Hittites is the conventional English-language term for an ancient people who spoke an Indo-European language and established a kingdom centered in Hattusa (the modern village of Boğazköy in north-central Turkey), through most of the second millennium BC.
The Hittite kingdom, which at its height controlled central Anatolia, north-western Syria down to Ugarit, and Mesopotamia down to Babylon, lasted from about 1680 BC to 1200 BC, with an as yet unexplained hundred-year gap from 1500 to 1400 BC. After 1200 BC the Hittite polity disintegrated into several independent city-states, some of which survived until around 700 BC.
The Hittite kingdom, or at least its core region, was apparently called Hatti in the reconstructed Hittite language. The Hittites should be distinguished from the "Hattians", an earlier people who inhabited the same region until the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC and spoke a non-Indo-European language — conventionally called Hattic.
Hittites or (more recently) Hethites is also the common English name of a Biblical people (חתי or HTY in the consonant-only Hebrew script), which are also called Children of Heth (בני-חת, BNY HT). These people are mentioned several times in the Old Testament, from the time of the Patriarchs up to Ezra's return from Babylonian captivity; see Hittites in the Bible. The archaeologists who discovered the Anatolian Hittites in the 19th century initially believed the two people to be the same, but this identification is still disputed.
The Hittites were also famous for their skill in building and using chariots.
The first archaeological evidence for the Hittites appeared in tablets found at the Assyrian colony of Kültepe (ancient Karum Kanesh), containing records of trade between Assyrian merchants and a certain "land of Hatti". Some names in the tablets were neither Hattic nor Assyrian, but clearly Indo-European.
The script on a monument at Boğazköy by a "People of Hattusas" discovered by William Wright in 1884 was found to match peculiar hieroglyphic scripts from Aleppo and Hamath in Northern Syria. In 1887, excavations at Tell El-Amarna in Egypt uncovered the diplomatic correspondence of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaton. Two of the letters from a "kingdom of Kheta", apparently located in the same general region as the Assyrian/Babylonian "land of Hatti", were written in standard Akkadian cuneiform script, but in an unknown language; although scholars could read it, no one could understand it. Shortly after this, Archibald Sayce proposed that the Anatolian Hatti was identical with the "kingdom of Kheta" mentioned in these Egyptian texts, and with the biblical Hittites. Sayce's identification came to be widely accepted over the course of the early 20th century; and so, rightly or wrongly, the name "Hittite" has become attached to the civilization uncovered at Boğazköy.
During sporadic excavations at Boğazköy/Hattusa that began in 1905, the archaeologist Hugo Winckler found a royal archive with 10,000 tablets, inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian and the same unknown language as the Egyptian letters from Kheta — thus confirming the identity of the two names. He also proved that the ruins at Boğazköy were the remains of the capital of a mighty empire that at one point controlled northern Syria.
The language of the Hattusa tablets was eventually deciphered by a Czech linguist, Bedřich Hrozný (1879–1952), who on 24 November 1915 announced his results in a lecture at the Near Eastern Society of Berlin. His book about his discovery was printed in Leipzig in 1917, with the title The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family. The preface of the book begins with:
- The present work undertakes to establish the nature and structure of the hitherto mysterious language of the Hittites, and to decipher this language [...] It will be shown that Hittite is in the main an Indo-European language.
For this reason, the language came to be known as the Hittite language, even though that was not what its speakers had called it (see below).
Under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute , excavations at Hattusa have been under way since 1932, with wartime interruptions.
The history of the Hittite civilisation is known largely from cuneiform texts found in the area of their empire, and from diplomatic and commercial correspondence found in various archives in Egypt and then Middle East.
Hattians and Hittites
Around 2000 BC, the region centered in Hattusa, which would later become the core of the Hittite kingdom, was inhabited by people with a distinct culture who spoke a non-Indo-European language. The name "Hattic" is used by Anatolianists to distinguish this language from the Indo-European Hittite language, which appeared in the scene at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC and became the administrative language of the Hittite kingdom over the next six or seven centuries. As noted above, "Hittite" is a modern convention for referring to this language. The native term was nesili, i. e. "In the language of Nesa".
The early Hittites, whose prior whereabouts are unknown, borrowed heavily from the pre-existing Hattian culture, and also from that of the Assyrian traders — in particular the cuneiform writing and the use of cylindrical seals.
Since Hattic continued to be used in the Hittite kingdom for religious purposes, and there is substantial continuity between the two cultures, it is not known whether the Hattic speakers — the Hattians— were displaced by the speakers of Hittite, were absorbed by them, or just adopted their language.
Origins of the Hittite kingdom
The early history of the Hittite kingdom is known through tablets which may have been first written in the 17th century BC but survived only as copies made in the 14th and 13th centuries BC. These tablets, which are known collectively as the Anitta text (see #External links), begin by telling how Pithana the king of Kussara or Kussar (a small city-state, which has yet to be identified by archaeologists) conquered the neighbouring city of Nesa (Kanesh). However, the real subject of these tablets is Pithana's son Anitta, who continued where his father left off and conquered several neighbouring cities — including Hattusa and Zalpuwa (Zalpa ).
The Hittite Empire
The founding of the Hittite Empire is usually attributed to Hattusili I, who conquered the plain south of Hattusa, all the way to the outskirts of modern-day Aleppo in Syria. Though it remained for his heir, Mursili I, to conquer that city, Hattusilis was clearly influenced by the rich culture he discovered in northern Mesopotamia and founded a school in his capital to spread the cuneiform style of writing he encountered there.
Mursili continued the conquests of Hattusili, reaching down to Mesopotamia and threatening Babylonia itself. This lengthy campaign, however, strained the country's resources and left the capital in a state of near-anarchy. Mursili was assassinated shortly after his return home, and the Hittite Empire was plunged into chaos. The Hurrians, a people living in the mountainous region along the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Hanilgalbat), took advantage of the situation to seize Aleppo and the surrounding areas for themselves.
The treaty of Kadesh
Hittite prosperity was largely depending on the control of trade routes and metal sources (some consider the Hittites to be the first to have discovered how to work iron, thus the first civilisation which entered the Iron Age). For this reason, all the kings' reigns passed mainly by struggles and wars with neighbouring Assyrians, Hurrians and Egyptians, especially when Hittites began to extend their control to Mesopotamia. They signed the earliest surviving treaty in history, with the Egyptians. This document, known as the Kadesh (or Qadesh) treaty, was signed sometime between 1300 BC and 1286 BC, after endless and unsuccessful fights against Egyptian forces commanded by Rameses II (see Battle of Kadesh).
Demise of the Empire
After this date, the power of the Hittites began to diminish temporarily and they were pushed back by the Assyrians and Egyptians. The kingdom came to a sudden end, which is still mysterious due to lack of records. Archaeologists believe the end came from a likely combination of migratory bands (such as the Sea Peoples) from outlying territories bringing plague and war, widespread environmental degradation and the ensuing famine and concomitant economic disasters (which affected Europe as far away as Britain as well as the Near East in the 14th-11th centuries BC). The Hittite people thus vanished from the historical record, although their language and culture remained as late as the 5th century BC, and their legacy can be traced in several small independent states in central and southeastern Anatolia.
(Note: dates are approximate, relying on synchronisms with known chronologies for neighbouring countries. Nothing is known of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom period.). See also Kings of the Hittites
Hittites or Hethites from the Israelite perspective
Some localized contacts with the outermost fringes of the Hittite empire, are recorded in the edited selection of traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that have been preserved as the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical references are summarized below. (See Hittites in the Bible for a detailed concordance.) It should be noted that the present form of the Hebrew Bible was probably edited between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, during or after the Babylonian exile, as related in the Book of Ezra and inferred from textual analysis.
Summary of the references
The first reference to the Hittites is in Genesis 23:10, where Abraham bought the family burial cave at Machpelah from "Ephron the Hittite" (חתי, HTY). Later, in Genesis 26–36, two of Esau's wives are labeled as Hittites. In these accounts the Hittites are mostly called "The Children of Heth" (בני-חת, BNY-HT) and described as a branch of the Canaanites, living in the Hebron area; indeed Heth (חת, HT) is listed in Genesis 10 as a son of Canaan, son of Ham.
Starting with the conquest of Canaan, the Hittites — from now on always called חתי, HTY — are listed, on a par with the Canaanites, as one of the seven mighty peoples living in the region. Later they are cited among the four nations which the Israelites were not able to destroy completely. Indeed, some centuries later two of King David's generals are labeled as Hittites, Ahimelech (1 Samuel 26:6) and Uriah (2 Samuel 11:3); the latter was murdered by David for the sake of his wife Bathsheba. King Solomon had Hittite wives (1 Kings 11:7) and traded with (or received tribute from) the kings of the Hittites, of Syria, and of Egypt (2 Chronicles 1:17). An episode in the time of Elisha (2 Kings 7:6) mentions "the kings of Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians" as mighty powers.
The Hittites are last mentioned by Ezra, on his return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 9:1; around 450 BC, long after the demise of the Anatolian Hittite empire). They are one of the peoples with whom the local Hebrew leaders, who had remained in Palestine during the captivity, had intermarried with.
The traditional view
Given the casual tone in which the Hittites are mentioned in most of these references, Biblical scholars before the age of archaeology traditionally regarded them as a small tribe, living in the hills of Canaan during the era of the Patriarchs. This picture was completely changed by the archaeological finds, which place the center of the Hatti/Hattusas civilization far to the north, in modern-day Turkey.
Because of this perceived discrepancy and other reasons, many Biblical scholars reject Sayce's identification of the two people, and believe that the similarity in names is only a coincidence. In order to stress this distinction, E. A. Speiser called the Biblical Hittites Hethites in his translation of the Book of Genesis for the Anchor Bible series.
Some scholars have conjectured that the Biblical Hittites could be actually Hurrian tribes living in Palestine, and that the Hebrew word for the Hurrians (HRY in consonant-only script) became the name of the Hittites (HTY) due to a scribal error. Others have proposed that the Biblical Hittites were a group of Kurushtameans . These hypotheses are not widely accepted, however.
On the other hand, many scholars favor the view that the biblical Hittites are descended from the Anatolian Hittites. Apart from the coincidence in names, the latter were a powerful political entity in the region before the collapse of their empire in the 14th-12th centuries BC, so one would expect them to be mentioned in the Bible, just in the way that the HTY post-Exodus are. Moreover, in the account of conquest of Canaan, the Hittites are said to dwell "in the mountains" and "towards the north" of Palestine — a description that matches the general direction and geography of the Anatolian Hittite empire, if not the distance. Modern linguistic academics therefore propose, based on much onomastic and archaeological evidence, that Anatolian populations moved south into biblical regions as part of the waves of Sea Peoples that were migrating across the Mediterranean at the time in question. Many kings of local city-states are shown to have Hittite and Luwian names in the Late Bronze-Early Iron transition period. Indeed, even the name of Mount Zion is apparently Hittite in origin.
- Trevor Bryce , The Kingdom of the Hittites, Oxford (1999).
- C. W. Ceram , The Secret of the Hittites: The Discovery of an Ancient Empire. Phoenix Press (2001), ISBN 1842122959.
- Hans Gustav Güterbock , Hittite Historiography: A Survey, in H. Tadmor and M. Weinfeld eds. History, Historiography and Interpretation: Studies in Biblical and Cuneiform Literatures, Magnes Press, Hebrew University (1983) pp. 21-35.
- George E. Mendenhall , The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press (1973), ISBN 0-8018-1654-8.
- Erich Neu , Der Anitta Text, (StBoT 18), Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden (1974).
- Louis L. Orlin , Assyrian Colonies in Cappadocia, Mouton, The Hague (1970).
- The Hittites and Hurrians in D. J. Wiseman Peoples of the Old Testament Times, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1973).