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The Decipherment of Hittite

Although the Hittites are mentioned several times in the Bible their empire and its location were forgotten until the nineteenth century when the slow process of their rediscovery began. It is remarkable that such an extensive, important civilization which left so many example of its art and literature would be forgotten but it was. It was rediscovered only because of this extensive body of art and literature.

The first notice of the art and literature of the Hittites was due to a remarkable scholar-traveler named Johann Ludwig Burchhardt. Burckhardt was born in Switzerland and studied Arabic in Germany and England. He later took British citizenship before traveling to the Middle East as the representative of the British African Society. Burckhardt, a Swiss who had become British then became Arabic. He became a Muslim and assimilated the Arab culture and language so well that he was allowed to visit Mecca twice. He adopted the Arabic name of Ibrahim and was addressed as Hadji for having made a pilgrimage to Mecca. From 1809 to his death in 1817 he travel throughout the Middle East. In the Syrian city of Hama he discovered a petroglyph whose hieroglyphic script was not Egyptian. He described the hieroglyphics in his memoirs which were subsequently published by the London Royal Geographic Society. Although this was the first modern notice of what later was identified as Hittite not much notice was taken of it. It was sixty years later that others rediscovered the hieroglyphics at Hama. Copies of those hieroglyphs along with four other similar hieroglyphics found elsewhere were sent to the British Museum in London. This called scholars attention to these non-Egyptian hieroglyphics and subsequently other examples were found in Anatolia and in Egyptian. In Egypt scholars found copies of a treaty made between the Pharoh Ramses II and the Hittite king. When the treaty was agreed upon a record was made both in Egyptian and Hittite. This not only provided a bilingual sample which could aid in the decipherment of the non-Egyptian hieroglyphics but it identified the source of the hieroglyphics as being Hittite. In 1887 at Amarna in Egypt a cache of letters recording correspondence between the pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of the Hittites was found which included documents in a cuneiform script. This cuneiform script was given the name Arzawa after the name of the city of Arzawa in southwestern Anatolia. This linked the cuneiform writings with the Hittite hieroglyphic writings.

The next stage of the rediscovery of the Hittite civilization came when the Welsh linguistic scholar Archibald Henry Sayce. Sayce recognized that the art associated with hieroglyphic writing in petroglyphs found at various sites in Anatolia and elsewhere in the Middle East was evidence of a civilization and empire. Sayce wrote in his memoirs,

It was clear that in pre-hellenic times a powerful empire must have existed in Asia Minor which extended from the Aegean to the Halys southward into Syria, to Carchemish and Hamath, and possessed its own special artistic culture and its own special script.

Sayce's notion of a Hittite empire was not immediately accepted but he publicized it, including his conclusion that the capital of the empire was at the city of Boghaz Keui (Bogazkoy) about one hundred miles east of Ankara, Turkey. The German archaeologist, Hugo Winkler, excavated at Bogazkoy from 1906 to 1908 and verified that it was the site of the Hittite capital, Hattusas. Not only did the excavation confirm the site as the Hittite capital but it uncovered the royal Hittite archives containing about twenty five thousand documents in the Hittite cuneiform script, Arzawa.

At this point it was generally believed that the Hittite language was Semitic. A Norwegian scholar suggested that Hittite might be an Indo-European language but his hypothesis was not given any credence.

A Czech linguist, Bedrich Hrozn� who specialized in Semitic languages decided to attempt the decipherment of the Hittite cuneiform script. He was able to visit Istanbul and obtain copies of some of the cuneiform text from Boghaz Keui. In one text he found a example of two rhyming lines that looked promising. He knew the phonetic values of the cuneiform symbols so he rendered the two lines into the Latin alphabet as:

nu ninda en e-iz-za-te-ni
wa-a-tar-ma e-ku-ut-te-ni


Hrozny recognized the cuneiform ideogram ninda as representing bread. This led him to speculate that some of the other words in the lines might be for something like eating. He at that point was still considering Hittite as a Semitic language so he was looking for words that might be cognate with words for eating and so forth in other Semitic languages. Hrozn� was a Semitic scholar but as a Czech he was also familiar with German. In scanning the lines looking for something that would be associated with bread what does he find at the beginning of the second line but wa-a-tar. It fairly leaps out as virtually the English word water although Hrozn� probably saw it as a cognate of the German word for water, wasser. This was the clue to Hrozn� that Hittite belonged to the Indo-European language family. He found similarities of the words in the lines to other Indo-European languages and was able to translate the pair of lines as:

Now you will eat bread and drink water.

It must have been truly awesome for Hrozn� to find the Hittites speaking to him after a span about three millenia.

With this breakthrough Hrozn� and others were very quickly able to translate the Hittite cuneiform script and recover the historical record of the Hittite empire and its culture. An early Hittite king Hattusilis completed the Hittite conquest of Anatolia and northern Syria around 1600 B.C. His grandson sent armies into Mesopotamia to defeat the rulers of Babylon. By 1300 B.C. the Hittite Empire was challenging the Egyptian Empire in Canaan. The confrontation led to a stalemate. A century or so later the Hittite Empire fell suddenly, probably due to the upheavals associated with the invasion of the Sea Peoples. But for a long time before the collapse the Hittites were famous for their iron weapons. Prior to the discovery of how to smelt iron ore, weapons and tools were made of bronze. Bronze was copper combined with about ten percent tin. The Middle East did not have a local source of tin so when military turmoil cut off the tin trade the Middle East was desparate for a metal to substitute for bronze. The Hittite's iron technology was a major source of their power.

While the cuneiform script was deciphered in the early twentieth century the Hittite hieroglyhic script was not deciphered until the 1930's. It thus took more than a century from the first glimmerings of there being a Hittite civilization with Burckhardt's findings of petroglyphs at Hama to the finally decipherment.


James Norman (Schmidt), Ancestral Voices: Decoding Ancient Languages, Four Winds Press, New York, 1975.

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