Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Hittites Lived in Interesting Times"

You never know when the flight attendant is going to get on the speaker and ask "Does anyone onboard know anything about the Hittites?"
And should that time come, you will be ready.

From the art mavens at Apollo Magazine, May 2019:
In around 1200 BC, the Near East was dominated by a group of interconnected complex states – scholars refer to them as the ‘Great Powers’ Club’. Over the course of about 400 years, from 1500 to 1100 BC, this club variously included Egypt, Hatti (the land of the Hittites of Anatolia), Babylonia, Assyria, and Mitanni. In each state, kings and nobles led lavish lifestyles in their palaces and sent expensive gifts to one another; this created a far-flung international trade in luxury goods, feeding the palace economies. A shared identity developed among the palace elites too; they knew each other’s fashions, literature, and even spoke Akkadian as their lingua franca. But there was an unexpected side effect: each state became interconnected, the stability of one dependent on the others.

Then came the Bronze Age collapse. After 1200 BC, a combination of environmental disasters, from ‘earthquake storms’ to droughts, led to famine and mass migrations. Over decades, the inter-palace trade in luxury goods dried up, economies crashed, and elites were cut off from one another. Cities fell amid the chaos, some due to invasions, others perhaps due to popular uprisings. These events redrew the eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern world’s political map: the territories controlled by Babylon and Assyria shrunk to their cores; Egypt lost its empire and crumbled into political disunity; Greece entered a dark age; meanwhile, the Hittite empire, stretching from western Anatolia into Syria, completely collapsed, leaving a void. The world of interconnected palace systems ceased to exist.

An exhibition opening this month at the Louvre, ‘Forgotten Kingdoms: From the Hittite Empire to the Arameans’ (2 May–12 August), will explore these dramatic events from the point of view of the Hittites; it will take visitors through the rise of their empire in Syria and Anatolia, their conflicts and eventual treaty with ancient Egypt, and the world-altering collapse at the end of the Bronze Age, which left a power vacuum in south-eastern Anatolia and Syria. But more intriguingly, it will take visitors through what happened next: the emergence and short-lived independence of the Neo-Hittite and Aramean kingdoms. Though they may not be as well-known as the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, or Persians, and are not often the subject of major exhibitions, it fell to these kingdoms to make their way in a shattered world. Some would say they lived in interesting times. Others might call it a dark age.
When the Hittite empire collapsed, territory once under Hittite control returned to local populations. Left to their own devices, small kingdoms formed, some established by members of the fallen Hittite regime. Initially, these kingdoms may have been loosely controlled by the Great King of Carchemish in Syria – a regional capital in the days of empire – who was a tangential member of the Hittite royal family. Ultimately though, each kingdom became independent, forming alliances only when necessary. It is these 15 kingdoms in south-eastern Anatolia and northern Syria – those that attempted to continue Hittite traditions – that are today known as Neo-Hittite; these primarily spoke the Indo-European language Luwian and carved Luwian hieroglyphs on their monuments.

Many people today are aware of the Hittites because of references to them in the Bible; however, the connection between the biblical Hittites and the groups identified by archaeologists is not straightforward. Scholars have divided the biblical Hittites into two categories: a small tribe living in southern Palestine before the arrival of the Israelites, unconnected to the Hittite kingdom of Anatolia; and the people of the Iron Age kingdoms in Syria and south-eastern Anatolia that we today call Neo-Hittite. Interestingly, the great Hittite civilisation that existed in Anatolia and Syria in the Late Bronze Age – rediscovered only in the 19th century – is not mentioned in the Bible at all.

While the Neo-Hittite kingdoms were emerging, a previously nomadic tribal people decided to settle down and found their own kingdoms across Syria and in northern Mesopotamia: these were the Arameans, speakers of the Semitic language Aramaic. First evidenced in an Assyrian inscription of the 12th century BC, the Arameans’ tribal origin is reflected in the names of the states they established: each began with the word Bit meaning ‘House of’, connecting each with a particular family line. The Arameans established their kingdoms in key locations along trade routes (though some cities they controlled had already existed for many centuries, including Damascus).

One of the curious aspects of this phase in Near Eastern history is the interplay between innovation and tradition. Before the collapse, the Near East relied on scribes trained in Akkadian cuneiform for international correspondence; it was key to diplomatic and trade relations. To learn such a complex writing system, however, each scribe had to undergo years of training and memorise hundreds of symbols. Few had access to this life-changing opportunity, and even fewer after the collapse, when centres of scribal training – usually palace-sponsored – either closed or became reduced in number. Although the Neo-Hittite states of Syria continued to use Luwian hieroglyphs on their monuments, it is in this period that we find the beginnings of a world-altering development: the spread of alphabetic writing.

The Arameans didn’t invent alphabetic script – this honour goes to the Phoenicians of the Lebanese coast – but they did popularise it. Adopting the Phoenician alphabet in around 1100 BC, within a few centuries, the Arameans had transformed it into their own flowing cursive script: Aramaic. And afterwards, due to the success of Aramean cities in the trade network, their language and its script spread widely. Any smart trader learned Aramaic as a second language, and its script was much quicker to pick up than the Assyrians’ cuneiform.

Over time, Aramaic inscriptions came to be used for all sorts of purposes, from royal inscriptions to religious and funerary texts. Aramaic words on some funerary stele, for example, claim that no silver or copper was placed in the grave – an attempt to deter grave robbers. Such an inscription can be seen in ‘Forgotten Kingdoms’ on a stele from Neirab in Syria, dated to the 7th century BC....

Huh, shades of San Francisco, 21st century AD:

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