What is history but a fable agreed upon?
― Napoleon Bonaparte
The remarkable rise and eventual demise of the Hittite Empire is a historical tale shrouded in mystery. A formidable civilization that pioneered the manufacture and use of iron, they were extremely skilled builders, and had an efficient army. But their sudden decline had historians searching for more.
By 1300 BC, the Hittite Empire was fast closing in on Egypt, with both kingdoms fighting to gain control over the Mediterranean coast. The Battle of Kadesh with Rameses II in 1274 BC sealed the deal for the Egyptians. Interestingly, the Egyptians went on to commemorate the battle as a comprehensive victory for their troops on their monuments, whereas, the Hittite engravings found at Hattusa suggested otherwise.
Just goes to show how unreliable historical depictions can be. But with thousands of years in the passing, we have to make do with available records to gain an understanding of lost civilizations like the Hittites.
History of the Hittite Empire
Rise of the Hittites
Ruins of the Hattusa city complex in modern-day Turkey
The Hittite civilization began around 1600 BC in Hatussa/Hattusha, north Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). These people comprised groups of tribes who later unified under one rule by means of their shared language and lifestyle.
Their kingdom spanned over a vast region of Asia Minor, from Bosporus in the west up to Syria in the south, almost bordering Egypt.
The Hittites find a mention in the Old Testament, primarily as the enemies of the Israelites and their God. They were said to have been the descendants of Noah.
Lion Gate at the Hattusa ruins
There is little to no information available on the early Hittites and their origins. However, it has been confirmed that they had a lot in common with the pre-existing Hattian and Hurrian cultures, and also shared the technique of cuneiform writing with the Assyrian colonizers.
Strong evidence available today seems to suggest that these tribes arrived in Anatolia from the region that is present-day Ukraine. They possibly assimilated with the existing tribes in Anatolia―the Hurrians and Hattians―along with the Assyrians.
Hittite carvings depicting warriors
The founding of the kingdom is credited to Labarna I, whose military campaigns extended as far as Aleppo in Syria. Subsequent rulers managed to expand the kingdom across Anatolia, and even invaded Babylon in 1531 BC.
The empire's power ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries that followed, owing to inconsistent rulers and internal strife within the royal ranks. The history of the civilization is divided into three phases―the powerful rule of the Old Kingdom, the weak era after 1500 BC referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom under the reign of Tudhaliya I which began around 1400 BC.
Religion and Culture
Eflatun Pınar with the hierarchical image of the Hittite Pantheon
Unfortunately, not much is known about the day-to-day life of ordinary Hittites, as the reliefs and carvings mostly contained depictions of the elite classes.
From discovered artifacts, it can be confirmed that their gods were often depicted standing on the backs of their respective beasts, or were pictured in their animal form. The Hittites carved their gods in Huwasi stones, which were worshiped as sacred.
Their mythology had influences from Vedic and Norse beliefs―their god Tarhunt was the God of Thunder, quite like the Norse God Thor. Tarhunt was also known to have a conflict with the serpent Illuyanka, mirroring the Vedic deity Indra's war with the serpent Vritra.
They were known to have a thousand deities, each serving a specific purpose. There were deities presiding over farming, war, protection, fertility, weather, etc.
Lions supposedly were quite significant to their culture, as several images of these big felines were found all over Hittite sites. They also had their version of the sphinx, which combined a lion's body with an eagle's wings, and a human head and torso.
Inventions and Achievements
Hittite religious figurine
Despite belonging to the Bronze Age, it is understood that the Hittites were pioneers in sourcing iron, and using it to manufacture tools and artifacts.
Their army was known to have built and used unique chariots―a practice they had apparently mastered.
Several tablets with inscriptions of their cuneiform texts were discovered in and around Boğazköy in north-central Turkey. Most of these treasures are displayed at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. The museum was built at the behest of the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk, who long desired to establish a Hittite museum in the country.
Tablet depicting King Tudhaliya of Hittite
The New Hittite Kingdom, which lasted from 1400 to 1193 BC, saw the empire at its peak. At the time, it was one of the most respected and feared kingdoms in the world, at par with the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian powers.
It was towards the first millennium BC that the Hittite kingdom began to experience a decline. This was the result of a combination of factors, including mass migration of people (the Sea People) who had been displaced. Their arrival was followed by the disintegration of the kingdom into several smaller states, which led to their eventual decline.