How the Karatepe bilingual inscription from the 8th century B.C. led to the decipherment of Anatolian hieroglyphs

Detail of the Phoenician part of the inscription / photo Klaus-Peter Simon on Wikimedia Commons

Just as the Rosetta Stone was fundamental in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, other writing systems followed a similar process, sometimes more rugged and convoluted. Some contributed in part to the decipherment of the Anatolian hieroglyphs, in a sort of curious domino effect.

In 1694, the Cippi of Melqart, two pedestals bearing bilingual inscriptions, in ancient Greek and Punic Phoenician, were discovered in Malta, allowing Jean-Jacques Barthelemy to decipher and reconstruct the Carthaginian Phoenician alphabet in 1758 (which also made it possible, some 200 years later, to partially understand the Etruscan language).

Anatolian hieroglyphs from the Karatepe inscription / photo Klaus-Peter Simon on Wikimedia Commons

This knowledge of the Phoenician alphabet was fundamental, in turn, to decipher the hieroglyphs found on stone inscriptions and lead tablets in Anatolia and Syria, the oldest examples of which date back to the 14th century BC and the most recent to the 7th century BC, at which time the hieroglyphic writing system disappeared to make way for alphabetic scripts.

The first news of these unknown Anatolian hieroglyphs reaching Europe came from explorers such as Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and Richard Francis Burton in the 19th century, who saw them on the walls of the city of Hama, north of Damascus. For a long time it was thought that they had a Hittite origin and were therefore a script of their language.

Walls of the Hittite fortress of Karatepe / photo Carole Raddato on Wikimedia Commons

The Hittite cuneiform script had already been deciphered at the beginning of the 20th century, which also led to the partial decipherment of the Luwian cuneiform script, since they were directly related, by Emil Forrer in 1919. But in the case of hieroglyphs, the task was certainly more complicated.

In 1946 the German archaeologist Helmuth Theodor Bossert (then a professor at Istanbul University), together with his assistant Halet Çambel, discovered and excavated Karatepe (an ancient Hittite fortress in southern Turkey, in the Taurus Mountains). There they found remains of buildings, clay tablets, statues, two monumental gates with reliefs and pillars depicting lions and sphinxes. Karatepe was one of the first important and astonishing discoveries in the Middle East after World War II.

Precisely on the walls next to the monumental gates appeared a bilingual inscription, dated to the 8th century BC. It was written in Phoenician characters and in Anatolian hieroglyphs. As with the Rosetta Stone, both texts say the same thing in both languages. The problem was that it was not known what language the hieroglyphs represented (or rather, as we said before, it was thought to be Hittite). In fact, although attempts at decipherment were made, it was not until the 1970s that a team formed by John David Hawkins, Anna Morpurgo Davies and Günter Neumann, realized that both the cuneiform script and the Karatepe hieroglyphs represented the same language, Luwian.

One of the gates of the fortress / photo Carole Raddato on Wikimedia Commons

To get there, and following the domino effect, Hawkins, Davies and Neumann relied on another later discovery: pots from Urartu (a kingdom of the 9th-8th centuries BC in present-day Armenia) with inscriptions, written in Urartian but using precisely the hieroglyphic Luwian script.

Once the language of the hieroglyphs was identified as Luwian, the decipherment with the help of the Phoenician part of the inscription could be carried out. The inscription, whose author turned out to be Azatiwada, the ruler of the city, commemorates his own foundation while recognizing himself as a subject of the kingdom of Quwe:

I am really Azatiwada, Man of my Sun, the servant of Thunder God, Rendered superior by Awariku, and the ruler of Adanawa, Thunder God rendered me Mother and Father of Adanawa city, and I am the one, who developed Adanawa city, And I expanded Adanawa country, both westward and eastward, And during my reign, I made Adanawa city tastes prosperity, satiety and comfort, and I filled the grain warehouses, I added horse to horse, shield to shield, army to army, everything for Thunder God and the deities, I defeated the feint of the feinters, I expelled country’s bad men, I built palaces for myself, made my family comfortable, and ascended my father’s throne, I made peace with all the kings, Also the kings respected me as ancestor for my justice, my wisdom and my kind heart, I built strong fortifications at all my borders, where bad men and gang leaders are, I, Azatiwada, trod all the people, who did not obey the House of Mopsus, I destroyed the fortifications there, I built fortifications so that people of Adanawa can live in peace and comfort, I bet strong kingdoms in the west my predecessors were not able to, I, Azatiwada, bet them, made them vassal to me, and resettled them within my borders in the east, And during my reign, I expanded the borders of Adanawa both westward and eastward, So that women nowadays wander spindling on the isolated trails, where men in the past feared to go, And during my reign, there was prosperity, satiety, peace and comfort, And Adanawa and Adanawa country were living in peace, And I built this fortress, and named it Azatiwadaya, Thunder God and the deities directed me to do this so that this fortress becomes protector of Adana Plains and the House of Mopsus, During my reign, there was prosperity and peace in the territory of Adana Plains, no one of Adanawa people was sabred during my reign, And I built this fortress, and named it Azatiwadaya, I placed Thunder God there, and offered it sacrifices, I sacrificed an ox every year, a sheep in the ploughing time and a sheep in the fall, I blessed Thunder God, it endowed me long days, countless years and huge power over all kings, And the folk, which settled in this country, owned ox, herd, food and drink, had plenty issue, and became servant to Azatiwada and the House of Mopsus thanks to Thunder God and the deities, When a king among the kings, a prince among the princes or a nobleman among the noblemen erases the name of Azatiwada from this gate, carves any other name; furthermore covets this city, destroys this gate built by Azatiwada, builds another gate in its place, and carves his own name on it, destroys this gate with the purpose of greed, hatred or insult then Sky deity, Nature deity and Sun of the universe and generations of all deities will wipe out this king, this prince or this nobleman from the earth, Only the name Azatiwada is eternal, forever like the name of the Sun and the Moon.

Excavations, which continued until the 1990s led by Halet Çambel (its co-discoverer), brought to light the fortress walls (376 meters north and 196 meters east-west) between 4 and 6 meters high and 2 to 4 meters thick. Every 20 meters there is a tower or bastion, with a total of 34 (although only 28 have been identified), and there are two large entrance gates. The southwest is flanked by statues of lions, and the northeast by sphinxes. The Phoenician part of the inscription was found on the wall next to the northeast gate, while the Luwian part is next to the southwest gate. The site is today an archaeological park and open-air museum that can be visited.

As a curiosity, some theories relate Karatepe and the luwian language with Troy. This last point is based on the finding of a Luwian seal in 1995 in the Trojan level VII, which has made some researchers like Frank Starke, from the University of Tübingen, wonder if Luwian was the language spoken in Homeric Troy. Starke himself believes that the name of King Priam would be related to the Luwian priimuua, which means exceptionally brave.

Phoenician part of the inscription / photo Klaus-Peter Simon on Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, in a documentary on German ZDF television, writer Raoul Schrott claimed that the fortress and landscape around Karatepe seemed to fit Homer’s description of Troy. His theory is that Homer may have been a scribe in the service of the Assyrians at Karatepe, where he would have combined his knowledge of the Trojan legend with the actual setting of the fortress. Of course, there is no evidence for this.

As for the discoverers of Karatepe, Professor Bossert stayed in Turkey, where he became director of the National Archaeological Institute. He married and obtained Turkish citizenship in 1947. He remained in charge of the Karatepe excavations until he retired in 1959 and died in Istanbul in 1961.

Halet Çambel replaced Bossert as head of the excavations. She was appointed professor at the University of Saarland (Germany) in 1960, retiring in 1984. In 2004 she was awarded the Prince Claus Prize in the Netherlands in recognition of her archaeological and restoration work in Turkey, as well as for having founded the Chair of Prehistory at the University of Istanbul. As if that were not enough, in 1936 she had participated in the Berlin Olympics (foil fencing), being the first Muslim woman in history to compete at the Olympiads. She passed away in 2014.


Hitite Monuments / Hittite-Luvian Bilingualism and the development of Anatolian Hieroglyphs (Ilya Yakubovich) / Arkeoloji Dünyasi / American Journal of Archaeology / Katatepe inscription / Wikipedia.