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In Depth

Ancient Anatolian Civilizations: The Hittites

A century ago, excavations at Boğazköy, northeast of Ankara, uncovered cuneiform tablets and architectural remains that identified the site as ancient Hattusha, capital of the Hittite Empire. From about 1400 to 1200 BCE, the Hittites ruled over a large empire extending from western Turkey to northern Syria, and conducted wars as well as diplomacy with the other great powers of Egypt and Babylonia. Recent archaeological investigations over a wide area of Turkey have uncovered significant new information about the empire and its material culture, and dramatic new discoveries have been made at the site of Boğazköy itself.

In Search of the Past: The Hittites of Anatolia Turkey


Turkey's soil is rich in ruins: Ottoman, Roman, Seljuk, Byzantine, Greek. But far older than any of those cultures—and forgotten almost entirely for 3000 years—are the remains of the first Indo-European power in the Mediterranean area: the Hittites.

Their arrival in Anatolia—the Asian part of Turkey, known also as Asia Minor—some 4000 years ago changed the political map of the Middle East, at that time dominated by the civilizations born in the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Although the Hittites ruled in Anatolia and beyond for almost 1000 years thereafter, they then vanished from human memory, to be rediscovered only at the beginning of the 20th century. Only the Bible carried some short references to the Hittites, presenting them as one of the tribes of Palestine in the first millennium BC. It was a "son of Heth—a Hittite—who sold the Prophet Abraham the land to bury his beloved wife Sarah.


Twelve Hittite gods of the Underworld in the nearby Yazılıkaya, a sanctuary of Hattusa


Who were the Hittites? Their discovery is still one of the most fascinating stories of the early archaeological and philological explorations of the Middle East. The ruins of their once monumental palaces and temples, their rock-reliefs in the middle of the wilderness of the Anatolian steppes, and their stone inscriptions in the least expected places were known by local people but overlooked, or ignored, by Europeans.

In 1812, for example, a Hittite hieroglyphic inscription was discovered carved on a stone built into the corner of a house in Hama, in modern Syria, by the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhard. (See Aramco World, September-October 1967). But this find—like others in the area—was ignored until it was rediscovered in the 1870's by William Wright.

Wright, a very curious Irishman, tried to get official permission to copy some inscriptions that he had seen at Hama and elsewhere and carry them off to Istanbul. He succeeded in one of his goals—he got the permission—but the local population was not very friendly toward him and did not like his plans for the inscribed stones, either. The stones, they believed, could cure diseases such as rheumatism if the sufferer touched them or rubbed against them. Some citizens of Aleppo thought that taking the inscriptions out of their original places might bring bad luck, and preferred to destroy them rather than let them be profaned by foreigners.

Nonetheless, the copies were finally made. In the 1870's the inscriptions were independently attributed by Wright and Oxford University linguist A. H. Sayce to the "sons of Heth" mentioned in the Bible. In 1874, another researcher, William Hayes Ward, decided that the hieroglyphics on these stones—unrelated to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt—were not decorations or magic signs, but a writing system which should be read "boustrophedon," that is, "as the ox plows": the first line from left to right, the second from right to left, the third from left to right again, and so on. But after years of study only a very few hieroglyphic signs could be identified and assigned their proper meaning. In fact, it took scholars almost a whole century to achieve a degree of certainty in reading this hieroglyphic Hittite-Luvian script, as it was called. And it would not have happened at all but for the 1945 discovery, in Karatepe in southern Turkey, of inscriptions that presented the same text in hieroglyphic Hittite-Luvian and in the Phoenician alphabetic script. Working between the known script and the unknown one, the Hittite-Luvian hieroglyphics were deciphered.

In the meantime, about 1894, another discovery was made in Anatolia. At Boğazköy, in central Anatolia, cuneiform clay tablets were found by the French archeologist Ernest Chantre. He brought them to Europe, where they became the center of attention for many scholars. The cuneiform writing system was familiar, thanks to earlier work on tablets discovered during numerous excavations in Iraq. But the language of the Boğazköy texts, as well as the identity of the people who wrote it, were a mystery.

In assigning these texts to their "owners," the so-called Amarna tablets, found in Egypt two decades earlier, were of great help. The royal archives of Tell el-Amarna, a city occupied between 1375 and 1360 BC, comprised the official letters of two Egyptian pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Akhenaton, and included some 400 cuneiform tablets, mostly in the Akkadian language—the lingua franca of the Middle East in the second millennium BC. Among them, however, there were also some tablets written in the same language as those from Boğazköy. Since both the Bible and Egyptian written sources referred occasionally to the Hittites as a power comparable to Egypt itself, scholars concluded that something like a Hittite empire must have existed in Anatolia some time in the second millennium BC.

Early in this century, University of Vienna professor Bedřich Hrozný realized that Hittite was the oldest known Indo-European language. His discovery was based on this short sentence written in cuneiform: NU NINDA-AN EZZATENI,WATAR-MA EKUTENI .

Since many Babylonian words were included in Hittite texts, the clue was provided by the Babylonian word ninda, which means "food" or "bread." Hrozný asked himself a very simple question: What does one do with food or bread? The answer, of course, was, one eats it. So the word ezzateni must be related to eating. Then the -an suffix on ninda must be a marker for a direct object in the Hittite language, added to the Babylonian word for "food" or "bread."

With these two propositions in hand, Hrozný looked at both the vocabulary and the grammar of Indo-European languages. He noted that the verb to eat is similar to Hittite ezza- not only in English, but also in Greek (edein), Latin (edere) and German (essen), and especially in medieval German (ezzan). Suspecting strongly that the Hittite language was of Indo-European origin, Hrozný identified the suffix -an as the accusative-case marker still preserved in Greek as -n. If that was true, the second line of the inscription was not much of a problem, since it began with the word watar, which could easily be translated as English water or German Wasser. Hrozný proposed the reading of the whole sentence as NOW BREAD YOU EAT, THEN WATER YOU DRINK—and he turned out to be right. Hittite was an Indo-European language!

The texts uncovered at Boğazköy and elsewhere in Anatolia opened up a new chapter in the history of ancient civilizations, written by the Hittites and other Indo-European peoples—Luvians and Palaians—who arrived in Asia Minor at the end of the third millennium BC or a little later. The land they came from and the route they took in their search for a new homeland are still among the unsolved mysteries of the past. Might they have come from the vast steppes of Russia, as Turkic tribes did some 30 centuries later? Or were they from the once dense forests of Europe? The search for those answers is still on.

Wherever they came from, it seems that the Indo-Europeans' infiltration into Asia Minor was rather peaceful, in spite of some violent local conflicts described in the archives of Boğazköy. The Hittites settled down mostly in central Anatolia, while the Luvians established themselves in the southwest, and the Palaians spread out to the north. Not much is known about either the Luvians or the Palaians, because not many texts by them or about them have been found, but the Hittites left behind rich archives that are fascinating in their content.

Anatolia was not empty when the Hittites arrived. The Anatolian cultures of the time were relatively rich but small communities whose royal tombs have been discovered in such places as Alaca Hüyük and Horoztepe. Gold, silver and bronze objects from these tombs are considered to be of equal or higher quality than the treasures found in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. These people spoke Hattic—a language of different structure than Indo-European or other languages known from the area. Because we have few texts or other clues, this language, and the identity of its speakers, are still a matter of speculation, but we do know that the Hattic people, and the land of Hatti, became part of a new political entity known as the Hittite Old Kingdom in about 1650 BC.

The kingdom's founder, Hattusilis i, rebuilt the city of Hattusas—destroyed and cursed by the pre-Hittite ruler of the area—and proclaimed it his capital. Here, in Hattusas, now known as Bogazköy, the cuneiform texts of the ancient Hittite kings spoke again some 35 centuries later.

Hattusilis I set up the rules and directions for the future development of his kingdom. The Hittites would rule in a flexible way, accepting the customs, traditions and deities of any land which became part of their growing empire. Hence, the Hittite kingdom is often called the "kingdom of thousands of gods." All the deities, those of the conquerors and those of the conquered, were to be worshiped in their own languages and according to their own customs. They were left as rulers of their lands—although their earthly representatives had to recognize Hittite suzerainty.

The originally small Hittite kingdom of Central Anatolia soon grew beyond Asia Minor. The Hittites looked with interest to Syro-Palestine and even to the famous civilizations of Mesopotamia. In 1595 BC the grandson and successor of Hattusilis I, Mursilis I, took northern Syria and the city of Aleppo. In the same campaign he conquered Babylon, putting an end to the first Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi. But though his military success was very impressive, its effects did not last. Mursilis was murdered on his return to Hattusas, and shortly thereafter the kingdom of the Hittites was once again limited to central Anatolia.

The Hittites organized themselves again to conquer the world. The New Hittite Empire is usually dated to the period between 1450 and 1180 BC. Suppiluliumas I of the 14th century bc made Anatolia and Northern Syria his dominion. He did not repeat Mursilis's mistake of moving into an area which he could not directly control. Instead, through the most immediate conquests and a whole system of alliances, he founded a kingdom whose strength and wealth surpassed that of any other nation of the period. Even an Egyptian queen, alone after the death of her husband, asked Suppiluliumas to send one of his sons for her to marry, since she did not want to marry any of her courtiers. Suppiluliumas, apparently incredulous that his son could become a pharaoh, took his time in checking the legitimacy of the queen's letter. Offended, the queen sent another letter, whose genuineness was confirmed by Suppiluliumas's secret service, and he sent his son to Egypt for a wedding that could have had considerable consequences, had it happened. Instead, the prince was murdered by enemies of the queen before he reached Egypt, and she herself disappears from Egyptian records shortly after this event.

Another ruler of the Hittite Empire, Muwatallis, had a less than friendly brush with Pharaoh Ramses II. Both the Hittites and the Egyptians were so interested in the political and economic importance of the Syro-Palestine area between them that conflict was inevitable. Their two armies met in one of the most famous battles of history, at Kadesh on the Orontes River in about 1286 BC. Historian O. R. Gurney describes the battle this way:

The Hittite army based on Kadesh succeeded in completely concealing its position from the Egyptian scouts; and as the unsuspecting Egyptians advanced in marching order towards the city and started to pitch their camp, a strong detachment of Hittite chariotry passed round unnoticed behind the city, crossed the river Orontes and fell upon the Egyptian column with shattering force. The Egyptian army would have been annihilated, had not a detached Egyptian regiment arrived most opportunely from another direction and caught the Hittites unaware as they were pillaging the camp. This lucky chance enabled the Egyptian king to save the remainder of his forces and to represent the battle as a great victory.

The results of the battle, which confirmed the status quo in the Middle East—the division of influence in Syro-Palestine between Egypt and Anatolia—were sealed some 16 years later by an international treaty signed by Hattusilis in and Ramses II. The treaty also represents one of the last attempts to keep the growing power of the Assyrians of what is now northern Iraq out of the area controlled by the Hittites and the Egyptians.


The Kadesh Treaty, the earliest surviving peace treaty, concluded between the Hittites and the Egyptians in 1279 BC (Istanbul Archeological Museum). A replica of the Treaty has been presented by the Turkish Government as a gift to the UN. It is on display at UN Headquarters, at the entrance to the Security Council chamber.

The Kadesh Treaty, the earliest surviving peace treaty, concluded between the Hittites and the Egyptians in 1279 BC (Istanbul Archeological Museum). A replica of the Treaty has been presented by the Turkish Government as a gift to the UN. It is on display at UN Headquarters, at the entrance to the Security Council chamber.


However, it was not Assyria which caused the fall of the Hittite Empire. The blow was delivered by the so-called "Sea People," a group of possibly Indo-European tribes of disputed origin who attacked much of the Middle East by land and sea around 1200 BC. Eventually these people were stopped by Pharaoh Ramses III just at the borders of his own kingdom, but the damage was done. The Hittite kingdom was destroyed, along with many famous cities of the Anatolian and Syro-Palestinian coast. However, Hittite cultural traditions were kept alive for the next few hundred years in the so-called Neo-Hittite states of southern Turkey and northern Syria. And the ruins of many of their constructions can be admired all over Anatolia.

Among them is the capital of the Hittite kingdom, Hattusas, located 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Ankara and a few kilometers north of the Turkish town of Yozgat. Here, thanks to German excavations conducted for most of this century, the city's ancient temples, palaces, and gates can be recognized, among many other structures. Although mostly only foundations are preserved, one cannot help but stand there breathless, thinking about the amount of work—and organization—required to construct such monumental buildings.

Here and there, large intact storage jars that may once have held oil or grain or wine protrude from the ground. One can peer through what used to be huge windows at the cella, the temple's innermost shrine where the Hittites' gods dwelt. Gates, secret tunnels and other parts of the city's defense system can be seen, for the Hittites were masters of defensive construction. One of the first bridges ever built is part of Boğazköy's city walls, carrying them across a narrow gorge. It's hard to imagine that such a fabulous city with so much protection was destroyed and rebuilt more than once. It's even harder to imagine that its constructors were forgotten for 30 centuries.

Only two kilometers (1.2 miles) northeast of Hattusas there is another interesting monument of the Hittite past: a natural rock sanctuary. The place is known as Yazılıkaya—"the written rock" in Turkish—for processions of deities from the Hittite pantheon are carved into the galleries of stone. On the west side of the Great Gallery are mostly male gods, led by the Weather God of Heaven, while the east side belongs to their female counterparts, headed by the Sun Goddess of Arinna; the two processions meet in the middle of the north wall. The Small Gallery has a procession of twelve well-preserved, almost identical, gods on its west wall while the east one is dedicated to the Sword God, a deity whose significance is still unknown.

The cemetery of Hattusas lies outside the city, close to the road leading to Yazılıkaya. It consists of various graves, pottery vessels, or simple niches and crevices prepared for both cremation and inhumation burials. In many cases, animal remains have been recorded in these graves together with human bodies. Why? We simply don't know yet. The other mystery in this cemetery is the large number of graves in which an adult and a child were found buried together. Is this a coincidence, or some sort of religious custom—not suggested by anything in the texts—that required child sacrifice?

There are many other places in modern Turkey where one can still see and touch the fabulous past of the first recorded Indo-Europeans—the Hittites. Although forgotten for many centuries, they are finally getting the recognition due them for their contribution to the history of humankind. Their power was once at least equal to that of pharaonic Egypt; now their fame may also grow as great, as we search for our past in the beauty of the Turkish land.

Anthropologist and archeologist Ewa Wasilewska earned an M.A. from Warsaw University and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah, where she is a professor of anthropology.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the September/October 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World


Useful Links

Boston University-The American School of Oriental Research
Hittites Home Page
Ancient Anatolia

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