The harvest season is now! Send silver so we can store barley for you before your arrival. The beer bread I made for you has become too old. This is urgent! When you read this letter, come, look to Assur, your god, and your home hearth, and let me see you in person while I am still alive! Misery has entered our minds.
A wife expresses familiar concerns to her husband. But this letter was found, together with many other cuneiform tablets, in a house in the lower town at Kültepe, the ancient Kanesh, in Central Anatolia. It was sent sometime around 1860 BCE by Taram-Kubi, an Assyrian woman living in the old city of Assur, located a hundred kilometres south of Mosul. She addressed it to her husband Innaya, who had left Assur for Anatolia to engage in trading. Like many other women of Assur, Taram-Kubi found herself alone, at the head of her household, raising her children, taking care of the elderly, spinning and weaving fabrics, and representing her husband in the city.
In some houses in Kanesh, archaeologists have discovered more than a thousand tablets forming the archives of Assyrian merchants over several generations. These comprise family and commercial contracts, judicial documents or accounting notices, and letters -- including those sent by women in Assur.
In Assur Innaya bought tin from Elamites and textiles from Babylonians and then resold those goods in Kanesh and elsewhere in Anatolia, making important profits. Some lapis lazuli and carnelian came from further East, possibly Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, and along with a few textiles woven by his wife, could be added to his donkey caravans. Like many of his colleagues, he lived most of the year in Kanesh, a thousand kilometers from his wife and family.
While her husband was away, Taram-Kubi was managing her household, which could count a dozen people, mainly women -- including slaves -- and children. Besides her many tasks as a housewife, she was producing textiles to be sold in Anatolia, thus contributing to the long distance trade and earning revenues. This double workload was not easy to organize, as one of her neighbors, Lamassi, explained in a letter to her husband:
You should not get angry because I couldn't send you the textiles you asked for. As our little girl has grown up, I had to make a pair of heavy textiles for the carriage. Moreover, I made some for the domestics and for the children; this is why I did not manage to send you textiles.
Lamassi's household was able to produce some 25 large woollen textiles (4.5 × 4 m) every year, 20 of which were sold by her husband Pushu-ken in Anatolia. Once taxes and raw material were deducted, the total income would amount to 3 ½ or 4 minas (pounds) of silver per year, which corresponded to the price of a little house in Assur.
Perfectly aware of the value of their textiles on the Anatolian market, the Assyrian women could be tough in business. Taram-Kubi urged her brother Imdi-ilum to sell her textiles at a better price:
To whom else but me would you send only 1 mina 10 shekels for 6 textiles (i.e. 11 2/3 shekels a piece)? Again, Kutallanum is bringing you 6 textiles. If you really are my brother, you should not send me less than 20 shekels a piece!
With the money they earned from their textile production, women invested in the long distance trade and in partnerships. They appear as creditors and lent silver to either men or women. Silver amounts loaned by women were usually smaller than those loaned by men. Ahatum loaned silver at least four times to Assyrian men; the four loans, dated within nine years, amount to 3 ¼ pounds of silver. A few women appear among owners of goods transported to Anatolia. When losses occurred en route, owners could be required to declare the value of their property under oath. A judgment set out the conditions of the affidavit:
Concerning losses, if (the owner) is a man, he shall swear by the sword of the god Assur, if it (is) a woman, (she shall swear) by the drum of the goddess Ishtar.
Alongside men, other women invested gold and silver in a joint-stock company, the collected fund being entrusted to an agent to trade, with profits for several years. Ahaha complained to her brother that she could not recover her shares amounting to 13 pounds of silver:
You are my brother. I have no one except you. Do not listen to anyone's slander. Pay attention to my request while it is still time to be obliging and to save me from financial stress and dispatch to me at least 10 pounds of silver, so that nobody should see the day of my ruin.
Although financially independent of their husbands, they routinely acted as their representatives to their associates and to the Assyrian authorities.
Their husbands also represented their wives in certain transactions in Anatolia. Women had their own property, independent of their husbands, and could even lend silver with interest to the male members of their family. Some Assyrian women enjoyed important social status and showed it by having fine, capacious homes built for themselves with many slaves.
Assyrian women were active both inside and outside the household. The letters they addressed to the male members of their families concern colleagues' activities, news of their household and their children, and the state of their textile production. These letters also often include moral advice, urging them to act as gentlemen and to lead a more pious life. According to them, the perfect gentleman was honest in business and had founded a family. He had to love his relatives and home life more than money, as stressed Taram-Kubi and her sister to their brother:
Here in Assur we consulted the women dream interpreters, the women diviners, and the spirits of the dead, and their answer was: 'The god Assur keeps on warning you: you love silver so much that you despise your own life!' Can't you comply with Assur wishes here in the City of Assur)? This is urgent! Once you have heard the letter, come here, meet the god Assur face to face and save your life!
For men, wives had to be faithful and good, caring spouses, as explained a merchant waiting for his fiancée to come and marry him:
Please, the day you hear my tablet, there, turn to your father so that he agrees; set out and come here with my servants. I am alone. There is none to serve me and set my table.
The Old Assyrian women's letters are unique in that they sometimes reflect their author's emotions, a phenomenon poorly attested in Mesopotamia. In the letter she sent to her husband Taram-Kubi, feeling lonely, prays for his return to Assur 'let me see you in person while I am still alive,' using thus a kind of 'love declaration.' The lively content of such letters might be explained by the fact that literacy was widespread in the Assyrian community, and many letters were written by their senders themselves.
Cécile Michel is Senior Researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (Nanterre, France) and Professor of Assyriology at the University of Hamburg (Germany).