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Hittite Sun
Photo: Hittite Sun

Hattians - First civilizations in Anatolia
History of Hittites
Hittites in the Bible

The Hittites were an ancient people who spoke an Indo-European language, and established a kingdom centered at Hattusa (Hittite URUḪattuša) 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, the empire disintegrated into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until as late as the 8th century BC.

The term "Hittites" is taken from the KJV translation of the Hebrew bible, translating חתי HTY, or בני-חת BNY-HT "Children of Heth". The archaeologists who discovered the Anatolian Hittites in the 19th century initially identified them with these Biblical Hittites. Today, the identification of the Biblical peoples with either the Hattusa-based empire or the Neo-Hittite kingdoms is a matter of dispute.

The Hittite kingdom, or at least its core region, was apparently called Hatti by the Hittites themselves. However, 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 called Hattic. The Hittites refered to their language as "Nesili" (or in one case, "Kanesili"), an adverbial form meaning "in the manner of (Ka)nesa." This presumably reflects their origins in the ancient city of Kanesh (modern day Kultupe, Turkey). Many of the modern city names in Turkey are derived from their original Hittite names, such as Sinop and Adana, showing the impact of Hittite culture in Anatolia.

The Hittites were also famous for their skill in building and using chariots. The Hittites were pioneers of the Iron Age, manufacturing iron artifacts from as early as the 14th century BC, making them possibly even the first to do so.

Archaeological discovery

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 Mesopotamian references to "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 Hatti or Khatti in Anatolia was identical with the "kingdom of Kheta" mentioned in these Egyptian texts, as well as with the biblical Hittites. Sayce's identification came to be widely accepted over the course of the early 20th century; and 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. The Hittites themselves apparently called their language and people "Neshili" and hence it has been suggested that the more technically correct term, "Neshite", be used instead. Nonetheless, convention continues and "Hittite" remains the standard term used.

Under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, excavations at Hattusa have been underway since 1932, with wartime interruptions. Kültepe has been successfully excavated by late Professor Tahsin Özgüç (died in 2005) since 1948. Excavations on a smaller scale have also been carried out in the immediate surroundings of Hattusa, including the rock sanctuary of Yazılıkaya, which contains numerous rock-cut reliefs portraying the Hittite rulers and the gods of the Hittite pantheon.


The Hittite language (or Nesite) is recorded fragmentarily from about the 19th century BC (in the Kultepe texts, see Ishara). It remained in use until about 1100 BC. Hittite is the best attested member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. Due to marked differences in its structure and phonology some early philologists, most notably Warren Cowgill even argued that it should be classified as a sister language to the Indo-European languages, rather than a daughter language (see Indo-Hittite). By the end of the Hittite Empire, the Hittite language had become a written language of administration and diplomatic correspondence. The population of most of the Hittite Empire by this time spoke Luwian dialects, another Indo-European language of the Anatolian family that had originated to the West of the Hittite region. The later Lydian language appears to be directly descended from Hittite rather than from Luwian.


The Hittite kingdom was centered around the lands surrounding Hattusa and Neša, known as "the land Hatti" (URUHa-at-ti). After Hattusa was made capital, the area encompassed by the bend of the Halys River was considered the core of the Empire, and some Hittite laws make a distinction between "this side of the river" and "that side of the river", for example, the reward for the capture of an eloped slave after he managed to flee beyond the Halys is higher than that for a slave caught before he could reach the river.

To the south of the core territory was the land of Kizzuwatna in the area of the Taurus Mountains. To the west, the confederacy of Arzawa. To the north, the mountain people of the Kaskians. To the east, the Mitanni. After the incorporation or association of Arzawa and Mitanni (under Suppiluliuma I), the Hittite sphere of influence under Mursili II bordered on the Hayasa-Azzi to the east, on the Ahhiyawa and the newly-forming Assuwa confederacy to the west, on Egypt-controlled Canaan to the south, and on Assyria to the south-east.

History of Hittites

The Hittite kingdom is conventionally divided into three periods, the Old Hittite Kingdom (ca. 1750–1500 BC), the Middle Hittite Kingdom (ca. 1500–1430 BC) and the New Hittite Kingdom (the Hittite Empire proper, ca. 1430–1180 BC).

The earliest known Hittite king, Pithana, was based at Kussara. Anitta in the 18th century BC conquered Neša, where the Hittite kings had their capital for about a century until Labarna II conquered Hattusa and took the throne name of Hattusili "man of Hattusa". The Old Kingdom, centered at Hattusa, peaked during the 16th century, and even managed to sack Babylon at one point, but made no attempt to govern there, choosing instead to turn it over to the domination of their Kassite allies who were to rule it for over 400 years. During the 15th century, Hittite power fell into obscurity, re-emerging with the reign of Tudhaliya I from ca. 1400 BC. Under Suppiluliuma I and Mursili II, the Empire was extended to most of Anatolia and parts of Syria and Canaan, so that by 1300 the Hittites were bordering on the Egyptian sphere of influence, leading to the inconclusive Battle of Kadesh in the early 13th century. Civil war and rivalling claims to the throne, combined with the external threat of the Sea Peoples weakened the Hittites and by 1160 BC, the Empire had collapsed. "Neo-Hittite" post-Empire states, petty kingdoms under Assyrian rule, may have lingered on until ca. 700 BC, and the Bronze Age Hittite and Luwian dialects evolved into the sparsely attested Lydian, Lycian and Carian languages. Remnants of these languages lingered into Persian times and were finally extinct by the spread of Hellenism.


Hittite religion and mythology was heavily influenced by Mesopotamian mythology, increasingly so as history progressed. In earlier times, Indo-European elements may still be clearly discerned, for example Tarhunt the god of thunder, and his conflict with the serpent Illuyanka.

Hittites in the Bible

As mentioned above, the term "Hittites" is an exonym, taken from the Hebrew Bible Heth, chosen because of the similarity in name to "Hatti", and also because the Biblical Hittites are said to be a great power who dwell "in the mountains" and "towards the north" of Canaan. Since, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Hebrew Bible was redacted well after the fall of the Hittite Empire, some scholars assume that the Biblical references may be to "Neo-Hittite" Luwian polities.

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