Hittites, an introduction


Image caption: Basalt relief showing a storm-god Neo-Hittite, 10th century BC. From Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Basalt relief showing a storm-god, Neo-Hittite, 10th century B.C.E., from Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E. the Hittites established one of the great empires of the ancient Middle East. At its height, the empire encompassed central Turkey, north western Syria, and Upper Mesopotamia (north eastern Syria and northern Iraq).

Although they spoke an Indo-European language, the Hittites adopted many of the traditions of Mesopotamia, including the cuneiform writing system. At the capital, Hattusa, Archaeologists have excavated royal archives written in cuneiform on clay tablets.

The Hittites were famous for their skill in building and using chariots. They also pioneered the manufacture and use of iron.

By 1300 the Hittite Empire bordered on Egypt and both powers vied for control of wealthy cities on the Mediterranean coast. This led to the Battle of Kadesh with Rameses II (1274 B.C.E.) On Rameses II’s monuments, the battle was commemorated as a great victory for Egypt, but the Hittite account, found at Hattusas, suggests that the battle was closer fought.

Civil war and rivaling claims to the throne, combined with external threats weakened the Hittites and by 1160 B.C.E., the Empire had collapsed. Hittite culture survived in parts of Syria such as Carchemish which had once been under their power. These Neo-Hittites wrote Luwian, a language related to Hittite, using a hieroglyphic script. 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.

Limestone cylinder seal Hittite, 14th-13th centuries B.C.E. From Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Limestone cylinder seal, Hittite, 14th–13th centuries B.C.E., from Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

A cylinder seal

This limestone cylinder seal was found by the excavator Leonard Woolley when he was clearing a cave under the north wall at Carchemish. The town was defended at this point by a double wall with the space between divided by cross-walls. The walls rested on top of a cliff and the cave was below the outer wall—n fact the wall had collapsed at this point because of the collapse of the cave roof near the mouth.

Behind the inner town wall three vertical shafts cut in the rock gave access to the cave. Wall foundations showed that these had once been enclosed in a building. The cave may have served as an emergency exit only for use in times of war, and in peace time it may have been kept blocked: there was evidence that at one stage the entrance to the cave had been blocked by a wall. Inside, the cave had been artificially shaped so that the roof, floor and walls were flat.

The cave was in use until late Roman times. This cylinder seal was found high up in the filling within it, and can be dated to the Hittite period.

This limestone cylinder seal depicts a stag and a bull, two wedges, a sun with rays, and, above the bull, a kilted figure holding a figure-of-eight shield and grasping one of the stag’s antlers. The stag may symbolize a Hittite hunting god and the bull may stand for the weather god of Hatti.

A tiny gold figure

Gold figurine of a god Hittite, about 1400-1200 B.C.E. From Anatolia (modern Turkey), 3.94 cm high

Gold figurine of a god
Hittite, about 1400–1200 B.C.E.
From Anatolia (modern Turkey), 3.94 cm high (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

This tiny gold figure wears the very distinctive Hittite version of the horned headdress, the usual way of depicting deities in Mesopotamia. The curved weapon he carries could be a sword, or perhaps a hunting weapon identifying him as a god of hunting.

Thousands of tablets from the Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Bogazköy in central Turkey) reveal that the state religion was based on the worship of natural phenomena such as weather, sun, mountains and water. These were all depicted in human form, distinguished by their horned headwear. The Hittite king played a central role in religious rituals. These included his being bathed to wash away collective sin.

The Hittites adopted many of the deities of the surrounding regions, including those of the Hurrians. As the empire expanded into Syria during the 14th century B.C.E., so did the pantheon. The Hittites themselves spoke of a thousand gods, and Mesopotamian and Syrian gods were either equated with their own deities or simply added to the list. Among the most important male gods was Teshub, the Hurrian storm god, whose animal symbol was the bull. He was the husband of the goddess Hepat, and they were equated with the weather-god of Hatti and his consort, the sun-goddess of Arina.

Gold figures of deities, Hittite, 13th century B.C.E., from Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey), largest figure 1.750 cm high (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Gold figures of deities, Hittite, 13th century B.C.E., from Carchemish, south-east Anatolia (modern Turkey), largest figure 1.750 cm high (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Hittite gods on a miniature scale

Most of the thirty-eight small gold figures (five illustrated here) are inlaid with steatite or lapis lazuli (a rare blue stone imported from Afghanistan). They represent Hittite deities and are very similar to the gods carved in the thirteenth century BC on the rock of the open-air shrine at Yazilikaya near the Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Bogazköy) in central Anatolia. Since this is their probable date, they must have decorated an object that became an heirloom, as they were found in a grave of the seventh century BC.

The rich burial, which also contained a cylinder of lapis lazuli, an openwork gold strip and disc and gold tassels from the ends of a belt, was discovered by Leonard Woolley when he was excavating the Neo-Hittite and later levels at Carchemish. The burial was a cremation within the walls of the city. This was unusual because at that time cremation burials were generally made in cemeteries outside the walls of settlements. The cremated bones were in a coarse domestic vessel instead of the normal urn, and, because the burial was very rich, Woolley suggested that it might have been that of an important person who died during the siege of Carchemish by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 605 B.C.E..

© The Trustees of the British Museum

 


Additional resources:

O.R. Gurney, The Hittites (Pelican, 1981)

D. Collon, Ancient Near Eastern art (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

C.L. Woolley, Carchemish II (London, The British Museum Press, 1969)

 

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Hittites, an introduction," in Smarthistory, February 26, 2021, accessed April 18, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/hittites-introduction/.