The Hittites: Rulers in the Land of Hatti

The Hittites had a power and influence during the bronze age that rivaled that of New Kingdom Egypt, though today they are often forgotten.

Sep 30, 2021By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
who were the hittites battle kadesh liongate hattusa
Battle of Kadesh, James Field, via James Field Illustrations; with Lion Gate of Hattusa, 14th Century BC, Turkish Archaeological News


The Hittites were an Indo-European group who migrated to Anatolia sometime around 2000 BC. Following their arrival, they imposed themselves on the native Hattians and Hurrians and may have also taken over the Old Assyrian colonies in the region. They possessed a rich and vibrant culture and their influence was felt not only throughout the ancient Near East, but also across the Aegean as well. Deposits of cuneiform tablets in various royal archives demonstrate the extent to which they were a military, political, commercial, and cultural superpower. However, the Hittite Empire was ultimately unable to withstand the calamities of the Late Bronze Age Collapse.


Who Were the Hittites?

hittites vessel four scenes
Hittite Vessel with Four Scenes Molded and Carved in Relief, c. 15th-13th Century BC, Cleveland Museum of Art


The Hittites were an Indo-European group, possibly related to the Yamnaya Culture, which originated on the Eurasian steppe between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is unclear exactly which route they followed when they migrated into Anatolia. Scholars believe that they arrived either via the Balkans or the Caucasus, and there is plenty of 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 followed, by sometime around 2000 BC, they had arrived in Anatolia. Upon arriving, they imposed themselves over those already inhabiting the region. The two most important indigenous groups were the Hurrians and the Hattians, neither of which spoke an Indo-European language. There were also several Old Assyrian colonies in the region, so it took some time before the Hittites could fully establish themselves in Anatolia following their arrival.


The Early Period

bronze stag poletop hittite empire
Bronze Stag Poletop, 15th-13th Century BC, Cleveland Museum of Art


Following their arrival in Anatolia, the Hittites campaigned extensively to establish themselves in the region. However, the conquest of the territory which would become their kingdom was not immediate. Instead, it spanned several centuries. During this time, two rival royal families established themselves. These were the Northern Branch, which was based around Zalpuwa and Hattusa, and the Southern Branch, which was based around Kussara and Kanesh, a former Assyrian colony. It is easy to distinguish the two branches by their names; the Northern Branch retained Hattian names while the Southern Branch used Indo-European and Luwian names.

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The Early Hittite Period saw numerous struggles between Hittites and the various states of Anatolia. Though generally successful, Hittites appear to have had some difficulty in retaining 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 gradually establish themselves. The Old Assyrian colonies were conquered, and the Hattians were assimilated. While Hurrians were also absorbed and assimilated, many Hurrians became part of the Kingdom of Mitanni. The Mitanni dominated northern Mesopotamia, before eventually getting destroyed by the Assyrians in 1260 BC.


Founding a Kingdom

stalk handled stamp seal
Stalk-Handled Stamp Seal, ca. 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Hittite Kingdom’s foundation is dated to c.1680 BC and is credited to Labarna I or Hattusili I (possibly the same person). It was at this time that Hattusa and the surrounding lands were finally captured. However, the power, prosperity, and unity achieved by Hattusili I appears to have been short lived as Hittite texts charge Hattusili I’s sons with widespread corruption. For this reason, perhaps, 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 were in 1595 BC, when he captured Mari and Babylonia, and 1531 BC, when he sacked Babylon and turned it over to the Kassites. Mursili’s campaigns may also have been responsible for re-introducing cuneiform in Anatolia.


Mursili I’s lengthy campaigns severely strained the resources of the Hittite kingdom, and his long absence left Hattusa in a state of anarchy. As such, he was assassinated soon after his return and the kingdom entered a period of weakness. Hittite kings were treated as “First among equals,” and succession was not legally fixed. This led to an intense rivalry between the Northern and Southern branches of the royal family. The kingdom of Mitanni seized the opportunity presented by the weakened state of the Hittites to seize Aleppo and other Hittite territories.


The Period of Weakness

relief depicting twelve gods
Relief depicting Twelve Gods of the Hittite Underworld, Hittite Sanctuary of Yazilikaya, Photograph by Umut Özdemir, UNESCO


After Mursili I, the last Hittite monarch of note was Telepinu who managed to win a few victories against the Mitanni and attempted to secure the lines of succession. With Telepinu’s death in c.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, Hittites came under prolonged attack, primarily from the Kaska, a non-Indo-European people inhabiting the shores of the Black Sea. The situation was apparently dire enough to force the Hittite capital to move several times, first to Sapinuwa and then to Samuha.


Possibly in response to their weakness, it was also during this period that the Hittites developed one of their most important innovations. They were very active in their efforts to conduct treaties and alliances with neighboring states, so much so that they are considered the earliest known pioneers in international diplomacy. The network of diplomatic relationships they established extended across Anatolia, the Near East, and the Aegean to Mycenean Greece. These alliances helped to maintain their power and influence even when they were experiencing periods of weakness and disunity.


The New Kingdom and the Hittite Empire

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Seated Goddess with a Child, c.14th-13th Century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Eventually, the period of Hittite weakness during the Middle Kingdom ended and was followed by a period referred to as the New Kingdom. It was during this period that they would reach the height of their power and establish an Empire. This period of strength was enabled in part by changes to the nature of kingship which brought more stability. It was during this period that Hittite kingship became hereditary. Kings began acting as high priests for the whole kingdom, and they also adopted a “superhuman” aura associated with kingship in the Near East. Making kingship hereditary also resolved the rivalry between the Northern and Southern Branches of their Royal family.


bronze votive figurine hittites
Hittite bronze Votive Figurine of a Man, c. Early First Millennium BC, Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Yet despite these changes, the Hittites often struggled to maintain their power and strong kings were often followed by weak ones. Throughout their history, they experienced a pattern of expansion under strong kings and contraction under weak ones. The New Kingdom period began with Tudhliya I, who vanquished the kingdoms of Aleppo, Mitanni, and Arzawa sometime around c.1400 BC. His reign was followed by a period of weakness during which enemies managed to raze the city of Hattusa.


The Deeds of Suppiluliuma

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Sculpture depicting Priest-King or Deity, c.1600 BC, Cleveland Museum of Art


During the New Kingdom the Hittite Empire reached its greatest extent under Suppiluliuma I (r.c.1344-1322 BC) and his immediate successors. Originally a general and advisor of Tudhaliya II, Suppilulimua overthrew his brother Tudhliya III to become king. As king, Suppilulimua defeated Aleppo and Carchemish, reduced Mitanni to a vassal of the Assyrian king, who was Suppilulimua’s son in law, and seized Egyptian territory in Syria. These conquests were ruled over by Suppilulimua’s many sons and relatives which made him the supreme power broker of the Near East. Suppiluliuma was also a great builder credited with several massive stone reliefs and other projects.


Even the mighty Egyptians were willing to seek an alliance marriage with Suppiluliuma. The widow of Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun, requested Suppilulimua send one of his sons to be her husband. However, the prince died under mysterious circumstances en-route which led to renewed war between Egypt and the Hittites. They managed to capture large swathes of Egyptian territory in the Levant and took many prisoners. However, these prisoners brought with them into the Empire a deadly plague. One of the victims of this plague was Suppilulimua I.


Battle of Kadesh c.1274 BC

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Orthostat Relief depicting a Lion Hunt Scene, c. 10th-9th Century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Rivalry between the Egyptians and Hittites continued long after the death of Suppiluliumua I, especially over control of the Levant. Both saw this region as vital to their security and economic well-being. In 1274 BC the Hittite army under Muwatalli II confronted the forces of Ramses II at the border town of Kadesh. Both armies were roughly the same size but Rameses had been misled into thinking that Muwatalli was far off and was therefore caught completely off guard. Hittites caught the Egyptians in an ambush just as they were setting camp and managed to scatter one of the Egyptian divisions. Believing themselves victorious, Hittites began to loot the Egyptian camp. However, as Egyptian reinforcements arrived, they were able to drive them off and inflict great casualties.


Practically, the battle was a draw. Both sides suffered huge casualties and the war continued to seesaw back and forth for another fifteen years. Neither Hittites nor Egyptians could decisively defeat the other in battle. Eventually, a peace was agreed upon in 1258 BC, the text of which archaeologists recovered in the form of a Hittite clay tablet and an Egyptian papyrus.


Troy and the Bible

shaped oval dish bible scene
Shaped Oval Dish depicting King David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite, 1755, Museum of Fine Arts Boston


There is strong evidence to suggest a connection between the Hittites and the historic 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 were certainly aware of each other. Hittite records make mentions of a “Wilusa” and “Taruisa,” which are likely the Hittite names for Ilion and Troia or Troy. Other documents mention a treaty between Muwatalli II and Alaksandu of Wilusa, which is significant because the birthname of Homer’s Paris was “Alexandros.” Yet another Hittite document references a conflict between Alaksandu and the king of Ahhiyawa, which is equated with Achaea, the Homeric name for Greece.


The Hittites also make an appearance in the Old Testament of the 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 uncovered and unknown Indo-European people in central Anatolia they named them after the Hittites of the Bible. Nevertheless, in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Abraham’s friend Ephron is a Hittite and Esau takes two Hittite women as wives. Later king David lusts after Bath-sheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite one of his captains who he causes to be killed. During the period of the Divided Monarchy, the Hittites supplied Judaea with cedar, chariots, and horses. Other Biblical passages are quite critical of the Hittites, but the Hittites never appear to have fought with the Israelites.


Downfall and Demise of the Hittites

hittites chief tile
Egyptian tile with a Hittite Chief, c.1184-1154 BC, Museum of Fine Arts Boston


The long war with Egypt had seriously weakened the Hittite Empire, making it difficult to resist the rising power of the Neo Assyrians. Hittite territory in the Levant was slowly annexed by the Neo Assyrians who were even able to march deep into Anatolia. In response, the Hittites formed and alliance with Egypt which was included as a clause of the Kadesh treaty. However, the Hittites had little success in halting the Neo Assyrian advance. The last strong Hittite king, Tudhaliya IV (r. c.1237-1209 BC) was able to win some battles and even briefly conquer Cyprus. Ultimately, he was unable to defend the Kingdom of Mitanni and was heavily defeated by the Neo Assyrians at the Battle of Nihriya. Following this defeat, the Neo Assyrians took the Hittite territories in Syria and most of Anatolia.


The final death blow to the Hittite Empire came as part of what is today referred to as the Late Bronze Age Collapse. During the period of c.1200-1150 BC a series of violent calamities caused the destruction of Bronze Age Civilizations across the Eastern Mediterranean. In the case of the Hittites, their central Anatolian heartland was struck by continuous waves of Kaska, Phrygian, and Bryges invaders. The combination of the loss of territory and trade routes to the Neo Assyrians, the destruction of Hattusa in 1180 BC by the Kaska, Phryrgians, and Bryges, and internal issues, ensured that by 1160 BC, the once mighty Hittite Empire was no more.


Legacy of the Hittites

beared figure staff relief
Relief depicting Bearded Figure with Staff, c. Early First Millennium BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Following the collapse of the Hittite Empire, a number of Syro-Hittite states appeared in Anatolia and northern Syria. While some of these were quite powerful, all were eventually incorporated into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Hittites themselves gradually assimilated with their neighbors and disappeared as a distinct ethnic group. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries the Hittites were rediscovered by archaeologists and the new field of Hittitology was founded.


Today we are most likely to encounter the Hittites through their art and the archaeological remains they have left behind. Several of the great Hittite cites in modern Turkey have been excavated. Also, the Hittite capital of Hattusa is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest collection of Hittite artifacts in the world is housed by the Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara, Turkey. Several modern institutions in Turkey, such as the state-owned Etibank (Hittite Bank), carry names inspired by the Hittites. Long after they disappeared into the mists of history, the influence of the once mighty Hittites can still be seen today.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.