Roles of the cuneiform texts in revealing past civilizations

Many times, people have wondered on how to identify and interpret past civilizations of Syria and Mesopotamia through the cuneiform texts discovered in archaeological sites. If we take the samples of the discoveries of Ugarit, “Ras Shamra”, on the Syrian coast for example, we may get our answer. In this regard, the editor of Al-Maarifah researcher Dr. Ali Al-Qayyem said:

Since the discovery of Ugarit in 1929 and till this day, archaeologists worked hard in studying the tablets which were found in different parts of the site written in several languages: Acadian, Hittite, Hieroglyphic, Babylonian, Assyrian, as well as the Canaanite Ugaritan alphabet. The job was not easy of course because some, or may be most, of the discovered tablets were deformed or missing important parts due to the passage of time, fires, or the destruction of the city of 1185BC as a result of the invasions of the peoples of the Sea.

However, there was an unexpected discovering new writings which were non-existent. It deemed out that syllables of these writings were separated from each other by straight vertical lines and that they form an alphabetical system. Most of the words in it were of three or four letters with very few words of five letters. This phenomenon instigated archaeologist Ferollo, and many of his colleagues to believe that they were in front of a language written according to an alphabetical system like the Aramaic and the Phoenician, but it is older than both, since it dates back to the second millennium BC. Interpreting these texts formed the beginning of identifying the elements and contexts of a new language among the various ancient oriental writing systems.

The comparative studies implemented by many linguists who specialize in ancient languages led to the identification of letters and words of this new language, conjugation of its words and how to compare them with similar letters and words of other languages, the likes of Aramaic, Phoenician … etc.

This analytical approach helped in defining more than twenty shapes understood to as letters, but they were not found in Ugaritan texts. Here difficulties and problems sprang up because linguists noticed that the number of the newly discovered shapes exceed the twenty two letters of the Phoenician and Aramaic alphabets. By that we have characters more than the number of the letters of the alphabet. Linguists noticed that the a letter has two characters with one pronunciation, and these characters mostly have identical pronunciations, so they recalled their information about the Canaanite and Babylonian-Assyrian Cuneiform with which the letters of Tall alAmarna, which were sent by the rulers of the Levant to the Egyptian Pharaoh “Akhnaton” were written. Dr. Ali pointed out.

They remember that these letters had various shapes and pronunciations for the same character. So they started revising the famous Sinai texts through comparing them with the newly discovered texts in Ugarit. They realized that the number of letters in the Ugaritan alphabet exceeds that of Phoenician, Aramaic and Hebrew by five letters.

Archaeologist Hans Boor compared the shapes of cuneiform letters with those of the Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite and found that 12 letters have counterparts in terms of shape only while the pronunciation was different. He understood also that the Ugaritan language, as was realized from its literary and cultural texts, was not interested in vowel points and absolute differences between letters as was the case in the Babylonian-Assyrian writings. He was sure that the extra letters in Ugaritan were not a compensation, but merely pronunciation changes of syllables like “sh” and “s”, “kh” “h” and “gh” and “a”.

Hans Boor’s group of linguists continued their studies of the Ugaritan language to identify its position and importance among other ancient oriental languages. They followed certain standards until they completed their studies which were confirmed by the alphabet tablet in Ugarit’s hall in the National Museum of Damascus. The tablet was discovered in 1949, i.e., after twenty years of the discovery of the first cuneiform tablet in Ras Shamra. Had this wonderful tablet been discovered before 1949 it would have saved those linguists a lot of ceaseless efforts and hard work which resulted in the discovery of one of the greatest cultural achievements in ancient orient because it cut short 600-800 characters and syllables in only 30 letters. This achievement was a real revolution of linguistic and writing achievements in the second millennium BC.

We now understand that Ugarit’s alphabet had developed into the Sinai and Phoenician oriental writing systems, then into the Aramaic language which included the Phoenician .Later on they settled and prospered in Syria in the first millennium BC, and then spread in the Old World through commercial transactions of the Aramaic people who imposed their language and writing codes in their trade deals. From the Phoenician the typical Greek language was born thanks to the Phoenician settlements along the coasts of the Mediterranean.

The Phoenicians formulated their alphabet depending on various sources most important of them is the Ugaritan alphabet which included the cuneiform, the Egyptian Hieroglyphic and the Minian writing as well as other forms of writings borrowed from northern and eastern settlements. This simple system borrowed the simple letters of other writing systems, and gave them new values that led to the creation of silent consonants which have no relation with their original pronunciation.

It is useful here to say that the physical shapes of Phoenician letters are simple and easy to write, a characteristic hardly found in the old Babylonian, Acadian, Hittite and Assyrian letters.











Haifaa Mafalani