The Mysterious Lost Empire of The Hittites
FOR 3000 YEARS THE GREAT EMPIRE OF THE HITTITES WAS LOST TO HISTORY. NO MYTHS OR LEGENDS EVEN SUGGESTED THE HITTITES EVER EXISTED, YET 3000 YEARS AGO THE HITTITES BUILT AN EMPIRE THAT RIVALLED THE MIGHTY EGYPTIAN EMPIRE. THE HITTITE KINGDOM WAS DESIGNED TO LAST FOR EVER BUT SUDDENLY AND MYSTERIOUSLY IT VANISHED FROM THE HISTORICAL RECORD.
In 1834 a French explorer called Charles Texier was searching in central Anatolia, Turkey, for a lost celtic city called Tavium and came across the ruins of a vast city with a gate with 2 lion statues, the style of which was unknown to him and was a bewildering mystery. Probably because his discovery had been in such a remote part of Anatolia, where no important civilisations could have lived, it was over looked. About the same time archaeological digs in the Middle East excavated cuneiform clay tablet fragments that hinted at a lost ancient empire. In 1887, excavations at Tell El-Amarna in Egypt uncovered the diplomatic correspondence of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaton with references to the “land of Hatti” which was unknown to archaeologists. This led to a speculation that started to circulate the archaeological fraternity fueling a debate about a possible lost ancient empire the Middle East.
Photo of the Hittite releif sculpture on the Lion gate to the Hittite capital Hattusa 14 (© 2013 Paul Williams)
Early historians of the ancient world wrote that it was ruled by three great empires, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Early archaeological explorations confirmed this as all three Empires had left behind fabulous archaeological evidence in the form of great cities, artefacts, treasure and hard to miss burial sites like the Pyramids. A clay tablet from the Assyrian colony of Kültepe (ancient Karum Kanesh) containing records of trade between Assyrian merchants and a certain “land of Hatti” caused more speculation about a fourth empire but, if it had existed why was there no archaeology evidence to support its existence. Archaeological Excavations at Aleppo and Hamath in Northern Syria excavated clay tablets written in an unknown hieroglyphic language. The script on a monument at Boğazköy by a “People of Hattusas”, discovered by William Wright in 1884, was found to match these peculiar hieroglyphic scripts.
Picture & image of a Hittite Monument with Heiroglyphics from Sultanhani near Kayseri, Turkey. Ereceted by the town ruler Wassume to the God Tarhui to ask for a good harvest from the vineyards & Orchards. At the end is a warning of damnation for anyone who damages the monument. Ancora Archaeological Museum. 11 (© 2013 Paul Williams)
In 1905 Hugo Winckler, professor of Oriental languages at the University of Berlin, was one of those who believed that the unknown hieroglyphic language had to prove the existence of a fourth great civilisation and therefore possibly a fourth Great Ancient Empire. Winckler could read several ancient languages including Babylonian and Assyrian but he lacked a link to help him decipher the unknown heiroglyph language. Winckler asked his colleagues throughout the world to let him know if they found any other examples of unknown ancient Middle Eastern languages in the hope he might find a “Rosetta Stone” that would help him decipher the hieroglyphs.
The Discovery of Hattusa
Theodore Makridi, the curator of the Ottoman Museum in Istanbul, brought Winckler a cuneiform clay tablet that he could not translate and neither could Winckler. The plot thickened when it was revealed that the tablet had been excavated in the remote high mountains of Central Anatolia , an inhospitable area devoid of any known ancient civilisations. Winckler and Makridi headed off into the wilds of Anatolia to investigate the source of the tablet. As Winckler travelled deeper into the remote wilds of Anatolia he stared to doubt that a fourth great empire could have existed cut off in such an isolated place. And then, in the middle of nowhere, they came across the ruins of a massive gateway adorned with the two huge lion statues Texier had discovered. The style of the sculptures differed from any other art they had ever seen. The size of the gateway was massive and the quality of the craftsmanship was exemplary. Ruins of an ancient city wall ran either side of the gateway way into the distance. The thickness of the walls indicated the fortifications of a major city that could only have been built by a major civilisation. Through the gates lay the ruins of a vast city that stretched out before them for miles. This great city in the Anatolian mountains was so remote that it had been totally lost to history.
Winckler and Makridi started a series of excavations amongst the ruins searching for any clues that would shed light on who had live there and if they were connected to the missing fourth Empire. Clay tablets in the illegible cuneiform language of the Hittites were excavated from across the site but as they could not be translated they shed no light on the inhabitants of the city. In 1906 Winckler discovered a tablet he could finally translate. Babylonian cuneiform was the diplomatic language of the ancient world and the tablet read, ” the treaty which Ramesses the Great King of Egypt made with Hattusili, Great King, King of the Hatti, in order to establish a great peace and great brotherhood between them forever”. Only the Kings of the Great Empires of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon were referred to as “Great Kings” and yet here in this peace treaty was named a fourth Great King, Hattusili King of the Hatti. The peace treaty was dated 1259BC and proved that the mysterious lost fourth Empire had been found.
It took 100 years to unravel the story of the Hittites and decipher two seemingly impenetrable languages one in hieroglyphs and the other cuneiform. The city Winckler had discovered was named Hattusa and its inhabitants the Hittites.
Archaeologists were mystified why the Hittites of Hattusa had built their capital in the such an inaccessible and remote place in the barren inhospitable mountains of Central Anatolia. The location of Hattusa was totally inappropriate for the capital of an Empire. Typically all ancient capitals were built on major cross roads and trading routes so they were connected easily to the rest of the known world. Hattusa on the other hand was snowed in during the winter, tucked away as it was from any major trading routes or rivers and over 250 miles from the sea.
As archeologists began to discover more Hittite towns in equally inaccessible locations it became clear that the remoteness of the sites seemed to suit unknown Hittite ambitions. Hattusa was meticulously planned with massive fortifications to withstand any attack. The Hittites incorporated the inhospitable landscape into their defensive strategy building walls along sheer cliff tops and across ravines. Hattusa was enclosed by a massive 8 meter thick walls stretching more than 4 miles around the city. The foundations of the walls were strengthened so they could support 8 meter high fortifications with 13 meter high towers built every 12 meters. Inside the city an even thicker wall was built on high banks through which ran 8 hidden tunnels from which Hittite Soldiers could emerge to and ambush invaders. At the heart of the city on a hill stood a castle for the kings. It had its own massive defences and was accessed by a defended central passage which denied access to all but the most important. From this vantage point the Kings of Hattusa could look out across the city which was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
The Hittites were ingenious engineers running water into the city through pipes from the surrounding mountains. The water was stored in 7 vast underground cisterns, one of which was big enough to hold enough water for 10,000, of the 50,000 population of Hattusa, for a whole year. The scale of the innovative defences of Hattusa pointed to a people obsessed with defending itself and prepared for long sieges. But why bother to go to extreme lengths in this remote barren part of the Ancient world that none of the major Empires were interested in?
As excavations of Hattusa continued the sacred places of the city were discovered, with mythical figures carved into the rock, but the lack of every day objects, artefacts and treasure puzzled the archaeologists. It was as if the city had been emptied and abandoned.
Late Hittite (Aramaean) Basalt relief sculptures from 9th Cent B.C, excavated from the west side of the citadel gate of Sam’al (Hittite: Yadiya) located at Zincirli Höyük in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of modern Turkey’s Gaziantep Province. Left Deer Buck, Inv no 7712, Middle Winged Lion inv no. 7706, Left Male with Axe Inv No. 7727. Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (© 2013 Paul Williams)
Cracking The Hittite Cuneiform Code
The Hittites did though leave one great treasure that would reveal their story. A labyrinth of underground tunnels was found housing 5 great libraries, in which 30,000 clay tablets had been carefully catalogued and stored. This was one of the oldest and largest ancient libraries ever discovered. The one great advantage of clay tablets is that they are more durable than papyrus of parchment but even though the library tablets almost certainly contained the history of the lost civilisation, they were written in a language that nobody could understand.
The Hittites wrote in Mesopotamian cuneiform letters using the same triangular shaped signs which was used by several of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. The end corner of a small triangular rod or reed was pressed into soft clay tablets forming triangular shapes. The differing angles and groupings of these triangles created letters and words. Middle Eastern linguists could read the hittite cuneiform but they could make no sense of it because it shared no common words with the known cuneiform languages of the Middle East.
On 24 November 1915 a gifted Czech, Friedrich Hrozny, delivered a lecture to the members of the Near Eastern Society of Berlin in which he described how he had deciphered one sentence of Hittite cuneiform. Hrozny also stated that ‘If I am right about the interpretation of this line. there is going to be a scientific storm.’
Hrozny discovered a sentence that contained the Babylonian word for bread in it which was “ninda-an”. The sentence read “nu ninda~an ezzatteni vadar-ma ekutteni.” and Hrozny reasoned that ‘A sentence in which the word bread is used may very well contain the word “eat”.’
In the sentence he discovered the word “ezzatteni” which reminded him of the old German word for eating, “Ezzan”. Once he made the German connection the next significant word which seemed to jump out for such comparisons was “vadar”. Hrozny saw a similarity to the English word water, German Wasser, Old Saxon watar. Once he had made the connection with European languages Hrozny started to translate the other words in the sentence. The first word “nu” reminded him of the Latin word for now, and the last word reminded him of Latin for water but it looked like it might be a verb so he deduced it might mean drink. From this he translated the sentence as ” now you eat bread and drink water”. Hrozny had discovered that Hittite was an Indo European, like English and most other European languages, so was not related to the languages of the Middle East at all. This meant that the Hittites must have migrated from Europe to build their fortress city at Hattusa.
Late Hittite (Aramaean) Basalt Double Sphinx sculpture from 9th Cent B.C, excavated from the entrance of Palace III Sam’al (Hittite: Yadiya) located at Zincirli Höyük in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of modern Turkey’s Gaziantep Province. Istanbul Archaeological Museum Inv. No 7731. (Paul Randall Williams)
The Hittite Civilisation Revealed
Hrozny’s code breaking breakthrough meant that the clay tablets of the libraries of Hattusa could start to reveal the story of the Hittite civilisation and Empire. The tablets revealed a civilisation centred around state control, obsessed by order and riddled with fear. The tablets revealed that every aspect of Hittite life was tightly regulated by a bureaucratic system that handed out harsh penalties for misdemeanours which included the mutilation and execution of offenders.
The tablets revealed the Hittites as a civilisation who believed in duty, discipline and sacrifice cemented together by solemn oaths to their many gods. The greatest oath was that of allegiance to the King who carried out the will of the Gods, aided by a close nit group of elders that included the kings closest relations. This bond of brotherhood was the most important bond in Hittite society and to wrong or kill a brother Hittite was the greatest crime a Hittite could commit.
From this highly disciplined society the Hittites began to build a war machine. The tablets revealed training manuals with instructions on how to turn raw recruits into ruthless warriors. The tablets also revealed a “big brother” society where everyone was encouraged to spy on each other. Misdemeanours were ruthlessly punished and disobeyed orders were punished by blinding.
Picture & image of a Neo-Hittite orthostat of 3 warriors from the legend of Gilgamesh from Carcamesh, Turkey. Museum of the Anatolian Civilisations Ankara. . The warrior on the far left holds a spear in one hand and the branch of a tree in the other. The middle warrior has a clenched fist an carries an impliment over his shoulder. The warrior on the far right carries a saff. All 3 are wearing swords. 2 (© 2013 Paul Williams)
The preparations the Hittites made for war were meticulous. Horses were force fed a special diet to make them stronger and to make the Hittite chariots faster and more devastating. The hittites also worked in iron to create superior weapons. They were effectively an Iron Age civilisation in a Bronze Age world. The Hittite regime built an army prepared to win at any cost and they did so hidden away in the mountains away from the prying eyes of the three Great Empires of the ancient world.
When the Hittite war machine emerged from the mountains it took the ancient world by surprise. Kingdoms crumbled in front of the mighty Hittite army which ruthlessly swathed a path of destruction across the Middle East to build an Empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the west, across Asia Minor encompassing the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. The Hittites crushed Assyria then destroyed the great city of Babylon, which left only Egypt as the last of the Great Ancient Empire standing in their way to the domination of the Ancient World.
Picture & image of a Neo-Hittite orthostat showing a Conjurer & acrobats from Alacahöyük, Alaca Çorum Province, Turkey. Museum of the Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara. The conjurer on the left has long hair and is swallowing a dagger whilst the acrobats go up the stairs without holding on. All the figures are wearing horned headress and large looped earings. The acrobats are thought to be foreigners which is why they are smaller than the conjurer. Old Bronze age Chalcolithic Period. (© 2013 Paul Williams)
In 1279 BC Ramesses the Great, one of the most powerful leaders in Egyptian history, was Pharaoh and he knew that the Hittites threatened Egypt itself. Egypt controlled most of the Eastern Mediterranean which was vital to securing trade routes. Whoever ruled over this area could be said to be the Greatest King of the Ancient World and the city of Kadesh was the key to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was located on the borders of the Hittite and Egyptian Empires so war for its control was inevitable.
The Battle of Kadesh
For the battle of kadesh Ramesses mustered the largest army in Egyptian history to fight against the 47,000 strong Hittite army of Prince Hattusili. Ramesses had the greater army but in the ensuing battle the Hittites unveiled a new super weapon that would give them a vital edge.
The Hittites had modified their chariots. They had moved the wheel axial forward from the back to the centre of the chariot. This simple modification made the chariot stronger which allowed it to be built bigger so accommodating three men instead of two. This gave the chariot more fire power and weight with devastating results that revolutionised ancient warfare.
Picture & image of a Neo-Hittite orthostat with a chariot Releif sculpture from Karkamis,, Turkey. Museum of the Anatolian Civilisations, Ankara. The Chariot is pulled by horses with plumed headresses. One man os about to shoot an arrow from his bow, the other man is driving the cahriot. Below the horse is a animal cowering. 4 (© 2103 Paul Williams)
In 1274BC the Battle of Kadesh took place and was the greatest battle the world has ever seen. The Hittites super chariots allowed them to execute new battle tactics. Thousands of Hittite chariots led an initial charge against the Egyptians which penetrated deep into their front line causing mayhem amongst the Egyptian soldiers. This first wave of attack left the Egyptians exposed to an ordered attack by the Hittite foot soldiers and the result has become a matter of academic debate.
Until recently it was believed that the Battle of Kadesh was won by Ramesses the Great because hieroglyphic proclamations of his victory were found in Luxor Temple. Tablets excavated at Hattusa though have revealed how Prince Hattusili, the uncle of the Hittite King Mursili III ( also known as Urhi-Teshub), beat the Egyptians making the Hittites the greatest empire of the ancient world at the time. Why believe the Hittite tablet rather than the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Ramesses is well known for being a great self publicist and the last thing a Great King wants to admit is defeat. The tablets from Hattusa came from the Royal library and were not for public consumption so were not part of any PR exercise, so why would they be lies?
In only a few hundred years the Hittites had created a great Empire through the efforts of a united brotherhood and their ambitions to rule the ancient world had been fulfilled. After the battle of Kadesh the Hittites were set to reign as one of the greatest super powers of the Ancient World and yet within decades they disappeared from history. But why?
Neo Hittite Basalt relief sculpture for Carchemish of a Syrian storm god who traditionally wears a horned headdress. 10th century B.C form Carchemish , south-east Anatolia, Turkey. British Museum exhibit no ME 117909 in room 54. (© 2013 Paul Williams)
The Fall of The Hittites
A major re-examination of the Hattusa libraries records shed no light on the end of the Hittite Empire. If there had been a disastrous natural catastrophe like an earthquake the site at Hattusa would not have been cleaned of all artefact. It was as if the entire city had just been abandoned and the clay tablet records just stopped. Many of the great Mediterranean civilisations collapsed at the same time as the Hittite empire and their demise has been attributed to the invasions of a so called “Sea People”. It has long been believed that the Hittite Empire also fell to the Sea People invasion but Hattusa was impregnable, hundreds of miles inland and there were no signs that Hattusas walls had ever been breached or the city sacked.
The mysterious end of the Hittite Empire remained a secret until the second hieroglyphic Hittite language was understood. Small cylindrical clay tablets were excavated that seemed to be like calling cards. A round emblem had cuneiform writing in a circle with hieroglyphs in the centre. The linguists realised that the cuneiform and hieroglyphs had the same meaning so could finally they could start to unravel the Hittite hieroglyphic code.
At Hattusa a small underground chamber had been excavated by German archeologists which was at first thought to be a tomb. When no burial remains were discovered its purpose became a mystery. It was obviously of importance as it was lined with stone panels covered in hieroglyphs. Once the hieroglyph code had been broken the panels could be read for the first time and it was revealed why the Hittite Kingdom collapsed.
The hieroglyphs revealed the name of the last Hittite King, his final war and more importantly the enemies he fought against. The archaeologist at last could learn the name of the foreign power that finally brought down the Hittite Empire, but the enemy turned out not to be foreign at all, the Hittite Empire was destroyed by civil war.
The return of prince Hattusili from his great victory at Kadesh sparked a feud fuelled by envy and fear with his nephew King Mursili III. The victory at Kadesh heightened the importance of Hattusili and Mursili III, fearing a rebellion to put Hattusili on the throne, became increasingly nervous. Mursili III started stripping Hattusili of his powers and left him with no choice but to retaliate if he wanted to survive. In a Palace coupe Hattusili arrested Mursili III and sent him into exile so breaking the sacred bond of brotherhood that had held the Hittites together. The loyalty at the heart of Hittite unity was shattered eventually starting a civil war that spiralled out of control. Over time neighbours in Hattusa became enemies and the Hittite Empire was slowly drained of its power. Invincible from external attack Hattusa was over a few generations torn apart from within and the citizens of Hattusa were brought to the edge of starvation.
Picture & image of a Neo-Hittite orthostat with a chariot Releif sculpture from Karkamis,, Turkey. Ancora Archaeological Museum. The Cahiot is pulled by horses with plumed headresses. One man os about to shoot an arrow from his bow, the other man is driving the cahriot. Below the horse is a animal cowering. 6 (© 2013 Paul Williams)
As the Hittite Imperial system broke down its administrative centres broke down and dissolved. Important trading centres such as Urgarit and Emar did not survive beyond the thirteenth century BC.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Palace Acropolis, administrative buildings and temples of Hattusa were emptied and set on fire. It seems likely that the last King of the Hittites abandoned Hattusa as it was no longer a viable city. Treasures and documents were removed and the Hittites disappeared from history. Because Hattusa was never fully re-occupied myths and legends about the Hittites were not passed down the generations to give us some clue of their existence, so their history disappeared for 3000 years.
The last attested Hittite viceroy of Carcamesh, Kuzi-Tesub, took the opportunity of the fall of Hattusa to proclaim himself Great King and even extended his territory into the Kingdom of Malatya. Several other Hittite states carried on as indiopendant Neo Hittite states but without the driving force from Hattusa the Hittite Empire was slowly absorbed back into the old Ancient World order and was forgotten.
Today the Hittites are best known for their relief sculpted stone panels that show scenes from the great epics like Gilgamesh. Hittite art is full of mythical creatures sculpted in a creative and inimitable style. The naive charm of Hittite sculpture hides the authoritarian civilisation that created them. Many modern city names in Turkey are derived from their Hittite name, for example Sinop or Adana, showing the impact of Hittite culture in Anatolia.
The Hittites remain one of the great enigmas of the Ancient World. They came, they saw, they conquered but having done so they evaporated and disappeared from the historical record for 3000 years.