The Hittites were an Indo-European group that migrated to Anatolia around 2000 BC. After their arrival, they imposed themselves on the local Hattians and Hurrians and may have also taken over the Old Assyrian colonies in the region. They had a vibrant culture, and their influence was felt throughout the ancient Near East and the Aegean Sea.
The deposits of cuneiform tablets in various royal archives demonstrate the extent to which they were military, political, commercial, and cultural superpowers. However, the Hittite Empire was ultimately unable to withstand the calamities associated with the collapse of the Late Bronze Age.
Who are the Hittites
The Hittites were an Indo-European group, possibly related to the Yamnaya culture, which arose in the Eurasian steppe between the Black and Azov Seas. It is unclear which route they followed when they migrated to Anatolia. Scholars believe they arrived either via the Balkans or the Caucasus, and there is ample evidence to support both routes. They spoke a language that was a distinct part of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. Along with the closely related Luwian language, Hittite is the oldest historically attested Indo-European language.
Regardless of which route they took, by about 2000 BC, they arrived in Anatolia. Upon arrival, they forced themselves upon those who had already inhabited the region. The two most important indigenous groups were the Hurrians and Hattians, neither of which spoke Indo-European. There were also several old Assyrian colonies in the area, so it took some time before the Hittites could fully settle in Anatolia after their arrival.
After they arrived in Anatolia, the Hittites waged an extensive campaign to establish themselves in the region. However, the conquest of the territory that was to become their kingdom did not happen immediately. Instead, it stretched out over several centuries. During this time, two rival royal families established themselves. These were the Northern Branch, which was based around Tsalpuwa and Hattusa, and the Southern Branch, which was based around Kussara (Kushshar) and Kanishka, a former Assyrian colony. The Northern Branch retained the Hutt names, while the Southern Branch used Indo-European and Luwian names.
In the early Hittite period, there were numerous clashes between the Hittites and the various states of Anatolia. Despite their general success, the Hittites seem to have difficulty maintaining their conquests during this period. The likely reason for this was the rivalry between the two branches of the royal family, which led to political instability.
Despite these difficulties, they were able to establish themselves gradually. The old Assyrian colonies were conquered, and the Haitians assimilated. While the Hurricanes were also absorbed and assimilated, many of them became part of the Mitanni Realm. Mitanni dominated northern Mesopotamia before eventually being destroyed by the Assyrians in 1260 BC.
The founding of the Hittite kingdom dates back to around 1680 BC. and is attributed to Labarna I or Hattusili I. It was during this time that Hattusa and the surrounding lands were finally taken over. However, the power, prosperity, and unity achieved by Hattusili I appeared to be short-lived, as Hittite texts accuse the sons of Hattusili I of widespread corruption. Perhaps, for this reason, Hattusili I chose his grandson Mursili I as his successor. Mursili I continued the conquests of Hattusili I and led numerous raids into Mesopotamia. His most notable years were 1595 BC when he captured Mari and Babylonia, and 1531 BC when he sacked Babylon and handed it over to the Kassites. The Mursili campaigns may have also been responsible for the reintroduction of cuneiform in Anatolia.
The long campaigns of Mursili I seriously depleted the resources of the Hittite kingdom, and his long absence left Hattusa in a state of anarchy. He was killed shortly after his return, and the kingdom entered a period of weakness. The Hittite kings were treated as the first among equals, and inheritance was not legally enshrined. This led to the intense rivalry between the Northern and Southern branches of the royal family. The Mitanni kingdom took advantage of the opportunity presented by the weakened Hittite state to seize Aleppo and other Hittite territories.
After Mursili I, the last known Hittite monarch was Telipinus, who managed to win several victories over the Mitannians and ensure continuity. With the death of Telipinus in 1500, the Old Kingdom period ended, and the Middle Kingdom period began. Unfortunately, the Middle Kingdom is a relatively obscure period as few records have survived. During this time, the Hittites were subject to prolonged attacks, primarily from the Kaska, a non-Indo-European people inhabiting the shores of the Black Sea. The situation appeared to have been dire enough to force the Hittite capital to relocate several times, first to Sapinuwa (Shapinuwa) and then to Samukha.
Perhaps in response to their weakness, it was during this period that the Hittites developed one of their most important innovations. They were very active in their efforts to conclude treaties and alliances with neighboring states, so much so that they are considered the earliest known pioneers in international diplomacy. The network of diplomatic relations they established stretched across Anatolia, the Middle East, and the Aegean to Mycenaean Greece. These alliances helped to maintain their power and influence even when they experienced periods of weakness and disunity.
The New Kingdom and Hittite Empire
Eventually, the Hittite period of weakness during the Middle Kingdom ended and the period called the New Kingdom followed. It was during this period that they reached the peak of their power and created an Empire. This period of strength was in part due to changes in the character of the government that brought more stability. It was during this period that the Hittite reign became hereditary. The kings began to act as high priests for the entire kingdom, and they also adopted the superhuman aura associated with reigning in the Middle East. The inheritance of royal power also allowed rivalry between the Northern and Southern branches of their royal family.
Yet despite these changes, the Hittites often fought to maintain their power, and weak ones often followed strong kings. They have experienced a period of expansion under strong rulers and contraction under weak ones throughout their history. The New Kingdom period began with Tudhaliya I, who defeated the kingdoms of Aleppo, Mitanni, and Arzawa around 1400 BC. His reign was followed by a period of weakness, during which the enemies managed to destroy the city of Hattusa.
Deeds of Suppiluliuma l
During the New Kingdom, the Hittite Empire reached its greatest scope under Suppilulium I (1344-1322 BC) and his immediate successors. Initially, a general and adviser to Tudhaliya II, Suppilulima overthrew his brother Tudhliya III to become ruler. As king, Suppilulima defeated Aleppo, and Carchemish turned Mitanni into a vassal of the Assyrian king, Suppilulima’s son-in-law, and seized Egyptian territory in Syria. These conquests were ruled by Suppilulima’s numerous sons and relatives, making him the supreme ruler of the Middle East. He was also a great builder, credited with several massive stone reliefs and other projects.
Even the powerful Egyptians were ready to conclude an allied marriage with Suppiluliuma. Tut’s widow, Ankhesenamun, asked Suppilulima to send one of her sons to her husband. However, the prince died under mysterious circumstances en route, leading to renewed war between Egypt and the Hittites. They managed to capture large tracts of Egyptian territory in the Levant and many prisoners. However, these captives brought a deadly plague with them to the Empire, which also overtook Suppilulima I.
Battle of Kadesh
The rivalry between the Egyptians and the Hittites continued long after the death of Suppiluliuma I, especially for control of the Levant. Both considered the region vital to their security and economic well-being in 1274 BC. The Hittite army under the command of Muwatalli II clashed with the troops of Ramses II in the border town of Kadesh.
Both armies were roughly the same size, but Ramses was deceived into thinking that Muwatalli was far away and was therefore taken by surprise. The Hittites ambushed the Egyptians just as they set up camp and managed to disperse one of the Egyptian divisions. Considering themselves victors, the Hittites began to plunder the Egyptian camp. However, when Egyptian reinforcements arrived, they were able to repulse their attack and inflict heavy losses.
Almost the battle ended in a draw. Both sides suffered huge losses, and the war continued to swing back and forth for another fifteen years. Neither the Hittites nor the Egyptians could decisively defeat each other in battle. Finally, in 1258 BC., a peace was made, the text of which was discovered by archaeologists in the form of a Hittite clay tablet and an Egyptian papyrus.
Bible and Troy
There is strong evidence to suggest a connection between the Hittites and the historical, rather than Homeric, city of Troy. While the exact nature of the relationship between the Hittites and the peoples of Western Anatolia is unclear, they certainly knew about each other. The Hittite records mention “Wilusa” and “Taruisa,” probably the Hittite names for Ilion and Troy. Another Hittite document mentions the conflict between Alaksandu and the king of Ahhiyawa, who is equated with Achaea, the Homeric name for Greece.
Hittites also appear in the Old Testament Bible as friends or allies of the Israelites. It is unclear if the historical Hittites are the same people as the biblical Hittites. When 19th-century archaeologists first discovered unknown Indo-Europeans in Central Anatolia, they named them after the biblical Hittites. However, in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Abraham’s friend Ephron is a Hittite, and Esau marries two Hittite women. Later, King David desired Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his generals, whom he ordered to be killed. During the Divided Monarchy, the Hittites supplied Judea with cedar, chariots, and horses. Other biblical passages are highly critical of the Hittites, but the Hittites never seem to have fought the Israelites.
The fall and death of the Hittites
The long war with Egypt seriously weakened the Hittite Empire, making it difficult to resist the growing power of the Neo-Assyrians. The Hittite territory in the Levant was slowly annexed by the Neo-Assyrians, who could even advance deeper into Anatolia. In response, the Hittites allied with Egypt, which was included as a clause of the Treaty of Kadesh.
However, the Hittites failed in stopping the advance of the Neo-Assyrians. The last strong Hittite king Tudhalia IV (1237-1209 BC), was able to win several battles and even briefly conquer Cyprus. Ultimately, he was unable to defend the kingdom of Mitanni and was severely defeated by the Neo-Assyrians at the Battle of Niḫriya. After this defeat, the Neo-Assyrians took over Hittite territories in Syria and most of Anatolia.
The final, fatal blow to the Hittite empire came in what is today called the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. In the period around 1200-1150. BC. a series of severe disasters led to the destruction of Bronze Age civilizations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. In the case of the Hittites, their central Anatolian heart was struck by continuous waves of invaders from Kaska, Phrygia, and Bryges. The combination of the loss of territory and trade routes by the Neo-Assyrians, the destruction of Hattusa in 1180 BC. Kaska, Phrygians, and Bryges and internal problems led to the fact that by 1160 BC., the once-mighty Hittite empire was gone.
After the collapse of the Hittite Empire, several Syro-Hittite states emerged in Anatolia and northern Syria. While some of them were quite powerful, they were all eventually incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Hittites themselves gradually assimilated with their neighbors and disappeared as a separate ethnic group. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists rediscovered the Hittites, and a new field of Hittology was founded.
To date, several great Hittite monuments have been excavated in modern Turkey. In addition, the Hittite capital of Hattusa has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest collection of Hittite artifacts in the world is kept at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey. Several modern institutions in Turkey, such as the state-owned Etibank (Hittite bank), bear Hittite-inspired names. Long after they disappeared into the fog of history, the influence of the once-powerful Hittites can still be seen today in some of the surviving monuments and artifacts.