Hittites and Egyptians

History’s first peace treaty dates to c. 1259 BC, and was ratified between the Hittite state in Anatolia and New Kingdom Egypt. I had the opportunity to see remains of both civilizations on my recent trip. They’re quite different from each other.

Ancient Egypt is very well-known. Their monuments still stand after millennia, and their style is unmistakeable. The pyramids of Giza to the west of Cairo are perhaps the most famous remains, but the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BC) was ruled from Upper Egypt, specifically Thebes, now known as Luxor. By this point Egyptians were no longer building pyramids, but they certainly had not lost their taste for monumental architecture. On the east bank of the Nile, you can visit two massive temple complexes, Luxor and Karnak. These were once connected by the so-called Avenue of the Sphinxes, a 1.5 mile road lined with recumbent sphinx sculptures, part of which is still visible.

Luxor Temple consists of pylons, obelisks, hypostyle halls, massive sculptures, and incised hieroglyphics on almost every vertical surface. Of course, one could spend one’s entire career studying the history of its construction, use, excavation, and restoration, which like that of most Egyptian monuments is ongoing. The signs suggested that Luxor Temple was used for the Opet Festival when, once a year, statues of the Theban Triad of gods were brought from the Karnak Temple to the Luxor Temple, in a celebration of rebirth and renewal.

Originally there were two obelisks, but the other one is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Behind the remaining obelisk are two “pylons,” wall-like structures that mark the temple’s entrance. The vertical incisions once held flagpoles.

The Karnak Temple is within walking distance of the Luxor Temple (although not to worry, plenty of cab drivers will offer to take you in their horse-drawn carriages if you don’t want to go on foot). Between the two temples is the Luxor Museum, which is much smaller than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and displays fewer artifacts, but I think it’s a good example of the “less is more” principle – what they do have is of a pretty high quality, and the building is architecturally pleasing too. I was glad to see the mummy that Emory returned to Egypt in 2003.

The Karnak Temple is even more impressive. It is certainly more extensive. Here is a model of the whole thing as it may have looked at its height.

And here are some shots of its current condition.

Of course, the Karnak Temple, the main home for the gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, comprises an entire field of study. I enjoyed speaking with Mahmoud (referenced below) and one Ben Pennington of the University of Southampton, who was drilling core samples that would help reveal the fluvial (and settlement) history of the place going back some 7000 years.

And this is just on the East Bank! On the other side of the Nile, one finds the various mortuary temples constructed for New Kingdom pharaohs, like Hatshepsut or Ramesses III.

Then there’s the famous Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs were actually entombed. King Tut’s tomb (designated KV62), although the most famous, was actually one of the smallest. Most of the tombs go quite a long way down into the limestone cliffs – workers would start digging it at the beginning a king’s reign, and keep on going until he died. They they had seventy days to finish everything up, which is why none of them is 100% complete. Of course, thieves stole all the grave goods long ago, but the decoration remains intact. Photography was strictly prohibited, however.

As I say, all this is very impressive. The Egyptians obviously had a wealthy nation and a strong, highly centralized state that could commandeer sufficient surpluses, and redirect them to architectural projects for which they clearly had a large class of highly skilled artisans. The desert clime of Egypt has probably helped preserve these for the ages, and you can’t help but admire their work, so many thousands of years later.

The Hittite state, by contrast, has not left remains as impressive. No one even knew there were Hittites until the late nineteenth century, when archaeologists began uncovering evidence of their Bronze-Age civilization in Anatolia. That they were named “Hittites,” after the Biblical “children of Heth,” is a matter of convenience – debate continues about whether or not the identification is valid. As more and more was uncovered, two things became apparent: the Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, representing the first appearance of that particular language family in the narrative of Western Civilization, and they were pioneers in the smelting of iron, and are thus forerunners of the Iron Age, which succeeded the collapse of their state around 1180 BC.

Hittite artifacts may be viewed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, but to view an actual archaeological site, you have to travel to Boğazkale, in Çorum Province. There you can walk around Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire. It takes the form of a circular wall, enclosing an area several acres in size, with numerous settlements within it. A model greets you as you enter.

But most of what you’ll see comprises nothing more than building foundations.

The Hittites eventually adopted cuneiform writing, which is how we know their language was Indo-European. Prior to that time, they employed a script known as Hittite hieroglyphics; these may be seen inscribed on this rock…

…and in this chamber.

On the exterior wall around Hattusa, we find the famous lion gate.

But on the whole, this picture conveys the sense I got when I visited: the Hittites adapted themselves to their environment, rather than trying to master it. The mountain forms a natural defense that they incorporated into their city.

By this criterion, the Egyptians were far more “civilized” than the Hittites. You wonder how there could ever have been any agreement between them based on the notion of equality.

But I couldn’t help but wonder whether living in ancient Egypt wasn’t like living in North Korea, with the only difference being that people had more to eat. Here we have an entire state set up to satisfy the whim of a single individual. (It’s true that the Luxor and Karnak Temples were ostensibly for the gods, but it was clear that each pharaoh took pleasure in adding something to them, and thereby glorifying himself.) The only art allowed was propaganda that honored the gods/the pharaoh, and in the approved style (did it not get boring after a while?!). All the building remains that I saw around Luxor were ceremonial in some way. Constructing it provided employment for people, and demonstrated the strength of the state, but does it not simply represent massive wealth destruction?* Hattusa, by contrast, was an actual city, with a wall, and functional buildings within it like houses and administrative space, in addition to temples, which were much more modest in scale. Obviously, the Egyptians would have had these too, but they were completely overshadowed by their massive temples. My guide suggested that the Egyptian penchant for construction bestowed meaning and dignity on everyone – building and decorating were meritorious in the eyes of the gods, and constituted a form of prayer. But I can’t help but think that a better way of arranging a society would be to allow greater material advantages to accrue to its populace. If nothing else it shows that you don’t need an elaborate material culture to hold your own in the fields of warfare and diplomacy.

* Cf. George Orwell, 1984:

Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built.

Disasters

• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

Minoans and Mycenaeans

From Smithsonian Magazine, news of a recently discovered tomb at Pylos, which has upended our knowledge of Bronze Age Greece. An excerpt:

“What brings about the collapse of the Minoans, and at the same time what causes the emergence of the Mycenaean palace civilization?”

The distinctions between the two societies are clear enough, quite apart from the fundamental difference in their languages. The Mycenaeans organized their towns with free-standing houses rather than the conglomerated shared buildings seen on Crete, for example. But the relationship between the peoples has long been a contentious subject. In 1900, just 24 years after Schliemann announced he’d found Homer’s heroes at Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the Minoan civilization (named for Crete’s mythic King Minos) when he unearthed Knossos. Evans and subsequent scholars argued that the Minoans, and not the Mycenaean mainlanders, were the “first” Greeks—“the first link in the European chain,” according to the historian Will Durant. Schliemann’s graves, the thinking went, belonged to wealthy rulers of Minoan colonies established on the mainland.

In 1950, however, scholars finally deciphered Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos and showed the writing to be the earliest known form of Greek. Opinion now swung the other way: The Mycenaeans were reinstated as the first Greeks, and Minoan objects found in mainland graves were reinterpreted as status symbols stolen or imported from the island. “It’s like the Romans copying Greek statues and carting them off from Greece to put in their villas,” says Shelmerdine.

And this has been the scholarly consensus ever since: The Mycenaeans, now thought to have sacked Knossos at around the time they built their mainland palaces and established their language and administrative system on Crete, were the true ancestors of Europe.

The griffin warrior’s grave at Pylos offers a radical new perspective on the relationship between the two societies and thus on Europe’s cultural origins. As in previously discovered shaft graves, the objects themselves are a cross-cultural mix. For instance, the boar tusk helmet is typically Mycenaean, but the gold rings, which are rich with Minoan religious imagery and are on their own a hugely significant find for scholars, says Davis, reflect artifacts previously found on Crete….

In their view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. “The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says Bennet. “They know what these objects are.”…

Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture, from its religious symbols to its domestic décor. “At the very beginning, the people who are going to become the Mycenaean kings, the Homeric kings, are sophisticated, powerful, rich and aware of something beyond the world that they are emerging from,” says Shelmerdine.

This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage. It’s a conclusion that fits recent suggestions that regime change on Crete around the time the mainland palaces went up, which traditionally corresponds to the decline of Minoan civilization, may not have resulted from the aggressive invasion that historians have assumed. The later period on Knossos might represent something more like “an EU in the Aegean,” says Bennet, of the British School at Athens. Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks would surely have spoken each other’s languages, may have intermarried and likely adopted and refashioned one another’s customs. And they may not have seen themselves with the rigid identities we moderns have tended to impose on them.

In other words, it isn’t the Mycenaeans or the Minoans to whom we can trace our cultural heritage since 1450 B.C., but rather a blending of the two.

More at the link.