We don’t know what Zinu, a woman living in the Mesopotamian city of Larsa (about 15 miles southeast of Uruk in present-day Iraq), thought when she received the letter from her son Iddin-Sin.

The young man, who was likely studying at a school in the kingdom of the famous Hammurabi, bitterly complained that the clothes his mother sent him were “so 19th century BCE”, while his friends were all dressed fashionably in the 1790 BCE style.

Jokes aside, this is what can be read on a clay tablet written around that time (between 1792 and 1750 BCE), during the First Babylonian Empire, found among the ruins of Larsa.

Iddin-Sin's letter to his mother, preserved in the Louvre Museum (catalog number AO 8372 ; TCL 18,111)
Iddin-Sin’s letter to his mother, preserved in the Louvre Museum (catalog number AO 8372 ; TCL 18,111). Credit: Louvre Museum

It is unclear when it was discovered, but by 1922 the tablet was acquired by the Louvre Museum, where it is currently housed. Its content was first published by Belgian archaeologist Georges Dossin in 1934, revealing the bitter words Iddin-Sin directed at his mother Zinu.

Iddin-Sin belonged to the upper class of Larsa, as his father Shamash-Hazir was a high-ranking official in the administration. As was customary, he was sent as a boarder to a temple to learn to read and write in cuneiform and prepare for a career as a bureaucrat, priest, or scribe. The letter offers little context, but researchers assume this is why Iddin-Sin lived away from home.

The content of the letter, in which Iddin-Sin tries to make his mother feel guilty for not sending him new clothes, was translated by Assyriologist Adolf Leo Oppenheim in 1967:

Tell Mrs. Zinu that Iddin-Sin sends the following message: May the gods Shamash, Marduk, and Ilabrat always keep you in good health for my sake. From year to year, the clothes of young gentlemen here improve, but you let my clothes deteriorate year by year. In fact, you insist on making my clothes poorer and sparser. In a time when wool is consumed in our house like bread, you’ve made me poor clothing. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is merely an assistant to my father, has two new sets of clothes, while you barely care to get me one. Although you gave birth to me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him while you don’t love me!

Larsa and the cities of Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi
Larsa and the cities of Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi. Credit: Sémhur / Zunkir / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

The document is considered an exceptional source for understanding daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. It indicates that Zinu made her family’s clothes with wool from her flocks or wool she bought in the market. She spun, wove, dyed, and sewed them in a process that could take about three months or even an entire year, depending on the quality of the clothes.

However, Zinu may not have known how to read, as the letter’s opening “Tell Mrs. Zinu” suggests it was intended to be read aloud by a scribe.

We don’t know whether Iddin-Sin wrote the letter himself or dictated it to a scribe. The opening “Iddin-Sin sends the following message” is a standard formula in Mesopotamian letters, suggesting it could have been dictated. However, the errors identified by Assyriologists and the somewhat clumsy wording could indicate that the writer was inexperienced, perhaps a student like Iddin-Sin himself.

Aerial view of the ruins of Larsa
Aerial view of the ruins of Larsa. Credit: Georg Gerster / Rapho / Mission Archéologique Française de Larsa

Moreover, because the message didn’t fit on the used tablet after filling the front and back, the author decided to continue on the side, but he also ran out of space and had to finish on the bottom edge of the tablet.

Iddin-Sin was concerned about the quality of his clothes compared to his peers, as his status partly depended on appearing wealthy. This is why he tried to manipulate his mother in various ways, making her feel guilty for his misfortune.

The fact that the letter is about 3,800 years old suggests that some things never change.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 23, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La carta de Iddin-Sin, escrita hace 4000 años, es la primera queja conocida de un hijo a su madre

Sources

Huehnergard, J. (2018). Reading Ancient Mail. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 138(4), 691–707. doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.138.4.0691 | Jørgen Læssøe, People of Ancient Assyria: Their Inscriptions and Correspondence | James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures | TCL 18, 111 (P387407) en Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative | Wikipedia


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