The Hittites

Origins | Old Kingdom | Middle Kingdom | Empire
Disintegration | Significance

Hittite Origins

The Hittites invaded the Anatolian peninsula sometimes in the second millennium B.C. It is thought that their penetration of the region was largely peaceful, with people infiltrating local society until they came to dominate the region. Where the Hittites originated is still not known. Current scholarship has them either coming from the west, or more likely from the northeast where they may have lived in settlements along the Black sea and the Caspian Sea. Their language arose in a city called Nesa. They called it Nesili, but it is referred to today as Hittite.

As Hittite traders and wanderers explored to the south of Anatolia, they ran into the fertile crescent where Mesopotamian civilization was now in full swing. The imitative Hittites were quick to see the advantages of a more organized and affluent society and began to imitate their neighbors to the south. They set up their cities in the Halys River Valley.

The Hittites were the first Indo-European people to develop a civilization. Prior to the early 1900s, little was known about them other than a few oblique references to Hittites in the Bible and a few other sources. However, a cache of over 10,000 clay tablets were found near Bogazkoy (called Hattusas during the Hittite reign).

Hittite Old Kingdom (c. 1700 - 1500 B.C.)

The Hittite king Labarnas, leader of Kussara, united various Hittite cities in the Anatolian Peninsula, just north of the Taurus mountains. He placed his sons and brothers in charge of the various cities he had conquered and consolidated his kingdom. He changed his name to Hattusilis to reflect the move of his capital to Hattusas. Geographically, the choice of this mountain fastness as a capital proved to be a mistake as it ended up being on the periphery of the kingdom, making communication and defense more difficult than it might have been.

A map of the hittite empire

Soon the forces of Hattusilis were marching through the passes of the Taurus Mountains and down to the Mediterranean Sea. However, further expansion was blocked by Yamkhad a state centered on the city of Aleppo. In the southwest of the peninsula, the Hittite expansion was blocked by Arzawa. Even so, Hattusilis's main enemy proved to be the Hurrians which were moving into the area from the east. Pressed hard and wounded in battle, the king returned to his old home in Kussara. He appointed three sons in succession to lead the country against the Hurrians, but they all failed him, acting in a treasonous fashion, possibly even colluding with the Hurrians. At about this time, Hattusas imported Babylonian scribes who recorded on cuneiform tablets his anguish about the actions of his sons.

Just before his death, Hattusilis appointed his grandson, Mursilis, as his successor. The young man proved a vigorous general, conquering Aleppo, driving out the Hurrians, and perhaps reaching even the city of Babylon (possibly in conjunction with the Kassites in about 1595 B.C.). He returned in glory to Hattusas only to be murdered by jealous relations who placed his brother-in-law, Hantilis, on the throne. The resurgent Hurrians again invaded the region south of the Taurus Mountains, establishing a kingdom from hard won Hittite lands near the Mediterranean.

The Hittite kingdom then barely held its own. The accession of King Telipinus marks the end of the Old Kingdom. He instituted political reforms which helped maintain the state until the Hittite Empire could be established. First, he established rules for the succession to the throne which would, hopefully, end the turmoil which occurred every time a king died. Second,he insisted on the loyalty of the nobility. Finally, he established a court (made up of all of the soldiers and nobles, called a pankus) to handle grievances against the king. This, he hoped, would prevent seething rebellions from cropping up. This is the earliest known instance of anything resembling a "democratic" body in an Indo-European culture.

The Hittite Middle Kingdom (1500 - 1400 B.C.)

Like a fluttering candle, Hittite history wavers for about 100 years, sometimes called the "Middle Kingdom. Within this time the Hittites in various combinations of alliances attempted to take control of Syria. However, their main ally Egypt ended up in a closer alliance with a new enemy, the Mitanni, which eventually put the Hittites in a precarious position. The complete dynastic arrangements are not known. However, the Hittites may have made marriage alliances with the Hurrians to the south. Soon Hurrian names began to appear in the lists of names of the Hittite royal family, and the coming Empire would be deeply influenced by Hurrian culture.

The Hittite Empire (1400 - 1200 B.C.)

A great king arose. Tudhaliyas II conquered several regions to the west and then turned his sights on Aleppo. Having razed the great city, he then defeated the powerful Mitanni state. Yet this expansion did not relieve the pressures on all sides of the Hittite state. To the north, next to the Black Sea, a new tribe was moving in, the Kaska. Egypt, Arzawa, and the states of the Fertile Crescent were all factors. Nevertheless, in spite of all the efforts of Tudhaliyas II even the capital at Hattusas was burned to the ground by an invading army.

It may have been about this time that the Hittites began to develop iron-working which would revolutionize both warfare and domestic life. The discovery of iron-working was a factor in the rise of the empire. Hittite iron came to be a high demand trade good and may have enabled the Hittite military to advance the use of chariots.

The Hittites were fortunate to have another able king, Suppiluliumas I. He began his reign (c. 1343 B.C) by stiffening the defenses of his capital and consolidating the core Hittite region. Next, he turned his attention to the Mitanni. He chose an unconventional route of attack, slipping in behind the main Mitanni defenses, taking the capital and forcing the submission of the remaining cities. To forgo destruction at the hands of this wily king, most of the Syrian cities quickly submitted. Part of the reason Suppiluliumas was able to make such quick military gains was the indifference of the current Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton, who was busy conjuring up a new religion.

Suppiluliumas while consolidated his gains in the area was struck down by a plague as was his chosen successor (c. 1320 B.C.). Rule devolved upon Mursilis II. His inexperience would create problems for the newly formed Hittite Empire. First, the Asyrians (not the same as the Syrians) conquered a subject Mitanni state. Several regions in southwestern Anatolia revolted. This was put down with great difficulty by the young king. However, a new threat popped up in the north. The Kaska revolted. Troops were sent there even as Egypt and Assyria fomented a rebellion in Syria, which was put down by the king in the van of a large army. Mursilis faced down all these problems and proved to be an able king. He bequeathed a secure empire to Muwatallis in about 1295 B.C.

The Battle of Kadesh might have been a brilliant victory for the Hittites. They caught the Egyptian army in flank with their chariots as the Egyptians marched up the road. Unaware of the presence of the Hittite army they were strung out in a long line and just beginning to make camp. The Egyptian force was scattered, but as the Hittites ransacked the camp, one organized Egyptian unit came on the scene and in turn surprised the Hittites. Both sides claimed victory. This is one of the first battles in history where a tactical description of the battle survives.

The main rival for hegemony in Syria at this time was Egypt, which had now regained its imperialist ambitions, especially under Ramses II. The Hittites gathered their force, which included allies such as the Palestinians and the Dardanians. They met the Egyptians in the Battle of Kadesh (1275 B.C.). The battle was inconclusive; however, the result was that the Hittites maintained control of the region.

When Mursilis died, Hatsullis III usurped the throne from Urhi-Teshub (1266 B.C.). He ushered in a period of peace, largely because a balance of power had developed between Egypt, Asyria, and the Hittite Empire.

Disintegration of the Hittite Empire (1200 - 1000 B.C.)

A new people swept into the region, the Phrygians. Even the might of the Hittite Empire could not hold back the tide. The Phrygians moved in and through the Anatolian Peninsula, driving many of the Hittites into the lands of Syria. The details of the destruction of the empire are murky as most of the invading forces kept no records. Besides the Phrygians, groups of Greeks settled the sea coast area of Asia Minor. The Hittite Empire disappeared and all that remained were a few states which had once been clients.

Significance of the Hittite Empire

The Hittite Empire is significant to western historians because it is the first Indo-European civilization. Yet it is also important because it clearly illustrated the ability of peoples of the time to adopt new ways that radically improved their lives. When the Hittites moved into the region they did so by infiltration rather than brutal conquest. They were determined to improve their lives by accepting the advances they saw around them. They were especially reliant on Hurrian influences.

Yet the Hittites were also innovative. Developing iron-working was a huge step in moving all of civilization from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Also their kings were capable of political innovation. Telipinus was significant because of his creation of the pankus as a fair means of airing the grievances of his nobles. In their writing, religion, and politics the Hittites tended to be more pragmatic than the peoples to their south.

The entire Hittite culture became subsumed by other invaders, and yet these invaders would adopt civilization from the Hittites who also helped transmit its benefits both east and west from their position on the Anatolian Peninsula.


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