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Archaeological research in the Middle East is revealing how a long-forgotten ancient civilisation used previously undiscovered linguistics to promote multiculturalism and political stability.
The groundbreaking findings are also revealing new insights into the functioning of ancient empires.
Current digs in Turkey at the site of the former Hittite empire’s capital city have unearthed compelling proof that the empire’s governmental administration featured specialized departments focused on studying the religions of conquered groups.
During the second millennium BC, the Hittite leaders instructed their civil servants to document the religious practices and customs of their subject peoples in their own languages, using Hittite script. This was done in order to preserve these traditions and include them in the empire’s diverse and all-encompassing religious system.
Modern scholars of ancient languages have found evidence that Hittite civil servants documented and preserved religious texts from a minimum of five different ethnic groups.
The most recent instance was discovered only two months ago. It was found to be inscribed in a Middle Eastern language that had previously been unknown and had been lost for approximately 3,000 years.
Over the years, approximately 30,000 whole and partial clay tablets have been discovered in the remains of the old Hittite capital, Hattusa (currently called Bogazkoy), located about 100 miles east of Ankara, the modern capital of Turkey.
Most of the texts were written in the primary language of the empire, which was Hittite. However, approximately 5 percent of them were written either entirely or partially in the languages of the 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 recently uncovered minority language, documented by government scribes (previously unfamiliar to contemporary scholars), is now referred to as Kalasmaic. It appears to have been used by a group of people living in an area known as Kalasma on the outskirts of the empire.
This finding indicates that the empire took the effort to document, analyze, and safeguard even the lesser-known languages. This also opens up the possibility that other lesser-known languages from the Middle East may be unearthed and documented on Hittite clay tablets, specifically in the ancient scriptoria currently being excavated at Bogazkoy by archaeologists.
The civil servants of the empire used a version of cuneiform, the oldest writing system in the world originating from Mesopotamia, to transcribe their manuscripts. This script consisted of groups of wedge-shaped lines that represented syllables.
In ancient times, the region now known as Turkey in the Middle East was abundant with languages.
The variety of languages is commonly influenced by the terrain. When there are many mountains and secluded valleys, there is a higher probability for the development and preservation of multiple languages.
Currently, there are only five minority languages that have been identified from the Bronze Age Hittite empire. However, due to the mountainous terrain, it is possible that there were actually around 30 languages spoken during that time.
Next to the historical Hittite Empire were the Caucasus mountains, where approximately 40 languages are still spoken today.
The Hittite language is the oldest documented Indo-European language in the world.
The oldest writings originated in the 16th century BC. Being part of the Indo-European language family, it shares similarities with various contemporary European languages, such as English, and numerous Asian languages, including Iranian and various Indian languages. Surprisingly, despite the 3,000-year difference, ancient Hittite and modern English share several words.
For example, the Hittite word for “water” was Watar. The word for “daughter” was Duttar. Their term for “wine” was wiyana, and they used the word “heart/cardiac” for “card”. Additionally, their word for “new” was newa.
The archaeological digs at the ancient scriptoria in Bogazkoy will provide linguistics specialists with a deeper comprehension of the development of ancient Indo-European languages from the Bronze Age, which have a distant connection to English.
Professor Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul is currently leading the excavations. The clay tablets are being studied by paleo-linguists from Wurzburg and Istanbul universities.
According to Professor Daniel Schwemer of Wurzburg University, the history of the Middle East during the Bronze Age is not fully comprehended. However, the recent discovery of clay tablet documents is aiding scholars in expanding their understanding of this era. Professor Schwemer, an expert in cuneiform script, is spearheading the investigation of these newly found texts.
The dig site at Bogazkoy is currently producing 30 to 40 newly discovered cuneiform tablets or fragments per year. Bogazkoy, also known as ancient Hattusa, holds great significance as the center of the Hittite empire from 1650 BC to 1200 BC. As one of the earliest and largest imperial political systems, it was home to a thriving civil service that generated a significant amount of written documentation.
The Hittite empire spanned from the Aegean Sea in the western direction to modern-day northern Iraq in the east, and from the Black Sea in the north to Lebanon in the south.
The civilization had a profound impact on human history due to its advancements in technology, such as the utilization of iron, the creation of advanced and lightweight war chariots, and the establishment of a significant civil service. These developments allowed for the expansion of warfare and government, ultimately leading to the formation of vast empires.
Ongoing excavations at Bogazkoy are providing valuable new insights into the functioning of the Hittite civilization, and its impact on the course of human history.