History Of A Nation: The Hittite Empire

c. 1600 BC – c. 1170 BC

For our first state in modern-day Turkey that we know enough about to cover, we must go over to the Hittites. Now arguably I could have done Troy before this but I have decided to save that one for when the Trojan War was estimated to have taken place a few centuries after this. However the influence of the Hittites reached outside modern-day Turkey, or Anatolia as it was known for most of its history before the Turkish peoples arrived there. It reached outside into Syria and troubled the kingdoms of Yamhad and Qatna and even Assyria and Egypt to an extent. The Hittites did not mess about.


Centred on Hattusa in the centre of Anatolia, in the large bend created by the Halys River, the Hittites expanded far beyond that, and let their empire reach all the way out into the Levant, brushing up against Egypt, Assyria and the new Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni, to become what we now believe to have been one of the major powers in the region during the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. It wasn’t always that way, however. No empire is built upon just the rocky highlands of central Turkey and those that have tried received arks carrying animals to the face. Of their mountains. It’s a flood joke. Let’s just go to the timeline.


We assume a lot of things about the Hittites, primarily because they were the first major people in their area, although they displaced or assimilated a group of people called the Hatti who lived there before them. They also took their name from these people and to others were known as the Hatti. The modern name Hittites is to distinguish them from the Hatti and comes from the references in the Old Testament, which we still can’t escape for looking at historical nations around this timeframe.

Our picture of the Hittites used to be much more reliant on the Bible though. It was thought that they were equal or lesser in power to the Israelites. If they existed at all, and many people thought that they did not. This was before any archaeological discoveries came about at all, showing that basing historical research off of a religious text is doomed to be proven wrong, almost as if there was a bias towards those whose religion it belonged to. As it showed the Hittites to be a much more powerful nation, on a par with Egypt rather than what could have passed for a Jewish state.

The Hittites probably came from across the Black Sea, where the archaeological Samara culture was at the time, and displaced the Hatti around about 1900 BC. They might have even been the ones to push Hurrians and Amorites into the Fertile Crescent at around that time, an early migration of peoples. They started under the lords of Zalpa, a city in Anatolia that faced rival branches of Hittites for dominance and eventually came to rule over all of the Hittites, destroying trading links with the Assyrians that had been set up during this time.

The first known king of the Hittites is Labarna I, although even his existence is under question as his name is actually a title often used by the Hittites meaning scholars use the lack of evidence about him to question whether earlier scholars misread information.If he did exist, he laid the groundwork for the kings to follow. If Labarna wasn’t a separate person, he was also Labarna II’//Hattusi I who used the title of Labarna and was the king who followed/was Labarna I. He extended the Hittite reach to the shore and subdued some cities in Syria, on the conquering warpath for which they’d get… sometimes unfairly… associated with. They were probably not any more violent than the others, indeed, if we have to go by the Old Testament, the Hittites were just as often allies of the Hebrews as enemies.

Mursili I, probably a grandson of Hattusi is the next king we see, who continued his grandfather’s conquests in Syria, conquering Yamhad for good and even making it all the way to Babylon where he sacked the thing. You thought the Hittites were just a regional nuisance, no, they made it all the way to the most famous city of the time and brought it to its knees. This earns them a place in Civ.. er… III. The Babylon raid wasn’t anything permanent, far too far away from any Hittite cities, but when Mursili returned home from that, his brother-in-law and son-in-law had planned a conspiracy in his absence and assassinated him. Another lesson, if any were needed, that you should  never let random relatives get a taste of power. Preemptively lock them up and avoid the awkward family dinner for years afterwards.

Hantili, the brother-in-law, eventually felt guilt for doing this, according to the Telepinu Proclamation, our source for this, but only after he’d enjoyed a long reign of 30 years that mostly consisted of keeping the Syrians in line and presumably lots of luxury. The son-in-law, Zantili, succeeded him but died soon after. Then a king called Ammuna took the throne and lost loads of land. Things were dire but the Old period of the Hittites (yes, they also have this Old/Middle/New period but unlike most nations I’m just doing them in one because there’s not as much to say about them individually) was nearly over but for one good ruler, Telipinu, who consolidated the shrinking realm, and, being naturally rather disturbed by the murders to get the throne that had preceded him, drew up a line of succession that basically just amounted to inventing primogeniture. It took a king centuries down the line to invent the rule that ‘oldest boy gets it, keep away pretenders’. Though this instability might have been because unlike other ancient realms, the king was a first among equals and deemed ‘touchable’ unlike the god-kings that most other ancient realms put into their culture, it turns out for good reason.

Regardless, the Middle Period of the Hittites started off with a run of weak kings for which we have basically no records. The murders didn’t stop either as Muwatalli I was apparently a bodyguard of Huzziya II and killed him to take the throne. It’s the ‘New Period’, sometimes known as the Hittite Empire, it was just a kingdom before now. Tudhaliya I (possibly? again we’re not certain on his existence) was the first king of this empire, conquering the Assuwa league in Western Anatolia, the Assuwa themselves a possible origination of the name ‘Asia’. That league is considered to have included Troy, as well as other west Anatolian coastal cities like Lycia.

A few non-entities of kings later and it was Šuppiluliuma I who broke the mould and became a famous Hittite king, overthrowing the young Tudhaliya III after advising his father. It was worth it as Suppi, as I’m calling him, to save me typing that name tons of times, was very competent. Hattusa had been razed before he took the throne but Suppi brought Aleppo and Syria back under Hittite control, allied the Kassites who now ruled Babylon, and controlled enough power in the region that even the mighty Egyptians treated him and his empire with great seriousness and sent him marriage offers, including one for the widow of Tutankhamun (yes, that Tutankhamun). Many of Suppi’s sons became kings, Mursili II was one of them and he strengthened the Hittite position in the west as his father had done to the south and east.

A hundred years passed, with lesser kings letting Egyptians and Assyrians encroach upon Hittite lands, (under the figure of Ramesses II, for which the key battle, involving thousands of chariots, was the battle of Kadesh – the earliest battle in history for which tactics and battle formations are known. We have tons of inscriptions giving detail about the battle, and the Hittite king involved was Muwatalli II. Ramesses’ tactics forced the Hittites to retreat after they pushed forward some ill-advised charges and believing the foe was routed when they weren’t, causing the Hittite chariots to be trapped and isolated, but Ramesses was unable to take Kadesh and had to retreat to Egypt, meaning the battle resulted in a draw.

The last king was Suppi II, who does have the distinction of ruling the kingdom involved in the victory of the first recorded naval battle in history, against the native Cypriots, so the Hittites have the distinction of being involved in the first detailed military engagements on both land and sea. But the Hittite Empire would meet its fate from the sea nevertheless, as the mysterious Sea Peoples appeared from nowhere and left a wrecked empire in their wake. The Hittites would never rise as a united people again and though a few ‘Neo-Hittite’ smaller kingdoms inhabited Anatolia in the centuries that followed, they never achieved much power before being subdued by the Assyrians.


An interesting part of the Hittite culture is that they were also one of the earliest cultures to speak an Indo-European language, meaning that their language had at least some similarities to the majority of Earth languages today, although it was probably still hugely disparate. That’s why we consider them different from the original Hattians, who we think spoke a completely different language. There are also special Hittite hieroglyphs, which were deciphered by Turkish archaeologists in the 1920s, for obvious reasons, Hittite scholars are common in Turkey today (and I hope they remain common, Erdogan).

The Hittite military tradition is assumed to be rather strong given their existence mostly consisted of striking out from their heartland of central Anatolia to grasp onto the richer lands in the Fertile Crescent. They had chariots and soldiers and boats and were probably very well versed in the ways of war. They’re almost always depicted as a military-focused civilisation in any sort of representation they get. And this seems to be accentuated by the commonality of storm gods among their religious pantheon, villages had their own storm god, and the pantheon also had a number of war gods. They referred to themselves as having over a thousand gods but most of what we can ascertain about their religion from a neutral standpoint is lost sadly. Which is kind of the entire story of the Hittites, we have a bit of an incomplete picture, too much of one to say that they were a military civilisation defined by conquest but they certainly did a fair bit of that in their stable periods when their kings weren’t murdering each other, destroying Yamhad, worrying the Anatolian cities, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Mitanni enough that their invader to the north would come and attack them. A high presence in the ancient world and one that would not be soon forget them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s