The extent of the Hittite civilization and empire was rediscovered only within the last hundred years. The Hittites had been mentioned several times in the Old Testament, but were considered only bit players. Excavations of sites in Turkey and Syria, plus the decipherment of inscriptions and recovered clay tablets, revealed that the Hittites were a world power at one time, rivals of the Egyptians and conquerors of Babylon.
The Hittite empire was centered in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). At its maximum, it extended from the Aegean coast of Anatolia, east to the Euphrates River, southeastward into Syria as far as Damascus, and south along the eastern Mediterranean coast of the Levant. Hittite King Mursuli sacked Babylon around 1600 BC, but did not attempt to hold the region.Historians do not know where the Hittites originated or how they got to Asia Minor. Studies of their language indicate that they were probably of European origin and migrated south through the Balkans or past the eastern end of the Black Sea sometime around 2000 BC.
The greatest Hittite capital was at Hattusas, outside the modern Turkish town of Bogazköy in north central Turkey, inland from the Black Sea. This city had previously been the capital of the Hatti, a local kingdom that was conquered by the Hittites around 1900 BC. The name Hittite derives from the name of the Hatti. The capital was moved to Hattusas around 1500 BC and the city was noted for its massive walls and placement in rugged terrain.
Rise to power
Around 2000 BC when the Hittites entered Asia Minor, the region was populated by small yet sophisticated, kingdoms each no larger than a thousand people. The Hittites began expanding their kingdom around 1900 BC, using both force and diplomacy to bring rival city-states and kingdoms in Asia Minor under control. The Hittite kingdom went through several periods of expansion and contraction until around 1400 BC.Beginning then, several strong kings in succession expanded the Hittite empire across all of Asia Minor, into Syria, and beyond the Euphrates River. The push into Syria brought the Hittites into conflict with the Egyptians who also sought to dominate this area.For several generations the Hittites and Egyptians remained diplomatic and military rivals. The great battle of Kadesh was fought between these superpowers around 1300 BC and was commemorated in Egypt by a great pictorial relief, an epic poem, and an official written record. After several decades of uneasy stalemate, the two powers signed a peace treaty and mutual defense pact, perhaps in response to growing Assyrian power to the east. A copy of the treaty was inscribed on the walls of an Egyptian temple at Karnak where it can be read today. Duplicate copies of this treaty on clay and silver tablets were also found by archaeologists in both countries.
The Hittite imperial boundaries encompassed a diverse geography, including expansive grassy plains, mountains, sea coast, river valleys, and desert. Their economy was based mainly on grain and sheep raising, but they also possessed large deposits of silver, copper, and lead ore. They were adept metalworkers and among the earliest makers of iron, although during their time iron was more valuable than gold and not available in any quantity.They were an important provider of copper and bronze to Mesopotamia. When they attempted to control the trade to and from that area by extending their influence into Syria, the Levant, and upper Euphrates River region, they came into conflict with the Egyptians.
Religion and culture
The Great Temple at Hattusas, below the hill on which the palace stood, was the religious center of the empire. The Hittite king was also the high priest of the kingdom and split his time between government, religious duties, and conquest. The king’s dual role was useful in unifying the culture of the kingdom among its diverse peoples. Each year the king/high priest traveled extensively to preside at festivals. These personal appearances brought in rich donations and helped stabilize the realm. Hittite religion was polytheistic. It was tolerant of other beliefs and flexible about incorporating new gods already worshipped by newly conquered peoples. Their supreme deity, Teshub, the Storm God, was borrowed.Hittite culture discovered so far pales in comparison to that of their contemporaries in Bablyon and Egypt. We have only a few bronze and stone statuettes, seal impressions, and rock carvings to judge their artistic ability. One enduring symbol from their artwork is the double-headed eagle that was adopted as a national symbol by both Austria and Russia.They used cuneiform for writing as well as their own hieroglyphics. They patterned their laws on those of Babylon, though they tempered their severity.
Some researchers believe that the early Hittite government was the first constitutional monarchy. The pankus, probably an assembly of noblemen, monitored the king’s activities in relation to their laws and probably had the power to remove and install kings as needed. Because they had no law of succession until circa 1500 BC, the death of a king prior to then often triggered a struggle for power. The authority of the pankus waned as the empire began to grow and after a law of succession was adopted.During the empire years, the Hittite ruler was called the Great King. Each year the rulers of vassal states brought gifts to Hattusas and pledged their loyalty. In return for military protection and favorable trading status, vassal states contributed money and troops to the empire.
Extensive records and correspondence preserved on clay tablets have revealed much detail about Hittite diplomacy and politics. Decipherment of specific tablets connected the Hittites with two of the most famous events in antiquity—the sacking of the legendary city of Troy from the Iliad and the death of the Egyptian boy Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Diplomatic letters to a city on the east coast of Asia Minor helped establish the site of the city of Troy.In 1353 BC the greatest Hittite king, Suppiluliuma I, was besieging the city of Carchemish that controlled an important ford and trade route over the Euphrates River. During the siege he received a letter from Ankhesenamun, the newly widowed wife of Tutankhamen. The queen of Egypt asked that Suppiluliuma send one of his sons to be her new husband and king of Egypt. The stage was set for a very important alliance by marriage. Suppiluliuma took too long to investigate and negotiate, however. An Egyptian courtier-priest seized the widow and the throne, and peace between the two great powers was not arranged until 70 years later.
Hittite foot troops made extensive use of the powerful recurved bow and bronze-tipped arrows. Surviving artwork depicts Hittite soldiers as stocky and bearded, wearing distinctive shoes with curled-up toes. For close combat they used bronze daggers, lances, spears, sickle-shaped swords, and battle-axes shaped like human hands. Soldiers carried bronze rectangular shields and wore bronze conical helmets with ear flaps and a long extension down the back that protected the neck. They were apparently very competent at conducting sieges and assaulting cities that resisted.They were possibly the first to adopt the horse for pulling light two-wheeled chariots and made these vehicles a mainstay of their field armies. Egyptian engravings of the Battle of Kadesh show three men in the Hittite chariots using spears, but other evidence suggests that they carried only a driver and archer. Perhaps the chariot archer replaced the chariot javelin thrower. Hittite chariot armies were feared by most of their contemporaries.
Decline and fall
Following the establishment of peace with Egypt around 1280 BC, there ensued 80 years of relative peace and prosperity for much of the civilized world. During the great catastrophe circa 1200 BC, however, the Hittite empire was suddenly destroyed. The fortifications at Hattusas were thrown down and the city burned. Stone sculptures were smashed apart. It is not known by whom, but it is possible that the Hittite armies fell off in ability during decades of relative peace while the growing riches of the empire made it an ever more attractive target, probably to barbarians from the west and north. The Kaskans, barbarians from the Russian steppes, penetrated the empire around 1300 BC and plundered Hattusas. They may have returned to finish the job for good.
The legacy of the Hittites is limited because they were lost as a culture until rediscovered only recently. They are remembered in the Bible as relatively small but sturdy warriors, but for little else. A small remembrance of the Hittites is their pointed shoes with turned-up toes seen in many carvings and reliefs that survive. This style of shoe is still seen occasionally in Turkey as ceremonial dress.
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