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Riddle of the Runes

Kâzım Mirşan's theories of language

After years of delving deep into the origins of writing and language Kâzım Mirşan has put forward an astonishing claim: that at the root of it all is an ancient, proto-Turkish mother tongue. Genius or dreamer? Christian Tyler meets a man whose hypotheses threaten to turn the very history of man on its head

  • Prof Dr Kazım Mirşan (1919–2016) at his home in Türkbükü on the Bodrum Peninsula

People love puzzles – brainteasers, crosswords, jigsaws and the rest. Our need to find a solution to every puzzle, a story to fit every mystery, is what turned us from apes into scientists. Few of us, however, would devote our lives to puzzle-solving in the way Kâzım Mirşan has done. Fewer still would dare claim the success that he does.

In Mirşan, an eighty-five-year-old Turkish civil engineer, the puzzle-solving passion has taken its loftiest form: a consuming fascination for ancient scripts. He began studying stone inscriptions in 1968, while working for the Krupp steel company in Germany. Over the ensuing thirty years he has put forward a succession of startling and controversial theories about the origins of writing and language, theories little known in Turkey and even less so outside.

His appearance on television in Turkey two summers ago, followed by three all-night studio debates, brought Mirşan some belated public recognition. But no academic expert appears yet to have tested his extraordinary claims.

These claims are based on two large hypotheses. The first hypothesis says that all scripts and alphabets derive from the same primitive source – scratch marks or cave paintings made 16,000 years ago. The second says that most of the languages we know today (at least in Eurasia) are derived in some way from the language that lies behind all those old scripts, a single mother tongue, or Ursprache. And this mother tongue, says Mirşan, is Turkish, or what he calls “proto-Turkish”.

Mirşan’s claims have disturbing consequences. He has to reject the long-accepted decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs advanced by Champollion. He rejects the famous decipherment of Minoan Linear B in the early 1950s. Where on Greek vases we read the names of Greek gods and goddesses, he reads instead messages in ancient Turkish. He dismisses the accepted rendition of the Etruscan alphabet, painfully acquired over many years. And his redecipherment of an Anglo-Saxon runic inscription found in the River Thames leads him to assert that the British came originally from somewhere called At-Il in the Ural Mountains.

“So you see, we are related!” he exclaims when I call on him at his house in Türkbükü, high up on the rocky northern edge of the Bodrum peninsula. Related, because Mirşan’s family were Turkic people from Tyumen, just beyond the Urals in western Siberia. He himself, however, was born at Gulja in the northwest province of Xinjiang in China, where his parents, prosperous traders, had migrated after the Russian Revolution. After his father died, his grandfather paid for him to study in Istanbul.

Mirşan is, like his theories, somewhat larger than life. He gesticulates with a flourish, speaks with slow and heavy emphasis, and reacts strongly to objections. He publishes his findings in looseleaf pamphlets packed with illustrations. They are written in Turkish, German or English, but appear not to have benefited from any kind of peer review.

The key to his success, says their author, is his ancestry. Coming as he does from the land where the oldest Turkish is spoken, he has been able to discover the true meaning of all the inscriptions of Central Asia and Europe. Why, I ask him, cannot professional Turkologists in his own country see what he sees? “They can’t understand the sense,” he replied, “because modern Turkish is more like Greek than Old Turkish.” As for Western scholars, he thinks most are too prejudiced to listen to him, secure in their conviction that their own results are “unquestionable and unchangeable”.

Mirşan started his code-breaking career by attacking Siberian stone inscriptions. From there he moved on to Romanian, Portuguese and French. All, he found, were Turkish. His basis for attaching sounds to the signs he took from the Danish philologist Vilhelm Thomsen, whose decipherment of old Turkish inscriptions on the Orkhon river in Mongolia was one of the more spectacular feats of the nineteenth century. But he disagrees with Thomsen about the origin of the Turks’ quasi-runic writing, and claims it is not from the eighth century ad, as Thomsen and others maintain, but more than a thousand years older. Mirşan’s method of dating old stones, however, is not very clear – “a mathematical method similar to quantum mechanics” is how he explains it.

How does he know the ancient Britons started life as Turks? Because it is inscribed, he says, on a bronze amulet found in the Thames. According to the professor emeritus of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge University, however, this and similar inscriptions are easily recognised as old German, written in a runic alphabet no older than the Roman Empire, and found in Scandinavia and Britain. Mirşan insists that these runes speak “proto-Turkish”.

The original inhabitants of Anatolia, too, were “proto-Turks” – long before the Greeks, the Persians, the Lydians, Lycians, Carians and the rest. “Greek civilisation is Turkish civilisation,” Mirşan declares with a triumphant laugh. They got their gods and their gods’ names from the Turks. “Zeus”, for instance, means nothing in Greek, but the letters of “Zeus” read to him as old Turki: “Ozu Ichy” or “Ichoy Oz”, meaning “man of the other world”.

It is a controversial but not unattractive theory. However, many of his instances shake the reader’s confidence. A Greek vase bears the word “Kephalos” above a painting of a goblin figure running after a dog, which in turn is chasing a fox. A Greek would instantly read this as the name of the mythical Attic hunter whom we write in English as “Cephalus”. But Mirşan, persisting in seeing the script as Turki, not Greek, gets instead “ïkiçiw ëtiliniz”, which he translates into German as “Paarung”, or “mating”.

The same determination to see proto-Turkish everywhere is inflicted upon that controversial people, the Etruscans – whom Mirşan, naturally, sees as Turks from Central Asia. Now, scholars agree that while the Etruscan language remains a mystery, for it has no known relative, its alphabet is borrowed from the Greeks (and through them from the Phoenicians). They know the sound of every letter and can read most of the thousands of funerary inscriptions left to us. A couple of these are “bilinguals”, meaning that they have Roman translations beside them.

I showed Kâzım Mirşan a copy of one, taken from a marble urn. The Etruscan says “pup. velimna. cahatial”, and the Latin “P. Volumnius Cafatia natus”, which translates as “Publius Volumnius, born of [son of] Cafatia”. After studying the lines for some days, Mirşan sent me his version. Denying that the Roman and Etruscan could possibly be of the same date, he declared the “true” translation of the Etruscan to be: “After my death I flow across to be in cosmos as quantum.”

Similarly obscure and cosmic translations crop up in much of Mirşan’s work: from Scandinavia, through Anatolia, to Chinese Turkestan he discovers other vaguely intergalactic pronouncements. In the case of Uighur texts found in Turfan, western China, and published in 1965 by Professor Reshit Rahmeti Arat under the title Old Turkic Poems, his speculations become quite wild. These Turfan texts are not poems at all, says Mirşan, but much older Turkish – sixth-century bc – astronomical reports. Their title should instead read: The Manipulation of Cosmic Invariances. In other words, proto-Turks were practising cosmological physics long before Newton, Einstein and Max Planck. As for Mirşan’s speculations about the Turkish origin of Christianity – indeed of all religions – and the death of Jesus in Trebizond in 514bc, the less said the better.

Some of the greatest discoveries in archaeology, some of the most miraculous decipherments – we think of Schliemann, the merchant, at Mycenae and Troy; Henry Rawlinson, the army officer who decoded cuneiform; or Michael Ventris, the architect, who jointly solved the riddle of Minoan Linear B – have been made by amateurs. The fact that Mirşan is an amateur should not, therefore, count against him. He may be wrong about some things; it does not follow that he is wrong about everything.

His theories about the origin of writing are fascinating, and his collation and comparison of inscriptions from across Eurasia – especially the similarities he finds between Anatolian and early Egyptian hieroglyphs – are intriguing. It is the translations which seem to let him down, being often woolly, repetitive and unconvincing, or downright implausible.

The Bodrum philologist does not bother with strict and scholarly presentation; nor is it always easy to understand just what he is claiming – the consequence, probably, of working too much in isolation. His work has few academic endorsements, and those are not reassuring. And yet, one cannot escape the feeling that Kâzim Mirşan is on to something. There are a hundred questions that need asking. But until and unless someone takes the trouble to ask them, we shall never know what – if anything – that something is.

Christian Tyler is the author of Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang (John Murray)

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