Who Were the Hittites

Who Were the Hittites?

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The History of the Hittites

A Hittite Soldier

The Hittites were a people who once lived in what is modern Turkey and northern Syria. Most of what we know about them today comes from ancient texts that have been recovered. It would seem that the first indication of their existence occurred in about 1900 BC, in the region that was to become Hatti. There, they established the town of Nesa. Over the next three hundred years, their influence grew until in about 1680 BC, a true empire was born.

This original kingdom was founded by a leader known as Labarna, and the kingdom was expanded by later rulers all across Anatolia and down to the Mediterranean Sea. So strong was this kingdom that in 1595 BC, they were able to raid Babylon. However, this initial serge of the Hittite empire was staggered due to the lack of a clear custom for the succession of Kings. Hence, the kingdom was only as strong as the current ruler, and within about 120 years, it began to crumble.

In Egypt, when their empire became weak as it did during three intermediate periods, usually due to a decentralization of government, the Nubians to the south, Egypt's only true neighbors, most often prospered. They frequently took back land gained by the Egyptians when Egypt was strong, only to lose it once more when Egypt recovered.

So it apparently was with the Hittites. As their empire weakened around 1500 BC, The Mitanni empire to the south seems to have gained in strength. We believe that the control over the Hittite kingdom soon passed to the rulers of the Hangilbat region, who apparently forged alliances with the Egyptian kings. Within what was left of the old Hittite kingdom, a new ruling class of aristocracy took over.

This weak Middle Kingdom lasted for about one hundred years While the Old Hittite Kingdom was indeed strong, the New Hittite Kingdom, lasting from about 1400 through 1193 BC was even more powerful. In fact, at the time, it was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the known world, rivaling Egypt, Babylonia and Assyria.

During this period, the Hittites were almost constantly at war, either in order to claim territory from their neighbors, or to protect their territory from other neighbors. It was the period in which we see the greatest contact, or at least the most extensively documented contact, between the Hittites and the Egyptians. Eventually, the kingdom declined, towards the first millennium BC. This was most likely the result of continuous migration from people around the Mediterranean who had been displaced, and in fact, the Sea People, who were also a problem to the Egyptians, perhaps eventually bought the empire crumbling down.

The Hittites in Conflict with Egypt

The Hittites in Conflict with Egypt

However, at its greatest level of power during the Hittite New Kingdom, this empire, along with the other great powers of the Ancient Near East all wished to dominate and exploit the economic resources and trade of the Syria region.

At this time, Syria was the crossroads of world commerce. Products from the Aegean and even beyond entered the Near East by ports such as Ugarit, who's ships dominated maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean. The merchandise from these ships was then distributed over an extensive network of trade routes, which were also used by merchants who brought raw materials such as precious metals, tin, copper, lapis lazuli and other merchandise from as far away as Iran and Afghanistan to trade in the emporia of Syria.

Hence, Syria offered a considerable motive for the predatory powers of the region. Therefore, it is perhaps understandable that the great powers of Egypt, Mitanni and Hatti expended much effort, along with blood to control this vitally strategic region. In the first half of the 14th century BC, the Hittite kingdom came under the rule of a vigorous leader by the name of Suppiluliumas, who began a systematic, as well as successful campaign against the Kingdom of Mitanni in northern Syria. In his earliest campaigns in Syria, Suppiluliumas conquered the Mitanni vassal states of Aleppo, Alalakh, Nuhashshe and Tunip, all in northern Syria. In the second Syrian war, he crossed the River Euphrates into the land of Ishuwa and marched directly south. He totally surprised Mitanni, attacking the empire directly and in a very rapid campaign, occupied and sacked the capital Washukkanni. Afterwards, the small kingdoms in Syria fell to him one after the other.

This resulted in the destruction of a status quo in the region which was the culmination of the peace treaty between Egypt and the Kingdom of Mitanni arranged during the reign of Tuthmosis IV. In fact, it was the early efforts of the Hittite kingdom to whittle away at the Mitanni Empire that had caused the truce between Egypt and Mitanni in the first place, so that they might avoid a two-front war with the Hittites on one side and the Egyptians on the other. However, these efforts did not stop the Hittites from the destruction of the Mitanni empire, and in the end, the Egyptians had to contend with the Hittites over the Syrian region as the Mitanni empire fell apart.

Who Were the Hittites?

In actuality, the Hittite king, Suppiluliumas sought initially to avoid conflict with Egypt. During the Egyptian New Kingdom, Egypt held central and southern Syrian territories for some two hundred years, reaping considerable wealth from these territories. Indeed, the perception that these borders marked the true boundaries of the Egyptian empire of this period had become impressed on the Egyptian mind as permanent and fixed. In all likelihood, Egypt would take take strong measures against any power that encroached upon that region.

These territories included the city state of Kadesh, among others, and the Hittite king had actually sought to avoid any occupation of that city. However, the king of Kadesh, operating as he believed was in the interests of his Egyptian overlord, attempted to block the Hittite advance southwards. He was defeated and the leading men of the city, including both the king and his son, Aitakama, were carried off the Hattusas, the Hittite capital of this period.

Yet the Hittites returned Aitakama, who took back control of Kadesh seemingly renewing the status of the city as a vassal of Egypt, so the Egyptians were placated. However, within a short time of his return, Aitakama began to act in a manner that suggested he may well have become a stooge for the Hittite ruler, as rulers of other Egyptian vassal cities reported attempts by him to subvert them to the Hittite cause.

Hence, Egypt was finally forced to act in order to protect its territories. Though sparsely documented, an Egyptian assault on Kadesh in the reign of Akhenaten is now assumed to have occurred, and failed. Afterwards, the city formally passed into the hands of the Hittites, and its recovery became the focus of Egyptian military efforts down until the 19th Dynasty reign of Ramesses II, though the first substantial efforts were made by Ramesses II's father, Seti I. With a strong Hittite military presence in Syria that was not offset by any similar Egyptian equivalent, the balance of power shifted in the region and soon other vassal states of Egypt fell to the Hittites without bloodshed.

The New Kingdom Hittite Military

Like other Late Bronze Age armies of the Old World, the Hittite military was built around the chariot and infantry, which would be expanded during the campaigning season when men would be called to the colors to fulfil their feudal obligations to the king. However, they apparently employed considerable mercenary troops during this period. Many of these troops apparently forwent regular pay choosing instead the prospect of booty, which of course would cause problems as it did for even the Egyptians at various times.

As for dress, the Hittite forces, unlike the Egyptians, seem to haveworn uniforms that were geared to their various campaigns, so that at various times, we find them in different costumes. We do know that they wore helmets and bronze scale armor, but in many reliefs, such as those related to the Ramesses II Battle at Kadesh, many are depicted only in a "white" coverall. Some authorities assume that this was worn over the armor.

Just as in Egypt, the chariotry tended to attract men from the landed nobility, while the infantry was of lesser status. However, unlike the Egyptians chariot, theirs was the principal offensive arm of the Hittite army. This difference also extended to the very design and implementation of their chariotry. They viewed the chariot as essentially an assault weapon designed to crash into and break up groups of enemy infantry. Hence, it was a much heavier vehicle then that of the Egyptians, with a central axle strong enough to carry a three man crew. Of course, it was also less maneuverable and slower then its Egyptian counterpart. While the chariot crews did use composite the composite bow as a weapon, its predominant weapon was the long, thrusting spear. When used under ideal conditions, the Hittite chariotry was very effective. It would open the way for their infantry to follow through and finish off the enemy.

The infantry, as depictions of their "thr" warriors surrounding Muwatallish at Qadesh would suggest, were armed with long thrusting spears and short stabbing daggers similar to those employed by their chariotry. Iron weapons were to some extent used by the Hittites, but most hand weapons were bronze sickle swords and battle axes.

The Hittites were masters of strategy and even used guile and sleight of hand when it was to their advantage. They attempted to stage their battles in situations that were ideal to their military tactics, in open battles where the chariotry could be used to its greatest advantage.

As an enemy of Egypt, Ramesses II condescendingly spoke of them as "effeminate ones" because the Hittites had a propensity for wearing their hair long. However, he would learn quickly that the Hittite warriors were every bit as brave and formidable as the Egyptian army, for the stage was set for the first battle in history that was well documented at Kadesh. He would eventually meet, fight, make peace with and even marry into the Hittite empire, all within his long reign.

See also:






Reference Number

Armies of the Pharaohs

Healy, Mark


Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 85532 939 5

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Warfare and Weapons

Shaw, Ian


Shire Publications LTD

ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Warrior Pharaoh, The: Ramesses II and the Battle of Qadesh

Healy, Mark


Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 84176 039 0