The ancient people known as the Hittites were warriors of Anatolia, the peninsula now known as Turkey. They inhabited much of what is now Turkey and Syria for more than 1,000 years beginning in the 2nd millennium bc. Their empire was at its greatest between about 1600 and 1200 bc. In size and strength, it rivaled the Egyptian and Babylonian empires of the time.
The Hittites probably came from the area beyond the Black Sea, which lies between Europe and Asia. They first settled in central Anatolia. Their capital was at Hattusas, the site of modern Bogazköy in north-central Turkey.
Society and Culture
Historians have learned most of what they know about the Hittites from information found in some 10,000 clay tablets discovered in the ruins of Hattusas in the 1900s. The writing on these tablets is mostly in the Hittite language but with Babylonian spelling. It has revealed much about the political organization, social structure, economy, and religion of the Hittites. Syrian, Assyrian, and some Egyptian and Phoenician influences are evident in the culture.
Hittite society was mainly agricultural. The people grew barley, wheat, grapes, and olives. They raised horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. Hittites were also famous soldiers and were among the earliest peoples to fight and hunt on horseback. Kings and the common people alike enjoyed hunting. Bee keeping was a major activity, and artifacts indicate that the Hittites manufactured cloth.
Iron, silver, and other minerals were plentiful in the Anatolian region. The Hittites used iron for weaponry and traded both iron and silver. They used three-person chariots and caravan routes that connected the towns in the empire.
The Hittites worshiped many gods, including native Hittite and Babylonian deities. At the head of these were the Weather-god, or Storm-god, who also represented the mountains, and the earth goddess, who also represented the rivers and the sea.
The king of the Hittites was the ruler, military leader, and owner of all land. He was considered the earthly agent of the Storm-god. After death, the king was believed to become a god himself.
The Hittite state was a military organization. Daily life was closely regulated by law. Punishments for breaking the law were mild compared to those of the earlier Babylonians, however. Crimes such as murder, for example, brought heavy fines but not beheadings.
The Hittites may have been in Hattusas as early as 1900 bc. Their real power began with King Labarnas I, who is often considered the founder of the Hittite Old Kingdom. Labernas ruled from 1680 to 1650 bc. He united Hittite dominions into an empire that was later expanded by his successors.
Labarnas’ son and successor, Hattusilis I, ruled between 1650 and 1620 bc. He brought together the empire and conquered northern Syria. His adopted grandson and heir, Mursilis I, ruled between 1620 and 1590 bc. Mursilis continued the conquests in northern Syria. He then turned eastward and raided Babylon.
A struggle for power followed the death of Mursilis. Telipinus finally became the last ruler of the Old Kingdom, from about 1525 to 1500 bc. Telipinus is known for his efforts to regulate royal succession and law and order. Few records exist of the empire after Telipinus’ reign until the rise of the Hittite New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom became important with King Suppiluliumas I, who ruled between about 1380 and 1346 bc. Suppiluliumas strengthened the defenses of the kingdom and rebuilt the old capital, Hattusas. He was involved in struggles with the rival kingdom of Mitanni in the east.
Muwatallis ruled between 1320 and 1294 bc. By that time Egypt had recovered much of its earlier power. The battle of Kadesh, one of the greatest battles of the ancient world, was fought in 1288 bc between the Hittites and the Egyptians. But the battle had no clear victor. Not until about 1269 bc did the Hittites and the Egyptians agree to a peace treaty and mutual defense pact.
Decline of the Empire
The Hittite Empire fell in about 1200 bc. The end was sudden. It probably resulted from large-scale invasions, possibly by a group of seafarers called the Sea Peoples. Some Hittites kept their identity for another five centuries, however, through about 700 bc. They formed small, independent states that gradually became part of Assyria.