Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
In this episode, we visit Turkey. When we think of museums that curate objects revealing life in ancient Iraq, our minds usually turn to major institutions in western Europe and north America, and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. But there are important collections in Turkey as well. Most of these objects were excavated within the borders of modern Turkey. So, they reflect the local cultures that ancient Iraqis encountered, such as the Hittites. Or they document the activities of long distance trade networks, as discussed in episode 12. Others though, come from areas that were once part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Today, we talk about one such group, from the ancient Iraqi city of Sippar.
Now, there are many aspects of ancient Middle Eastern studies that professionals take for granted; they are “normal” for us. But they’re often surprising to anyone who doesn’t work in this field. Archaeological excavations routinely find huge quantities of objects. These include many inscribed objects. The sheer quantity of documentation is breath-taking. Estimates suggest anywhere from half a million to a million surviving texts. New excavations are adding more every year. One of the reasons for our uncertainty over the numbers is that there aren’t published catalogues for all the major collections.
There are certainly tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of cuneiform texts that have never been studied and published, even a century or more after their discovery. One of the challenges, and thrills, of being a cuneiform specialist, is that it’s not at all unusual for you to be the first person to read a particular text in thousands of years. There are several reasons that explain this situation: it’s a relatively young field; it’s a relatively small field. It’s also one in which, traditionally, access to the materials has been restricted. More recently, some of those restrictions have begun to be lifted. But there remains a substantial backlog. This is the situation around the world.
Our guests explain their collaborative project to document and eventually publish an important group of texts from Turkish-sponsored excavations at Sippar in the late 19th century.
So get yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guests.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you for the invitation, Jon. We’re happy to be here.
We are very happy to be here. Thank you, Jon.
Can you tell us please: who are you and what do you do?
I’m Ilgi Gerçek. I am a Hittitologist / Assyriologist from Turkey. I am an assistant professor at Bilkent University’s Department of archaeology, where I teach Hittite, Akkadian, and Latin; and a few other history courses every now and then. My research mainly focuses on Hittites, but I also am involved in a project that we will talk about today, the Istanbul Sippar Project.
I am Selim Adalı. I am an assyriologist and ancient historian, with a focus on the Iron Age, Iron Age Anatolian History, and the history of the Assyrian Empire, Assyrian and Babylonian literary and religious texts. I am an associate professor at the Social Sciences University of Ankara.
The two of you have been working on something called the Istanbul Sippar Project. First of all, where is Sippar?
Sippar is one of the major cities Southern Mesopotamia. And it is known in Mesopotamian tradition as the city of the sun god, Shamash. Its modern name is Tell Abu Habba. And there, there are many cuneiform documents found, which reveal to us various aspects of Babylonian civilisation.
Could you introduce the Project for us, please? What are your goals?
Yes, gladly. Our project started about a year and a half ago. And it focuses on two collections: the larger and better known Sippar collection at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums; and the smaller, more obscure El Muhattap collection. More than 80% of the Sippar collection remains unpublished, while the El Muhattap collection is completely unpublished. So our aim is to photograph, catalogue, and eventually publish these collections.
Why Sippar? How did you decide to work on this project? And is anyone else involved?
So I was working on certain manuscripts of the Prostration Hemerology. I collaborated with my friend and colleague, Professor Enrique Jiménez on this. So I had a chance to start looking at various cuneiform texts from Sippar. Later, I was also interested in the other genres of texts, which we find there. And we do a summer course together with Ilgi for it’s been a couple of years now at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilisations. And there we will talk about various things cuneiform–as you may expect, people (are) interested in this–and Ilgi is also interested in starting with these archive projects. And well, during our discussions, we decided, “why don’t we look into the Sippar archives and also the El Muhattap archives?”, which Ilgi has pointed out to. And we have other colleagues in our project. We are collaborating with members of the cuneiform archive of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. One of our colleagues is Dinçer Cefer and our other colleague is Müge Özcan. They both work at the cuneiform archives of Istanbul Archaeological Museums. During my research and during Ilgi’s research at the Museum, we had plenty of opportunity to discuss possibilities of research and we struck upon this idea of working on the archives together.
How many tablets are there in the Istanbul archives and what kinds of texts are they?
So the Istanbul Sippar archives lists 1049 tablets and what we are doing is we are also looking at the various research and the archival situation in general and we also suspect that there may be cases from the Diverse Tablets section of the archives and maybe some of the Nippur archives; there may be some room to see whether some Sippar tablets are there as well. So we can give this number as a rough estimate at the moment, as our cataloging improves. If we look at the range of genres and periods, we find … we–and we are expecting that–there is much Old Babylonian material in Sippar. The period of Old Babylonian starts from the 21st century and goes up to the 16th century BCE. You also have Neo-Babylonian texts. The Neo-Babylonian period starts roughly from the ninth century BC up to the collapse of the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century BC. And you have evidence of a lot of school exercises, starting from the very basic signs and syllables and going up to the literary texts. We also have economic and administrative texts which pertain to the social life in Sippar. And we also have royal inscriptions from the Neo-Babylonian period, for example. And we also are expecting to find Sumerian literary texts; a bit more than perhaps is presently documented. So this is another avenue of research.
How and when did these tablets come to Istanbul?
Most of the Istanbul cuneiform collection–and we are talking here about 84,000 tablets, more or less–most of the collection was brought from excavations in Ottoman territories between 1884 and 1925. This includes famous archives such as Hattusa, Kanesh, Assur, Nippur and Sippar, so only a small part of the cuneiform collection was brought in through acquisitions. The story of the Istanbul Sippar archive actually begins with French assyriologist Jean-Vincent Scheil, who was invited to the Museum in 1891 by Osman Hamdi Bey, the director of the Museum, to catalogue and publish parts of the Museum’s Egyptian and Mesopotamian collections. And while he was there Osman Hamdi Bey suggested that Scheil embarked on an excavation in Sippar. The Ottoman government had at that time stopped Rassam’s excavations in Sippar in 1882. And the site had been subject to illicit diggings for about a decade. So in 1889, before Scheil’s arrival, the Ottoman Civil Lists conducted a brief expedition at Sippar. And, though it is difficult to tell what their intention was, Scheil reports that a number of objects including a good number of cuneiform texts had come to the Istanbul Museum from Sippar even before Scheil’s excavation. So these objects from the Civil Lists’ activities have not yet been detected among the Istanbul Museum’s Sippar collections. But there is a group, right. And then Scheil excavated in Sippar with the aid of the government representative Bedri Bey in 1894, from January to April, and the majority of the tablets in the Istanbul Sippar collections come from his excavation.
So basically, the Istanbul Sippar collection comprises two parts: the small group of tablets from the diggings of the civil list; and the excavated tablets from Scheil’s excavation. The El Muhattap collection, a collection of about 44 tablets, is a complete mystery to us; we haven’t yet been able to reveal its origins. It’s one of the rare group of tablets at the Istanbul cuneiform collections that have been acquired. And they turned up at the Museum’s depot with the label El Muhattap. And we have applied to the Museum library to find any documentation of their acquisition and where their origins might have been. They have been recorded as Old Babylonian texts. We haven’t yet studied these in detail, but we hope to maybe illuminate their origins as part of our project.
Are there also paper archives that belong with these tablets–documents that explain Scheil’s work, for example?
There should be in principle. However, by the time we began our project, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum library was going through a major digitisation project, and we couldn’t access any documents about this. So, as part of our project, we hope to reach some documentation from Scheil’s own work, if it exists, and about the El Muhattap collection as well. Because the only record of Scheil’s excavation is his publication, the well known publication. So if we can find more documentation, and we hope to, those too will be analysed and published.
Are you able to share any of your preliminary results?
We hope to soon. We wanted to begin with the photography of the collection. And we started that after they gave us access to the collection, which happened about a year ago. We started the photography and then COVID-19 hit. For a while the Museum was closed. And right now our colleagues, the curators, can only go to the Museum on a rotating basis. And when they do, they often have a lot of bureaucratic work to deal with. So the photography, we left aside for a while. So right now, we changed our plan. And we are currently digitising the available catalogue, and building a database, and just, you know, integrating bibliography, finding out the tablets … the scattered tablets that have been published here and there. And we hope to publish the catalogue, we hope by the end of 2021. Right? So, so far, that’s how far we have come.
Will this be a printed catalogue or an online database?
The first step will be a printed catalogue and we are building a database. But whether that will be published and open to the public will have to depend on the permission of the Museum and the Ministry of Culture. So that is pending.
You mentioned there some of the complications that have arisen from the COVID pandemic. It’s something that has had a major impact on collections based work around the world.
So, basically, it’s devastating for us now that we finally had our permits and could access the collections that we cannot go. And our colleagues as I said, they can access only at certain times. And when they do, they have a lot going on. So it has slowed us down considerably. And that is a pity, of course, but, you know, it will clear up at some point and we will go on, right?
How does the Sippar collection in Istanbul relate to Sippar collections in other museums around the world?
If we look at the history of their discoveries, the collections in Istanbul Archaeological Museums, in the British Museum, and in the Baghdad museum, I believe they have various connections. So we may expect for example, as publications are realised, and as we see what texts are available and the various details of them, we may be able to establish joins with maybe other texts from these other museums. And I think therefore, progress in research regarding the Sippar collection in Istanbul will also help the research done in the British Museum and in the Baghdad museum. And this works the other way around as well. So I think these works are interconnected. So in that way they relate to each other.
You mentioned that you are hoping to publish a catalogue by the end of 2021. You also said that you were hoping to study the text themselves. So what are the longer term aims of this project?
Yes, after we publish the catalogue, and we fully know its contents, and as Selim mentioned, some catalogue entries so far are a little bit laconic. And we will know more about how many Sumerian literary texts there are, how many school texts there are, by the time we finished the catalogue. So after that, will come the publication process, we hope. And for that, of course, there will be a division according to specialisation. And that will take some planning as well. But we do hope to publish the Sippar archives fully in the future.
Would you need additional funding for that phase of the work?
Yes, we would need additional funding for the research on the archives themselves afterwards. We currently have funding for the photography and catalogue. Thanks to the support of the Electronic Babylonian Literature project run by Professors Enrique Jiménez and Karen Radner. And thanks to them, we have been able to get all the equipment necessary and are working on finishing the photography and building the database catalogue. But we will have to apply for new funding when we come to publications and research stage.
Clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions are just one type of objects found on archaeological excavations, of course. Are there plans to include the other materials from Sippar as well, at some point?
We only have permit to study the cuneiform collections, because the archaeological objects are a different collection altogether. And they might be part of it in the future. But we have with the cuneiform collections of the Sippar archive, we have enough on our plate. So that is something to think about for the future. I think. So not like the Assur project, which also includes all the archaeological objects; we are a smaller team.
Where can we follow your work?
I actually share most of our work that’s allowed to be shared on Academia. And Jon, you can share our emails, I think I speak for Selim here too, along with the link to the podcast. And if anybody wants something of ours that they cannot reach, we’re happy to help them reach it and you know, share our work. But most of our work is already on academia. Right, Selim?
That’s correct, yes. Well said.
Do you have any plans for wider dissemination of your work?
So as part of our project, we would really like to raise public awareness about the cuneiform collections in Turkish museums. There are, according to a recent estimation, about 120,000 cuneiform tablets distributed across museums and some published private collections in Turkey. And the contents of these collections, how they came to Turkey, because some of them are from Mesopotamia, like the Sippar collection, and what their historical importance is … basically, even what tablet collections are … is not well known in the public. And it’s not something that we teach to young people in schools. So most of the public is unaware that we have this rich archaeological and historical heritage in our museums. And we feel that it is our duty to promote the collections, and to basically to encourage more people to study assyriology, so that we have more people who can study these tablets. A lot of them remain unpublished, as is known. And we would like to develop some projects, some little side projects, to raise public awareness; like information booklets that are more up to date and for younger audiences; maybe taking parts in podcasts like yours or producing some in Turkish for the public. And also both Selim and I have done this differently, but organising workshops for high school or even younger middle school or elementary school students and introducing cuneiform and teaching them the basics of the scribal craft. So this is very important to us. We hope to also get involved with RTI imaging as a low cost but high definition imaging of the tablets for different types of research. At the moment, we don’t have the funding for it, but this is something we want to develop for the future.
What’s the situation in schools? I imagine the Hittites are very popular, but do children also learn about the Mesopotamians?
Selim and I are roughly the same age. And when we were in middle and high school, they did come into our teaching, so we knew who Hammurabi of Babylon was; we knew about the Assyrians, but we did learn a little bit more about the Hittites. However, the early Turkish Republic was very interested in discovering or in taking part in the recovery of the ancient Near Eastern past. So some of these ancient names were really part of our culture. For instance, Eti, the slightly outdated name for Hittites in Turkish is a famous food brand in Turkey. We have Sumer bank, the Sumerian bank. In fact, my grandmother’s last name was Sümeraslan, the lion of Sumer. So, you know, there are neighborhoods in Istanbul that are called Akkadians, and Hittites. So they are well known, but in our education system, I believe the information that we make available to our students is very outdated and doesn’t really encourage them for further study. What would you say Selim?
I think there is only like summary information about Hittites and brief mention of Sumerians in today’s curriculum. What is lacking is perhaps more interdisciplinary and updated methods of teaching ancient civilisation, especially Anatolian and Mesopotamian civilisations, in schools. There is certainly some interest in workshops, especially like the clay cuneiform workshops that Ilgi and I have done on various different occasions. So there is much potential, I think, in (the) near future, but at present, it’s not as much … it’s not as used as it could be, let’s say. So maybe the future will hold better, in that sense. I want to say something about Sumer bank. So the Sumerian bank. Actually one of our campus buildings at my university — Social Sciences University of Ankara — is the Sumer bank building today, so it’s been provided for my university, which is a public university. And I sometimes joke about it; when my office was allotted to another building of the campus. So as a Sumerologist, it would have been nice to be in the Sumerian bank. So …so the joke went at my school.
There’s a pastry shop on Istiklal Caddesi. This is one of the main pedestrian roads in Istanbul, in the old Pera district in Beyoğlu. And this pastry shop is called Hammurabi. It is a pun, actually. In Turkish “hamur” means “dough”. And “abi” is “brother”. So it’s the name Hammurabi “and brother dough”. I always make a point of sharing that in class. So we have lots of like Hattusha corner shops and Gilgamesh convenience stores and these names exists in our daily repertoire.
Is there a Turkish translation of Gilgamesh for example?
That’s a good question. There are four translations that I know of. We have a translation 1973 by Sevin Kutlu and Teoman Duralı. They translated from Sandars’ Gilgamesh. We have a translation of the main segments from 1973, by Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, who was one of the keepers at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums: “Gilgamesh, the first hero king in history”, as it is named. So it also has illustrations; it aims especially for a young audience So we have Orhan Suda’s translation of Jean Bottéro’s translation of the Gilgamesh Epic. It is named in Turkish, if I may translate, as “the Gilgamesh Epic: the great man who does not want to die”. And there’s a translation by Sait Maden, named “Gilgamesh Epic”, and it is dated 2013. Let me also add Muzaffer Ramazanoğlu’s translation from 1998 titled, “The Gilgamesh Epic”. Jon, there is also a translation of the Sumerian stories of Gilgamesh. So, what happened was I translated the Sumerian stories of Gilgamesh in 2019. So, that’s been published. It’s available to the Turkish reading public.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Jon, for the invitation. It was lovely to chat with you.
Thank you, Jon.
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