Hittite Empire
c. 1600 BC–c. 1178 BC
The Hittite Empire, ca. 1400 BC (shown in Blue).
Capital Hattusa
Languages Nesite, Luwian, many others
Government Absolute monarchy
List of Hittite kings Labarna I (first)
Suppiluliuma II (last)
Historical era Bronze Age
 -  Established c. 1600 BC
 -  Disestablished c. 1178 BC
Today part of  Turkey

The Hittites () were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC. This empire reached its height during the mid-14th century BC under Suppiluliuma I, when it encompassed an area that included most of Asia Minor as well as parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. After c. 1180 BC, the empire came to an end during the Bronze Age collapse, splintering into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until the 8th century BC.

The Hittite language was a distinct member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. They referred to their native land as Hatti. The conventional name "Hittites" is due to their initial identification with the Biblical Hittites in 19th century archaeology.

Despite the use of Hatti for their core territory, the Hittites should be distinguished from the Hattians, an earlier people who inhabited the same region (until the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC) and spoke a language possibly in the Northwest Caucasian languages group known as Hattic.

The Hittite military made successful use of chariots.[1] Although belonging to the Bronze Age, they were the forerunners of the Iron Age, developing the manufacture of iron artifacts from as early as the 18th century BC, when the "man of Burushanda"'s gift of an iron throne and iron sceptre to the Kaneshite king Anitta was recorded in the Anitta text inscription.

After 1180 BC, amid general turmoil in the Levant associated with the sudden arrival of the Sea Peoples, the kingdom disintegrated into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some of which survived until as late as the 8th century BC. The history of the Hittite civilization is known mostly from cuneiform texts found in the area of their kingdom, and from diplomatic and commercial correspondence found in various archives in Egypt and the Middle East.

Archaeological discovery

Bronze religious standard from a pre-Hittite tomb at Alacahöyük, dating to the third millennium B.C., from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara.

The Hittites used Mesopotamian cuneiform letters. Archaeological expeditions to Hattusa have discovered entire sets of royal archives in cuneiform tablets, written either in the Semitic Mesopotamian Akkadian language of Assyria and Babylonia, the diplomatic language of the time, or in the various dialects of the Hittite confederation.[2]

Before the discoveries, the only source of information about Hittites had been the Old Testament (see Biblical Hittites). Francis William Newman expressed the critical view, common in the early 19th Century, that, if the Hittites existed at all, "no Hittite king could have compared in power to the King of Judah...".[3] As archaeological discoveries revealed the scale of the Hittite kingdom in the second half of the 19th Century, Archibald Henry Sayce postulated, rather than to be compared to Judah, the Anatolian civilization "[was] worthy of comparison to the divided Kingdom of Egypt", and was "infinitely more powerful than that of Judah".[4] Sayce and other scholars also mention that Judah and the Hittites were never enemies in the Hebrew texts; in the Book of Kings, they supplied the Israelites with cedar, chariots, and horses, as well as being a friend and allied to Abraham in the Book of Genesis.

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 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 Akhenaton. 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, Archibald Sayce 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. Others, such as Max Müller, agreed that Khatti was probably Kheta, but proposed connecting it with Biblical Kittim, rather than with the "Children of Heth". Sayce's identification came to be widely accepted over the course of the early 20th century; and the name "Hittite" has become attached to the civilization uncovered at Boğazköy.

During sporadic excavations at Boğazköy (Hattusa) that began in 1906, the archaeologist Hugo Winckler found a royal archive with 10,000 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 an empire that, at one point, controlled northern Syria.

Under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, excavations at Hattusa have been underway since 1907, with interruptions during both wars. Kültepe was successfully excavated by Professor Tahsin Özgüç from 1948 until his death in 2005. Smaller scale excavations have also been carried out in the immediate surroundings of Hattusa, including the rock sanctuary of Yazılıkaya, which contains numerous rock-cut reliefs portraying the Hittite rulers and the gods of the Hittite pantheon.


The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey houses the richest collection of Hittite and Anatolian artifacts.


The Hittite Empire at its greatest extent under Suppiluliuma I (ca. 1350–1322 BC) and Mursili II (ca. 1321–1295 BC)

The Hittite kingdom was centred on the lands surrounding Hattusa and Neša, known as "the land Hatti" (URUHa-at-ti). After Hattusa was made capital, the area encompassed by the bend of the Halys River (Hittite Marassantiya, Turkish: Kızılırmak) was considered the core of the Empire, and some Hittite laws make a distinction between "this side of the river" and "that side of the river". For example, the reward for the capture of an eloped slave after he managed to flee beyond the Halys is higher than that for a slave caught before he could reach the river.

To the west and south of the core territory lay the region known as Luwiya in the earliest Hittite texts. This terminology was replaced by the names Arzawa and Kizzuwatna with the rise of those kingdoms.[5] Nevertheless, the Hittites continued to refer to the language that originated in these areas as Luwian. Prior to the rise of Kizzuwatna, the heart of that territory in Cilicia was first referred to by the Hittites as Adaniya.[6] Upon its revolt from the Hittites during the reign of Ammuna,[7] it assumed the name of Kizzuwatna and successfully expanded northward to encompass the lower Anti-Taurus mountains as well. To the north, lived the mountainous people called the Kaskians. To the southeast of the Hittites lay the Hurrian empire of Mitanni. At its peak, during the reign of Mursili II, the Hittite empire stretched from Arzawa in the west to Mitanni in the east, many of the Kaskian territories to the north including Hayasa-Azzi in the far north-east, and on south into Canaan approximately as far as the southern border of Lebanon, incorporating all of these territories within its domain.



Map of Indo-European migrations from circa 4000 to 1000 BC according to the Kurgan model. The Anatolian migration (indicated with a dotted arrow) could have taken place either across the Caucasus or across the Balkans. The magenta area corresponds to the assumed Urheimat (Samara culture, Sredny Stog culture). The red area corresponds to the area that may have been settled by Indo-European-speaking peoples up to circa 2500 BC, and the orange area by 1000 BC.

Around 5000 BC, 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 2nd millennium BC and became the administrative language of the Hittite kingdom over the next six or seven centuries.

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

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.


It is generally assumed that the Hittites came into Anatolia some time before 2000 BC. While their earlier location is disputed, there has been strong evidence for more than a century that the home of the Indo-Europeans in the fourth and third millennia was in the Pontic Steppe, present day Ukraine around the Sea of Azov.[8]

The arrival of the Hittites in Anatolia in prehistoric times was one of a superstrate imposing itself on a native culture, either by means of conquest[9] or by gradual assimilation.[10] In archaeological terms, relationships of the Hittites to the Ezero culture of the Balkans and Maikop culture of the Caucasus have been considered within the migration framework.[11] The Indo-European element at least establishes Hittite culture as intrusive to Anatolia in scholarly mainstream[10] (excepting the opinion of Colin Renfrew, whose Anatolian hypothesis assumes that Indo-European is indigenous to Anatolia[12][13]).

The Hittites and other members of the Anatolian family then came from the north, possibly along the Caspian Sea. Their movement into the region may have set off a Near East mass migration sometime around 1900 BC. The dominant inhabitants in central Anatolia at the time were Hurrians and Hattians who spoke non-Indo-European languages (some have argued that Hattic was a Northwest Caucasian language, but its affiliation remains uncertain). There were also Assyrian colonies in the country; it was from the Assyrians that the Hittites adopted the cuneiform script. It took some time before the Hittites established themselves, as is clear from some of the texts included here. For several centuries there were separate Hittite groups, usually centered on various cities. But then strong rulers with their center in Boğazköy succeeded in bringing these together and conquering large parts of central Anatolia to establish the Hittite kingdom.[14]

Early period

Hittite chariot, from an Egyptian relief

The early history of the Hittite kingdom is known through tablets that may first have been written in the 17th century BC, possibly in Hittite;[15] but survived only as Akkadian copies made in the 14th and 13th centuries BC. These reveal a rivalry within two branches of the royal family up to the Middle Kingdom; a northern branch first based in Zalpa and secondarily Hattusa, and a southern branch based in Kussara (still not found) and Kanesh. These are distinguishable by their names; the northerners retained Hattian names, and the southerners adopted Hittite and Luwiyan names.[16]

Zalpa first attacked Kanesh under Uhna in 1833 BC.[17]

One set of tablets, known collectively as the Anitta text,[18] begin by telling how Pithana the king of Kussara conquered neighbouring Neša (Kanesh). However, the real subject of these tablets is Pithana's son Anitta (r. 1745–20),[19] who continued where his father left off and conquered several northern cities: including Hattusa, which he cursed, and also Zalpuwa (Zalpa). This was likely propaganda for the southern branch of the royal family, against the northern branch who had fixed on Hattusa as capital.[20] Another set, the Tale of Zalpa, supports Zalpa and exonerates the later Hattusili I from the charge of sacking Kanesh.[20]

Anitta was succeeded by Zuzzu (r. 1720–10);[19] but sometime in 1710–05, Kanesh was destroyed[17] taking the long-established Assyrian merchant trading system with it. A Kussaran noble family survived to contest the Zalpuwan / Hattusan family, though whether these were of the direct line of Anitta is uncertain.[21]

Meanwhile, the lords of Zalpa lived on. Huzziya I, descendent of a Huzziya of Zalpa, took over Hatti. His son-in-law Labarna I, a southerner (of Hurma) usurped the throne but made sure to adopt Huzziya's grandson Hattusili as his own son and heir.

The Old Kingdom

The founding of the Hittite Kingdom is attributed to either Labarna I or Hattusili I (the latter might also have had Labarna as a personal name),[22] who conquered the area south and north of Hattusa. Hattusili I campaigned as far as the Amorite kingdom of Yamkhad in Syria, where he attacked, but did not capture, its capital of Aleppo. His heir, Mursili I, conquered that city in a campaign conducted in 1595 BC.[23] Also in 1595 BC, Mursili I (or Murshilish I) conducted a great raid down the Euphrates River and captured Mari and Babylon, ejecting the Amorite founders of the Babylonian state in the process.[23] However, the Hittite campaigns caused internal dissension which forced a withdrawal of troops to the Hittite homelands. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth century BC, the Hittite kings were held to their homelands by dynastic quarrels and warfare with the Hurrians—their neighbours to the east.[23] Also the campaigns into Syria and Mesopotamia may be responsible for the reintroduction of cuneiform writing into Anatolia, since the Hittite script is quite different from the script of the preceding Assyrian Colony period.

Mursili continued the conquests of Hattusili I. Mursili's conquests reached southern Mesopotamia and even ransacked Babylon itself in 1531 BC.[24] Rather than incorporate Babylonia into Hittite domains, Mursili seems to have instead turned control of Babylonia over to his Kassite allies, who were to rule it for the next four centuries. This lengthy campaign, however, strained the resources of Hatti, and left the capital in a state of near-anarchy. Mursili was assassinated shortly after his return home, and the Hittite Kingdom was plunged into chaos. The Hurrians (under the control of an Indo-European Mitanni ruling class), a people living in the mountainous region along the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers took advantage of the situation to seize Aleppo and the surrounding areas for themselves, as well as the coastal region of Adaniya, renaming it Kizzuwatna (later Cilicia).

Following this, the Hittites entered a weak phase of obscure records, insignificant rulers, and reduced area of control. This pattern of expansion under strong kings followed by contraction under weaker ones, was to be repeated over and over again throughout the Hittite Kingdom's 500-year history, making events during the waning periods difficult to reconstruct with much precision. The political instability of these years of the Old Hittite Kingdom, can be explained in part by the nature of the Hittite kingship at that time. During the Old Hittite Kingdom period prior to 1400 BC, the king of the Hittites was not viewed by the Hittite citizenry as a "living god", like the Pharaohs of Egypt, but rather as a first among equals.[25] Only in the later period of the Hittite Empire, from 1400 BC until 1200 BC, did the kingship of the Hittites become more centralized and powerful. Also in earlier years the succession was not legally fixed, enabling the "war of the Roses" rivalries between northern and southern branches.

The next monarch of any note following Mursili I was Telepinu (ca. 1500 BC), who won a few victories to the southwest, apparently by allying himself with one