The Rise of King Suppililiuma the Great

 – During the 14th century BCE the Hittite Kingdom of Hatti was overrun by its enemies and the capital city of Hattusa was abandoned, sacked and burned. A single Hittite text from the 13th century BCE recounts the entirety of the catastrophe which befell the kingdom and how a prince named Suppililiuma helped his father to save it. In a preamble of a decree from the Hittite King Hattusili III, who reigned a century after the events, a list of the invaders is provided along with the lands that each conquered. The land of Hatti was said to have been overrun, its cities lain to ruin, its people sent to flight into mountain strongholds.

The Kingdom of Hatti and surrounding lands.

The Kingdom of Hatti and surrounding lands – by Arianna Ravenswood.

The Invasion of Hatti

The trouble for the Hittites began during the Late Bronze Age, around 1360 BCE, when the Kaskan people, who lived along the Black Sea coast to the north of the Hittite heartland, began to move south in raiding parties. The Hittites were long accustomed to fighting the Kaskan raiders, who often sought little more than to plunder crops from the fields, but this time a full mobilization of the Hittite military was required.

Events unfolded so quickly that the Hittite capital of Hattusa had to be abandoned before the advancing Kaskans. Why or how the Kaskans had managed to gather in such force is unknown but the likelihood of an event that was long in the planning cannot be ruled out. The royal court escaped intact but the Kaskan attack opened up opportunities for other enemies of the Hittites to each carve a piece from the beleaguered kingdom. Whether these attacks were coordinated is not clear but given the suddenness with which events unfolded it does seem likely that they were.

From the southwest the Kingdom of Arzawa attacked the southern Hittite province known as the Lower Lands and advanced as far north as they could without themselves encountering the marauding Kaskans. From the northwest another enemy known as the Arwannans are said to have traveled from afar to plunder Hittite holdings in northwest Anatolia. The fact that the Arwannans traveled, presumably by boat, from their Aegean steadfastness to plunder Hittite lands points to either a foreknowledge of events or else the account of Hattusili is misleading as to the time frame of the attacks.

With more than half of the Hittite Kingdom lost another neighbor, the Kingdom of Azzi-Hayasa attacked from the northeast, severing the Hittites vital trade links with Mesopotamia. This opened the way for vassals of the Hurrian Kingdom of Mittani to attack across the Euphrates. The Ishuwans attacked and seized all the major cities of the Euphrates Valley. Then either summoned or on their own initiative a force of Armatanans traveled hundreds of miles from Armenia to occupy the land of Kizzuwanda along the Mediterranean Coast, reducing the Hittite Kingdom to a handful of valleys in the Taurus Mountains.

With the Hittites overrun, the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III wrote to the King of Arzawa, “I have heard that everything is finished and that the country of Hattusha is paralyzed.” Arzawa was now in a position with Egypt’s support to become the dominant player in Anatolia. As a negotiation for a diplomatic marriage alliance was underway between seemingly triumphant Arzawa and Egypt, the Hittites began a deliberate and effective counterattack.

The Hittites Counterattack

The Hittite King, Tudhaliya III, was aged and ill of health. Despite his infirm state he managed to quickly move his royal court and organize his army for a counterstrike. He is known to have had two sons active in his service at this time, Tudhaliya the Younger who was the crown prince, and Suppililiuma “He who is from the pure spring”, who became his father’s chief adviser and most capable military commander. Hittite accounts credit Suppililiuma with the brilliant series of military successes that were needed to restore the Hittite Kingdom.

Although king Tudhaliya was sick and forced to remain abed throughout much of the war he did manage to make personal appearances at important battles and worked to keep the supplies flowing from the many mountain depots and granaries that the Hittites had constructed for such emergency purposes. The first step was to set up a base of operations. Tudhaliya established a temporary capital at the stronghold of Samuha. This highland city, likely to be identified with the site of Sapinuwa, to the west of the upper Euphrates River valley, was easily defensible while also affording ready avenues for strikes at the kingdom’s enemies.

From this base in the Taurus Mountains Suppililiuma led his father’s forces on a serious of campaigns designed to diminish the strength of the Kaskans. Showing a good deal of patience the Hittites waited until they had taken many of the enemies occupying troops as prisoners in piecemeal skirmishes before trying to retake their ravaged homeland. Finally, with the heartland Hatti itself secure, Suppililiuma led the Hittite army to the west and recovered the lands taken by the Arwannans. Then the young general led his troops far to the west to ensure the Arwannans quit the continent entirely.

Just as Suppililiuma was succeeding in securing the north western provinces the Kaskans gathered for another invasion and the Hittites were forced to scramble to hold onto their recently recaptured territories. After once again defeating the Kaskans and driving them northward until they dispersed along the cliff lined Pontic coast Suppililiuma again joined his father at Samuha where they no doubt spent long nights planning their next move.

The decision was made to strike eastward. From Samuha Suppililiuma attacked the Azzi-Hayasans  in a move to secure access to the Euphrates valley. However the invaders managed to avoid battle and fled southward before the Hittites. Then in support the Ishuwans moved west from their bases along the Euphrates River into Kizzuwanda where they joined the Azzi-Hayasans attempting to unite forces and end the Hittite counterattack.

A Hittite chariot and crew.

A Hittite chariot and crew.

The Arzawan main forces, en-camped to the west, now prepared to join in the fray. Catching wind of this through his network of scouts and spies Suppililiuma moved quickly against the Arzawan held city of Sallapa in southern Anatolia. He managed to wrest control of this vital location which cut the Arzawans off from their allies who were grouping to the east for battle in Kizzuwanda.

Eastern Anatolian hills and valleys.

Eastern Anatolian hills and valleys.

The Hittite army, now led by father and son, brought the Azzi-Hayasans and Ishuwans to battle at Kummanni in Cappadocia. The Hittites were victorious and the enemy was captured or scattered. Although there is no record of the battle’s outcome there is a treaty that exists showing the diplomatic arrangement that was reached between the Hittites and the new king of Azzi-Hayasa, named Hukkanna, who had presumably replaced his defeated predecessor. Hukkanna agreed to marry Suppililiuma’s sister and make her his “first wife”. He also returned any rebellious Hittites to Tudhaliya “for justice to be dispensed” and he agreed to return all conquered lands that were taken from the Hittites. However it appears that a number of those that the Hittites sought “returned to justice” escaped across the Euphrates into the Mitanni vassal territory of Ishuwa.

Suppililiuma Seizes The Throne

Now, with much of the western side of the Euphrates Valley secure, Suppililiuma moved against the Arzawans in force. First the Hittites moved into the area known as the Lower Lands which Arzawa had occupied and after intense fighting managed to push the Arzawans out. However before Suppililiuma could finish his campaign against the Arzawans his father died. Suppililiuma was obliged to return to the royal court as his brother, Tudhaliya IV, was to be crowned King of the Hittites.

For a number of years Suppililiuma served as his father’s most able field commander in a war to regain territories lost in Anatolia. Suppililiuma, however, was not next in line to be king. His elder brother, Tudhaliya the Younger, was in fact the crown prince. Why Suppililiuma, as the apparent hero of the war effort, was not named heir to the throne is a lingering mystery.

It was around 1357 BCE when Suppililiuma, prince and general of the Hittites, returned to his homeland following the death of his father King Tudhaliya III. At first the transition went as expected with all of the nobles and princes swearing allegiance to the new king. Then, according to The Plague Prayers of Mursili II, Suppililiuma somehow wronged Tudhaliya which caused the royal court to split into factions. Since Suppililiuma had been leading the Hittite Army to victory over the past several years, the military commanders all sided with him against the king. With this coup Suppililiuma would ascend into an office steeped in centuries of tradition and with the loyalty of the army he would be firmly in control of the kingdom.

The Office of King

The Hittite King was the military, religious and judicial leader of the Hittite people. The coronation ceremony involved a ritual purification process that saw the king enter the world of the sacred. The king was not thought of as a living god but the he was assumed to become deified upon death. While living he was the foremost agent of all the gods and in particular was seen as the deputy of the Storm God, Teshshup and also on behalf of the Sun Goddess, Arinna, the king was seen as the shepherd (judge) of all humankind. A well known title of Hittite kings was “My Sun” and this idealization of solar authority was represented by a solar disc surmounted by wings.

Hittite kings are recognizable in ancient carvings and stone reliefs by their long robes and curved staff known as the kalmus. The robes show the king’s role as high priest and the staff is a stylized shepherd’s crook which represents his legal authority on behalf of the sun goddess. Thousands of years later the use of a shepherd’s crook as a symbol of authority continued in the Roman Catholic Church with the use of the crosier by popes until the early years of the twentieth century.

Carving of deified Hittite kings.

Carving of deified Hittite kings.

In addition to his regalia a Hittite king also bore a royal seal which would be used to stamp his badge of authenticity on official documents. The power of Hittite queens is expressed by the fact that they shared their husband’s royal seal with apparent equal authority in some matters. The Hittites only acknowledged one wife of the first rank as queen and she ruled as the Tawannawa. The Tawannawa was primarily a religious post that designated the queen as high priestess of all the official cults in the kingdom. The power of the office is shown by the tradition which saw queens continue in the role as Tawannawa even after their husband’s death. It is unknown what happened to the previous queen, his mother, but when Suppililiuma became king his wife and mother of his five sons took on the role of Tawannawa.

The crown prince known as the tuhkanti rounded out the immediate royal family’s direct control over the kingdom by operating as a military commander. A tradition that was seemingly overlooked in the case of Suppililium’s brother Tudhaliya. The tuhkanti was not necessarily the eldest son however it is believed that it was Suppililiuma’s eldest son Arnuwanda who became crown prince when his father took the throne. Centuries earlier after a series of violent contests for the crown a document known as the Proclamation of Telipinu spelled out the order of royal succession and was generally followed for nearly four hundred years.

Let a prince – a son of the first (born of the queen) rank only be installed as king!

If a prince of the first rank does not exist, [then] let he who is a son of second rank (born of a secondary wife) become king.

But if there is no prince, no male issue, [then] let them take an antiyant-husband (son-in-law of the king) for she who is a first rank daughter, and let him become king.

Over a generation after Suppiliuma’s coup, when plague and other misfortunes were befalling the Hittite Kingdom, Suppililiuma’s youngest son, Mursili II would point to his father’s murder of Tudhaliya as the cause of the land’s woes. Yet there seems little doubt that had Suppililiuma not taken control of the Hittite crown the kingdom would never have achieved its greatest triumphs.

Even as he seized the throne Suppililiuma knew that before he could see his kingdom achieve its potential he had to finish quelling the rebellious Anatolian states. To this end Suppililiuma set off again to the southwestern frontier of his kingdom and waged several hard fought campaigns against the Arzawans. The enemy troops had a series of fortified strongholds in the hill country that marked the border between the two lands and they used them deftly in a war of position and protracted sieges. Eventually, after a dogged campaign, the Hittites won and secured their frontier.

The Invasion Of Ishuwa

Once western Anatolia was secured, Suppililiuma was forced to deal with a series of insurrections in the Euphrates Valley. About a year or two after Suppililiuma became king, (ca 1354-55), these rebellious subjects fled before the Hittite army eastward across the river into the land of Ishuwa. It is possible they were part of the forces previously defeated at Kummanni and the Hittites were intent on a reckoning. The territory of Ishuwa was a vassal state of the Hurrian Kingdom of Mitanni, which at that time was a dominant power in northern Syria and Mesopotamia.

The Euphrates River valley near Ishuwa.

The Euphrates River near Ishuwa.

Suppililiuma led the Hittites across the Euphrates in pursuit of the rebels and was met by imperial Mitanni forces. According to the King of Mitanni’s account of the battle, in a letter to his ally the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the Hittites were routed and none escaped back across the river. Unfortunately the Hittite records of this battle remain as only a fragment in the text known as the Deeds of Suppililiuma.

Regardless of the details of Suppililiuma’s invasion of Ishuwa it is clear it was not successful. Word soon reached the Hittite King that more rebels had risen up once more in the west and after being pursued they had fled to Arzawa. Suppililiuma sent diplomats demanding the return of the fugitives, but these demands were refused. Suppililiuma then ordered his commander Himuili to invade Arzawa. However Himuili stepped into a trap in the rugged hill country and after a surprise attack was forced to retreat. Suppililiuma was now obliged to once again campaign against the Arzawans for at least two more years.

Diplomacy And Intrigue Across The Near East

Finally Suppililiuma was ready to move against his kingdom’s natural rival, the Kingdom of Mitanni. The Mitanni had from the Hittite perspective warranted this hostility first for allowing their vassals to partake in the invasion of Hittite lands and second for defending fugitives from justice in Ishuwa.

The Mitanni King, Tushratta, is described as “a youth” in the Hittite texts and Tushratta admits to having been young when assuming the throne. It had only been a year before the battle in Ishuwa that Tushratta had taken control of his kingdom back his rogue regent, a man named Ud-Hi. Ud-Hi had assassinated Tushratta’s older brother over a decade before, around 1370 BCE, and had placed the young prince on the throne so he could rule as regent.

In response to the assassination another brother or uncle of Tushratta’s named Aratarma fled eastward to the Mitanni vassal of Assyria where he declared himself King of the Hurri with Assyrian support. This effectively ended Assyria’s vassalage to Mitanni and the newly free kingdom began to vie for control of other outlying Mitanni lands with the Kassite Kingdom of Babylonia which lay to the south. Suppililiuma was quick to turn Mitanni’s strife to the Hittite advantage.

The Hittite King kept his strategic sights set on Western Syria and he set out to diplomatically isolate the Mitanni king. First, to secure the western front, Suppililiuma appointed his son Telepinu as high priest over the official cult in Kizzuwanda, thereby entrenching his support in that vital border region. He then sent emissaries to Assyria with whom he established diplomatic relations, which gave the Assyrian regime its first international recognition. He then formed an alliance with Aratarma, supporting his claim to control over the Hurrians as a rival to Tushratta.

Then King Suppililiuma arranged for a diplomatic marriage alliance with the Kassite King Burna-buriash. Burna-buriash’s daughter would became Suppililiuma’s queen. As a strong personal and political statement the new queen changed her name to Tawannawa which had previously been only a title. In a unique twist of fate this Babylonian princess would in time be one of the most influential women in all of Hittite history. Whatever happened to Suppililiuma’s first queen is unclear but it appears that he arranged to have her removed to accommodate the new marriage alliance.

The Kassites and Assyrians soon reached an accord of their own, possibly with Hittite prompting. Ashur-uballit, the King of Assyria sent his daughter to marry Burna-buriash with the agreement that any child of that union would inherit the throne. With this alliance between its enemies Mitanni was effectively cut off from any support. Their ally to the south, Egypt, could not help either. The Egyptian Empire was embroiled in its own crisis as it recovered from the long sickness and disruptive death of the long reigning pharaoh, Amenhotep III. However Tushratt’a efforts to make a new alliance were realized when, after a prolonged period of negotiation, he would send his daughter to marry the pharaoh Akhenaten.

Marriage Alliances chart

Marriage Alliances chart – by Arianna Ravenswood

Suppililiuma was finally ready to open diplomatic channels with the numerous Mitanni vassal states in western Syria. This strategy worked and in 1351 BCE he managed to sway one of them, Sharrupshi of Nuhashshi, to switch his allegiance to the Hittite king. This provoked Tushratta to respond by threatening to attack Sharrupshi for treason. Suppililiuma now had everything he wanted. With the use of cunning diplomacy he had isolated the Mitanni king and then he had forced him into giving him yet another cause for a “Just” war. Suppililiuma was well prepared to act in defense of his new vassal and his assault across Syria would come down through history as one of the greatest military campaigns of all time.

To be continued in “The Great Syrian War; Suppililiuma’s One Year Campaign“.


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