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H - 88 : Lost Languages of Anatolia

Carian Graves carved into the Cliffs just to the South of Kaunas, an ancient Carian town

Tracking Apostles Paul’s journey from the Holy Land to Rome, we follow the Anatolian coast from Anamur to Bodrum. Everybody here speaks Turkish – albeit nobody of us. Thankfully Captain Mustafa and his crew do. Turkish is not the only language on this coast though. There are thousands of inscriptions in the Greek alphabet in ancient cities. It made me believe that people here once spoke Greek. Turns out that I am only half right. Under Roman and Byzantine rule this was the case. But not before. The region was Hellenised under Alexander the Great.

The Carian Alphabet looks like the early Greek Alphabet - but sounds different when spoken

Just from looking at the remains of Myra, Xanthos or Kaunas, you would not be able to say that these were not ancient Greek towns. They had Agoras (market places), the usual deities and their temples, theatres for plays & gathering and ports for commerce.

The Theatre in Lycian Xanthos - an old town fortress looks like many Greek Theatres

But their founders spoke Lydian and Carian, old languages of the Luwian family which was also spoken in Troy (we visited in 2022). Luwian was used during the bronze age and was – as Hittite – part of the Indo-European language family. Luwian then splintered into regional dialects during the Iron Age. Carian and Lydian are two of them.

The Large Language Groups during Bronze Age in Greece and Anatolia

Both languages were mysteries for a long time. Many linguists believed until the 2nd half of last century that these two languages were outside the Indo-European family. When read and pronounced with the sound associated to Greek letters, they made no sense. They sounded like bar-bar-bar. Indeed the word barbarians comes from this part of the world when Greek settlers did not understand the indigenous people who lived in this part of Anatolia. For the Dorian Greeks, they spoke Bar-Bar.

In Week 2 and 3 we follow ancient Lycian & Carian Lands

Carian was not deciphered until 1980 when several graves with Carian inscriptions were found in Abu Simbel, Memphis and Abydos. These inscriptions date from the 7th to the 4th century BC. At that time the Egyptian Pharaohs hired Carian mercenaries to defend their country against the advancing Persians. These inscriptions include graffiti, names of the deceased and votive offerings.  Most importantly, they were written in both the Carian alphabet and Egyptian Hieroglyphs – the translation key was found. Bilingual Carian and Greek carvings found in Kaunas in 1996 confirmed the translations from the 1980s. We will visit Kaunas this summer.

Funerary Stela with a Carian Inscription 500 BC from Egypt - today Exhibited in the British Museum

The deciphering of Lycian happened bit earlier. Once Hittite was translated in 1917, people noticed similarities. Rudimentary translations became possible. The real break through though came with the discovery of the trilingual Letoon Stela in Xanthos. The Stela records a decree on religious practise in Greek, Lycian and Aramaic. The Letoon temple complex is a good 4 kilometer south to Xanthos (we will also visit) and contains temples for Leto and her children Apollo and Artemis. Letoon was Lycia's most important religious site. The Stela was found near the Temple of Apollo and is today in a museum in Fethiye – I hope we find time to visit. Wikipedia offers excellent descriptions of both Carian and Lycian.

Trilingual Stela of Letoon from probably 358 BC

For today’s visitors, ancient Lycian and Carian towns look very similar. They differ in one important aspect though – in their funeral rites. Lycians buried their dead in free standing sarcophagi , little houses with a cone shaped dome. Most of the Carian graves are rock graves and look like temples carved into cliffs (see first picture).

One of the many Lycian Sarcophagi in Kekova

Both Lycia and Caria did not stay independent. They were too small to resist the conquest by the Persian Empire which came to dominate the entire Anatolian peninsula. The Carians surrendered without much fighting whilst the Lycians put up fierce resistance. The Lycian citizen of Xanthos committed mass suicide rather than being captured and enslaved. Not surprisingly, Xanthos was entirely destroyed. The area was "liberated" in by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. But under him and his successors, the Hellenisation of Caria and Lycia started. By the time the Romans arrived, the two languages were gone.

Alexander conquered Caria and Lycia in 333 BC - he governed Military Style

One of Caria’s main cities, the town of Halicarnassus, became famous. It was the seat of the Carian Kings who governed as Persian satraps. The Carian Kings were pretty much left alone as long as they provided military assistance. Thus they fought on the Persian side during the Greek wars providing ships for the Battle of Salamis (480 BC).

Model of the Mausoleum in Hallicarnassos (Bodrum)

The most famous Carian Kings were Mausolus and his wife Artemisia (she ruled for two years after his death). Between 353 and 350 BC, they built themselves a truly Royal Tomb - the 42 meters high Mausoleum which became one of the seven wonders of the world. Sadly, little survived. The Knights of Saint John (the Maltese Knights) used the Mausoleum’s stones to build their castle in the harbour of Bodrum. The Mausoleum’s foundation though are still visible and can be visited.

The Knights Castle of St Peter - just above the smaller left Tower you can spot the Theatre - the Mausoleum is located just below it

Carian and Lycian are not the only languages that disappeared in the Mediterranean. There are so many. The most prominent is Etruscan. Language replacement still happens today. The south of France spoke Provencal or Occitan only 50 years ago. Under the influence of radio, TV, teaching and settlement of northerners it basically disappeared. Old people still speak it. Their grandchildren still understand it. But one the current generation of 70-year-olds is gone, it will be lost forever.







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