EA 30: The Oldest Passport?

泥板的编译参见 EA 30: “不得向他索要贿赂!”

索引:EA 30
馆藏编号:BM 29841
CDLI 编号:P270943

Porada, E. (1974). Die Siegelzylinder-Abrollung auf der Amarna-Tafel BM 29841 im Britischen Museum. AfO 25, pp. 132–142.
Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Wilhelm, G. (1994). Mittan(n)i, Mitanni, Maitani A. Historisch. RlA 8, pp. 286–296. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Wilhelm, G. (2014). Tušratta. RlA 14, pp. 222. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Rainey, A. F. (2015). The El-Amarna correspondence. HdO 110. Leiden: Brill.

BM 29841 正面
BM 29841 正面底缘
BM 29841 背面

When a king intends to send a message to his friendly but powerful distant neighbour, he must have to provide for the best security of his messenger, whose route lies through numerous minor principalities beyond the border. It would be even more true, if this happened thousands of years ago, when long-distance travel itself was far more dangerous than it is today. Astonishingly, a letter recorded through a well-preserved tablet found in El-Amarna dating back to the early fourteenth century BCE might depict exactly such a scenario. This letter, EA 30, was sent from an anonymous king to the local rulers in Canaan, in which those local rulers were required to grant the royal messenger, who bore this letter with him, a secured and unimpeded passage through their territory, so that he would be able to arrive in Egypt in time. The king addressed those minor kings of Canaan as ‘servants of his brother’, i.e., of the Pharaoh of Egypt, because the most parts of southern Canaan at the time were Egyptian vassals. Considering the messenger’s name, ‘Akija’, which could be of Hurrian origin, and meanwhile because of the impression of a Mitanni-style seal, which is to be seen at the end of the letter, it is almost certain, that this king, as Pharaoh’s ‘brother’, who dispatched the messenger, is the king of Mitanni, and very probably the king Tušratta, whose name appeared in a couple of other tablets found in El-Amarna.

No matter if this king was Tušratta or not, he did care for the security of his messenger, as what he wrote reads:

‘Nobody should detain him! Let him enter the land of Egypt safely, and hand him over to the fortress commander of the land of Egypt. May he go quickly! And any (demand of) bribe from him should not take place to him at all!’

It is no wonder, if anyone, after reading this, finds the phrasing here familiar. It reminds us easily of our most travelled personal document, namely the passport, in which similar words are often printed inside, stating that a certain authority that has issued this document identifies its bearer and requests convenience and protection for the bearer in a country being visited. So it is well plausible to assume that this royal letter as a certified document did, in term of form and function, serve a similar role as our modern passport. The last sentence is especially interesting, implying the fact, that it was not uncommon, that tolls, tax, or even bribes would be extorted, perhaps by local officials, from the international travellers when crossing the borders, which is still pervasive in some parts of the world today. The obvious similarities between this letter and the modern passport make it pretty safe to say, that this letter is the oldest attestation of a passport, or more precisely, a passport-like document in our history, around a thousand years earlier than the reference to a similar document in the Hebrew Bible (Nehemiah 2:7–9), when Nehemiah, according to his narration, also received a letter from Artaxerxes I of Persia, who requested safe passage for Nehemiah with it from ‘the governors beyond the river’ as he travelled through their lands heading to Jerusalem. The latter, while the first El-Amarna tablets have been unearthed for more than a hundred years, ist still widely credited as the first mention of a passport in mass media.

Despite all the similarities it is still clear, that, in a stricter sense, the letter EA 30 is not an exact counterpart of the modern passport. Our messenger, Akija, must have arrived at Pharaoh’s court, so that this letter was archived by the Egyptian clerks. We might never know, how much he was benefited from this letter as a guarantee of protection during the journey, but the importance of this function, shared also by modern passport has been considerably eclipsed. A passport in modern sense as a relatively late invention acquired its general application only after World War I, and since then it has become a built-in component of one’s national identity and serves as a crucial means to distinguish a citizen from a non-citizen, and to decide one’s right of entering or leaving a foreign country or one’s own country. This concept of citizenship barely existed in the world at the time of the El-Amarna letters. In this sense, the letter EA 30 also makes a worthwhile footnote of the development of our social control: while the mobility of most our ancestors were mainly demotivated and restrained by natural hindrance and technical backwardness, the means of depriving people from the freedom of movement has been greatly widened, both internationally and domestically, and the very application of passport or whatever else it may be, is playing a not unimportant role.

EA 30 背面的滚印印痕(Porada, 1974)


Assyriology student in Leipzig. God gesiehþ on dune, etiam lipsiæ fortasse.


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