Friday, September 17, 2010

Those Wacky Hittites, I.

So: here's a question: "Why the Hittites?"

Or, as some guy named Bruce says,

One of my favorite teachers used to say that one of the fun things about history is that you could always look at the same data and see something you never before. "For example," he intoned, "I just last night realized that you can't turn a pyramid upside down."I think I'm having an upside-down pyramid moment. The subject is the Hittites, who developed a great empire in and around Central Anatolia from (say) the 18th to the 12th Century BC.. At least in this part of the world, it was about the fourth empire ever, following the Akkadians, Ur-three, and Babylon.It is also the first of these empires to be located outside of a river basin. At least at its height, away from the water: its focal point is the Anatolian plateau, up around 3,000 feet.Which brings me to my pyramid moment: this is a terrible place to build an empire. Paul Collier argues that if you want to avoid poverty as a nation, one of the things you don't want to be is "landlocked." Especially not with unfriendly neighbors, of which the Hittites seemed to have plenty--and if they weren't unfriendly to begin with, the Hittites would make them so (forget Switzerland: it only looks landlocked; in fact it is the center of a thriving market).

I'm quoting this after seeing it quoted on Brad Delong's blog. I found Brad because he was practically the only guy on the Internet to care about Twirlip of the Mists (hexapodia is the key insight!), but it turns out that he's semi-famous. That officially makes this an Important and Interesting Question. Or, by the time anyone reads this, an Old and Played Out Question. It's also a question I find fascinating, because it is located at some of the tenderest and most tendentious of the points where a professional practice of history meets the narrative version that you and I both love. If you do love history, and read it a great deal, you will probably occasionally pick up a professional work. Instead of telling a story, it will begin with a discussion of the other historians who have written on the subject in the past, followed by a discussion of the sources, followed by a new intepretation of what the sources tell us.

Is that history? No, you'll say, this is history. And good method, too. First the distinguished professor writes a book that gets at the issues that these tedious professional historians care about, and then he spins out a book that tells the actual story of the Hittites! And you only have to read one.

Except, well, not to criticise Professor Bryce or anything, but we need a professional historian with a flamethrower here, not a word processor. On the outside, we have here a peaceful village of narrative factology, but a closer look reveals that some sinister force is at work here!

What am I talking about? Okay, here's a short version of the history of the Hittites: "About 5000BC, a tribe separated out from the ancestral Indo-Europeans in their homeland on the Pontic steppe and settles in Transcaucasia. (Armenia, Georgia, places like that.) About 2300BC, this tribe surges westwards, capturing and burning a number of cities and eventually establishing itself around the town of Kussara in the south of the Anatolian plateau. Sometime around 1800BC, Pittana, King of Kussara, conquers the city of Kanesh with its flourishing Assyrian trade. The citadel of Hattusas near the modern Turkish town of Bogazkale falls to his son, Anitta. The family's use of the Hittite language is attested both in the Assyrian letters and in a tablet Anitta left at the site of Hattusas, proclaiming that he had ruined it and sown weeds upon the site, symbolising a lasting curse on the site. Nevertheless, a slightly later Hittite King named Hattusilis I made his capital at Hattusas as part of a reign of terror across the Middle East that culminated whenhis son, Mursili captures Babylon in 1531BC. The Empire of Hammurabi is overthrown, and barbarian tribesmen take over the city. Meanwhile, the civilisation of Minoan Crete is overtaken by Mycenaean Greeks, more recent Indo-European emigrants, while the Kaska and the Mittani make inroads in the Hittite homeland. Mursili is killed and usurped, the Hittite state goes into decline, as does civilisation in general.

Only in the reign of Tudhaliya I in the early 1300s BC does this age of chaos end. The Hittites emerge as one of the great empires of the Middle East, fighting, trading, and even intermarrying with Egypt, and managing many client states beyond the mountain ranges of the Taurus in northern Syria. They even fight the earliest battle that anyone has likely heard about, Kadesh, or Armageddon.

Unfortunately, all things come to an end. Sometime after about 1200BC, a coalition of pre-Vikings called the Sea Peoples fall on the civilisations of the Middle East. Egypt survives, but even in distant Babylonia, cities are sacked. Hattusas is destroyed, and another age of empires is at an end. When the lights come on again, a number of small kingdoms across the Taurus in southern Turkey and northern Syria claim the Hittite inheritance. They are the "Hittites" of the Bible and eventually fall victim to the Assyrians. All that is left is a slice of Turkey from the homeland to the Aegean Sea in which various dialects descended from Hittite (or perhaps cousins to it) are spoken.

These notably include Lydian, language of one of the great kingdoms that benefitted from the overthrow of the Assyrians to rise to great power status. Unfortunately, this great kingdom succumbs to the over-civilised softness and sexuality of a typical Oriental court, and was overthrown in return by Cyrus the Persian. Its last king, Croesus, was born off to adorn the court of Cyrus and his successors, giving wise advice, all too rarely heeded. And with Croesus, Lydia begins to fade into history. Neither the Greek historian Herodotus nor, more surprisingly, the earlier poet Homer knows anything about the Hittites.

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