It does appear as ú-ru-sa-limKI twice, once in EA 287. In fact, the name is written three different ways in EA 287: three times with the initial determinative URU and once without the determinative; three times with the trailing determinative KI and once without. I might even go so far as to speculate that the case of the missing determinative URU is the result of a scribal error (some sub-species of haplography by homoioteleuton?). I would say the same thing about the missing URU determinative in EA 290:15. The Amarna tablets are fairly (but not completely) consistent in using the URU before place names. They are less so in the use of the trailing KI. On the other hand, there could well be some confusion in the mind of the scribe as to whether or not the ú-ru in ú-ru-sa-lim needed the determinative.

Even if the name was Urusalem by the Amarna age, that doesn't mean that it was always so. It may well have been simply Salemmu at some earlier time. But, even in the 19/18th century BCE Execration Texts the name was written in Egyptian as if it were pronounced Urushalim or the like. So if this name was ever simply Salemmu to which the URU determinative was later added, it happened long before the Late Bronze Age and therefore even longer before the Iron Age.

There is of course another possibility. When heard or when written in a writing system (Hebrew?) that did not use determinatives the uru portion of the name might have been understood as the Akkadian determinative and the name simply been thought of as Salem. We see this shortened form in Genesis 14:17 and Psalm 76:2, although challenges to the identification of Salem with Jerusalem go back to at least Jerome. If Salem is indeed to be understood as Jerusalem, as I think it is, there are better explanations for the shorter form than the one proposed here. But I will leave that to another post.

I will also postpone comment on the remainder of Lemche's paper. It covers a lot of ground most of which I am incompetent to address. I do worry when the only thing that I do understand is wrongly stated. Lemche is correct that the first part of the name Jerusalem is either contested or left unexplained but I'm just not so sure that the second part is so easy to explain either.

Posted by DuaneSmith at March 1, 2006 09:22 AM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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So then Jerusalem (urusalim) is a very old name. I understand the Arabic name Kudus (Al Quds) is also quite old.

Posted by: Aydin at March 1, 2006 12:16 PM

al-Quds means "The Holy Place." It is the most common Arabic term for Jerusalem. I'm not at all sure how old it is. It may well relate to Hebrew הקדש (haqqodesh) which means "holy place," "sanctuary" and/or Aramaic קודשא (qudsha) which means about the same thing. These words were used to refer to the Temple in Jerusalem. This subject is more than a little out of my area.

Posted by: Duane at March 1, 2006 08:55 PM


I published a response to your post now.

As for the al-Quds bits, look at Albert Naccache's post who quotes an Encyclopedia of Islam saying that al-Quds is a "later form." I always thought that it was a translation of Hebrew "ir haqqodesh".

Posted by: Yitzhak Sapir at March 2, 2006 03:24 AM

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