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The Search for an Ancient Kingdom

Anatolia - New clues among the old...

Anatolia, or Asiatic Turkey, is 400 miles wide, from the Black Sea on the north to the Mediterranean on the south, and about 1,000 miles across, from east to west. Asia Minor is the name given to Anatolia by the Romans. It served as a battlefield, staging ground, or migratory route for so many armies and peoples that William Hamilton, of the Royal Geological Society, declared in 1842 that "there is scarcely a spot of ground however small that does not contain some relic of antiquity." While that fact made Anatolia a rich hunting ground for historical ruins and sites, it made the location or identification of individual sites difficult, even where evidence narrowed the search to the familiar.  Persian, Greek, or Roman ruins were expected - and relatively easy to identify. The unfamiliar was another matter.

Hatussa - Something permanent emerges from the ruins...

Hatussa, the capital city of the Hittite Empire, was destroyed, sometime around 1200 or 1190 B.C..  Its fortress, designed in hopes of withstanding a siege or attack, proved inadequate and less than permanent. Ironically, something in the planning or construction of the buildings housing the administrative records would both hide them from discovery while protecting them against the ravages of time. More than 25,000 clay tablets would survive to tell the story of the Empire. It would owe its legacy, not to the armies which symbolized it powers, but to the planners, builders, scribes, and workmen who compiled and stored its records. Evidence that Hatussa existed did not completely disappear with its destruction, but its significance would need to be rediscovered.

In 1834, the French archaeologist Charles-Félix-Marie Texier, was traveling through the highlands of central Anatolia looking for the ruins of the Roman settlement of Tavium. He was uncertain as to the exact location and simply asked the locals about nearby ruins.  At the village of Boghazköy (now Boghazkäle), some 90 miles east of present-day Ankara, he was told of a site located in the hills above. What he found was a settlement with a perimeter of four miles containing a towered wall three-quarters of a mile across.  The foundation stones of a large building could be seen inside the ruins.  While he knew the ruins were not those of  Tavium or any other Roman or Greek settlement, he could not otherwise identify them.  He thought they might be Pteria, a Sixth-Century B.C. town seized by Croessus, the Lydian king.  Hatussa had been rediscovered, although Texier did not associate the ruins with the Hittites.

Texier was also puzzled by what he saw at a nearby location. About a mile beyond the fortified remains was an exposed crevice of limestone on which had been carved 66 figures seemingly in procession.  It was called Yazilikaya or the "Inscribed rock."

The Hamathite Hieroglyphics

The key to the identification of Hatussa would be language. Texier observed some hieroglyphics, both among the ruins of the city and at Yazilikaya, which clearly were not Greek or Roman. The inscriptions, while unfamiliar to him, had been seen relatively recently at Hamath, a Syrian city some 350 miles to the south.  The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had traveled through Palestine and Syria between 1809 and 1817 and had seen a stone covered with hieroglyphics in the wall of a house in Hamath. His journal, published in 1822, mentioned the stone. Unfortunately the significance of Burckhardt's stone was unrecognized at the time and the stone itself seemingly disappeared until 1870.

J. Augustus Johnson, the American consul general in Syria, and Jessup, an American missionary, journeyed to Hamath (now Hama) in search of Burckhardt's stone.  They located the stone he described, plus three more.  A crowd of local Muslims prevented them from taking impressions of the stones, since it was believed that the inscriptions could cure rheumatism, however, a native painter managed to copy the hieroglyphs.  The paintings would be seen by an Irish missionary named William Wright in 1871.  When Wright and the British consul in Damascus, W. Kirby Green, received an invitation to accompany Subhi Pasha, Syria's Turkish governor, on an official visit to Hamath in 1872, they hoped at least to copy the inscriptions.

The citizens of Hamath were suspicious of Wright and Green, particularly after they begin inquiring about the stones.  It was believed that the inscriptions they contained were a magical cure for rheumatism.  Everyone they asked denied that there were any stones like the ones they wanted in Hamath.  Finally one man admitted not only that he knew of one such stone, but that it was embedded in the wall of his house.  Having found one person willing to acknowledge the existence of the stones, the townspeople showed them where the others could be found.  Being allowed to copy the hieroglyphics may have been the original intent of Wright, Green, and even Subhi Pasha. However when he was shown the inscriptions his goals became more ambitious.  He wanted, not just copies of the inscriptions, but the stones themselves. He gave an order to physically remove the stones so that they could be shipped to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. He was one of the Museum's patrons.  He also sent a telegram to the sultan, notifying him of the find and requesting that the stones be accepted for the museum's collection.

The Hamathites gathering on the streets vowed to destroy the stones rather than allow them to be taken away. Subhi Pasha posted soldiers to protect the stones from the hostile crowds. (Two of the four were found in occupied houses.) The actual removal of the relics was a monumental task in itself. One was so large that it took 50 men and four oxen an entire day to move it just a mile to the government guesthouse. An unexpected event seemed to throw one more obstacle in the path of the enterprise.  A meteor shower that night was interpreted as an evil omen by the Hamathites, somehow connected to the removal of the stones.  A delegation asked the governor to return them. Subhi Pasha suggested that since no one had been hurt by the falling stars, they were a good omen. Allah was pleased that the stones were being delivered to the Khalif.

Subhi Pasha's interpretation may have been enough to placate the Hamathites but Wright and Green apparently harbored some doubts about the fate of the stones. They determined to make casts of the inscriptions before the stones were shipped.  The British Museum was to receive one. They made the other for the Palestine Exploration Fund.

For all the furor caused by the discovery and removal of the stones, the language in which they had been written was unrecognized.  The people who had written or inscribed the symbols were unknown.  As a result the language of the hieroglyphs became known as "Hamathite," for the city where the stones were found.

A recognizable, but nevertheless "official," name conferred legitimacy. Even the name of a city, was better than nothing. Hamathite suddenly began turning up everywhere. A stone with Hamathite hieroglyphics had been found at Aleppo, 75 miles north of Hamath.  It was seen on rock carvings at Ivris, in south-central Turkey in 1875.  It would be found at an archaeological site at Carchemish, on the Euphrates River along the Syrian-Turkish border.

No connection was immediately made between Hamathite and the hieroglyphs found at the ruins at Boghazköy or Yazilikaya, although a French professor named Georges Perrot had published pictures of the hieroglyphics found at Texier's site in 1872, the same year the Hamath stones were recovered. In 1879 a British linguist named Archibald Henry Sayce noticed that some of the Hamathite hieroglyphs from the Hamath and Carchemish stones matched those in Perrot's pictures. All three seemed similar to those carved on a cliff at Smyrna in Turkey. In 1880 Sayce announced that the hieroglyphs were the same and that the people who had carved them were the Hittites.

Conflicting claims to the Hittite name...

In chapters six and seven of the Old Testament Second Book of Kings, there is a story of a siege of Samaria, the capital city of the Kingdom of Israel, by a Syrian army. When the defenders had all but given up hope of withstanding the siege, they heard the sounds of the horses and chariots of an approaching army.  The terrified Syrians fled.  Word spread among the army: "The king of Israel has hired the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to attack us."  (The siege probably took place during the reign of Jehoram (852 - 841 B.C.).) There were other Biblical references to the Hittites.  Abraham bought the cave in which to place the body of his dead wife, Sarah, from Ephron the Hittite.  Solomon had several Hittite wives and also sold horses to one of the kings of the Hittites.

When Sayce made his 1880 Hittite announcement, he was relying, not just on the Biblical references to the Hittites, but also on recently discovered Egyptian and Assyrian writings which mentioned a mighty people dwelling in a land called Hatti.  At the same time, Sayce, as a popular lecturer,  had an eye for the public relations side of the archaeological field.  There was little doubt the Bible held a certain fascination for the public.  Any archaeological discovery tied to a Biblical story was sure to arouse the public's interest.  The meeting of the Society for Biblical Archaeology where Sayce made his announcement was packed.

William Wright, the Irish missionary, had reached the same conclusion six years earlier. He had discussed the inscriptions found on the Hamath stones he helped recover, in an article in the "British and Foreign Evangelical Review," published in 1874.  To be sure, Sayce had an additional six years of evidence supporting his argument and his linguistics background made his assertions credible.  Sayce also had his critics.  There was the suggestion that he had "invented" the Hittites.  However, where Sayce was at least given a hearing, Wright had largely been ignored.

Despite the haste with which they put together their theory about the Hittites, Wright and Sayce would eventually be proved correct - in most respects. They had linked the stones found at Hamath with the hieroglyphics found at Boghazköy and Yazilikaya. They had also correctly identified Anatolia as the country or region of origin for the Hittite armies.  Most importantly, they had established the existence of a hitherto unknown people, which they called the Hittites.  In focusing on the Bible however, they had confused the dates.  The Hittites who delivered the Israelites from the Syrian army were not the same Hittites who had carved the inscriptions on the stones found at Hamath.  The Hittite Empire, whose kings and scribes had communicated through the Hamathite hieroglyphics, had come to an end around 1200 B.C.. 

The Hittite culture continued, even though the Empire ended.  The people who replaced the Hittites spoke the same language and lived in the same cities.  If the fall of the Hittites left the region in chaos after 1200 B.C., the new peoples managed to recover by 1000 B.C., when they formed a coalition.  It would last until 700 B.C..  To the outside world, including the Israelites, the Hittite kingdom had somehow remained intact, and, if nothing else, carried on the successful military tradition of the Empire. Scholars would classify the new group as Neo-Hittite, to distinguish it from the Hittites of the empire period.

In some ways the decision to classify the Hamathite writers as "true" Hittites and the later peoples as Neo-Hittites was an arbitrary one.  Perhaps it was related to the adage that those who write history have more power to make history than those who merely participate or act in history's events.  The Hamathite hieroglyphics, as written records, might carry more weight because they represented what the Hittites were willing to reveal about themselves.  The Hittite label used by the Israelites was something applied to them by foreigners.

A Rosetta Stone for the Hittite language

In 1799, members of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition discovered the Rosetta stone, which would provide the key to unlocking the ancient Egyptian language.  It contained three versions of the same text.  The first was a hieroglyphic (picture script) version of Egyptian.  The second was a connected form of Egyptian writing, called demotic.  The third was in Greek.  In 1822 the French philologist Jean-Francois Champollion, working at Abu Simbel, guessed correctly that two pictographs he was trying to decipher could be translated as the names for the pharaohs Ramses and Thutmose.  The pictures were not abstract or independent symbols, but phonetic clues to the way the words would have been pronounced.

The Hittite language would have its own version of the "Rosetta stone" story, although it would take nearly seventy years from the 1872 Hamath discovery for the story to unfold. In 1946 a professor at the University of Istanbul, Helmuth T. Bossert, was excavating a site at Karatepe, a Neo-Hittite fortress in southern Turkey. At two of the entrance ways he found slabs which were inscribed with identical texts in Hittite and Phoenician.  Their length provided an extensive vocabulary and the final means to understand the Hittite language. Much had been deciphered by the Czech Assyriologist Bedrich Hrozny before 1919.  He deduced that Hittite was an Indo-European language which, like Egyptian, was phonetic.  He had not totally broken the Hittite code, but he did publish an extensive translation of the tablets of Hatussa.

While the Hittite language itself would remain something of an enigma until the 1946 discovery,  the Hittite story was revealed through the language of another ancient peoples, the Babylonians.  The Hittites, it turned out, could both read and write in Akkadian, the name for the wedge-shaped Babylonian cuneiform language. Many of the letters they wrote in Hittite were also translated into Akkadian and archived as backup copies at Hatussa.

In 1887 a cache of clay tablets was found at Tell el-Amarna, the site of 14th century B.C. city of Akhetaten.  The pharaoh Akhenaten had made it his capital. It was located about 200 miles south of Cairo. Most of the tablets were inscribed in Akkadian, more commonly used in ancient diplomatic correspondence than Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Two of the letters however, were in a non-Akkadian cuneiform which was labeled as Arzawa.  Six years later, in 1893, similar cuneiform inscriptions would be found at Boghazköy.

In 1905 a German Assyriologist named Hugo Winckler, began excavating Boghazköy.  By 1910 he would uncover some 10,000 tablets and fragments there.  While there were many tablets in Arzawa, the fragments he found most helpful were those in Akkadian.  One well-preserved tablet was the text of a treaty which Winckler had seen inscribed on the walls of the temple at Karnak in Egypt and at the Ramesseum, Ramse's mortuary temple.  The Babylonian texts did not enable Winckler to translate the Arzawa inscriptions but they did provide clues to the reigns of the Hittite kings and an outline of Hittite history.

Suggestions for further reading.

S. G. F. Brandon, ed., "Milestones of History: Ancient Empires," Newsweek Books, (New York, NY 1973)

Roberta Conlan, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Anatolia: Cauldron of Culture. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1995)

Thomas H. Flaherty, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1992)

Janet Serlin Garber, ed. "The Concise Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations," Franklin Watts (New York, NY 1978)

Jim Hicks, "The Emergence of Man: The Empire Builders. " Time, Inc., (NY, NY 1974)

Johannes Lehmann, "The Hittites: People of a Thousand Gods. " The Viking Press, (NY, NY 1977)

John Rogerson, "Chronicle of the Old Testament Kings: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Ancient Israel." Thames and Hudson, (London 1999)