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An Introduction to the Hittites

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


Little is known of the Hittites other than references from the Bible and fragmentary documentation from Egypt until the late 19th century A.D., when excavations began at the ancient site of Hattusas, capital of the Hittite Empire. Here, writings were discovered by Irish Missionary William Wright in 1884 and by the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler in 1906. By 1912, Winckler had recovered over 10,000 clay tablets which gave us the history we are about to discuss. These discoveries revealed that the Hittites were certainly one of the most important states of the Near East in the second half of the second millennium, and an active participant in the international culture of the time. It is amazing now to consider that this civilization was completely invisible to us until relatively recently.

It is generally assumed that the Hittites came into Anatolia some time before 2000 B.C. Anatolia's earlier history is mostly shrouded in mystery. There was no written sources until the Old Kingdom Period, and our information for those early centuries of the second millennium derives solely from the colonies of Assyrian merchants in the region. These sources depict a network of small kingdoms, often in conflict with one another, and with populations that used varied languages.

Either by means of conquest or by gradual assimilation, the Hittites imposed themselves on the native cultures, the pre-existing Hattians and Hurrians. The Hittites are repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament Bible as the adversaries of the Israelites. According to Genesis 10, they were the descendants of Heth, son of Canaan, who was the son of Ham, born of Noah (Genesis 10-6). The name they are known by today, therefore, come from the Bible and from the Amarna Letters of Egypt, which reference “The Kingdom of Hatti”.

The political structure of the Hittite state is often compared to that of Medieval Europe. The Great King of Hatti directly governed the core area, but had vassals in most regions under his control. These were locals who swore allegiance to him, but who could switch to other powers such as Egypt or Assyria, based on the circumstances.

The Hittite control of the region is divided by modern-day scholars into two periods: The Old Kingdom (1700-1500 B.C.) and the New Kingdom, also known as the Hittite Empire (1400-1200 B.C.). Between the Old and New Kingdoms was a 'dark age' of roughly 100 years, about which little is known.


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