Friday, September 17, 2010

Those Wacky Hittites, II.

So that's a brief history of the Hittites. (Wikipedia has a little more detail.) If you look carefully, though, two threads stick out, suggesting interests not well contained by the subject of the Kingdom of the Men of the City of the Storm God of Hattusas, Heirs to Anitta: language, and (related to that), an unhealthy interest in barbarian invaders. Why does such a short summary digress into the fate of the town of Knossos in Crete, or tell you that "Indo-Hittite" is a separate branch of Indo-European? The latter's not even true!

It's because I'm quoting Straw Man, the most prolific guy on the Internet. I hate Straw Man. He uses history is some pretty distasteful ways. Fortunately, he's always wrong, always makes bad arguments, and is thus easy to refute. If he didn't exist, I'd have to invent him!

So let's play professional historian and talk about earlier work and sources. I said that we should start with previous historians. And, wow, we have the original here. Not Herodotus, mind you, because he's a piker compared to these guys. According to the Bible, the Hittites were round and about in the time of David and Solomon, but at this point we're still in the introduction to the Bible's sections of "scientific" history. Those focus on events from the establishment of the Neo-Assyrian Empire to its fall, in a hurricane of events embracing Egyptian, Babylonian, Elamite and Assyrian armies, as well as small players. And they have an agenda. One agenda is to establish, very clearly, between the white hats and the black hats, so that you can make judgement calls on the various Jewish political figures who dealt with them. For that, the Bible historians delve back into the Book of Genesis and the story of Noah. Not the story about the ark and two-by-two and all that stuff, but about how after the Flood, Noah's sons became the fathers of the nations of the Earth. Shem, oldest and bestest. Next up and next best is Japtheth, and finally there is young Ham, who is no good at all. Not surprisingly, Shem turns out to be the ancestor of the Twelve Tribes, while the sons Japtheth and Ham become the white hats and the black hats, respectively.

This sounds like a pretty arbitrary exercise, and it is. When Eighteenth Century historians tried to organise the world by this scheme, they tended to put the Japthethites up north, in Greece and whatnot, and the Hamites down south. They were helped by the Bible historians' decision to include a bunch of raiders who troubled the settled powers, the Gimmeru, among the Japthethites. It was pretty obvious to these historians that the Gimmeru were the Cimmerians of Herodotus, who apparently hailed from the Crimea originally.

The Cimmerians!

The Eighteenth Century happened to be an era of revival for the Welsh, for reasons having to do with patronage politics and the development of the English Church and the social roots of Nonconformism and blah blah, oh please shoot me now. (Just kidding: another great book I haven't read!) Anyway, the old Welsh name for Wales is "Cymru," so it was obvious what happened here. Those great guys from the Bible just up and wandered across Europe and settled in Wales. Whereas the English were born when some Trojan had a one-night stand with a Baal-worshipping proto-Arab. Or something. The point is, the Welsh are gods among men. You can even extend this to the Scotch-Irish of America, if you like. Because shut up! That's why!

Naturally, when a Welsh revivalist lawyer/politician named William Jones arrived in the British province of Bengal in India in 1784, it wasn't at all his agenda to prove that the other party had been mismanaging and misconceiving Indian affairs. So that could hardly have been the point of his discovery that the traditional language of India, Sanskrit, was related to Greek, Latin, and no doubt Celtic, and that the Indians were therefore Japthethites whose ancient traditions came right down from Noah and therefore had to be respected, unlike the way the previous lot of English appointees had tried to run Bengal. Am I ladling on the irony too thick, here? Because of the ways these ideas were to evolve, I have little respect for them, which is a little unfair to Jones. On the other hand, the central insight for which he gets historical credit was not original to him. In fact, the problem here is that the poets and writers of the Sanskrit literary revival at the court of the Mughal emperors for the last century and so are almost at fault for obscuring what should have always been obvious. Their point was that Sanskrit was the perfect original language of the gods, so it was blindingly obvious, and no insight whatsoever, that Latin and Greek were descended from Sanskrit!

What Jones did say that was novel was that the Cimmerians or whatnot who brought Sanskrit to India must have -well, brought Sanskrit to India. Sometime roughly about 1500BC, a bunch of Cimmerians must have descended across the mountain ranges that separate Indian from Inner Eurasia and conquered the people who got to India before them. Hamitics, no doubt. (Where does this leap of logic come from? Well, not only had the Mughal Dynasty come from the north, but within surprisingly few years, the British regime in India was going to be devoting much of its military attention and effort to India's northwestern frontier. The peoples beyond, the soldiers argued, would be plundering the rich cities of the plains and ruining British investments unless they got more money and resources. It had happened before! Right back to the beginning of time!)
And why 1500BC? Because the Greeks who besieged Troy were in Greece in 1200BC, and you have to give a margin of three centuries or so for the two peoples to develop different languages.

By this time, we're living in a world where ancient Greek civilisation is at its peak of influence, and Christianity is in a bit of a retreat. So the same guys who are still taking Homer as a historical source are beginning to look a little askance at the Bible. And Jews, too. Evolution was where it was at, and clearly the Jews were a different race --an inferior race-- compared to the Nordic peoples. Evolution allows deep time, so we can throw out the tight chronologies of the Bible and allow the "Indo-Europeans" an ancient past in their homeland. Which was clearly far from the Asiatic Semites. Inner Eurasia. That'd be a good place for it.

Now, there are some great scholars who argue for the distant homeland, and I'm not actually that impressed with the "Anatolian" hypothesis that the origins of Indo-European are to be found in Anatolia. I'm in the strange position of being convinced by the less-convincing hypothesis. Why? Because Hittites.

So, these Hittites? Who are they? From the late Nineteenth Century, archaeologists began to find cuneiform tablets at two major sites: Amarna in Egypt, and Hattusas in Turkey. From an early date, it became clear that they were sampling two major state diplomatic archives from the Late Bronze Age era of roughly 1400--1150BC. They were, unfortunately, not the only state archives of the two states involved, because kings moved capitals fairly frequently in those days, but they were illuminating. At least, the Egyptian one was, because they could be read. Or, most of them could. Some of the cuneiform was in Akkadian, the Semitic language that seemed ot have been the international language of diplomacy, and some was in the native language, or languages, of the respective empires. Egyptologists could read Egyptian by that time, but the stuff from the Bogazkale, not so much. What was it?

In 1915, A Czech linguist, Jan Hrozny, published a translation, establishing that Hittite was an Indo-European language. This prepared the way for a sources-based history of the Hittite state, a unique enterprise in the writing of professional history. Historians use the archives of modern states all the time, but we have nothing like the quality of insights they can generate about, say, eighteenth century Prussia for even the Roman Empire, never mind a Bronze Age state! Trevor Bryce's Kingdom of the Hittites is the most recent and in some ways the best of these works. Importantly, he takes Hrozny fully on board for the first time.

So what the heck does that mean? There is a problem with Hrozny's insight. It came with what we now understand to be a somewhat naive reading of the history of the Hittite state, according to which we can take these archives as evidence for the earliest history of the state. And so we know that Indo-European speakers were in Anatolia by 1800BC. The Sea Peoples were not the first eruption of Indo-European speakers into the Middle East. (We no longer take this naive reading. The archives were composed after 1400BC, and there is no reason to take documents claiming to tell the story of Anitta at face value. Fortunately for the linguistic part of the story, we have the Kultepe letters.)

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