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Research into the history of the Middle East has uncovered evidence that an ancient civilization utilized unique language techniques to promote diversity and maintain political harmony.
The groundbreaking findings are also providing new information on the functioning of early empires.
Current archaeological digs in Turkey at the site of the former Hittite empire’s capital city are uncovering compelling proof that the empire’s civil service had departments solely focused on studying the religions of the peoples under their rule.
It is believed that during the second millennium BC, leaders of the Hittite civilization instructed their government officials to document the religious rituals and customs of their subject peoples in their native languages, using Hittite writing. The purpose was to safeguard these traditions and integrate them into the empire’s diverse and all-encompassing religious system.
According to current experts in ancient languages, it has been found that Hittite officials kept and documented religious texts from a minimum of five different ethnic groups.
The most recent instance was discovered only two months ago. It was revealed to be written in a Middle Eastern language that was previously unknown and had been lost for approximately 3,000 years.
In the past several years, approximately 30,000 partially and fully intact clay tablets have been discovered in the remains of the former Hittite capital, Hattusa (currently called Bogazkoy), located about 100 miles east of Ankara, the current capital of Turkey.
Most of the writings were in Hittite, the main language of the empire. However, about 5% of them were written by the Hittite government’s scribes in the languages of minority ethnic groups within the empire, such as the Luwians (from southeastern Anatolia), Palaians (from northwestern Anatolia), Hattians (from central Anatolia), and Hurrians (from Syria and northern Mesopotamia).
The most recently discovered minority language, recorded by government scribes (and previously unknown to modern scholars) is being called Kalasmaic – because it seems to have been spoken by a subject people in an area called Kalasma on the empire’s northwestern fringe.
The finding implies that the empire’s lesser-known languages were being documented, examined, and safeguarded through written records. This could also mean that other little-known Middle Eastern languages may be uncovered on Hittite clay tablets found in the ancient scriptoria being excavated at Bogazkoy by archaeologists.
The scribes of the empire’s civil service used a Hittite adaptation of an ancient Mesopotamian script (known as cuneiform, the oldest writing system in the world) to write all their manuscripts. This script consisted of wedge-shaped lines organized into groups that represented syllables.
During ancient times, the region known as Turkey in the Middle East was abundant in diverse languages.
The variety of languages is often influenced by the landscape. Areas with many mountains and secluded valleys are more likely to have a greater number of languages that develop and continue to exist.
Currently, there is knowledge of only five minority languages used during the Bronze Age in the Hittite empire. However, it is possible that there were actually around 30 languages spoken due to the mountainous terrain.
Adjacent to the ancient Hittite Empire lies the Caucasus Mountains region, which is home to approximately 40 different languages.
The Hittite language is the oldest documented Indo-European language in the world.
The earliest inscriptions date from the 16th century BC. As an Indo-European language, it is related to most modern European languages (including English) as well as many Asian languages (including Iranian and many Indian ones). Indeed, despite the 3,000-year time gap, ancient Hittite and modern English have dozens of words in common.
For example, “water” in Hittite was “Watar.” “Duttar” was a significant component of the Hittite term for “daughter.” Their word for “wine” was “wiyana,” and their word for “new” was “newa.” “Heart” or “cardiac” was represented by the word “card.”
The study of ancient scriptoria in Bogazkoy will provide linguists with a deeper understanding of the development of Indo-European languages during the Bronze Age, which are distantly connected to English.
Professor Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul is currently leading the excavations. The study of the texts on the clay tablets is being carried out by paleo-linguists from Wurzburg and Istanbul universities.
According to cuneiform script expert Professor Daniel Schwemer from Wurzburg University, our understanding of Bronze Age Middle Eastern history is incomplete. However, the recent discovery of additional clay tablet documents is aiding scholars in significantly expanding our knowledge on the subject.
At the archaeological site of Bogazkoy, approximately 30 to 40 cuneiform tablets or fragments are being discovered each year. This location, also known as ancient Hattusa, holds significant importance as it served as the capital of the Hittite empire from approximately 1650 BC to 1200 BC. As one of the earliest large imperial political systems, it was home to a highly productive civil service that generated a substantial amount of documents.
The Hittite kingdom extended from the western Aegean Sea to present-day northern Iraq in the east, and from the northern Black Sea to Lebanon in the south.
The development of iron, advanced lightweight war chariots, and a strong civil service led to significant changes in human history brought about by the civilization. These technological advancements allowed for the expansion of warfare and government, resulting in the formation of larger empires.
Ongoing excavations at Bogazkoy are providing valuable insights into the functioning of the Hittite civilization and its significant impact on human history.