Hittite Culture

The Eternal Treaty - Learn about chariot battles, war lions and the world's first recorded treaty in this episode of Age Up.

Hittite Culture

introduction

Lion Gate of Hattusa, Boğazkale National Park, The Republic of Turkey
Most likely created to ward off evil spirits, two stone lions guard an entrance to the ancient Hittite city of…Read more...
Most likely created to ward off evil spirits, two stone lions guard an entrance to the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa (present-day Boğazkale in the Republic of Turkey). At the peak of the Hittite reign, the double-walled citadel may have held fifty thousand or more people. One of the greatest discoveries at this site was a library (called the Bogazköy Archive) containing thousands of stone tablets inscribed with cuneiform—the script originating in Mesopotamia. Written in the Hittite language (called Nesite), the tablets were discovered by German archaeologist Hugo Winckler in 1906; but they were not deciphered until 1917 by the Czech linguist Bedřich Hrozný. Discoveries of Hittite tablets and artifacts are still being made. In 2001, two massive stone lions (one weighing 10,000 pounds) were found 60 miles to the southeast in a field near the village of Karakiz. They were created during the same period as the Hattusa sentinels, but archaeologists are baffled as to what purpose they served, although one theory is that they marked an important water source. The city of Hattusa and the Hittite culture fell into ruin around the same time as the fall of the Mycenaean culture (circa 1200 BCE).
The true extent of the Hittite civilization was not revealed to the world until the last century. The Hittites had been mentioned several times in the Old Testament, but little was known about their civilization prior to archaeologists excavating and studying the site of the Hittite capital: Hattusa (in the present-day Republic of Turkey). Beginning with the decipherment of a hoard of inscribed clay tablets (discovered at Hattusa in 1906), it was shown that the Hittites were, in fact, a dominant and sophisticated Bronze Age superpower; and true rivals of the mighty Egyptians. The secrets of this mysterious civilization are still being unearthed through recent archaeological discoveries.

location

Hittite Empire
The Hittite Empire was centered in Asia Minor. At its maximum boundaries, 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. The Hittite King Mursili sacked Babylon around 1595 BCE but did not attempt to hold the region. Historians do not know exactly where the Hittites originated or how they got to Asia Minor. Studies of their Indo-European language, however, indicate that they were probably of European origin; and might have migrated south from what is now the Ukraine through the Balkans, or past the eastern end of the Black Sea, sometime around 2000 BCE.

capital

Ruins of the Hittite capital Hattusa, Boğazkale, The Republic of Turkey
The greatest Hittite citadel was at Hattusa (also spelled Hatusha and Hattusas), in the Boğazkale district in north central Turkey, inland from the Black Sea. This city had previously been the capital of the Hattians, and their local kingdom of Hatti was conquered by the Hittites around 1900 BCE. (The name Hittite derives from the name of the Hatti.) The Hittite capital was moved to Hattusa around 1500 BCE: a rugged and windswept area 1,200 meters (nearly 4,000 feet) above sea level. It also served as the Hittite Empire’s religious and administrative center.

rise to power

A section of the bastions reconstructed at Hattusa
When the Hittites entered Asia Minor around 2000 BCE, the region was populated by small yet sophisticated kingdoms. The Hittites began expanding their domain around 1900 BCE, using both force and diplomacy to bring rival city-states and kingdoms in Asia Minor under control. The Hittite realm went through several periods of expansion and contraction until around 1400 BCE. At that time, a series of strong kings 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 region.

Illustration of Hittite war-chariot
For several generations, the Hittites and Egyptians remained diplomatic and military rivals. The great battle of Kadesh (near the present-day Syrian-Lebanese border) was fought between these superpowers around 1274 BCE and was commemorated in Egypt by a pictorial relief, an epic poem, and an official written record. After years 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 in hieroglyphs on the walls of an Egyptian temple at Karnak (where it stands to this day); and on a Hittite clay tablet originating from Hattusa (currently at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum).
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economy

Bas-relief from Hattusa depicting herd animals
The Hittite imperial boundaries encompassed a diverse geography, including expansive grassy plains, mountains, seacoast, river valleys, and desert. Their economy was based mainly on grain and shepherding, but they also possessed large deposits of silver, copper, and lead ore. They were adept metalworkers and among the earliest makers of iron.

religion and culture

Hittite Priest-King (c. early 17th century BCE)
This statue of a Hittite priest-king in the Cleveland Museum of Art was carved from basalt around the year 1600…Read more...
This statue of a Hittite priest-king in the Cleveland Museum of Art was carved from basalt around the year 1600 BCE. The nearly 3-foot-tall sculpture has inlaid bone eyes, a conical hat and wears a ceremonial beard. The figure probably held a staff or sword in one hand. The Hittites were the first ancient people to use iron for tools and weapons, and they spoke an Indo-European language—a branch of language that includes Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, German, and English.
The Great Temple at Hattusa 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.

Carving of 12 Gods of the Underworld, Yazilikaya Shrine, Hattusa
Hittite religion was polytheistic. It was tolerant of other beliefs and flexible about incorporating new gods already worshipped by newly conquered peoples. The amount of Hittite culture that has been discovered so far pales in comparison to that of their contemporaries in Babylon and Egypt—only a few bronze and stone statuettes, seal impressions, and rock carvings remain as a testament to their artistic ability.

Tablet from Hattusa depicting the double eagle
One enduring symbol from their artwork is the double-headed eagle—a design that was passed down and adopted by many other cultures throughout the ages, from Byzantium to Imperial Russia. The Hittites used cuneiform for writing as well as Luwian Hieroglyphs.

government

Bas-relief of King Tudhaliya IV (reign c. 1237 - 1209 BCE), Hattusa
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 might have had the power to remove and install kings as needed. Because they had no law of succession until circa 1500 BCE, 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 imperial 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 precious resources, grain and troops to the empire.

architecture

Recreation of a section of wall, Hattusa
The bastions of Hattusa (a section of which is recreated on site) completed a double-walled circuit of 6km/nearly 5 miles around the citadel, interspersed by multiple square guard towers. In some places the walls were over 25 feet thick. The Hittites also incorporated massive stones and boulders in their architecture, like the cyclopean building techniques found at the contemporary citadel of Mycenae in Greece.

Sphinx Gate, Hattusa
There were at least five gates to the fortified city—each guarded by stone sentinels in the likeness of lions or sphinx-like creatures. The Assyrians, who eventually conquered Hittite territories, crafted similar protective guardians, placing them at the entrances to their own cities: lions or bulls with the heads of men called lamassu.

Tunnel Gate, Hattusa
In the upper part of the citadel is a human-made rampart with a tunnel passing through it. The exact purpose of this tunnel is not known for certain, although it was thought to have been used as a sally port. It is more likely that the tunnel (and others like it in the citadel) served as a ceremonial passageway.

Yazilikaya Shrine, Hattusa
Situated within walking distance from the citadel is the Yazilikaya Open Air Shrine. This sacred spot, located at the end of a processional path wending its way northeast from the Lower City, contains several reliefs carved into the rocks—images of gods and kings.

Luwian hieroglyphs, Hattusa
The Hittites used cuneiform script for writing on clay and metal tablets, but for monumental inscriptions they carved pictographs called Luwian hieroglyphs like the ones displayed on this sacred chamber in the citadel.

military

Illustration of a Hittite warrior
Hittite foot troops made extensive use of the powerful recurve 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. Soldiers carried bronze rectangular shields and wore bronze conical helmets with earflaps and a long extension down the back that protected the neck.

Ancient bas-relief on stone of Neo-Hittites (c. 1200 BCE) Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey
The Hittites 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 Hittite chariots using spears, but other evidence suggests that the war vehicles carried only a driver and archer. Perhaps the chariot archer replaced the chariot javelin thrower. Whatever the case, Hittite chariot armies were feared by most of their contemporaries.

decline and fall

Stone Guardian, Hattusa
Following the establishment of a treaty with Egypt circa 1259 BCE, there ensued decades of relative peace throughout much of the region. During the great catastrophe circa 1200 BCE, however, the Hittite empire was suddenly destroyed. Perhaps the Hittites had been suffering from an extended shortage of food: records on clay tablets reveal they had begun importing grain from Egypt during the middle of the 13th century BCE. Hattusa was eventually abandoned by the last known king (Suppiluliuma II), and then the fortifications were thrown down and the city burned to ashes, possibly by the mysterious Sea Peoples or an Anatolian tribal people called the Kaskians. The carving of the smiling war god guarding the King’s Gate (shown in this photograph) is a copy of the original currently on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara (the capital of Turkey).

legacy

The Hittites were some of the world’s first documenters of history, making records of real events rather than just writing down tales of heroes and gods. One of the most important “documents” in the history of the world is called The Eternal Treaty—a peace accord signed between the Hittites and their rivals the Egyptians 16 years or so after the Battle of Kadesh (1275 BCE).

Eternal Treaty, Egyptian version, Ashkelon Wall, Karnak, Egypt
What is so remarkable about this treaty is that a version of it was discovered in two places: at the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt in 1828 (written in Egyptian hieroglyphs).

Eternal Treaty, Hittite version, found at Hattusa
And at Hattusa in 1906 (written in cuneiform in Akkadian—a common diplomatic language of that period).

United Nations Building, New York, NY
In 1970 the Republic of Turkey gifted an exact replica of the Hittite version of the treaty to the United Nations, and it has been on display there ever since: a symbol of diplomacy and the promise of peace between nations.

The text on this web page originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Age of Empires manual published by Microsoft Press, 1997