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History of the Hittites

Hittite God at Ankara Museum

Hittites is the conventional English-language term for an ancient people who spoke an Indo-European language and established a kingdom centered in Hattusa in north-central Anatolia from the 18th century BC. In the 14th century BC, the Hittite Empire was at its height, encompassing central Anatolia, north-western Syria as far as Ugarit, and upper Mesopotamia. After 1180 BC, amid general turmoil in the Levant associated with the sudden arrival of the Sea Peoples, the empire disintegrated into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until as late as the 8th century BC. The history of the Hittite civilization is known mostly from cuneiform texts found in the area of their empire, and from diplomatic and commercial correspondence found in various archives in Egypt and the Middle East.

Hattians and Hittites

Around 2000 BC, the region centered in Hattusa, that 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, that appeared on 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 Neša".

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 that may first have been written in the 17th century BC but survived only as copies made in the 14th and 13th centuries BC. These tablets, known collectively as the Anitta text (ed. StBoT 18), begin by telling how Pithana the king of Kussara or Kussar (a small city-state yet to be identified by archaeologists) conquered the neighbouring city of Neša (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 Old Kingdom
The founding of the Hittite Empire is usually attributed to Hattusili I, who conquered the area south of Hattusa, all the way to the outskirts of Yamkhad (modern-day Aleppo) in Syria. Though it remained for his heir, Mursili I, to conquer that city, Hattusili 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 through Mesopotamia and even ransacking Babylon itself in 1595 BC (although rather than incorporate Babylonia into Hittite domains, he seems to have instead turned it over to his Kassite allies, who were to rule it for the next four centuries). This lengthy campaign, however, strained the resources of Hatti, 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 took advantage of the situation to seize Aleppo and the surrounding areas for themselves, as well as the coastal region of Adaniya, renaming it Kizzuwatna (later Cilicia).

Following this, the Hittites entered a weak phase of obscure records, insignificant rulers, and reduced area of control. This pattern of expansion under strong kings followed by contraction under lesser ones, was to be repeated over and over again throughout the Hittite Empire's 500-year history, making events during the waning periods difficult to reconstruct with much precision.

The next monarch of any note following Mursili I was Telepinu (ca. 1500 BC), who won a few victories to the southwest, apparently by allying himself with one Hurrian state (Kizzuwatna) against another (Mitanni).

The Middle Kingdom
Telepinu's reign marked the end of the "Old Kingdom" and the beginning of the lengthy weak phase known as the "Middle Kingdom", about which little is known. One innovation that can be credited to these early Hittite rulers is the practice of conducting treaties and alliances with neighboring states; the Hittites were thus among the earliest known pioneers in the art of international politics and diplomacy.

The New Kingdom
With the reign of Tudhaliya I (who may actually not have been the first of that name; see also Tudhaliya), the Hittite Empire re-emerges from the fog of obscurity. During his reign (c. 1400), he again allied with Kizzuwatna, vanquished the Hurrian states of Aleppo and Mitanni, and expanded to the west at the expense of Arzawa (a Luwian state).

Another weak phase followed Tudhaliya I, and the Hittites' enemies from all directions were able to advance even to Hattusa and raze it. However, the Empire recovered its former glory under Suppiluliuma I (c. 1350), who again conquered Aleppo, reduced Mitanni to tribute under his son-in-law, and defeated Carchemish, another Syrian city-state. With his own sons placed over of all of these new conquests, Babylonia still in the hands of the Kassites, and Assyria only newly independent with the crushing of Mitanni, this left Suppiluliuma the supreme power broker outside of Egypt, and it was not long before even that country was seeking an alliance by marriage of another of his sons with the widow of Tutankhamen. Unfortunately, that son was evidently murdered before reaching his destination, and this alliance was never consummated.

After Suppiluliuma I, and a very brief reign by his eldest son, another son, Mursili II became king (c. 1330). Having inherited a position of strength in the east, Mursili was able to turn his attention to the west, where he attacked Arzawa and a city known as Millawanda in the coastal land of Ahhiyawa. Many recent scholars have surmised that Millawanda in Ahhiyawa is likely a reference to Miletus and Achaea known to Greek history, though there are a small number who have disputed this connection.

Battle of Kadesh
Hittite prosperity was mostly dependent on control of the trade routes and metal sources. Because of the importance of Northern Syria to the vital routes linking the Cilician gates with Mesopotamia, defense of this area was crucial, and was soon put to the test by Egyptian expansion under Pharaoh Rameses II. The outcome of the battle is uncertain though it seems that the timely arrival of Egyptian reinforcements prevented total Hittite victory. The Egyptians forced the Hittites to take refuge in the fortress of Kadesh but their own losses prevented them from sustaining a siege. After several more years of hostilities Rameses and the Hittite king Muwatalli II, successor to Mursilis II, agreed upon a treaty marking Kadesh as the border between the two empires. It is speculated that this treaty was also meant as a safeguard against the rising power of Assyria in the east. This battle took place in the 5th year of Rameses (c 1275 BC by the most commonly used chronology).

Downfall and Demise of the Empire
After this date, the power of the Hittites began to decline yet again, as the Assyrians had seized the opportunity to vanquish Mitanni and expand to the Euphrates while Muwatalli was preoccupied with the Egyptians. Assyria now posed equally as great a threat to Hittite trade routes as Egypt had ever been. His son, Urhi-Teshub, took the throne as Mursili III, but was quickly ousted by his uncle, Hattusili III after a brief civil war. In response to increasing Assyrian encroachments along the frontier, he concluded a peace and alliance with Rameses II, presenting his daughter's hand in marriage to the Pharaoh. The "Treaty of Kadesh", one of the oldest completely surviving treaties in history, fixed their mutual boundaries in Canaan, and was signed in the 21st year of Rameses (c. 1258 BC).

Hattusili's son, Tudhaliya IV, was the last strong Hittite king able to keep the Assyrians out of Syria and even temporarily annex the island of Cyprus. The very last king, Suppiluliuma II also managed to win some victories, including a naval battle against the Sea Peoples off the coast of Cyprus. But it was too late. The Sea Peoples had already begun their push down the Mediterranean coastline, starting from the Aegean, and continuing all the way to Philistia -- taking Cilicia and Cyprus away from the Hittites en route and cutting off their coveted trade routes. This left the Hittite homelands vulnerable to attack from all directions, and Hattusa was burnt to the ground sometime around 1180 BC following a combined onslaught from Gasgas, Bryges and Luwians. The Hittite Empire thus vanished from the historical record.

By 1160 BC, the political situation in Asia Minor looked vastly different from how it had only 25 years earlier. In that year, the Assyrians were dealing with the Mushku pressing into northernmost Mesopotamia from the Anatolian highlands, and the Gasga people, the Hittites' old enemies from the northern hill-country between Hatti and the Black Sea, seem to have joined them soon after. The Mushku or Mushki had apparently overrun Cappadocia from the West, with recently discovered epigraphic evidence confirming their origins as the Balkan "Bryges" tribe, forced out by the Macedonians.

A large and powerful state known as Tabal had occupied the region south of these. Their language appears to have been Luwian, related to Hittite, but usually written in hieroglyphics instead of cuneiform. Several lesser city-states extending from here to Northern Syria also used Luwian, although they are sometimes known as "neo-Hittite". Soon after these upheavals began, both hieroglyphs and cuneiform were rendered obsolete by a new innovation, the alphabet, that seems to have entered Anatolia simultaneously from the Aegean (with the Bryges, who changed their name to Phrygians), and from the Phoenicians and neighboring peoples in Syria.

Ironically, the language of the Lydians, spoken in the West of Asia Minor until the 1st century BC, was apparently a linguistic descendant of Hittite, and not Luwian. This and the fact that one of Lydia's kings known to the Greeks bore the Hittite royal name Myrsilis (Mursilis) may indicate that this state was the purest cultural and ethnic continuation of the former Hittites. The last trace of this language persisted until the 5th century AD, according to some Church Fathers, when it was known as the tiny dialect of Isaurian, spoken in only one or two villages.

The Neo-Hittite Kingdoms
Although the Hittites disappeared from most of Anatolia after c. 1200 BC, there remained a number of so-called Neo-Hittite kingdoms in northern Syria. The most notable Neo-Hittite kingdoms were those at Carchemish and Milid (near the later Melitene). These Neo-Hittite Kingdoms were gradually conquered by the Assyrians, who conquered Carchemish during the reign of Sargon II in the late 8th century BC, and Milid several decades later.

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