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The Hittite Empire

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

The Hittites Empire (1700-1200 BC) was the first major empire in Anatolia. At the height of power, the Hittites controlled the Anatolian peninsula and rivaled the Kingdom of Egypt.

Early Hittites

The word "Hittite" is from the Old Testament name Hitti, but they knew themselves as Hattusha. The Hittites migrated from Eastern Europe into Asia Minor around 2000 BC. During that time, Mesopotamian rulers controlled the plateau of Cappadocia through trading colonies. By 1900 BC, the Hatti people subjugated peoples of Asia Minor and developed several cities. The Hittite language, from the Indo-European language family, became the main discourse in politics and is the first documented language in the area.

The invention of the horse-drawn chariot enabled Hittites to establish their dominance and become an empire. This military technology allowed the Hittites to attach a three-person, wheeled platform behind a horse. With archers mounted on chariots, Hittites drove out the Assyrians and unified Asia Minor around 1700 BC.

Old Hittite Empire

The Old Hittite Empire (1700-1450 BC) was the beginning of Hittite civilization. Early Hittite kings ruled through royal grants. They gave vast estates to nobles who could provide chariot fighters for the Hittite army. Through this economic-military system, Hittites controlled the Anatolian plateau and northern Mesopotamia.

Around 1650 BC, Hittite kings built the great capital of Hattusa (modern day Boğazkale, about 200km east of Ankara). The city sat at the nexus of Mesopotamian trade routes and was the home of ancient gods. In the mid-1200's the city had 50,000 inhabitants. Today the large site of Hattusa, with the nearby rock temple Yazılkaya, is an archeological treasure and popular destination.

In the 1531 BC, the Hittites sacked and destroyed the great city of Babylon, but the Hittite king returned home empty handed and was assassinated. After that, the kingdom fell into chaos and lost territories. In the 1400's BC, the Hittites were a small, regional power limited to central Anatolia.

New Hittite Empire

The New Hittite Empire (1380–1200 BC) reemerged as an imperial power. Kings conquered neighboring peoples and created legal treaties with client kings, who had to bring an annual tribute to Hattusa. The empire also constructed a large highway system for trade and military conquests.

In 1275, the Egyptian Pharaoh and Hittite King fought the Battle of Kadesh to control the prosperous trade routes through Syria. The large battle ended in a draw. The resulting diplomatic treaty recognized the Hittite king as an equal with the great Egyptian Pharaoh. This famous treaty, recorded in both Egyptians and Hittite sources, was the height of the Hittite power.

Around 1200, the Hittite Empire fragmented in the Bronze Age collapse. The capital of Hattusa was burned and abandoned in 1190. A few small Neo-Hittite states survived in eastern Anatolia until 750 BC, but the Assyrians eventually overtook their lands.

Cultural Legacy

The Hittites leveraged their centralized bureaucracy, highway system, and military technology to unite the peoples of Anatolia. This was the first empire based in Anatolia and Cappadocia. The Hittite Empire was rather cosmopolitan with their incorporation of arts, technology, and gods from other peoples.

Hittite kings formalized legal treaties with other nations. These political covenants listed the obligations of both sides and were enforced by the gods. The treaties were written in cuneiform on baked tablets, and thousands were discovered in the royal archives of Hattusa in the early 1900's. These historical sources illuminate Old Testament literature, especially the Sinai Covenant in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Modern History

In 1833, a French explorer discovered the imperial capital of Hattusa. German archeologists began excavating the site in the early 1900's. The discovery of massive rock carvings and 30,000 clay tablets spawned the study of Hittitology, a branch of Ancient Near Eastern research.

The discovery of Hattusa created great interest among Turks the 1920's and 1930's. Some secular minded Turks portrayed the new Turkish Republic as a continuation of the ancient Hittite Empire, not the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara houses most Hittite artifacts. At a popular level, Cappadocian tourist souvenirs, such as pottery made in Avanos, use Hittite art styles.

Hittite Style Pottery in Avanos

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