The Hittites

During the last 150 years the belief that the Hittites were an obscure tribe mentioned in the Bible has evolved into an understanding that these intrepid warriors were actually one of the great kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the Hittites were known to history only by the 48 separate references made to them in the Bible. At the time scholars believed that the Hittites were a Canaanite tribe that had lived to the north of Israel. Modern scholars have learned that, in fact, the Hittite tribes that the Bible mentions are only the last remnants of a once great empire that spanned the Near East dominating Anatolia and Syria for centuries as one of the great powers of the Bronze Age. The re-emergence in history of the Hittite kingdom is owed to an accidental discovery of an ancient city by one man, and to another man’s obsession with revealing its secrets.


In 1834, a French explorer, Charles-Felix-Marie Texier, embarked on an expedition into the mountains of central Anatolia on a quest to find the Roman-era city of Tavium. After talking to locals from the village of Boghazky, he set out to search in the nearby mountains. The explorer thought he had found the lost city he was searching for when he located a sizable ruin of large stone blocks. However, Texier was eventually forced to admit that these ruins in no way conformed to any known Roman era design and that he was unable to explain their origins.

The Lion Gate of Hattusa.

The Lion Gate of Hattusa.

Unknown to Texier he had discovered the remains of the Hittite capital Hattusa. Although at first Texier’s scholarly counterparts were not interested in the Anatolian ruins his work did lead other more professionally trained archaeologists to the scene. Over the course of several decades evidence emerged that indicated to researchers that a new civilization was being uncovered.


In 1877, an Irish missionary named William Wright wrote an article in the British press detailing his observations among the ancient ruins. However, his writing went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until several years later following the publication of Archibald H. Sayce’s article The Hittites in Asia Minor and his subsequent lectures on the Hittite people that the new discipline, Hittitology, was created.

Sayce’s original conclusion, that the city Texier found was associated with the Hittites, was based largely on his reading of the Biblical evidence. The discovery of a new civilization in Anatolia appeared to Sayce as one of the missing pieces in the Hittite puzzle.

The name Hittite originates in the Bible with the term (hitti, hittum) which was used to describe a tribal people who lived in Palestine during the Iron Age. When scholars like Sayce began to study the ruins of ancient Anatolia they connected these people to a great empire that had once dominated the region. With the later rise of the formal discipline of Hittitology the name Hittite then came into use as term to describe the Bronze Age empire builders as well as the people who lived further south during the Iron Age who are now conventionally termed the Neo-Hittites.

To modern scholars the evidence is now clear that the Iron Age Hittites of Syria and Canaan were only the southernmost representatives of a larger kingdom once based in Anatolia. But in the late 1800s when Wright and Sayce first proposed the idea they were ridiculed. That we now understand so much of the history of the Hittites is due in large part to the translation of their vast record of inscriptions found on the walls of the ruins of their ancient capital and its uncovered archives.

After Sayce proposed his original theories he sought to back up his work by attempting to translate all of the available Hittite material found in Hattusa. In 1884 William Wright published another book, The Empire of the Hittites, replete with ancient texts deciphered by Sayce. Still, while Hittitology was beginning to gain acceptance with established scholarship there was much more to be uncovered.

The Amarna Letters

After returning to his work as an Egyptologist Sayce almost experienced one of history’s great strokes of fortune. He became aware that dozens of ancient clay tablets were being sold on Cairo’s black market. Sayce however dismissed them as fakes. Nevertheless other Egyptologists, notably E.A. Wallis Budge and Flinders Petrie, would authenticate the tablets. Budge acted quickly using his influence to get museums and collectors to buy the tablets so that they could be studied properly.

These documents turned out to be from the trove of diplomatic records abandoned at the ancient Egyptian capital city of Akhetaten and have come to be known as the Amarna Letters. Their translation has shown that during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten, in the mid fourteenth century BCE, the Hittites had become a great empire based in Anatolia with borders that stretched from the Euphrates River to the Aegean Sea.

Due to this lucky find in Egypt Sayce and Wright’s theory that the Hittites controlled a vast Empire had been proven correct. Today Hittitology is a major scholarly discipline and the study of the ancient Hittite Empire compliments the study of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty and the Late Bronze Age.

The Land of Hatti

The land of Hatti, located in central Anatolia, was the heartland of the Hittite Kingdom. It was long assumed that its inhabitants were conquered by an Indo-European warrior elite that established the kingdom named after the recently conquered territory. However the new theory about the origin of Nesite as the official Hittite language forces this assumption to be reassessed as well. Since the Hittite language, is of Indo-European origin it was widely assumed that this was the language spoken by the ruling elite which then spread to the general populace as well.

However the lack of evidence to indicate any sort of Indo-European invasion has led to theories that the language may have evolved into usage differently. Trevor Bryce in, The Kingdom of the Hittites, suggests that Nesite, named after the central Anatolian town Nesa/Kanesh, may have already been in use as a trade language before the rise of the Hittite Kingdom. The Hittites may then have adopted it out of convenience and from inclination to follow tradition.

The Marassantiya River in Anatolia

The Marassantiya River in Anatolia.

The nature of the landscape also shaped the Hittite Kingdom. This rugged land has no appreciable natural defenses and the Marrastiyana/Kizil River which marks its southern boundary is easily fordable. While there are jagged ridge lines, mountains and steep hills people had long since made pathways, many even capable of being used by chariots, to access all but the most remote areas. The population was in near constant threat along all frontiers and military garrisons were placed throughout the realm. Hittite kings were forced to adopt aggressive diplomatic and military strategies throughout their reigns as they tried to secure their homeland.

In Hatti the climate was one of extremes, winters have been compared to northern Germany, while summers compared to those of southern France. Nevertheless the region did have some arable land and more importantly it was crisscrossed with trade routes which had been in use since prehistoric times. Ultimately it was these trade routes that allowed the Hittite Kingdom to achieve a measure of prosperity.

The people of the Late Bronze Age Hittite Kingdom described themselves as the “People of the Land of Hatti,” but this name provides little help in the understanding of the dominate culture of the region. Indeed, the evidence is ambiguous as to whether any culture could be considered dominant. The population of this region was diverse, a portion was indigenous but there were also Luwians from the Aegean Coast, Syrians and Hurrians from Mesopotamia as well as others from around the Near East

One explanation for how such a mixed people of different cultures and languages could be unified is revealed in their name. By denoting the geographical region, “Land of Hatti” when they spoke of themselves demonstrates that the region itself may have given them their collective identity. So that, regardless of their many backgrounds, the people who lived in the Land of Hatti were able to come together under their kings and forge an enduring legacy.

The Hittite Empire at its height around 1300 BCE.

The Hittite Empire at its height around 1300 BCE.

The Hittite Military

Throughout its history the Hittite Kingdom was built upon the strength of its army and the Hittite king made sure that his most trusted relatives occupied the top commands. The foremost rank was the GAL MESHEDI – Chief of the Royal Bodyguard. It was vital that someone fully trustworthy occupy this post and so it was often filled by the king’s brother. The GAL MESHEDI oversaw the king’s personal security thereby controlling access to the king. The GAL MESHEDI also commanded the king’s personal troops on the battlefield making certain no enemies ever got within striking distance.

Although the numbers of the royal bodyguard – the MESHEDI, were likely rather small, perhaps only a few hundred, they were stationed at all the important royal strongholds where the king was likely to visit and they occupied the royal acropolis of the Hittite capital of Hattusha. The GAL MESHEDI is also known to have commanded or co-commanded much larger forces as part of invasions so it seems the posts powers were expansive.

There were a number of other top commanders who each answered directly to the king and were also likely to be his relatives. Each of these posts oversaw at least one thousand soldiers; Chief of the Chariot Warriors of the Right, Chief of the Chariot Warriors of the Left, Chief of the Standing Troops right and left and Chief of the Shepherds right and left. The next tier of military command was the Overseers of the Military Heralds followed by the members of what can be described as a military aristocracy known as the, Dignitaries and Gentlemen. Lower ranking officers commanded units with as few as 10 men.

Many officers owned land that was used to support the war machine. These officers were given land in turn for military service and with the understanding that a set percentage of the land’s yield would go to support the army. The core of the army was professional full time force and some men joined to make a career out of military service although many were conscripted. In addition to allotments of land soldiers were paid a salary and were given a share of any plundered goods.

During its height the Hittite army numbered in the tens of thousands with several thousand chariots in the lead of any assaults. Thousands of full time soldiers lived year round in barracks so they could be readily summoned by the king and his commanders. Thousands more reservists, known as “Men of the Weapon” lived on small allotments of land and stood ready as a trained force to be called upon in times of need. Another specialized force called “The Golden Spearmen” appeared to have complimented the royal bodyguard acting as a separate security force on the royal acropolis in Hattusa.

The basic weapons of the Hittite foot soldiers were the spear, the ax and the sword. Most infantry were equipped with a shield and likely wore only light armor. Although it is possible that some troops were also equipped with chainmail or scale-plated hauberks these would only have been donned when battle was imminent. The Hittite chariot forces used a combination of bow and javelin to attack the enemy from range while being supported by specialized light infantry known as the “runners.” In addition to the standardized trained core of professionals the Hittite conscript forces were known for maintaining regional identities so within the overall army there was likely a great variety of troop types available.

Government Offices

The Hittites had a scribal bureaucracy similar to other Near Eastern kingdoms of the Bronze Age. At the top of this structure was the Chief of the Wine Stewards who could also be given military commands as the king needed. Other close advisers to the king held such titles as Chief of Scribes or Royal cup-bearer. These men along with other members of the palace staff, such as heralds and bodyguards, formed an assembly called the panku. Originally this body was given extensive powers even over members of the royal family. By the later centuries of Hittite history the panku had no real power but still offered a level of exclusivity and access to the royal family.

Outside of the few large cities, which were usually controlled by royal family members, Hittite towns were governed by local councils. Theses local councils were responsible for enforcing royal law as well as adjudicating any legal cases in their domain. Legal cases involving serious offenses were sent to the king for judgment. The councils were also responsible for the safety of sanctioned travelers, such as messengers and merchants, while they were within a certain radius (likely only a few miles) from the town center. Beyond the bounds of the local councils much of the Hittite kingdom was a lawless wilderness.

Imperial Legacy

For nearly seven hundred years, ca. 1600-900 B.C.E. the Hittites were a force to be reckoned with in the South Eastern Asia. With conquests ranging from the Aegean to beyond the Euphrates this Anatolian people left a long forgotten mark on the Near East. Now with over a century of focused study the evidence has placed the Hittites firmly among the great kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age.

During the height of the Hittite Empire’s power they would enter into an epic struggle with the Egypt. First the Hittites, led by their great conqueror, Suppililiuma, would topple Egypt’s long time ally in Syria, the Hurrian Kingdom of Mitanni. Then there was a rare moment in history. With the death of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1322 BCE Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was near collapse. In desperation the widowed Queen Ankesenamun reached out to the Hittite king, seeking one of his sons as a new husband.

The message from Ankesenamun reached the Hittite King as he oversaw the final stages of the siege of Carchemish, the last Mitanni stronghold. For a moment Suppililiuma held the Near East in his imperial grip but as fate would have it ultimate victory would slip through his fingers leaving the region to be ravaged by war for the next 50 years.

The Hittite copy of the treaty with Egypt.

The Hittite copy of the treaty with Egypt.

Finally, following the famous Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BCE, the Hittites and Egyptians would reconcile and sign one of the most notable treaties of all antiquity. However it was too late. In the East the Assyrians had become so strong that they could not be denied their own imperial destiny and from the West the chaos that history has labeled the “Sea Peoples” was about to descend. Over a period of centuries the Hittite Empire would diminish and then fade. Only to be found again by Texier’s Anatolian questing.


Bryce, Trevor, Life and Society in the Hittite World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bryce, Trevor, Kingdom of the Hittites, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Ceram, C.W., The Secret of the Hittites, London, Phoenix Press, 1955.

Sayce, Archibald, The Hittites; The Story of a Forgotten Empire, Religious Tract Society, London, 1905.