While her father lies on an operating table in Ankara, Aysegul Savas unravels eight thousand years of history.
We arrive at the hospital at seven in the morning. It is still dark, and the air is heavy with exhaust. Patches of muddy snow dot the streets, which branch out without a discernible plan. The taxi ride from the hotel has taken less than five minutes, and yet once we step out of the car, it is impossible to tell which direction we came from in the midst of overpasses and underpasses and the highway warping the hospital.
“Shit-town Ankara,” my brother says.
We take the elevator to the ninth floor and walk down a hallway, deserted except for an old man in pajamas and a woolen vest, who stands holding onto his serum pole, staring out the window. Up ahead on a hill is Atatürk’s pillared mausoleum, rising high above the city.
Our father is still sleeping. We stand uncertainly at the threshold, without turning on the lights. He raises his head sulkily.
“What time is it?”
There is still time before the nurses come to get him for the operation. He could have slept a few minutes longer.
He gets up slowly and sits for a while at the edge of the bed. Then he goes to the bathroom to put on the blue paper robe. We hear the sound of water, his toothbrush scrubbing vigorously.
Back in the room, he checks his phone and turns it off. He cleans his glasses on his robe, then hands them to us for safekeeping.
When the nurses come with a wheelchair, he opens his arms wide. I hug him silently. My brother, probably to relieve the moment of its weight, proposes to take a selfie. We huddle our heads together and lift our eyebrows in surprise, as if being caught mid action.
Our father tells us he will be back from the operation in the late afternoon. It’s no use waiting around, he says.
He tells us to go out, explore, and eat some döner kebab for him as well, since he won’t be able to eat anything for a few days.
“That’s what worries me most,” he says, and I can’t tell if he is joking.
The previous evening, before he checked into his room at the hospital, he took us to a restaurant he had frequented during his years at the Ministry of Health. Back then, the restaurant was called Washington. The name was later changed to Göksu, though my father said the Venetian tripe still tasted the same. He ate the most and ordered many side dishes for us to try, even when we told him that we were full.
“For your general culture,” he said.
The restaurant walls were decorated by reliefs of warriors, animals, and geometric patterns, borrowed from ancient civilizations that had lived around Ankara four thousand years before. I knew those images from tourism brochures, the Ankara University logo, and even from the packaging of a whole-wheat biscuit, even if I could not say what civilization they belonged to precisely.
Men in suits sat at round tables drinking raki, exchanging parliamentary gossip and discussing the changes to the Turkish constitution.
After the elevator doors close on our father and the nurses, my brother and I take a taxi to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
We stand in front of the museum map, counting the rooms dedicated to different periods. There are ten in total, from the Paleolithic times to the Romans. Eight thousand years of history.
My brother looks at his watch. We want to be back at the hospital a few hours before the operation ends.
“Ten minutes per room,” he says. Eight hundred years per minute.
We begin our tour with the barely identifiable shapes of tools, not much different from the stones in a park. We linger in front of these shabby collections, scrutinizing them for some meaning. These basic artifacts seem to be signs of a crude articulation; these people expressed themselves as vaguely as their tools. There is an unease, like a knot, gripping my throat.
In the next room, the stones take clearer shape. They become shinier, become spearheads, and are displayed alongside rough pots.
“I wouldn’t mind living in this era for a while,” my brother says. “Hunt, make fires, hang out in stone huts.”
We come to a reconstruction of a mural from Çatalhoyük, the largest Neolithic site in the world, a few hours south of Ankara. No one knows whether the mural depicts a leopard skin or the world’s oldest map of the settlement itself. The twin peaks on top are either the extremities of the animal’s hide or the eruption of the now-inactive volcano Mount Hasan eighty-nine hundred years ago. I think the uncertainty adds to the wonder, as if the mural always intended to encapsulate some mystery. I don’t mention this to my brother, who is annoyed by poetic interpretations.
“What if,” my brother says, “we’re actually looking at the wall of a Neolithic kindergarten?”
“And so many idiot archaeologists are trying to decipher children’s doodles.”
There are tools, jewelry, and mirrors, made of obsidian obtained from the volcanic eruption.
We step a thousand years closer to the present time, and there is a sense that the world is tilting, at the brink of creation. Copper pots are hatched, lined, and studded with patterns; graves are filled abundantly with treasures for the next world while the visible world is contained in miniature—to hold and examine, to concentrate with yearning. Display cases are filled with figurines of women breastfeeding, sitting, reclining, and squatting in ample-bodied fertility.
It is as if a fog has lifted and our ancestors can see farther into the distance, making out shapes and connections. There is no stopping these people who have fallen deep into the pleasures of creation. Theirs is the abundance of children, drawing on every surface, decorating each nook. It is a creativity that looks like possession, full-bodied and in tune with the fantastical: the sun, the moon, deer, and birds. It is unlike the tidy creativity of grown-ups. Some thousand years later, craftsmanship will also mature out of this childhood. Ornaments will become intricate and the world will disappear behind its own image, erected by man.
But in the Early Bronze Age, people continue to look out at the world, to marvel at it and shape it in their own way, without losing sight of nature. In the Early Bronze Age, ceremonial sun disks are used all over Anatolia in a hundred playful variations. Their bronze curves are flanked by bulls’ horns, latticed with triangles, built on the backs of deer. One theory suggests that these are maps of the universe. My brother and I recognize these shapes from the walls of the Göksu restaurant the night before.
Before, we would have guessed that the sun discs were a symbol of the Hittites, the great civilization we learned about in primary school. But now, we read that the discs are made by the Hatti, natives of the region, a thousand years before the Hittites.
“Remember the Hatti?” my brother asks.
I shake my head no.
“Exactly,” he says.
He wonders whether, in a thousand years, Turkey’s name will even appear in a list of the people who populated the world in our time.
I feel a vertiginous recklessness at the thought that our lives will end without a trace. Perhaps we’ll be just a name, as insignificant as the Hittite, “land of a thousand gods.” Their gods only reach us as a list of strange words. I feel an urge for this disappearance to happen quickly, undoing the gravity of the hours, of our father in the operation room, of the country’s capital huddled over a dark, uneasy change.
Up until the end of the nineteenth century, the Hittites were known only from the Bible, as a small and mostly insignificant tribe. But they were once one of the greatest powers in the world, rivaled only by the kingdom of Egypt.
In Genesis, Hittites are counted among the Canaanites. Abraham purchases the patriarchal plot of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, and buries his wife, Sarah, there. Hers is the first burial in the Bible, and Abraham is buried there as well. It is said that the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, is the oldest continuously used prayer structure in the world. I find satisfaction in those long lineages that continue up into the present. They create the illusion that they account for all of time and contain everything there is to know. They give me the same sense of satisfaction I felt as a child, falling asleep in the living room, while adults talked around me. As if I would not miss anything that happened in the world.
And yet, it is not clear to what extent the Biblical Hittites overlap with the Anatolian civilization. The people in the Bible might be the Hatti instead, or the Egyptian “sons of Heth.”
The decipherment of the Hittite language began with a rhyming phrase written in cuneiform: “Nu Ninda-An Ezzateni, Vatar-Ma Ekuteni.”
At the outbreak of World War I, the Czech linguist Bedřich Hrozný retrieved a copy of the Hittite tablet from Constantinople and spent his days, conscripted in the Austrian army as a clerk, trying to make sense of the language that he supposed was Semitic. He started his blind puzzle with the word “ninda”—“bread”—which is the same in Sumerian.
“What does one do with bread?” he asked himself, concluding that “ezzateni” must mean “to eat.” For a moment, he allowed himself the assumption that this was perhaps an Indo-European language, and that the verb was not only similar to its English counterpart but to the Greek edein and the German essen as well. The second part of the phrase thus unraveled itself. “Vatar” would mean “water,” or the German “wasser”.
The line spoke to Hrozný across thousands of years: “You will eat bread, you will drink water.” It became the earliest example of a kingdom speaking a language related to those of modern Europe.
From this meager meal, a whole language offered itself like a feast, spreading out over twenty thousand clay cuneiform tablets of the royal Hittite archives. But it has taken several lifetimes to read the tablets. In 1882, when the Hittites were little more than a mythical name, Archibald Sayce lectured to the Society of Biblical Archeology in London about a “lost Hittite Empire.” In 1906, Hugo Winckler excavated the archive of tablets but did not live to see them deciphered. It was a single sentence from this archive that led to Hrozný’s discovery in 1915.
Among the tablets was a manual for raising war horses, with discussions about interval training and fartleks. “Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mittani.” In The Book of Kings, the Hittites supplied the Israelites with chariots and horses.
My brother and I come upon a round stone, no bigger than my palm, dented on one side and chiseled in cuneiform. We read that the Hittites used the livers of sacrificial sheep for fortune telling. Because the twitching lasted a short time, prophecies seen on the liver were written down on liver-shaped stones. This is all the sign says, and we are left to imagine what fate of what vanished life this particular stone prophesied.
In my bag, I’m carrying a wooden box I bought for my father in Mexico, painted with a Mayan pattern of birds. I had bought it with a vague idea that birds, especially in Turkish coffee fortunes, are meant to bring good luck. My brother and I have filled the box with pieces of folded paper, in which we inscribed favorite memories with our father. My brother agreed to write on the pieces of paper only if I agreed not to read them. On my papers, there are roller-coaster rides; watercolor paintings; guessing the ingredients of our father’s culinary inventions; setting sail from the Bodrum harbor in August. But I didn’t give him this gift without function, whose paper contents of perished moments seemed, that day, like a pathetic and worrisome suggestion of good luck.
In the following rooms, we see tablets written in the diplomatic Akkadian. There is a letter of friendship from the Egyptian queen to the Hittite queen. There are trade documents listing transactions with various neighboring peoples. We remember from history lessons in high school that this international spirit characterizes the great empires of the Bronze Age.
Some months earlier, before we set sail from Bodrum—that moment preserved in the wooden box—my brother and I visited the Bronze Age shipwreck of Uluburun, housed in the Bodrum Castle. The ship was carrying Baltic amber beads, Canaanite incense jars, Mycenaean swords, ivory tusks, and lutes. It also contained the very substances that defined its era: the exact measures of Cypriot copper and Afghan tin required to make bronze. The wreck is a microcosm of the epoch of international exchange, buried deep beneath the sea for centuries. One astounding artefact, miraculously excavated, is the only known scarab seal of Queen Nefertiti, whose images were destroyed in the violent desire for amnesia following her death.
We take a few steps and the Hittites, along with the Bronze Age, have perished. The description on the wall introducing us to the next civilization makes no mention of a collapse, even though civilization, agriculture, and even literacy have disappeared in one swift stroke. The reasons for the collapse are unclear. One theory is that the kingdoms became too powerful, no longer depended on each other for trade, and buckled under their own autonomous weights.
The Bronze Age collapse in the twelfth century was the biggest crisis of the ancient world. Its disquiet echoed hundreds of years later in the verses of Homer, telling of times fraught with wars, migrations, refugees, mistrust. But from where we stand, in the half-lit room leading the way to the Greeks and Romans, assimilation, dispersal, integration, and collapse mean the same thing.
It is no surprise that people and kingdoms disappear and we feel no need to take note of all that has vanished. We read that Phrygian art is vastly different from the Hittite. The Phyrigians carve their tombs high up inside rocks; they write little, and in runes; they are skilled woodworkers. A new room; a new people; a new time.
My brother looks at his watch. He says we should get going.
Some days later, our father will ask how he was brought back to the room, trying to reconstruct the gap of memory. Who was there? Did he speak? What time was it?
It is a relief to me that he doesn’t remember those hours, or his deep, slow moan when we moved him to the bed. It was such a terrible sound that I was too embarrassed to look at my brother. It was our first encounter with that impossible moment, when the body of a parent becomes transient. The moment we have warded off for as long as we can remember.
Instead, we looked at our father, noting all that had changed in those few hours. His pale face, his blue lips, the crust of blood on his chest and side, and the glimpse of incisions mercifully hidden by a sheet.
In his unrestful sleep, he smacked his lips, rubbed his tongue around his mouth. He woke up, moaning, and we went to his side to wipe his mouth with a wet cloth. He took the cloth from our hands and tried to squeeze it in his mouth for a single drop. This, too, seemed impossible; our father with a lion’s appetite, starving for a drop of water.
When the doctor finally arrived hours later, he told us our father could start drinking the following day. Some days later, depending on how he was recovering, he would begin to eat as well. The visit was brief, mechanical. The doctor had seen this all before, had instructed each patient with the same steps for healing, had assured them that everything was all right right and that life would continue.
You will eat bread. You will drink water.
Aysegul Savas is a writer based in Paris.