The Hittite Empire, 1680-1180 BCE

A carving illustrating the gods of the underworld / Wikimedia Commons

The Hittite civilization was one of the cradles of human culture.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


“Hittites” is the conventional English-language term for an ancient people who spoke an Indo-European language and established a kingdom centered in Hattusa (the modern village of Boğazköy in north-central Turkey), through most of the second millennium B.C.E.

The Hittite kingdom, which at its height controlled central Anatolia, north-western Syria down to Ugarit, and Mesopotamia down to Babylon, lasted from roughly 1680 B.C.E. to about 1180 B.C.E. After 1180 B.C.E., the Hittite polity disintegrated into several independent city-states, some of which survived until as late as around 700 B.C.E.

The Hittite kingdom, or at least its core region, was apparently called Hatti in the reconstructed Hittite language. However, the Hittites should be distinguished from the “Hattians,” an earlier people who inhabited the same region until the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., and spoke a non-Indo-European language conventionally called Hattic.

Hittites is also the common English name of a Biblical people, who are also called Children of Heth. These people are mentioned several times in the Old Testament, from the time of the Patriarchs up to Ezra’s return from Babylonian captivity of Judah. The archaeologists who discovered the Anatolian Hittites in the nineteenth century initially believed the two peoples to be the same, but this identification remains disputed.

Relief of Suppiluliuma II, last known king of the Hittite Empire / Wikimedia Commons

The Hittites were famous for their skill in building and using chariots. Some consider the Hittites to be the first civilization to have discovered how to work iron, and thus the first to enter the Iron Age. The Hittite rulers enjoyed diplomatic relations with Ancient Egypt but also fought them. The Battle of Kadesh (1275 B.C.E.) is said to have been the greatest chariot battle of all time. Rameses II claimed victory but the result was really a draw and 16 years later the two empires signed a peace treaty. The tablet concluding the treaty hangs in the United Nations headquarters [1].

Hittite kings and queens shared power, and gender equality is clearly evident in records of marriage, property and probate transactions and also of criminal law. At one time, a matrilineal system may have been practiced. Bryce (2006) comments that certain “queens involved themselves in the kingdom’s political and judicial activities, as well as in external political affairs” (96-97). The mother goddess was venerated. After their husband’s death, several Queens ruled in their own rights. Correspondence survives between Rameses II of Egypt and Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites as early as the thirteenth century B.C.E. He addressed her as the “great queen,” as his sister and as “beloved of the God Amon.” She co-signed treaties with her husband, King Hattusilis III, including the famous treaty with Egypt. Some correspondence was signed with her own seal, indicating that she had “full authority” to make decisions on her husband’s behalf (Bryce 2006, 317). This ancient civilization appears to have evolved over the centuries from a harsher into a more humane, life-affirming culture, evidenced by tablets of two hundred laws from different periods that have survived. Earlier punishments required mutilation; later ones demanded fines or some form of compensation except for serious crimes, such as rape and murder—which were punishable by death.

The Hittite civilization was one of the cradles of human culture (see Law Code [2]). Their development of trade links did much to generate awareness of living in the same world as other peoples, and of inter-dependence between peoples and had “a profound influence on the course of Anatolian history for the next two millennia” (Bryce 2006, 8). They often used treaties to secure safe trade and to establish its terms. These terms ensured fairness and profit on both sides. The Hittites were aware that they belonged to a common humanity, something that sometimes seems forgotten in the modern world. They also made efforts to integrate conquered people by adapting some of their religious customs.

Archaeological Discovery

Ruins of Hattusa (Lion Gate) at Boğazköy, Turkey / Wikimedia Commons

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 the Orientalist 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 Akhenaten. 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, the pioneer linguist and scholar of Assyrian, Archibald Sayce (1846-1933), 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 twentieth century; and so, rightly or wrongly, 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 ten thousand 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, Bedrich Hrozny (1879–1952), who on November 24, 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 (see below).

Under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, excavations at Hattusa have been underway since 1932, with wartime interruptions. Bryce (2006) describes the capital as one of the most impressive of its time, comprising “165 hectares” (47).

Historical Overview

The history of the Hittite civilization is known mostly from cuneiform texts found in the area of their empire, and from diplomatic and commercial correspondence found in various archives in Egypt and the Middle East.

Around 2000 B.C.E., the region centered in Hattusa that would later become the core of the Hittite kingdom was inhabited by people with a distinct culture who spoke a non-Indo-European language. The name “Hattic” is used by Anatolianists to distinguish this language from the Indo-European Hittite language, that appeared on the scene at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. and became the administrative language of the Hittite kingdom over the next six or seven centuries. As noted above, “Hittite” is a modern convention for referring to this language. The native term was Nesili, i.e. “in the language of Nesa.”

The early Hittites, whose prior whereabouts are unknown, borrowed heavily from the pre-existing Hattian culture, and also from that of the Assyrian traders—in particular, the cuneiform writing and the use of cylindrical seals.

The Hittite Empire (red) at the height of its power in c. 1290 B.C.E., bordering on the Egyptian Empire (green) / Wikimedia Commons

Since Hattic continued to be used in the Hittite kingdom for religious purposes, and there is substantial continuity between the two cultures, it is not known whether the Hattic speakers—the Hattians—were displaced by the speakers of Hittite, were absorbed by them, or just adopted their language.

There was three main periods: the Old Hittite Kingdom (c. 1750–1500 B.C.E.), the Middle Hittite Kingdom (c. 1500–1430 B.C.E.) and the New Hittite Kingdom (the Hittite Empire proper, c. 1430–1180 B.C.E.). The kingdom developed into the greatest and richest power at the time in the region. Bryce (2006) argues that early use of tin to make bronze helped to stimulate a stable political system and also to develop trade-links with surrounding peoples. Anatolia had little native tin, so had to acquire this valuable resource from outside. Thus, trade developed which in turn helped to “develop stable, coherent political and administrative organizations capable of establishing and maintaining such links” (113).

The earliest known Hittite king, Pithana, was based at Kussara. In the eighteenth century B.C.E., Anitta conquered Nesa, 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 sixteenth 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 four hundred years. Bryce describes the conquest of Babylon under King Mursili (1620-1590) as the “peak of Hittite military achievement” that also marked the “end of the illustrious era of Babylonian history” (103).

During the fifteenth century, Hittite power fell into obscurity, re-emerging with the reign of Tudhaliya I from c. 1400 B.C.E. Under Suppiluliuma I and Mursili II, the empire was extended to most of Anatolia and parts of Syria and Canaan, so that by 1300 B.C.E. the Hittites were bordering on the Egyptian sphere of influence, leading to the inconclusive Battle of Kadesh in the early thireenth century B.C.E., and then to the peace treaty with Egypt. Civil war and rivaling claims to the throne, combined with the external threat of the Sea Peoples weakened the Hittites, and by 1160 B.C.E. the empire had collapsed. “Neo-Hittite” post-Empire states, petty kingdoms under Assyrian rule, may have lingered on until c. 700 B.C.E., 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.


The success of the Hittite economy was based on fair trade. In return for tin, they sold gold, silver, and copper, as well as wool and woolen clothes. A banking system made credit available. This, however, was run humanely, so that if for example a farmer, due to a bad harvest, could not repay the loan, it was sometimes canceled by the king (Bryce 2006, 28). Macqueen (1975) argues that what made Anatolia much more than a “land-bridge” between Europe and Asia was its abundant mineral resources. It was no more or no less fertile than other regions, but its resources “…made it a land of rich possibilities [that made it] a primary center rather than a backwater which served only to link more favored areas” (1).

Israelite Perspective


At one time the Hittites were one of three superpowers in the ancient world. Tudhaliya IV (1237–1209 B.C.E.) ruled over the Hittite Kingdom during its heyday and is depicted here on a rock carving from the Hittites’ sacred open-air shrine at Yazilikaya, less than a mile from the Hittite capital of Hattusa in present-day Turkey. / Photo by Sonia Halliday, Wikimedia Commons

Some localized contacts with the outermost fringes of the Hittite empire are recorded in the edited selection of traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that have been preserved in the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical references are summarized below. It should be noted that the present corpus of the Hebrew Bible was probably compiled between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C.E., during or after the Babylonian exile, with a further revision occurring some time between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. as inferred from textual analysis of the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.

The References

The first reference to the Hittites is in Genesis 23:10, where Abraham bought the family burial cave at Machpelah from “Ephron the Hittite” (חתי, HTY). Later, in Genesis 26-36, two of Esau’s wives are labeled as Hittites. In these accounts, the Hittites are mostly called “The Children of Heth” (בני-חת, BNY-HT) and described as a branch of the Canaanites, living in the Hebron area; indeed Heth (חת, HT) is listed in Genesis 10 as a son of Canaan, son of Ham, Noah’s son.

Starting with the conquest of Canaan, the Hittites—from now on always called חתי, HTY—are listed, on a par with the Canaanites, as one of the seven mighty peoples living in the region. Later they are cited among the four nations whom the Israelites were not able to destroy completely. Indeed, some centuries later, two of King David’s generals are labeled as Hittites: Ahimelech (1 Sam. 26:6) and Uriah (2 Sam. 11:3); David had the latter deliberately slain in battle for the sake of his wife Bathsheba. King Solomon also had Hittite wives (1 Kings 11:7), and traded with (or received tribute from) the kings of the Hittites, of Syria, and of Egypt (2 Chron. 1:17). The kings of the Hittites are mentioned in two similar passages, together with Egypt and the kings of Syria, as senders of lavish tribute to Solomon. Then Hittites are said to be among the “strange women” that Solomon loved, along with “the daughter of the pharaoh” and women from the other peoples in the region. In 1 Kings 11:1, Solomon is admonished for venerating goddesses, possibly a Hittite influence. It has been surmised that the Hittites influenced re-surfaced in the popular role played by the Virgin Mary within the Christian tradition, compensating for an overly male view of the Deity.

An episode in the time of Elisha (2 Kings 7:6) mentions “the kings of Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians” as mighty powers.

The Hittites are last mentioned by Ezra on his return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 9:1, around 450 B.C.E.—long after the demise of the Anatolian Hittite empire). They are one of the peoples with whom the local Hebrew leaders, who had remained in Palestine during the captivity, had intermarried.

The Traditional View

The Lion Gate in the south-west / Photo by Bernard Gagnon, Wikimedia Commons

Given the casual tone in which the Hittites are mentioned in most of these references, Biblical scholars before the age of archaeology traditionally regarded them as a small tribe, living in the hills of Canaan during the era of the Patriarchs. This picture was completely changed by the archaeological finds, which placed the center of the Hatti/Hattusas civilization far to the north, in modern-day Turkey.

Because of this perceived discrepancy and other reasons, many Biblical scholars reject Sayce’s identification of the two people, and believe that the similarity in names is only a coincidence. In order to stress this distinction, E. A. Speiser (1902-1965) called the Biblical Hittites Hethites in his translation of the Book of Genesis for the Anchor Bible Series.

Other Views

Some people have conjectured that the Biblical Hittites could actually be Hurrian tribes living in Palestine, and that the Hebrew word for the Hurrians (HRY in consonant-only script) became the name of the Hittites (HTY) due to a scribal error. Others have proposed that the Biblical Hittites were a group of Kurushtameans. These hypotheses are not widely accepted, however.

On the other hand, the view that the Biblical Hittites are related to the Anatolian Hittites remains popular. Apart from the coincidence in names, the latter were a powerful political entity in the region before the collapse of their empire in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries B.C.E., so one would expect them to be mentioned in the Bible, just in the way that the HTY post-Exodus are. Moreover, in the account of the conquest of Canaan, the Hittites are said to dwell “in the mountains” and “towards the north” of Canaan—a description that matches the general direction and geography of the Anatolian Hittite empire, if not the distance. Modern linguistic academics therefore propose, based on much onomastic and archaeological evidence, that Anatolian populations moved south into Canaan as part of the waves of Sea Peoples who were migrating along the Mediterranean coastline at the time in question. Many kings of local city-states are shown to have had Hittite and Luwian names in the Late Bronze to Early Iron transition period. Indeed, even the name of Mount Zion may even be Hittite in origin.

Religion and the Role of Women

King and Queen offering to Museum Alacahöyük weather god / Ankara Archaeological Museum, Wikimedia Commons

The chief deity was Hepat, goddess of the sun. Hepat appears to have continued to be venerated by the Hittite’s successors, the Phrygians in the form of Cybele. Lelwani was goddesses of the underworld. The king and queen were themselves the high priest and priestesses of the Empire, although the king’s sister, with the title of Tawananna, also performed certain religious ceremonies and ran the royal household. Bryce (2006) describes this office as “one of the most powerful and influential positions” in the empire (96). Queen Pudehepa gathered many religious texts together and in addition to diplomatic correspondence prayers co-written by her husband have survived. her husband’s death “brought to an end one of the one of the closest and one of the most enduring and constructive royal partnerships of the ancient world” (Bryce, 319). A famous relief at Firaktin depicts her performing a religious ceremony together; he is making an offering to a God, she to Hepat (Bryce, 317).

The Hittites appear to have adopted aspects of religious practice and some of the deities of conquered peoples. This may have been pragmatic, attempting to build cultural bridges that would encourage these people to regard the Hittite culture as their own, preventing rebellion. On the other hand, it could indicate the view to see humanity as one family. Bryce (2006) describes evidence that legal practice moved from the punitive to being much more merciful. For example, King Telipinu (1525-1600) used banishment instead of execution, thus signaling to his own and succeeding generations that he was replacing the past with a “process of justice that was merciful and restrained” (113). Bryce describes King Mursili, the conqueror of Babylon, as humane. He could be ruthless in war but he had a profound concern to act “…in accordance with the dictates of his conscience and what he perceived to be the divine will” (240). Justice, too, had to be “seen to be done” and only the offender, not any other member of his household, “should suffer” (Bryce, 117; see also [3]).


An ancient Anatolian inscription from the reign of Pithan’s son, Anitta, describes the Hittite king as causing no harm to a conquered people but instead “making them his mothers and fathers,” which could indicate that he wanted to see these people as “his kinsfolk.” Did he see himself as a “benevolent ruler who was bent on winning the goodwill of those upon whom his rule had been imposed?” (Bryce: 37-38). The great Hattusili I appears to have wanted to depict his own success as “due not to superior brute force [but rather due to] the prevalence of reason and justice over military and political power” (Goetze 1925 qtd. in Bryce 2006, 260). The many peace treaties that have survived testify that the Hittites were a people who could make peace as well as war.

The kings and queens appear to have increasingly been humane, just rulers. They appear to have regarded trade as more important than territorial conquest. Bryce (2006) points out that not only do some of these ancient documents demonstrate a “number of international trade and business practices of much more recent times,” but they also show that there existed among the partners a “spirit of international co-operation” (42). Relations between the Hittites and the Assyrians were especially cordial, so that “seldom before or after this period do we find such constructive and mutually beneficial interaction between peoples of the ancient near-Eastern world” (42-43). The documents show that these people were reluctant to trade in places where there was political and social instability. Where conflict and competition characterizes relations between states, war is likely to be the difference solving mechanism of first resort. Where mutually (not one-sided) trade defines international relationships, negotiation will be preferred. The legacy of what Sayce (2005) describes as a “forgotten empire” continues to be significant, and it is a testimony to the astuteness of ancient leaders.


Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 04.20.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.