Hittite chariots

The Hittites were Indo-Europeans who entered Anatolia in approximately 2300 b.c.e. and in the following centuries managed to become one of the dominant powers of the ancient Near East. The word Hittite derives from their term for central Anatolia, hatti, which was derived from those who lived in the area before the Hittites, the Hattians.

Most of the information regarding the Hittites comes from thousands of clay tablets discovered in the Hittite capital of Hattusha. Three distinct Indo-European languages have been deciphered in these texts: Hittite, Luwian, and Palaic.

The texts were written in cuneiform and hieroglyphic scripts, and many words were borrowed from the local population and from surrounding nations. Hittite history is usually divided into the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

The Old Kingdom covered the period from 1750 to 1600 b.c.e., while the New Kingdom lasted c. 1420–1200 b.c.e. The intervening period (c. 1600–1420 b.c.e.) is sometimes referred to as the Middle Kingdom.

During the Old Kingdom the Hittites were able to achieve foreign expansion. First, during the reign of Hattushili I, the Hittite army campaigned to the west as far as Arzawa and to the southeast as far as northern Syria.

Second, during the reign of Murshili I, the army made the long march through Syria and into Babylonia, where they were able to overpower Babylon and bring to an end the first dynasty of Babylon (c. 1595 b.c.e.). However, during the reigns of Murshili’s successors, the kingdom seems to have lost control of lands to the east and southeast.

Hittite empire map
Hittite empire map

The founder and first ruler of the New Kingdom was Tudhaliya II (c. 1420–1370 b.c.e.). Although he was able to revive the kingdom, it was not until the reigns of Shuppiluliuma I (c. 1344 b.c.e.), and Hattushili III (c. 1239 b.c.e.) that the Hittites were able to achieve their greatest foreign expansion.

They were able to expand the kingdom throughout all of Syria, defeating Mittani, and extending almost as far south as Damascus. Battles with the Egyptians, most famously the Battle at Kadesh, led to a treaty between Hattushili III and Ramses II in which a Hittite princess was given to Ramses in marriage.

Although the treaty with Egypt remained in force for the remainder of the Hittite New Kingdom, new threats arose that eventually led to the demise of the Hittites. Assyria under Shalmaneser I became aggressive toward the Hittites. In addition, various smaller nations surrounding the Hittite homeland began to pressure the Hittites militarily and economically.

Unfortunately, it is still impossible to tell the exact nature of the downfall of the Hittite capital Hattusha. What is clear is that limited Hittite rule continued in other areas, particularly Carchemish. These local centers were ruled by Neo-Hittite dynasties governing individual city-states. These city-states were eventually absorbed into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Hittite religion and cultic practices are becoming increasingly better known through archaeological excavations. Unfortunately, no mythological text in the old Hittite script has yet been discovered. However, one myth of west Semitic origin has been found in a Hittite translation.

It tells the story of the virtuous young male BaalHaddu refusing the advances of the married Asherah in a fashion reminiscent of the biblical account of Joseph and Potipher’s wife found in the book of Genesis. Cultic practices are illuminated in the various festival descriptions found in royal archives and in texts from provincial centers.

Much is known about these festivals, special times when the statue of the deity was brought out from the temple and honored with sacrifices and offerings given amid music and dancing. New moon festivals were held to mark the beginning of each new month.

Knowledge of ancient Near Eastern temples, including the Solomonic Temple of the Old Testament, is greatly advanced through the excavations of various Hittite temples.

At least five temples have been uncovered in the capital of Hattusha, and some estimate there to be as many as 20 present in the city. Every Hittite city had at least one temple staffed by both male and female personnel serving as cooks, musicians, artisans, farmers, and herders.