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Who Were the Ancient Hittites?

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The Lion Gate at the ruins of Hattusa in Turkey, dating back to the 13th century BC. Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite empire.

The Lion Gate at the ruins of Hattusa in Turkey, dating back to the 13th century BC. Hattusa was the capital of the Hittite empire.

The Hittite civilisation rivalled the great empires of Egypt and Babylon, yet little is known about it. Its reign was short, beginning in the early 2nd millennia BC and ending with the collapse of the Bronze Age.

Who were the Hittites and what is their legacy? Here's what we do know about this ancient civilisation.

A Hittite bas relief sculpture in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. It depicts the brewing of beer.

A Hittite bas relief sculpture in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. It depicts the brewing of beer.

The Land of the Hittites

The Hittite empire was located in what is now Anatolia, Turkey; with the capital being the city of Hattusa. The ruins of this ancient metropolis were discovered by French archaeologist Charles Texier in 1834.

The Hittites were not indigenous to this region. They were invaders who supplanted the original inhabitants, known as the Hatti, and adopted their culture. The whereabouts of the Hittites' true homeland remains one of history's unsolved mysteries.

The location of the Hittite empire.

The location of the Hittite empire.

The Hittites of the Bible

Until the discovery of Hattusa, the only known mention of the Hittites was in the Old Testament, where they are named as one of the great enemies of the ancient Israelites (in Genesis 10, they are said to be descended from Heth, a great-grandson of Noah).

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;

- Deuteronomy 7:1

A wood engraving depicting Abraham's request to build a tomb for his wife Sarah on land belonging to the "children of Heth", one of whom is referred to as "the Hittite".

A wood engraving depicting Abraham's request to build a tomb for his wife Sarah on land belonging to the "children of Heth", one of whom is referred to as "the Hittite".

But the excavations at the ruins of Hattusa uncovered the Bogazköy Archive, a collection of around 25,000 cuneiform tablets dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. These texts confirm the existence of a civilisation in a time and place that corresponds to that given by the bible.

The tablets, primarily written in the Hittite language, include administrative and religious texts, and records of correspondence between Hittite kings and foreign rulers.

The most famous tablet, currently on display in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, contains details of a peace treaty between the Hittites and Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II following the Battle of Kadesh (1275 BC). This is the world's earliest recorded peace treaty.

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The clay tablet containing the peace treaty between the Hittites and Egypt; the world's earliest recorded peace treaty.

The clay tablet containing the peace treaty between the Hittites and Egypt; the world's earliest recorded peace treaty.

The Amarna Letters: A Record of Correspondence Between Hittite and Egyptian Rulers

Another major discovery in relation to the Hittites was The Amarna Letters, which were found at the ruins of Tell el-Amarna (an Ancient Egyptian city that at one point served as the capital) in the late 19th century.

The collection of tablets dates back to 14th century BC, and provides a record of correspondence between Egyptian pharaohs and foreign rulers. They are regarded as the earliest example of diplomacy in the ancient world.

They include a letter written by Tutankhamun's widow-queen Ankhsenamun to the king of the Hittites, asking him to send a son for her to marry. The king obliged, but the son was murdered before he could reach Egypt, probably by a jealous general. This angered the Hittite king and caused him to seize Egyptian land.

An ancient Hittite drinking vessel, made of silver.

An ancient Hittite drinking vessel, made of silver.

The Rise and Fall of the Hittite Empire

Historians divided the Hittite civilisation into two distinct periods.

  • The Old Kingdom (1700 — 1500 BC), which begins with the sacking of Hattusa by the Hittite King Anitta. The city was later rebuilt by King Hattusili I, who is described by ancient Hittite texts as a great warrior.
  • The New Kingdom (1400 — 1200 BC), which begins with the reign of King Suppiluliuma I, seemingly the most successful Hittite king.

Between the two periods is a dark age about which little is known.

The last king of the Hittite Empire was Suppiluliuma II (reigned 1210–1190 BC). The earliest recorded naval battle, in which the Hittites triumphed over the Cypriots, occurred during his reign.

But that was one of the Hittites' few military victories during this period, which saw increasing hostility from the Assyrians and the "sea peoples" (a mysterious seafaring civilisation that perpetually raided the coasts of Egypt and the Middle East during the latter part of the Bronze Age).

Hattusa was sacked by the Assyrians in 1190 BC, ending the Hittite dominance over the region. Their fall coincided with the collapse of the Bronze Age.

More Facts About the Hittites

  • The Hittites made successful use of chariots and advanced iron-working technologies. They were forging iron implements as early as the 14th century BC.
  • The king was the absolute authority in Hittite society. However, there were some high-ranking officials, such as the Gal Mesedi (Chief of the Royal Bodyguards), Gal Gestin (Chief of the Wine Stewards), and Gal Dubsar (Chief of the Scribes).
  • The Hittites worshipped a storm god known as Tarhunt, who was referred to as “The Conqueror” and "King of Heaven".
  • The Hittite language was a member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family.
  • The Hittites never refer to themselves as "Hittites" in their ancient texts. This was a name given to them by the bible. They refer to themselves as Nesili. The Amarna Letters refer to them as the Kingdom of Kheta.
A relief depicting a Neo-Hittite king conducting a stag hunt via chariot.

A relief depicting a Neo-Hittite king conducting a stag hunt via chariot.

References

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