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The Great Syrian War; Suppililiuma’s One Year Campaign

After years of intrigue and border wars the Hittite King Suppililiuma’s diplomatic maneuvering had bore fruit yet there was still a propaganda war to be won before a proper assault into Syria could begin. It was important for a Hittite king to maintain the image of a just ruler so letters were sent back and forth with the other great kingdoms making the case that the Hittite Kingdom was merely defending itself and its allies. Meanwhile the Mitanni king Tushratta protested that vassals of the Hittites had begun to raid across the Euphrates into Mitanni territory. Suppililiuma and Tushratta even wrote each other in a series of letters that would eventually led Suppililiuma to call the Mitanni king out to battle; a call which the Mitanni king would refuse.

Unrest in Syria

Suppililiuma’s ongoing diplomatic efforts in Syria had produced one pledge of loyalty from Sharrupshi, one of several kings of the region of Nuhashshi. Then, in a masterful bit of intrigue, Suppililiuma wrote a few letters to Niqmaddu II, the newly seated King of Ugarit, encouraging him to expand his territory at the expense of his Mitanni vassal neighbors. Ugarit was at the time mostly an independent city but its previous king’s had been vassals of both the Mitanni king and more recently the Egyptian pharaoh.

The acropolis of Ugarit.

The acropolis of Ugarit.

This activity by Suppililiuma, coupled with the current instability in Mitanni and Egypt destabilized the region. As the Hittite king had hoped anarchy took hold in Syria. The neighbors of the wealthy city state of Ugarit caught wind of the fact that the King of Ugarit had been in communication with Suppililiuma. In an attempt to neutralize Ugarit and seize its vast wealth for their own Itur-Addu, king of the land of Mukish, Addu-nirari, king of the land of Nuhashshi, and Aki-Teshshup, king of Niya formed an alliance and began to raid Ugarit’s lands.

These raids would eventually force the small but resource rich city-state of Ugarit to seek the protection of Hatti, which Suppililiuma was inclined to grant for a substantial yearly indemnity. In fact the relatively small territory held by the city of Ugarit and the trade that flowed through it would be the greatest single source of wealth for the Hittite empire for decades to come. However, for the Hittite king to reap such rewards he would first have to aid his new ally Sharrupshi, because the Mitanni king was bent on punishing this wayward vassal.

In readiness for an offensive, Suppililiuma probably spent the winter of 1351 BCE, with about half of his field army, maybe five thousand hardened soldiers and a few thousand chariots, in Samuha, ready to launch an attack as soon as the weather allowed. Before Suppililiuma set out to secure western Syria between the Euphrates and the Lebanon Mountains, he marched across the Euphrates to strike at the northern extreme of Mittani control. At the same time, the other half of the Hittite field army, under the command of Suppililiuma’s son, Crown Prince Arnuwanda and the Chief of the Royal Bodyguard, Suppililiuma’s brother Zida, moved, from their base in Kizzuwanda, to support Sharrupshi.

Hittite Chariots - by Agnus McBride

Hittite Chariots – by Agnus McBride

At some point after king Sharrupshi of Nuhashshi swore allegiance to the Hittites, Tushratta, the Mitanni king, marched his army from Carchemish on the Euphrates westward through the lands of his wavering vassals, and possibly all the way to the Egyptian garrison town of Sumur on the coast. Whether or not the Mitanni army would have been an even match for the Hittite invasion force is an open question. It is possible that neither side was altogether anxious to risk an all out conflict where expensive professional troops could be wasted in a head to head struggle.

The Invasion Of Ishuwa

Across the Euphrates River in Ishuwa was a group of fifteen different rebel bands which had fled the recent consolidation of the Hittite Kingdom and now, as the Hittites saw it, lurked in the land of the enemy. The prior campaign had failed to bring them to justice and had brought the Hittites into direct conflict with Mitanni troops.

This area, near the region that the Hittites called the Upper Lands, was at the edge of the northernmost trade routes in the Old Assyrian network. These routes were important in allowing the Hittites some easterly metals trade that went around the Mitanni realm of influence. Suppilliuma could therefore appreciate the need to secure his northern flank before expanding his southern one. Not to mention the notion of fugitives being pursued is the perfect opening narrative for a righteous war.

The invasion of Ishuwa

The Invasion of Ishuwa – by Arianna Ravenswood

Tushratta was likely watching the foothills of western Syria where Arnuwanda and Zida were maneuvering their troops to the aid of Sharrupshi of Nuhashshi and Niqmaddu of Ugarit, Meanwhile Suppililiuma was slipping across the Euphrates to conduct one of the most prolific raids in history. So early in 1350 BCE, during the later part of winter and having initiated events to the south as a diversion Suppililiuma invaded Ishuwa and overwhelmed the diverse groups that had been fugitive there.

Whatever the reality of that Hittite incursion over the Euphrates, Suppililiuma certainly sought to paint the episode as a righteous campaign for the cause of Justice. A later Treaty between Suppililiuma and Tushratta’s son, Shattiwaza, records that, “These troops [the rebel fugitives] and those lands I overpowered and returned to Hatti. I freed the lands which I captured; they dwelt in their places. All of the people whom I released rejoined their peoples, and Hatti incorporated their territories.” From these claims it is clear that Suppililiuma wanted to be seen as a liberating power.

The Land Of Alshe

After Suppiluliuma had marched his troops across the highlands of Ishuwa, he reached the border of Alshe. There Suppililiuma took out the last hold of Mitanni resistance in the north at a place called Kutmar. This district lay on the border with the Mitanni vassal Alshe, which had either seized upon this moment to declare independence from Mitanni, or had already done so. Once conquered, Suppililiuma had no interest in garrisoning this frontier, so he gave Kutmar as a gift to King Antaratli of the land of Alshe.

Suppililiuma had now secured what had long been a troublesome stretch of border, by first destroying all hostile forces and then returning property to the civilians who remained. As the Hittite army rolled south from the border of Alshe, they did not leave behind any imperial bureaucracy, and there is no record of any garrison being posted. To what extent Suppililiuma trusted Antaratli or the Ishuwan people to be loyal subjects can only be guessed. He did however feel secure enough to turn south with his forces. From there he marched straight towards the center of the Mitanni Kingdom, which lay seemingly unguarded before him.

The Hittite Army turns south - by Arianna Ravenswood

The Hittite Army turns south – by Arianna Ravenswood

With this success in Ishuwa by early summer of 1350 BCE Suppililiuma had established firm control of the northernmost of the three major crossing points of the upper Euphrates River. These crossings and trade routes had been used at least since the times of Old Assyrian colonial expansion nearly 1000 years before. The main route through Ishuwa ran eastward and extended towards Lake Van, it connected to a southern passage along the headwaters of the Tigris that lead to the upper Khabur River Valley near Ukesh which was the ancient center of Mitanni Kingdom. After overrunning defenses in Ishuwa it is possible to imagine the Hittite army marching along this well known trade route directly into the Mitanni capital district in central Syria.

South From Ishuwa

As the Hittites moved, they would have been compelled to transport vast amounts of equipment, including hundreds of chariots, which had to be broken down and moved in more durable wagons. At the same time other wagons were also moving back to Hatti with captured livestock and prisoners, while a constant flow of messengers and scouts radiated out from the central force. It is possible that at this time Suppililiuma sent another letter to the Mittani king inviting him out to do battle. There is no indication that the Mittani king sent any reply, but all the records are clear that no battle was offered.

This confusing chapter of history is open to debate. Relying upon the two primary sources, The Deeds of Suppililiuma and The Shattiwaza treaty, it is possible to reconstruct probable events. As the Hittite Army emerged into the foothills of northern Syria, the old Assyrian trade routes, which follow the naturally traversable parts of the terrain, branched into three directions. It is clear that the Hittites had no interest in taking the easterly route into Assyria and while the southern road that led straight to the Khabur River Valley lay before them, this does not appear a plausible route either. This southerly route, while tempting, would have overextended the Hittite lines of communication and steered Suppililiuma away from his true goal, which was the Mitanni vassals west of the Euphrates, where his son and brother waited with the rest of the Hittite army.

The Sack Of Washukkani

This leaves only the westerly course, which ran along the southern edge of the northern Syrian escarpment. This district, near this junction of trade routes, was called Shuta and it was hapless before the Hittite invaders. The Hittites crossed Shuta and approached the capital of Mitanni, Washukkani from the north. Traditionally at this point the story usually involves a perceived sacking of the Mitanni capital. However, a close examination of the sources reveals something less clear-cut. In the Shattiwaza treaty, Suppililiuma states,

I penetrated to the district of Shuta and plundered the district of Shuta. I reached the city of Washukkani in search of plunder. I brought to Hatti the cattle, sheep, and horses of the district of Shuta, along with its possessions and its civilian captives. But Tushratta fled. He did not come against me for battle.

The Deeds also allow for some ambiguity by telling that “the Mitanni king stayed in the town of Washukkani, he did not answer [the invitation to battle]…..and he did not come to battle. So my father went there after him!” The text also speaks of more towns being looted in addition to the aforementioned plunder being carried away, but nowhere is there note of anything indicating that the citadel of the Mitanni capital itself was breached. Speculation alone can allow us to imagine the capital district in flames while the paltry Mitanni forces on hand watched helplessly from their fortifications. Clues found in this account, combined with geo-political features of the region, such as the trade routes, would seem to indicate that the lost ruins of Washukkani are to be found westward of where they are usually sought, perhaps closer to the headwaters of the Balikh rather than the Khabur River.

Suppililiuma Outflanks Tushratta

If Tushratta was present during this crisis then he had only just arrived, likely in haste from western Syria, after realizing that he had been duped by the military maneuvers of the Hittite king. Tushratta appears to have rallied his forces enough to protect the vital city of Carchemish, which overlooked the most important of the crossing points on the Euphrates in Syria. Carchemish was in a naturally defensible position, surrounded by the Euphrates and a walled canal. Perhaps only these features prevented the Hittite conqueror from returning back across the Euphrates at that point. More probable, however, it had never been Suppililiuma’s intent to re-cross the Euphrates so far to the south.

If Suppililiuma had indeed headed westward across the foothills, as already speculated, then he would have already been in route to another of the vital river crossings near the Old Assyrian karum (trading center) of Hahhum. That Suppililiuma followed this path is further confirmed by concerns voiced in the Deeds over a lack of water in the region. This stretch of trade route would have traverse the arid hills to the north of the Balikh River Valley, well away from the heavily populated districts of Harran and Carchemish. Suppililiuma likely considered that Mitanni troops in western Syria were now responding to the threat on their capital district, and concluded that they would have been mustering in Harran and Carchemish.

By the time that Suppililiuma had moved westward back across the Euphrates he had dealt a blow that would keep the Mitanni army out of the field for the remainder of the year without ever meeting it in battle. If the horses that the Hittites captured represented a significant portion of the Mitanni kingdom’s breeding stock then the long term battle readiness of the Mitanni chariots would have been seriously compromised. Tushratta was forced to concentrate his efforts on recovering from the Hittite raid, while the Hittite Army was uniting its separate components in western Syria for the final push against Mitanni’s vulnerable vassals.
South to Halab

The rolling hills of northern Syria near Aleppo.

The rolling hills of northern Syria near Aleppo.

After crossing the Euphrates Suppililiuma was faced with a rolling expanse of hills that ranged for over a hundred miles between him and the cities of Halab and Alalah. The army under crown prince Arnuwanda and the kings brother, Zida, was operating in this area. Although Sharrupshi king of Nuhashshi was killed before any Hittite help could arrive, these troops appear to have provided sufficient aid to persuade the King of Ugarit to become a Hittite vassal.
The Hittitites quickly moved towards the strategic city of Halab/Aleppo which had been an objective of Hittite kings for centuries and occupied the Mitanni vassal state of Mukish of along the Mediterranean coast. Suppililiuma’s rapid movement is readily comparable to the better known exploits of Caesar and Napoleon. Such strategic dexterity reveals the extraordinary planning that went into this campaign. It is likely that an entire network of supply depots was communicated with through couriers and scouts and stood ready to resupply the army as it moved quickly back to the west and then attacked southward.

Mukish, Nuhashshi, Niya And Ugarit

The kings Itur-Addu of Mukish, Addu-nirari of Nuhashshi (the region had several kings) and Aki-Teshshup of Niya had all sought to expand their kingdoms at the expense of Ugarit which, although a small territory, was a particularly wealthy trade hub with lands filled with timber and vast agricultural resources. Somehow the Hittite crown prince had managed to keep them at bay. If Arnuwanda’s forces had stifled these king’s expansionist desires then this may also explain why the districts of Mukish and Halab would fall with no mentioned resistance since they were secured in the opening days of the campaign by his active son and brother before Suppililiuma was even on the scene.

The Hittites had advanced southward using the inland routes through Urshu rather than heading more directly from the crossing of the Euphrates in a southwesterly direction to Halab. This southwesterly route would have exposed their flank to attacks from the Mitanni citadel of Carchemish, while an inland route was probably firmly in control of Hittite or Allied troops. Therefore, Alalah, the capital of Mukish, could have been bypassed at first in order to allow for the east road leading to Halab to be secured.

The City of Halab/Aleppo, which had stood at the center of the Great Kingdom of Yamhad, was now a secondary city and was most likely part of the territory of the king of Mukish. The ancient prestige of Halab, and the Hittite desire to attach this prestige to their conquest, could account for the mention of this city as the first to fall when the Hittites headed south after crossing the Euphrates. Important also is the fact that Halab’s capture cut off the most direct path for the Mitanni king to return to the fight should he be able to do so.

The Kings Of Niya

The fate of Itur-Addu, King of Mukish goes unrecorded, but his city Alalah fell into Hittite hands and was converted into a field capital of sorts. While in residence at Alalah, Suppililiuma held court with Niqmaddu of Ugarit and Takuwa of Niya, both of whom were there to present themselves as loyal subjects of the Hittite king. Meanwhile, Takuwa’s brother, the Aki-Teshshup who had previously attacked Ugarit, once again prepared for war. This city was of vital importance for the security of overland trade to Ugarit. Ugarit had also just entered into alliance with the Hittites and the control of the trade routes which ran eastward from Ugarit, through Niya and onto Arahti were now the next necessary conquest for the invaders.

While the new vassal kings met in Alahah, Takuwa’s brother, Aki-Teshshup who had been at war with Ugarit prior to the Hittites arrival was gathering allies to resist the Hittites. The presence of Takuwa in Alalah could have been a ruse to buy time as troops were mustered, or perhaps it portrays a genuine factionalism within the city state of Niya. Takuwa may have been seeking to guarantee peace by submitting to the Hittite King, while other forces led by Aki-Teshshup were determined to fight the invaders. Or, Aki-Teshshup may be the legitimate king, with Takuwa as a younger brother who sought to better his lot by pledging loyalty to the Hittites.

Elusive details aside the name Aki-Teshshup was in all likelihood a proper throne name taken upon coronation. Aki-Teshshup, which can be read “Teshshup is the guide” is indicative of Hurrian names used throughout the Mittani realm of influence. Aki-Teshshup had already been a regional leader before the Hittites arrived and he now prepared himself for a fight. At this time Aki-Teshshup’s former ally in the war against Ugarit, Addu-Nirari, a king of Nuhashshi, may have gone to ground. Judging from his own comments found in the Amarna Letters, Addu-nirari was hoping help would come from Egypt. It is known that the pharaoh did send at least a small numbers of archers, all highly trained professionals, in response but this was not nearly enough.

The overall impression that the record gives of Nuhashshi and the surrounding region is of a handful of city states held together in a loose confederation within the Mitanni orbit. At different times one city’s king may gain some measure of authority over the others particularly when backed by a great king. Now, at the time of the Hatti invasion, without any ready support of a great king, and with no help from his former allies, Aki-Teshshup reached out and gained the support of Akiya, the king of neighboring Arahati.

Aki-Teshshup’s Alliance

The cities of Niya and Arahati had been, for a long time, part of the Mitanni supervised trade network that made the region so vital. The cities of Niya, in the Orontes River Valley, and Arahati, which lay near the ruins of Ebla, sat astride the east west trade route which allowed overland access to Ugarit. As such, they were in an excellent position to stop further advance of the Hittite army southward, a position these kings appear to have appreciated.

In the preambles to certain Hittite treaties Aki-Teshshup is reported to have united the chariot warriors known as maryannu. It is likely that some of these elite warriors were even in the pay of the now withdrawn Mitanni king who was known to have kept outposts of maryannu imperial chariot troops throughout his realm. In the treaties six individuals are named presumably loyal or allied nobility, who, along with their chariots and infantry, moved to the city of Arahati. There according to the Shattiwaza treaty they “began war thinking.” Whatever this thinking consisted of it would seem that these men who were clearly in possession of a professional fighting force deemed their troops inadequate to take the field against the formidable Hittite army.

The route of the Hittite march.

The route of the Hittite march. by Arianna Ravenswood

If the Niya/Arahati Alliance did in fact offer a set piece battle, it warranted no mention in the texts. A likely scenario is that all the forces in the region had gathered at Arahati to await an arrival of a hoped for Mittani relief force. Now that Halab was in Hittite hands, any imperial reinforcements would have to come through Arahati. Nevertheless, before any help from the Mittani army arrived, Arahati fell to the Hittites and Suppilliuma claims to have captured, “Akiya…., Aki-Teshshup….., and all of their chariots, together with their possessions, and [to have] brought them to Hatti.”

There is only one line in the Shattiwaza treaty that sheds any light on the next episode. It reads, “I also brought the city of Qatna, together with its belongings and possessions, to Hatti.” Recent archeological excavations at the site of Qatna hold the promise of shedding light on this ancient trading centers fate. What is known tells that with the victorious Hittites a one week march to the north, King Idanda ordered the production of swords and began to fortify his walls. In all Idanda ordered 18,600 bronze swords to be manufactured. This can be seen as effectively arming every able bodied fighter in the city. The 400 gold and lapis lazuli knives which the king of Qatna commissioned might more closely represent the numbers of the cities standing army, its only trained fighters.

The records uncovered at Qatna show that the Hittites sent official notices to cities slated for conquest. Hannutti, Commander of the Hittite Chariotry, sent such a message to King Idanda telling him flatly to prepare for war. In spite of any preparations made by Idanda, Suppilliuma’s southward march was not to be checked. A force of citizen levies, though numerous, would have fallen quickly to a Hittite army that had been seasoned by years of campaigns across the Near East.

It does not appear that following the Hittite advance the city of Qatna was completely destroyed or rendered inhabitable. The royal family was likely deported, and transferable wealth was probably sent north, but a series of excerpts from the Amarna letters from Akizzi of Qatna indicate that this city, though plundered, survived for a little longer. In a few of these letters, which represent efforts by Qatna to gain Egyptian support, complaints are made about the aggression of Aitaqqama of Qadesh. Since Aitaqqama did not become king of Qadesh until after Suppilliuma’s one year campaign, these complaints about him must be dated to later parts of the war indicating Qatna’s survival

The Final Objective

As Suppilliuma marched on, his goal appears to have been the terminus of the trans-Syrian trade-routes, the region known as Apina which is today dominated by the city of Damascus. Apina sat at the junction of the inland trade routes which ran down the Orontes valley, and the southern overland route that followed the edge of the steppes eastward in an arc to the ruins of ancient Mari. With control of Qatna and Apina, Suppilliuma would have controlled all the trade that crossed western Syria. As the conflicts of the coming decades would testify Egypt, the Hittites next rival, was boxed in strategically, with the only avenue for counterattack against the Hittites being through the district of Qadesh.

This boxing in of Egypt was made all the more complete by a strange incident that apparently occurred while the Hittites were on the way to Apina. Suppilliuma claims that he had no wish to attack the vassals of Egypt but, when Shutatarra king of Qadesh and his son Aitaqqama led their forces against him, he chased them back to their city. In typical fashion, the royal family and its possessions were carried off to Hatti. Eventually Aitaqqama would return as a vassal of the Hittite king, who also proclaimed at differing times a dual loyalty to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Finally, on the plains near Damascus, Ariwana, king of Apina, is said to have gathered his nobles and offered the Hittites a set piece battle. The result was no different than elsewhere. In the now familiar pattern, Ariwana and his compatriots were sent back to Hatti as captives. This final victory gave the Hittites a superior strategic possession. Mitanni power to the west of the Euphrates was forever broken. The vassalage of Ugarit and possessions of Qatna, Qadesh and Apina effectively limited Egyptian influence to a narrowing strip of coast, it also gave the Hittites control of vital agricultural lands on the alluvial plain near Qadesh and Qatna.

Southern Lebanon on the way to Damascus.

Southern Lebanon on the way to Damascus.

When Suppilliuma turned back to the north with his goals met his army would have marched over 800 miles, looted large swaths of territory of thousands of livestock, conquered up to five fortified strongholds, gained nearly a dozen new vassals and defeated at least one army in an open field battle. The idea that this was done all in one year is not impossible. An army of the period, including the ever present baggage train, could easily average around ten miles a day. Allowing for some drawn out engagements and the long snow season of the Anatolian mountains, this would still allow for a lengthy enough campaign season for all these deeds to have been done. Therefore, Suppilliuma’s claim that “I plundered all of these lands in one year and brought them to Hatti; From Mount Lebanon and from the far bank of the Euphrates. I made them my territory,” can be seen as more than just mere royal propaganda.

Now the Empires of Hatti and Mitanni were thoroughly embroiled in conflict known simply as the Great Syrian War. This fight would destroy one empire and transform the other. The lands between the Euphrates and Mediterranean Sea became a crossroads of conflict as the Hittites first ousted the Mitanni, then positioned themselves for a long war with Egypt. The Hittite Empire had gained control over the regions rich resources and crisscrossing trade routes and neither Egypt nor the up-and-coming Assyrian kingdom could ignore such success for long. This Suppililiuma’s one year campaign of would re-shape Western Syria in the Hittite mold and in Egypt as the 18th Dynasty started to wane it was clear that it was the Hittites who had stolen their place in the sun.


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Since the discovery of his tomb in 1922 Tutankhasmun’s exact family tree has remained a mystery. Extensive DNA analysis done in 2011 concluded that the mummy of the man found buried in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings labeled as KV55 is Tutankhamun’s father. It was then declared with a leap of logic that this revealed that Akhenaten was in fact Tutankhamun’s father. However there is still an ongoing debate about the mummy in KV55. To put it simply the international team that conducted the DNA study simply resolved the debate about the KV55 mummy in the most sensational way possible.
The debate over Tutankhamun’s family tree is ongoing although several notable authorities including Zahi Hawass have declared it over. Hawass and others sponsor a simple scenario of Akhenaten and Nefertiti both being children of Amenhotep III and Tiye who were married and had themselves two children, Tutankhamun an Ankesenamun who also in turn married each other. While this theory may prove correct it is based primarily on contentious DNA results that could be interpreted in other ways. Complicating all of the best DNA analysis is the uncertainty over the effects of long term intermarriage between cousins and siblings and how this could distort results.
Furthermore this theory does nothing to address the archeological absence of Tutankhamun from the numerous family scenes depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children who are all shown as daughters. Another theory proposes that the man from KV55 might be the short lived pharaoh Smenkare who may have been another son of Amenhotep III and that his mother may have been yet another member of an extended and intermarried family. One interesting near fact amongst the many uncertainties is the central role that Queen Tiye, the daughter of Yuya and Tuya held in the late 18th Dynasty.
Stay tuned over the coming weeks as we take a closer look at the royal family of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty.

Tutankhamun’s World

– By the end of the 15th Century B.C.E. a vibrant international community had developed across the Near East with a trade network linking Africa to Europe and Central Asia. Dominating this community was Egypt, at first with military might and then with its enormous wealth. Full Article

The Great Kingdoms

The Great Kingdoms


The Legacy of Ur-Nammu

 – After centuries of warfare and chaos a Sumerian king from the city of Ur claimed the dominion of the Akkadian Empire as his own. Yet unlike his predecessors he would do it with a spade instead of a sword and as a result his legacy remains visible across Iraq to this day. 

Click on stele for full article.

Click on stele for full article.