Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 16, 1996

On Research:
Diverse Group Meets
To Learn From
Ancient Letters

Raymond Westbrook hopes
this week's conferenc
in Italy establishes a
new approach to
researching the Amarna

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

An unlikely gathering of scholars is meeting in Bellagio, Italy, this week to consider just how true it is that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Raymond Westbrook, a professor of Near Eastern Studies, has organized a conference that will bring political scientists together with scholars of antiquity to discuss the Amarna Letters, the cuneiform tablets containing correspondence of the Egyptian court, other great powers and vassal states in southwest Asia during the 14th century, B.C.E. Westbrook hopes the three-day conference will create a dialogue that will allow participants to better understand the nature of ancient civilizations and how their actions impose themselves on issues in contemporary politics.

Westbrook and co-organizers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem expect the uncommon mix of scholars from Italy, England, Israel, Germany and the United States will produce an uncommonly vibrant exchange of ideas and research methods. And perhaps the gathering of widely divergent thinkers will itself serve as a model for diplomacy itself, as Westbrook anticipates the 18 participants will set aside academic differences and join together at a roundtable to generate a collegial dialogue.

"This is our tiny little contribution to world peace," he said.

"This combination of scholars is what makes this conference unique," added Hopkins political science professor Steven David. "People from very different academic traditions will attempt to transcend disciplinary boundaries in what we hope will be a mutually beneficial exercise."

The 400 Amarna Letters have been the source of great scholarly interest since they were discovered in Egypt in 1887. But they were accessible to only the relatively small segment of the scholarly community who understood their historical context and could read Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the period, or the occasional cuneiform written in Hittite or Hurrian. Scholarship was further complicated as the tablets were dispersed to museums throughout Europe and the United States.

However, in 1992, the Johns Hopkins University Press published an English translation of the entire archive, making the text accessible to a wider, more diverse group of scholars capable of expanding understanding and perceptions beyond ancient history.

"Our goal should not be simply to take superficial lessons from the past but to understand how the past fits into our contemporary concerns," Westbrook says.

That is the intention of Steven David, who is presenting a paper dealing with a debate between constructivism and realism. David argues that the letters call into question the constructivist viewpoint that the way we think and talk about politics determines political behavior.

"Constructivism says how we think and talk and interpret events determines behavior," he says. "Realism argues that there is an independent world out there that imposes its own reality on us. The letters strongly suggest that 3,500 years ago people did not have concepts of the national interest, international anarchy and balance of power, and yet they behaved as if they completely understood and accepted these concepts. This suggests to me that the critical determinant of political behavior is not how we express ourselves or interpret reality but rather it is the effects of the real world which imposes itself, its own logic, on those who are doing their best to survive and prosper in a very dangerous environment."

Topics of other papers being presented this week include the role of intelligence during this time, the role of international marriages and how they cemented alliances, ancient treaties and bargaining.

Following the conference--supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, which has made the northern Italian Villa Serbelloni available to the conferees--Westbrook will prepare the papers presented there for a book that he hopes will serve to further encourage new areas for study of the Amarna Letters.

We are using these letters as an example to understand the beginning of civilization," Westbrook said. "This conference is the beginning of a new dialogue. In every respect, this is a first."

Westbrook also intends to share with his students the ideas emerging from the conference.

"Hopkins is a university. We teach, and we research for our own field, other fields and the greater field of the universe at large," he said. "At the end of the day, what we learn in history helps our undergrads go into the world with better trained minds. What I learn from this conference I will teach to undergrads, following the great Hopkins tradition of leading students on the cutting edge of research."

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