The Hittites

The Hittites

The origins of this Indo-European people, who dominated Anatolian and Near Eastern history for seven centuries (Middle Bronze-Late Bronze Ages) until the sudden demise of their empire ca 1200 B.C., are shrouded in uncertainty. Rather Anatolia before the Greeks than a violent conquest of Anatolia, the Hittites seem to have peacefully infiltrated the region, mingling with the indigenous population, replacing the local dialect (Hattian) with their own language and gaining political and cultural supremacy.

The half-legendary 'Kings of Kussara', the ancestors of king Pithana and his son Anitta, were named by Hittite records as the founders of the dynasty. That Hittite rulers were already dwelling at Kanesh, ca 1750 B.C. is suggested by the discovery of a bronze spearhead inscribed with a king of this name. Acentury later, ca 1650 B.C., the Hittite capital at Boghazkoy, ancient Hattusas, on the Kizil Irmak river, the classical Halys was established by king Labarnas II. Together with his successors Hattusilis I and Mursilis I, he established Hittite dominion over Anatolia and northern Syria. In 1600 B.C. Mursilis I conquered Aleppo and then sent a military expedition against Babylon, where he brought the Old Babylonian dynasty of Hammurabi to an end. However, on his return to Hattusas, Mursilis I was murdered in a dynastic dispute and the Old Kingdom entered into long period of decline.

The New Kingdom arose ca 1425 B.C. in the Late Bronze Age. It ushered in an era of expansion and world domination by the Hittites, whose imperial might matched that of Egypt. Suppiluliumas I (1370-1335 B.C.) was their greatest monarch, first consolidating Hittite power within Anatolia, then crushing the independent Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni which was established in northern Mesopotamia. Suppliliumas also extended his control into northern Syria, taking Ugarit and other areas under Egyptian domination. His superiority lay in the combination of diplomatic manouevring and strong military action. Married to a Babylonian princess, such was his international reputation that the widow of Tutankhamen asked Suppliliumas for a son to be her husband and pharaoh of Egypt! The request is recorded in diplomatic correspondence dating from the fourteenth century B.C, the Tell el-Amarna letters. Initially, Suppliliumas did not believe her request, then the prince was despatched, but was murdered en route to Egypt and the alliance did not eventuate. Two other sons were installed as kings of Carchemish and Aleppo in northern Syria, whose descendents continued to rule after the demise of the kingdom in Anatolia around 1200 B.C. Suppiliumas died in 1334 B.C. of a plague, which was transmitted by soldiers returning from Syria.

Mursilis II, the younger son of Suppiliumas (the elder son died shortly after his father) kept the Hittite dominions in northern Syria as well as strengthening his hold over Anatolia. His successor Muwatallis (1308-1285 B.C.) thwarted growing Egyptian ambition in northern Syria. At the epic battle of Qadesh, on the Orontes in 1286 B.C., the Hittites were victorious over the Egyptian armies of Ramses II (1290-1224 B.C.), probably because of the superior chariotry that they had developed. However, the victory seriously weakened Hittite resources and when Muwatallis died a year later the situation worsened.

Hattusilis usurped the throne from his nephew Mursilis III. Hittite dominions in Anatolia seem to have diminished, for court annals no longer listed most of the western provinces and also mention fighting in the Lukka lands, modern Lycia. In northern Syria, Egypt had been defeated, but another power arose - that of Assyria, whose threat united Hattusilis and Ramses II, the Egyptian version being recorded on the walls of the temple at Karnak. Their treaty stressed the Hittite control of northern Syria, to which Egypt renounced her claims, and the good relations were cemented by the marriage of Hattusilis' daughter to Rameses II. Yet the Assyrian threat was waxing, their armies marching westwards and reaching the Euphrates.

However, the Hittites still controlled the lucrative trading ports on the Syrian coast, from where Hattusilis' son, Tudhaliyas IV (ca 1250-1220 B.C.), invaded Cyprus to secure copper supplies.