Hittite Words, Byzantine Walls: what the West as we know it owes Anatolia’s empires
2,000 years of Anatolian biological continuity and cultural significance
What constitutes civilization really? At a minimum, you take a cultural package with some key hallmarks like literacy, add institutional phenomena like bureaucracy and a standing army, probably layer on political ideas of nationhood that outlast kings and emperors. Defined thus, civilization came to our species only five thousand years ago, in Sumer and Egypt.
Early adopters though they might have been, Sumer and Egypt were not destined to remain lonely and exceptional beacons in prehistory’s dark mists for long. In the centuries after 2000 BC, sparks of new civilizations began to blink on across the world, from the Aegean to China's Yellow River Valley. But it was to the north of those first two hearths of human civilization that the most consequential new power would eventually emerge, an Anatolian state that would cast a shadow over the Near East for 500 years. It first staggered to its feet as barbarian tribes coalesced into an expansionist kingdom whose influence would extend from the Dardanelles in the northwest to the cities of Syria and Upper Mesopotamia in the southeast.
As early as 3700 BC, Mesopotamia had established colonies in the Anatolian highlands; the rough-hewn land was a critical source of minerals and gems. History began in Sumer, and so did colonialism and material exploitation of weaker, less organized peoples. These early Mesopotamians knew Anatolia as the land of Hatti, a collection of fractious city-states of note for little more than being perennially caught in the machinations of more ancient and mighty powers, primarily relevant as one of the numerous barbaric lands from which Sumer and its northern neighbor Akkad drew commodities needed by their world-famous artisans. The native Hattians spoke a language unrelated to any in their region and have left no linguistic descendants today. But 4,000 years ago a cultural revolution occured on the plateau, and the ruling dynasties of Anatolia were toppled as the reins of power passed to a new people and a new culture. These latter were the people mentioned in the Bible as the Hittites. But that name was based on the Hatti whom they now ruled; in their own language, the Hittites were Nesites, after their early capital city of Nesa.
These northerners from the land of Hatti entered recorded history with a thunderclap in 1595 BC, when they swept out of the dark, sending their massed armies south, first to destroy Syria’s great ancient city, Mari, and subsequently to capture the even greater city of Babylon. The sack of Babylon marked the end of the Old Babylonian Empire, in existence since its founding centuries prior by Hammurabi the Lawgiver, whose code echoed down into the Old Testament with principles like an “eye for an eye.” Antiquity’s geopolitics took a new turn as Babylonia fell and the land of Hatti rose. Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed documents a world in the shadow of a centuries-long rivalry between the two great superpowers of the age, New Kingdom Egypt and the Hittite New Kingdom. For centuries these two empires were constantly locked in either diplomacy or war. A long-forgotten marriage proposal from the son of Hittite king Šuppiluliuma I to the widow of the boy-Pharaoh Tutankhamen gives a flavor of relations during times of peace. Better known is the world’s first documented pitched battle at Kadesh in Syria, whose tactics and formations we know about thanks to Pharaoh Ramesses the Great’s boasts of victory having been faithfully recorded. These ancient dynastic maneuvers and battles prefigured the region’s enduring geopolitical significance as millennia of clashing civilizations roiled Eurasia, long after those Bronze-Age kingdoms had faded into the mists of history, replaced by the messianic religions with world-conquering ambitions we still know today.
The first Indo-Europeans’ empire of the word
But the Hittites matter more than as just protagonists in human history’s first superpower rivalry; their ethnolinguistic significance is no small matter: Hittite texts reveal that Nesite was an Indo-European language. The Hittite language’s connections are apparent in the affinities of certain vocabulary to contemporary counterparts in today's Indo-European languages. For English-speakers, transparent pairs include the words nēwas for new, hās for ash, tāru for tree and wēs for we. Until Hittite texts were first deciphered in the 1910’s, scholars had relied on ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit alone to reconstruct the nascent Indo-European languages’ early evolution. But those languages were written down more than 1,000 years after the time of the Hittites, who co-opted Sumerian cuneiform. The first Classical Greek inscriptions date to 800 BC, Latin to 700 BC and Sanskrit to after 100 BC. The Hittite contribution, on the other hand, pushed the written record of Indo-European languages back to the early Bronze Age, not only with their own language, but also with evidence of two other distinct related Anatolian languages in their royal archives, Luvian and Palaic (decades later Bronze Age Linear B was also found to be Greek, though not as antique as Hittite).
Despite clearly belonging to the Indo-European family, these Anatolian languages are also very distinctive from all the tree’s other branches. While there are many decades-long debates about phylogenetic relationships between disparate clusters of the Indo-European languages, like the postulated connection between the Italic (now Romance) and Celtic languages, there is no debate that the Anatolian branch seems to have split off far before the rest.
This “basal” position of Hittite, Luvian and Palaic remains critical to understanding the common origin and development of the Indo-European languages spoken natively by fully 50% of humans alive today. The existence of a well-developed Hittite language in texts dated as early as 1950 BC pushes the origin of not just Hittite, but Proto-Indo-European itself back vastly earlier than 4,000 years, demolishing the case for a 4000-5000 year-old origin sometimes posited earlier.
The diversity of Indo-European languages already present in Anatolia during the Bronze Age has led to the hypothesis, long mulled over by historical linguists and archaeologists, that the whole family may have originated in Asia Minor. Archaeologist Colin Renfew argued this position vociferously in the 1970’s, and it was seconded by population geneticists like L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, who applied phylogenetic models to linguistic evolution. Renfrew originated the theory that Indo-European languages spread out of Anatolia with agriculture 9,000 years ago, preferring an estimated arrival in Europe far earlier than other scholars, who held that Indo-Europeans overthrew the Neolithic farming societies 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.