History of the Hittites


published on 18 January 2012

Hittite is the conventional English-language term for an ancient people who spoke an Indo-European language and established a kingdom centered in Hattusa (Hittite URUḪattuša) in northern Anatolia from the 18th century BCE. In the 14th century BCE, the Hittite Kingdom was at its height, encompassing central Anatolia, south-western Syria as far as Ugarit, and upper Mesopotamia. After 1180 BCE, amid general turmoil in the Levant associated with the sudden arrival of the Sea Peoples, the kingdom disintegrated into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until as late as the 8th century BCE. The history of the Hittite civilization is known mostly from cuneiform texts found in the area of their kingdom, and from diplomatic and commercial correspondence found in various archives in Egypt and the Middle East.

Early Bronze Age Anatolia

Before the rise of the Hittite Kingdom, there were three major Indo-European groups in Anatolia: the Luwians, Palaians, and Nesites. There is no historical consensus on where they came from or when. The area which would later become the center of Hittite civilization was controlled by a non Indo-European population called the Hattians. Some historians have pointed to the royal tombs at Alaca Hoyuk that show influence of Indo-European religious art, and concluded that Indo-European invaders from the Pontic steppe installed themselves as kings in this region. However, this theory is not supported by any evidence of Indo-European invasion. We simply do not know how or when exactly Indo-European groups began to appear in Anatolia - what is clear is that an Indo-European language (Nesite) and culture eventually became dominant in the central Anatolian ruling class. The ethnic makeup of Anatolia may very well have been a mixed one, with Indo-Europeans, Hurrians, and Hattians. Indo-Europeans seem to have been heavily concentrated in the city of Neša (Kanesh) which was an Assyrian trading colony. The spread of Nesite, which would later become the official language of the Hittite Empire, was probably due to its importance in the Assyrian trade network. Nesite was written in the cuneiform script borrowed from the Assyrians.

During the early second millennium BCE the Assyrians established a series of merchant colonies in Anatolia, the largest of these was Neša. The Assyrian merchants traded tin and textiles for gold, silver, and copper. From the many tablets found at the site of Neša, historians have concluded that there were various kingdoms (Matu) in central Anatolia before the rise of the Hittite Empire, including Hatti, Neša, Burushattum (Purushanda; possibly near modern Acem Hoyuk), and Wahsusana (modern Nigde).

The Old Kingdom

The early history of the Hittite Kingdom is known through tablets that may first have been written in the 17th century BCE but survived only as copies made in the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. These tablets, known collectively as the Anitta text, begin by telling how Pithana the King of Kussara or Kussar conquered the neighbouring city of Neša (Kanesh) and annexed it peacefully. After the conquest, Neša became the seat of the Kussaran dynasty. Pithana's son Anitta launched several successful campaigns against the many Anatolian kingdoms. He defeated Zalpa and captured their king. Anitta then laid siege to Hattusa and after capturing it in a night assault, destroyed it. He established his supremacy over most of Central Anatolia around the Kizilirmak basin. Anitta's kingdom did not last long, however, and had disintegrated soon after his death.

After the fall of Anitta's kingdom central Anatolia was ravaged by warfare between small states and invading peoples like the Hurrians and the Kaskians. The Hittite Kingdom would grow out of the city of Kussara, and the founding of the kingdom is attributed to Labarna I who began a new era of conquest. Hattusili (possibly Labarna's grandson) established the seat of his reign in the city of Hattusa, from which he captured the city of Sanahuitta and controlled most of central Anatolia. Hattusili then attacked Syria, taking Alalah and Urshu. Hattusili also marched against Arzawa but his kingdom was attacked by Hurrians, triggering uprisings, and he was forced to turn back to defeat them. The rebellion effectively ended after the city of Sanahuitta was subdued. Hattusili attacked Syria a second time, capturing the city of Zaruna and defeating an army of the city of Hassuwa supported by troops from Aleppo at a battle near Mt. Atalur (Adalur). He then captured and sacked the cities of Hassuwa, Zippasna, and Hahha/Hahhum, and even crossed the Euphrates to attack Tikunani and pillaged north Mesopotamian territory. While these campaigns gained Hattusili much plunder, they did not result in the establishment of permanent Hittite control over Syria. In the later part of his reign, Hattusili had to deal with several rebellions carried out by his own sons Huzziya and Hakkarpili, as well as with a rebellion in the city of Hattusa which saw the involvement of his own daughter. It was after these rebellions that Hattusili appointed his grandson Mursili I as his heir.

Mursili continued the conquests of Hattusili, his conquests reaching Mesopotamia, and even ransacked Babylon itself in 1531 BCE bringing to an end the dynasty of Hammurabi. Rather than incorporate Babylonia into Hittite domains, Mursili seems to have instead turned control of Babylonia over to his Kassite allies, who were to rule it for the next four centuries. This lengthy campaign, however, allowed for a plot to be formed by Mursili's brother-in-law Hantili and Hantili's son-in-law Zidanta. Mursili was assassinated shortly after his return home by Hantili and Zidanta. Hantili then took the throne; he campaigned against the Hurrians in Syria, but was unable to stop their advances. The Hurrians invaded the Hittite kingdom and plundered the land of Hatti. Hantili's sons were murdered by Zidanta who took the throne, only to be killed by his own son Ammuna. During this period the Hittite Kingdom began its decline and was attacked by various surrounding rebellious states such as the Hurrian Kingdom of Kizzuwadna and the Kingdom of Arzawa. Ammuna tried but ultimately failed to conquer these rebel kingdoms. After Ammuna's death, the usurper Huzziya attempted to kill off his sons but was himself deposed by Telepinu, a son of Ammuna. Telepinu established control over the Hittite core once again, and expanded towards the Euphrates, taking various towns in the region near Carchemish. He also signed a treaty with the southern Kingdom of Kizzuwadna which formalized territorial agreements.

The successors of Telepinu reigned over a period of instability in the kingdom, sometimes called the Middle Kingdom. This period saw the first invasions of Hatti by the Kaska peoples of the north, who took the town of Nerik and led to the fortification of the capital of Hattusa and other towns in the region of Hatti, which showed that the very heart of the kingdom was under threat. This period also saw the Hittite Kingdom wracked with internecine strife, as kings were assasinated and pretenders vied for the royal throne. It was also during this period that the Hurrian confederation of Mittani expanded into Syria and into Hittite controlled land west of the Euphrates.

The New Kingdom

With the reign of Tudhaliya I (who may actually not have been the first of that name; see also Tudhaliya), the Hittite Kingdom re-emerges from the fog of obscurity, entering the period of time called the "Hittite Empire period." Many changes were afoot during this time, not the least of which was a strengthening of the kingship. Settlement of the Hittites progressed in the Empire period. However, the Hittite people tended to settle in the older lands of south Anatolia rather than the lands of the Aegean. As this settlement progressed, treaties were signed with neighbouring peoples. During the Hittite Empire period the kingship became heriditary and the king took on a "superhuman aura" and began to be referred to by the Hittite citizens as "My Sun". The kings of the Empire period began acting as a high priest for the whole kingdom, making an annual tour of the Hittite holy cities, conducting festivals, and supervising the upkeep of the sanctuaries.

Map of Mesopotamia, c. 1400 BC

During his reign (c. 1400 BCE), King Tudhaliya I sought to reassert the dominant position of Hatti. He first attacked the lands of western Anatolia including Arzawa. Tudhaliya feared that the various western states might unite against him in the future and thus attacked preemptively, transporting large numbers of soldiers and chariots from the conquered territories back to Hattusa. Soon after the end of this campaign, 22 western Anatolian states came together in a large anti-Hittite military alliance, the alliance possibly extended from Wilusa (Troy) to as far south as Lukka (Lycia). Tudhaliya attacked this alliance and defeated them in battle, once again taking back a large number of warriors and charioteers to Hatti and settling them. In the west, Tudhaliya installed Madduwatta as vassal king. Madduwatta expanded his kingdom into Asawa and Happalla, which outraged the Hittites who had commanded him to stay within his borders, but despite his apparent hostility, Madduwatta remained a Hittite vassal which served his main purpose, to keep the western Anatolian states from begin a threat to Hatti. While Tudhaliya campaigned in the west, the Kaskians invaded from the north and ravaged Hatti, a scene which would be repeated many times in Hittite history. Tudhaliya defeated the invaders and marched into Kaskian territory, where he defeated their combined forces and conquered much of their lands. Tudhaliya also succeeded in regaining control of Isuwa from the Mitanni.

Meanwhile the Mitanni King Saushtatar I had invaded and conquered Assyria and then crossed the Euphrates and conquered Syria. He also signed a treaty with the King of Kadesh. In order to challenge Mitanni, Tudhaliya first secured a treaty with the Kingdom of Kizuwadna; he then invaded Syria and conquered Aleppo, though he was unable to completely end Mitanni control over the region. After Tudhaliya's death, he left to his co-ruler and heir Arnuwanda a large but fragile kingdom which continued to deteriorate under his rule. The Kaskians began their attacks on the northern region once again, sacking and pillaging Hittite towns and temples. An alliance between Mitanni and Egypt allowed for the resurgence of Mitanni control over Syria. During the reign of Arnuwanda's son, Tudhaliya III the kingdom was attacked from all sides. Kaskians, Arzawans, Isuwans and others invaded and devastated Hatti, even Hattusa, the capital of the kingdom, was taken and burned. The Kingdom of Hatti seemed to be at an end, but Tudhaliya III, gathering his forces at Samuha, was able to retake the central Anatolian region from his Kaskian foes. His campaigns and those of his son Suppiluliuma I are attested to in the document known as the "Deeds of Suppiluliuma". Together, Tudhaliya and Suppiluliuma led armies against the Kaskians, retook the land of Hatti, and attacked the Kaskian lands themselves. Suppiluliuma I then went on to invade the Kingdom of Azzi-Hayasa, making it a vassal of the Hittite Kingdom. Suppiluliuma I now attacked the Arzawans in the region of the lower land, defeating them near Tuwanuwa and capturing this city. Suppiluliuma took 20 years to re-establish Hittite control in Anatolia, much of which was spent against the Arzawans in western Anatolia during his father's reign and continuing into much of his own.

Empire of Suppiluliuma and Mursili II

The Hittite Kingdom reached its zenith during the reign of Suppiluliuma I (c. 1350–1322 BCE), who deposed his older brother, the true heir to Tudhaliya III's throne, to become the king. Suppiluliuma I established control over Kizzuwadna and invaded Isuwa, coming into conflict with Mitanni. The Kingdom of Mitanni, wracked by civil war, was unable to withstand the Hittite onslaught. Suppiluliuma I allied with Artatama, a rival for the Mitanni throne and enemy of the Mitanni King Tushratta. Following an uprising in Isuwa, Suppiluliuma swiftly attacked the Mitanni heartland through Isuwa, capturing and plundering the Mitanni capital of Washshuganni. He then turned west, recrossed the Euphrates, and captured all the Syrian kingdoms which were vassals to the Mitanni, including Aleppo, Mukish, Niya, Qatna, Upi (Upina), and Kadesh. Other kingdoms such as Ugarit and Amurru (an Egyptian vassal) voluntarily became vassal states of the Hittites. When hostilities flared up once more with Mitanni, Tulipinu, Suppiluliuma's son and viceroy at Aleppo, invaded Carchemish but was unable to take the city. Suppiluliuma met with his son and then invaded Syria himself, laying siege to the city of Carchemish. He also sent some troops south to aid his vassals in an attack on the Egyptian ally of Amka in retaliation for an earlier Egyptian attack against Kadesh. Suppiluliuma laid siege to Carchemish and broke the siege on the eighth day, installing his son Piyassili as viceroy of the kingdom. With his sons as viceroys of Aleppo and Carchemish, Suppiluliuma had cemented his rule over Syria and brought the empire of Mitanni to an end; the Mitanni king was assassinated soon after.

Then Tutankhamun, the Egyptian Pharaoh, died and to Suppiluliuma's amazement, Tutankhamun's wife asked to marry one of his sons. Suppiluliuma sent an envoy to Egypt to confirm this message. After meeting with his returning ambassador and an Egyptian envoy, Suppiluliuma agreed to send his son Zannanza to Egypt to marry the queen; most likely he saw this as a chance to widely expand his influence and power base. However, Zannanza was assassinated en route to Egypt. Suppiluliuma was furious and blamed the new Egyptian Pharaoh Ay for his son's death. A Hittite army under crown prince Arnuwanda invaded Egyptian territory from Syria, pillaging and taking many prisoners. These prisoners brought with them a plague which ravaged the Hittite Kingdom continuing well into Mursili's reign and may have killed Suppiluliuma himself.

In the east, the weakened Mitanni Kingdom under Shuttarna had now allied itself with a resurgent Assyria. Fearing a new threat from the east, Suppiluliuma sent his son and viceroy of Carchemish Piyassili (Sharri-Kushuh) and his Mitanni ally Shattiwaza against the Mitanni Kingdom. They swept into Mitanni, taking Irrite, Harran, and finally the Mitanni capital Washukanni. Shattiwaza was made king of the new Mitanni vassal state. Six years after the capture of Carchemish, Suppiluliuma died, leaving the throne to his eldest son Arnuwanda. The very brief reign of Arnuwanda saw renewed attacks by the Kaska, after his death it was left to his brother Mursili II (c. 1321–1295 BCE) to take the mantle of kingship.

Map of the Hittite Empire (c. 1300 BC)

Mursili II was very young and inexperienced. Nevertheless, he proved to be a strong king, for the first years of his reign saw him carrying out punitive campaigns against the Kaska. He then turned west, where Uhhaziti, a king of Arzawa, had begun to form an anti-Hittite alliance with Ahhiyawa, Millawanda (Miletos), and other Arzawan kings of the region. Mursili personally led a force into Arzawa, defeating Uhhaziti's son Piyama-Kurunta in battle at the river Astarpa and then taking his capital city of Apasa and then the stronghold of Puranda. Mursili then turned against the kingdom of the Seha River Land, which had allied with Uhhaziti; its King Manapa-Tarhunda surrendered and Mursili left him on the throne. After the conquest, 65,000 inhabitants of Arzawa were transported to Hatti. While Mursili was in the west, the Kaskians attacked once more. Mursili then invaded and conquered the Kaskan lands, burning towns and slaughtering the population. In Syria the Nuhashshi King Tette rebelled and was joined by Egyptian troops, and Piyassili viceroy of Carchemish defeated the Egyptians and managed to contain the rebellion. Meanwhile Mursili continued his war the north, this time conquering Azzi-Hayasa. Troubles in Syria continued when Mursili's brothers Tulipinu and Piyassili both died. The loss of his Syrian viceroys led to rebellion and even the invasion of Carchemish by Assyria. Leaving his generals to deal with Syria and Hayasa, Mursili invaded Carchemish and drove out the Assyrians. Later in his reign Mursili II campaigned against the Kaska, once again retaking the Hittite holy city of Nerik; he also decisively defeated the King of Tummanna.

War with Egypt and the Battle of Kadesh

On his death Mursili left his successor Muwattalli II (c.1295–1272 BCE) a stable kingdom. Early in his reign he was forced to deal with Piyamaradu, a king in western Anatolia, who had allied himself with the King of Ahhiyawa and gone on to invade Wilusa, the Seha River land, and Lazpa (Lesbos). Muwattalli sent an army west which succeeded in dispersing Piyamaradu's forces, causing him to flee to Ahhiyawa. Muwattalli also signed a treaty with the king of Wilusa, Alaksandu, which stressed the past loyalty of Wilusa to Hatti.

Meanwhile, Egypt under Seti I had begun a series of major military campaigns in Canaan and Palestine, reasserting Egyptian authority in the region. Seti I then invaded and conquered the kingdoms of Amurru and Kadesh, since they were both Hittite vassals, which amounted to a declaration of war on Hatti. As is attested in Seti's war monument at Karnak, Seti I defeated a Hittite army sent to Syria in the region of Kadesh and took many prisioners. During this period Muwattalli II also moved the capital to the city of Tarhuntassa, moving all the state deities there from Hattusa. Not only was Tarhuntassa further south, away from the Kaska, but it was also a better position from which to launch campaigns into Syria. He also appointed his brother Hattusili III as governor of the region around Hattusa, Upper land, and as King (Lugal) of Hakpisa. He was appointed to contain the Kaska and repopulate the land of Hatti which had now only sparse population, possibly due to the constant Kaskian attacks on the area. With the departure of his brother from Hattussa, Hattusili was hard pressed in the north but he managed to drive back his enemies and establish Hittite control over the northern regions, resettling the underpopulated areas despite further Kaska incursions.

Back in Egypt Seti had died and Ramesses II ascended to the throne. In his fifth year on the throne, Ramesses launched a campaign into Syria with the goal of breaking Hittite power in the region and retaking Kadesh, which seems to have reverted to Hittite control by this time. Ramesses' forces met Muwattalli II who had assembled a large army in Syria at the Battle of Kadesh c. 1274 BCE in what was probably the largest chariot battle in history. When Ramesses, eager to arrive at Kadesh, split his forces, Muwattalli attacked, destroying one of his army divisions, the Re division, and then followed them to the camp of the Amun division, causing chaos in the Egyptian army. Only a counter attack led by the pharaoh himself turned back the Hittite forces who had stopped their attack to loot the army camp. After more pitched fighting, the battle was inconclusive. While Ramesses later claimed victory, both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Egyptians failed to take Kadesh and retreated south followed by the Hittites who took Damascus and also retook the Kingdom of Amurru. Therefore, despite Ramesses' claims to victory, the battle of Kadesh actually led to Egyptian territorial losses in Syria.

Civil War and Hattusili III

When Muwattalli died, he only left a "secondary son" as successor (a son not of his first and primary wife), named Urhi-Teshub (c. 1272–1267 BCE). Though Urhi-Teshub took the throne, it was clear that Muwattalli's brother Hattusili III resented his rule, as he was only a second-rank son. Yet despite this, Hattusili allowed Urhi-Teshub to take the throne. Early in his reign, Urhi-Teshub moved the capital back to Hattusa; this and other actions show that Hattusili exercised strong influence over his nephew in matters of royal administration. During Urhi-Teshub's reign, Assyria attacked Hanigalbat, a rump kingdom of Mitanni, and annexed it to the growing Assyrian Kingdom. This exacerbated relations between Hatti and Assyria.

Tensions between an increasingly independent Urhi-Teshub and his powerful and dominating uncle grew and eventually led to civil war when Urhi-Teshub stripped his uncle of his northern territories. At first Hattusili III complied, but when his nephew also attempted to remove him as ruler of Hakpis and Nerik, he rebelled, and with considerable support from the Hittite nobility and Kaskians, overthrew Urhi-Teshub and became the new king. Urhi-Teshub was exiled and he eventually fled to the Egyptian court of Ramesses.

The reign of Hattusili III (c. 1267–1237 BCE) was one of diplomacy and reconciliation with neighboring powers. Hattusili III drew up treaties with Babylon and Amurru, marrying his daughters to strengthen these contacts. Constant tensions with Assyria around the region of Hanigalbat led Hattusili to seek a treaty with Egypt to secure his southern frontier. The treaty would also serve to cement his credibility as the true King of Hatti and to strengthen Ramesses's image after his losses in Syria. The treaty confirmed existing territorial boundaries between Hatti and Egypt and included agreements that neither side would invade the other and that they would both come to each other's aid if attacked by a third party. The new alliance was also cemented by a marriage between Ramesses and one of Hattusili's daughters. Hattusili's Egyptian treaty allowed him to concentrate against a major uprising against the lands of Lukka in western Anatolia.

The beginning of the reign of Hattusili's son, Tudhaliya IV (c. 1237–1209 BCE), saw him dealing with rebellions in the lower land, continuing conflict with the Lukkans, Ahhiyawa, the Seha river land and even a failed assassination plot against the new king.

Tudhaliya IV also faced the growing threat of Assyria, which had finally conquered Hanigalbat under Shalmaneser and the lands of Subari under his son Tukulti-Ninurta, asserting its influence in the region. Tukulti-Ninurta then turned against the lands of Nihiriya. It was then that Tudhaliya decided to act to prevent further Assyrian expansion. He sent troops to Nihiriya and then invaded Assyria from there when the Assyrian troops retreated. The armies clashed in northern Assyria and Tukulti-Ninurta proved victorious, moving north and conquering Nihiriya afterwards. Luckily for Tudhaliya, Tukulti-Ninurta followed up his conquests in the north by attacking and conquering Babylon, not with further attacks against Hatti. Later in his reign, Tudhaliya IV also attacked and conquered Alasiya (Cyprus), possibly to protect the supply routes from Egypt which brought much needed grain to the Hittite lands.

Decline and Fall of Hatti

Tudhaliya's death led to instability in the kingdom. His successor Arnuwanda III only lasted a year on the throne before being replaced by his brother Suppiluliuma II. Suppiluliuma II faced more unrest in Lukka and Western Anatolia, and led a campaign to conquer Tarhuntassa. The loss of Tarhuntassa (possibly during Tudhaliya IV's reign) was especially damaging to Hatti since it was here where grain shipments from Egypt arrived, especially in the port of Ura. Due to food shortages in the kingdom, Tarhuntassa and the trade routes with Egypt had to be kept open. These food shortages worsened during the final years of the Hittite Kingdom. Perhaps it was because of this need to keep the grain routes open that we find Suppiluliuma II fighting sea battles against the "enemies from Alasiya", as clearly Tudhaliya's invasion of the island had not managed to completely subdue it. It is unknown if these were native Alasiyans or, as has been proposed, were part of the Sea Peoples. Whoever they were, Suppiluliuma II seems to have defeated them temporarily using the navy of his allies such as Ugarit, as Hatti had no navy of its own.

The swift and utter destruction of the Kingdom of the Hittites is attributed to the massive movement of Sea Peoples who destroyed much of Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine in the early 12th century BCE. There is still scholarly debate on who the Sea Peoples were, though it seems many of them were from western Anatolia. Most likely, attacks by Sea Peoples weakened central Hittite authority and, coupled with food shortages or outright famines, allowed for uprisings in the constantly unstable lands of Anatolia, such as Arzawa and Kaska which then attacked Hatti and led to further revolts. Whatever the case, Hittite records end abruptly with Suppiluliuma II's battles against Alisaya, and there is some archaeological evidence that shows destruction in the capital of Hattusa. Despite this, most of the Bronze age Hittite sites seem to have been abandoned rather than destroyed, thus this period seems to be characterized more by mass movements of peoples rather than widespread destruction.

The Neo-Hittite Kingdoms

By 1160 BCE, the political situation in Asia Minor looked vastly different than it had only 25 years earlier. In that year, the Assyrians were dealing with the Mushku pressing into northernmost Mesopotamia from the Anatolian highlands, and the Gasga people, the Hittites' old enemies from the northern hill-country between Hatti and the Black Sea, seem to have joined them soon after. The Mushku or Mushki had apparently overrun Cappadocia from the west, with recently discovered epigraphic evidence confirming their origins as the Balkan "Bryges" tribe, forced out by the Macedonians.

Although the Hittites disappeared from Anatolia at this point, there emerged a number of so-called Neo-Hittite kingdoms in Anatolia and northern Syria. They were the successors of the Hittite Kingdom. The most notable Syrian Neo-Hittite kingdoms were those at Carchemish and Milid (near the later Melitene). These Neo-Hittite kingdoms gradually fell under the control of the Assyrians, who conquered Carchemish during the reign of Sargon II in the late 8th century BCE, and Milid several decades later.

A large and powerful state known as Tabal occupied much of southern Anatolia. Known as Gk. Τιβαρηνοί Tibarenoi, Lat. Tibareni, Thobeles in Josephus, their language may have been Luwian, testified to by monuments written using Luwian hieroglyphics.

Ultimately, both Luwian hieroglyphs and cuneiform were rendered obsolete by a new innovation, the alphabet, which seems to have entered Anatolia simultaneously from the Aegean (with the Bryges, who changed their name to Phrygians), and from the Phoenicians and neighboring peoples in Syria.

About the Author

Jan van der Crabben
Trained as a journalist and war scholar, Jan combined his passion for ancient history with editorial & programming skills to create Ancient History Encyclopedia. He is now CEO of this non-profit company and makes historical strategy games in his day job.

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