In central Anatolia, an Indo-European people emerged among chaos and civil war. These people would create a civilization that would have a lasting effect on all of the civilizations in the region, and in the West, to follow.
This civilization would create a language that, so far, is the oldest known example of the family of languages that would eventually gives us the same language I am using in this presentation, English. That family of languages is known as the Indo-European family.
For me, these rugged, practical people were remarkably similar to the early Romans. Their rise to power could be seen to be similar to the Roman rise to power. Both civilizations began as second-class citizens, with the Romans playing second fiddle to their Etruscan masters. Both civilization emerged among constant struggles for survival, with the Romans emerging from wars with other Latin tribes, the Sabines, and the Etruscans.
Both civilizations learned early on the value of assimilating other cultures, with the Romans assimilating Etruscan and Greek cultures. Both civilizations developed a pragmatic character built upon a, perhaps well-founded paranoia for survival. Both civilizations perfected the art of war. Both civilizations were urban planners, who designed cities with purpose and function.
But the Romans, unlike the civilization we’re going to cover here, owed some of their cultural heritage to this civilization, even though, by the time the Romans rose to power, the name of this civilization had already been lost.
The key part of this story I am about to tell you is this, that fear and appeals to loyalty are the great builders of Empires, Empires that benefit, first and foremost, the rulers. This is the story of the Hittites and the discovery of their Empire 3,000 years after it died.
Around the end of the 3rd Millennium BCE, an Indo-European people entered Anatolia. The origins of these people are unknown. They entered into central Anatolia, where a people called the Hattians already existed. The Hattians would be to these people what the Etruscans were to the Romans, their teachers, and, eventually, their first major conquest.
During the 18th Century BCE, the Hattians were the dominant power in central Anatolia, at a time when there were constant wars happening between the city-states of Anatolia. The reality of Anatolia was this, conquer or be conquered. Out of this turmoil, an Indo-European people eventually conquered the Hattians. They took on many of their customs, including their religion, their art, and their architecture.
The land itself became known by this Indo-European people as the land of Hatti, named after the people they conquered. We know these Indo-Europeans as the Hittites, a name derived from diplomatic letters found in Egypt (the Amarna letters) which refers to their Kingdom as the Kingdom of Kheta, which is understood to mean the Kingdom of Hatti, along with references from the Jewish texts now known as the Old Testament which refers to a Canaanite tribe as the Hittites (that may or may not actually be these same Hittites).
The Hittites, however, referred to themselves as the Nesili.
In this presentation, I am first going to go over the historical record. This would be the names and dates parts of this presentation. After this, I am going to talk about their city, their culture, and the way in which these people were discovered. Finally, I am going to present to you why I believe the Hittites, or the Nesili, matter, and what the nature of the Hittites tells us about ourselves, as well as what the circumstances surrounding our awareness of the Hittites tells us about assuming we have an understanding of history at all.
Let us begin, then, with the names and dates, the historical record, such as we understand it, of the rise and fall of the great Empire of the Hittites.
1650 BCE, according to Hittite writings, marked the start of the first united Hittite Kingdom under Hattusili, which simply means man from Hattusa. He also established the capital of the Hittite Kingdom as Hattusa. Later on, we’re going to talk about this city in much more detail. But for now, let’s continue with the historical record.
Hattusili expanded the Kingdom to Eastern Anatolia and parts of Syria. Their policy of conquest was this, if you surrendered, you were given mercy and left alone. If you did not surrender, you were enslaved or, worse, simply killed.
Hattusili was known as being a bit of a self-promoter. His scribes shared many stories of Hattusili comparing him to gods, and even comparing certain intimate body parts to being ‘new.’
“His frame is new, his breast is new, his penis is new, his head is of tin, his teeth are those of a lion, his eyes are those of an eagle, and he sees like an eagle.”
Hattusili’s conquest efforts were stopped, however, by a coalition of Syrians led by the city-state of Aleppo.
Mursili, Hattusili’s successor and grandson, conquered most of Anatolia, save for the east coast and northern coast. Just for kicks, he also marched his army 1000 miles south to sack Babylonia in 1595 BCE. After the sacking, Mursili simply returned to Hattusa.
In 1590 BCE, the returning victorious King was not met with parades, but rather, he was met with hot, steaming death. Mursili was assassinated by his brother-in-law. This launched the Hittite Kingdom into 60 years of civil war. During this period of time, there were numerous kings, with few lasting more than a couple of years. Each King was killed by his successor. They were no dynasties, only a series of assassinations and internecine wars.
But in 1525 BCE, stability returned to Hattusa in the form of King Telipinus, a name that, for the Hittites, would be as important to them as the name George Washington is to Americans today. By now, the Kingdom was reduced to the size of a city-state, with most of its lands lost.
King Telipinus was met, shortly after he took the throne, with news that his wife and son had been murdered by wanna-be usurpers. At this moment, the very existence of the Hittite Kingdom was in peril. What Telipinus chose to do next could make or break the Hittites.
As you can gather from the comparison I have already made, and from the fact that I am giving you this presentation at all, Telipinus made the right choice. After the assassins were brought before him, King Telipinus did not have the executed. Rather, he decided to simply have them banished from the Kingdom and stripped of all their titles.
But he did more than that, he also set about creating a new standard of succession, as a way to stabilize the throne, not just the throne to come, but even his very own throne. Telipinus, I would argue, had discovered the useful stabilizing feature of at least a proto-version of the concept of Rule of Law.
Telipinus wrote a law code of succession that came to be known as Telipinus’ Proclamation. This proclamation would be the cornerstone of law for the Hittites. For now, I’ll leave it at that, but I will go into more detail about the document and the Hittite concept of law when I get to the cultural section of the presentation.
Telipinus also began to deploy new strategy for foreign policy, the use of treaties over conquest. This would become a regular Hittite strategy going forward. Treaties were favorable to conquest, especially ones that gave them the fruit of conquest without the toil of conquest.
Telipinus began an age of peace that would last until around 1400 BCE. This period of time is known as the Middle Kingdom, or the Dark Age of the Hittites, because little records survive after Telipinus up until the end of this period. It is highlighted by the rule of Hantilli II, who ruled for about 50 years during the first half of the 15th Century BCE.
In 1400 BCE, the peace had ended. The Egyptians and Mitani took Hittite lands in Syria while Eastern Anatolia, the Arzawa States, rebelled. From the north, a people called the Kaska invaded the Hittites. Once again, the Hittite Kingdom was reduced to the size of a small city-state in central Anatolia, with the capital city of Hattusa now in the hands of the Kaska (which, it would appear, is why so many records are missing from the Middle Kingdom).
Suppiluliuma I would take the throne around the mid 14th Century BCE. He would go on to become the greatest of all the Hittite Kings. His father was King Tudhaliya II.
Despite Suppiluliuma being the main general of his father’s army, he was not named the successor. Rather, Tudhaliya II, Suppiluliuma ‘s younger brother, was named the successor. Suppiluliuma would rebel against his brother, killing him and taking the throne for himself.
Suppiluliuma quickly conquered the Kaska, retaking the capital city of Hattusa. He then went on to conquer the rest of Anatolia.
Suppiluliuma then conquered Northern Syria, finally going on the offensive against the Mitani. Suppiluliuma also formed an important alliance for the Hittites with the then wealthy Syrian city state of Ugarit, which would be the main source of imported wealth for the Hittites over the next 200 years.
Under Suppiluliuma, the military was more thoroughly developed, with troops being composed of career soldiers. Echoing the traditions that would later be seen in the Spartans, the Hittites developed a program of intense, highly regulated training for their soldiers that began when they were just boys.
The military that Suppiluliuma built would become the strongest military of its day, utilizing a combination of foot soldiers and chariots that were the most advanced of their kind.
At this point in his rule, Suppiluliuma met a beautiful Babylonian princess named Malignal. He wanted to marry her, but there was one little problem, he was already married.
Not only was he married, but in Hittite custom, the wife of the King was Queen, and the Queen had real political power. Not only was his wife Queen, but she was also the mother of his sons, and his successor.
None of this stopped the King, who sent his wife away in order to marry Malignal, who then became called Tawananna, the name given to all Hittite Queens. This action would one day cause internal turmoil within the Kingdom, but Suppiluliuma would be dead before that happened.
By the end of his rule, Suppiluliuma had built an empire that included the Northern Levant and restored all the lost territories of Anatolia. His rule began with the Hittite Kingdom at its lowest point, but ended with an Empire that went beyond anything the Hittites had previously held.
In 1327 BCE, Suppiluliuma laid siege to the last stronghold of the Mitani, Karkemish. Afterwards, the Egyptians sent him a letter, or, rather, the wife of the now-dead King Tut sent him a letter asking for one of his sons to marry her and become ruler of Egypt.
Suppiluliuma conquered Karkemish. He was skeptical of the letter and sent an envoy to question the Queen. Eventually, however, despite his continued skepticism, he sent his son to marry the Queen, Ankhesenamun. His son never made it to the queen. He was murdered by her rivals the moment he arrived in Egypt.
As you can imagine, the King was not happy. Suppiluliuma went on a rampage, decimating Egyptian-friendly cities in the Levant, and bringing back captives. However, he brought back more than captives, he also brought back a plague, which decimated the Hittite population.
Suppiluliuma himself fell victim to the plague in 1322 BCE. His successor also died of the plague soon after him.
Mursili II, Suppiluliuma’s youngest son, took the throne as a young man, probably around 20 years of age (though that is not certain). He immediately faced challenges from kingdoms surrounding the Hittite Empire. But from within, the plague continued to annihilate the people, further weakening the Empire.
A famous warming was sent to Mursili, one which was included in the Hittite records. It read, “You are a child; you know nothing and instill no fear in me. Your land is now in ruins, and your infantry and chariotry are few. Against your infantry, I have many infantry; against your chariotry I have many chariotry. Your father had many infantry and chariotry. But you who are a child, how can you match him?”
Clearly, the young King would have his hands full just holding on to the Empire his father left him.
As a response to the plague, Mursili II produced a series of writings called the Plague Prayers. I’ll talk more about this in the Cultural section of this presentation.
In addition to the plague, Mursili II also had to deal with his stepmother, Tawananna. Remember her? I told you she was going to cause trouble later on. Remember, it was Mursili’s mother who was cast aside so that this foreign princess could take her place. As you can imagine, the blood between them was, well, bad.
He also wanted his wife to assume the role of Tawananna, but the widow of Suppiluliuma had a lot of personal political power in the court.
In the 9th year of his reign, two of Mursili II’s two strongest allies, his two brothers, both suddenly died. His wife also took ill under mysterious circumstances. Despite much prayers, Mursili II’s wife died, which he attributed to the sins he inherited through his father, as well as the sins, and perhaps actions, of Tawananna.
He believed Tawananna used black magic to kill his wife. He declared that anyone who knew sorcery in the Royal family should be seized. He knew he was targeting Tawananna. Oracles declared that Tawananna was guilty, but rather than executing her, Mursili II had her banished from the court and removed from the office of Tawannana.
At this time, Mursili II was struck by an illness that rendered him unable to speak, yet he continued to write. Historians have viewed this illness as a response to the amount of stress he took upon himself, both in assuming the sins that he felt resulted in the plague, along with the deaths of his close brothers and his wife, and finally, the stress in dealing with the subterfuge, both from without and within, that threatened the Empire.
Despite all of this, Mursili II would expand the Empire of the Hittites to its greatest peak, adding lands to the West, further into Syria and south in the Levant.
In 1295, Mursili II died.
In 1279 BCE, Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, became the Egyptian Pharaoh. He put a target on Hittite lands in Syria, leading to a showdown with the Empire that would culminate in the great battle of Kadesh.
Muwatalli II, the successor to Mursili II, would be the Hittite King who would face Ramses in 1274 BCE at Kadesh.
Muwatalili II’s younger brother, Hattusili III, served as one of the generals in the battle.
37,000 Hittite Soldiers and 3,000 Hittite Chariots faced off against 20,000 Egyptian units in what was, for that time, the largest recorded battle in history. The chariot battle was the largest of its kind, with up to 3,000 Egyptian chariots facing off against 3,000 Hittite chariots.
The battle is the most well-documented of the ancient world, with both the Egyptian and Hittite scribes documenting the battle.
While the Egyptian records suggest an Egyptian victory, records found in Hattusa reveal the battle was at best a draw. Some would consider it a victory for the Hittites, though hardly a decisive one.
The result of the battle led to a period of time of uneasy peace between the two superpowers, an uneasy peace that would not be settled until after Muwatalli II’s death.
While the Hittites did not decisively defeat the Egyptians, the battle did result in the cessation of Egyptian aggression against Hittite territories in Syria. The Hittites were also able to take back the lost Syrian territories the Egyptians had seized before the battle. But the news was not all good for the Hittites, for the battle also resulted in the Hittites limiting their own expansion efforts into Syria.
In 1272 BCE, Muwatalli II, died, with his son, Urhi-Teshub, named as his successor. Urhi-Teshub’s uncle, Hattusili, was not happy with this choice, after all it was not Urhi-Teshub by his side in battle, it was Hattusili. As you can imagine, Hattusili was not happy, but he respected the decision of his brother nonetheless.
Hattusuli was somewhat placated by being given land to govern in upper Anatolia. But his reputation grew. He offered a stark contrast to the less effective rule of Urhi-Teshub. After five years, Urhi-Teshub decided the growing reputation of Hattusuli was too much. He was becoming a threat to throne. So Urhi-Teshub stripped him of all of his titles and his lands. Hattusili responded by going to war against Urhi-Teshub. He deposed Urhi-Teshub and became Hattusili III.
Hattusili III wrote a document called the Apology of Hattusili as a way to placate the royal court after he violated the rules of succession outlined by the Telipinus Proclamation. This document is important for a number of reasons, which I’ll discuss in the cultural section of this presentation.
What I will share now is that the Apology worked. The royal court appeared to have been satisfied. He would face no real challenge to his throne while he was alive, despite vanquishing the rightful successor.
Hattusili III married Puduhepa, a priestess of his patron god, Ishtar, who became the new Tawannana. She gained preeminence in the court, even adjudicating cases and advising her husband on foreign affairs. She would also profoundly affect the religion of the Hittites, which I’ll cover in the cultural section of this presentation.
She became rightly viewed as the most powerful and influential woman of the Hittites.
In 1259 BCE, a treaty was signed between Egypt and the Hittites. The treaty contained the seals of both Hattusili III and his Queen, Puduhepa. The treaty declared peace between Ramses the Great and Hattusili III.
A series of letters leading up to the treaty reveals that Puduhepa was a key player in forming the treaty, with some letters from Rameses’ wife, Nefertari, addressed directly to her and her alone.
Under Hattusili III, a great building program was undertaken, with great temples built across the land.
By 1240 BCE, Puduhepa had assumed most of the duties of rulership as her husband, Hattusili III, had fallen deathly ill.
In 1237 BCE, Hattuslili III died.
The next succession of Kings proved feckless, with each successive King losing territory and power. Four more Kings would rule after Hattusili. In 1200 BCE, the Hittites gave up their capital Hattusa, moving to southeastern Anatolia where their Kingdom would die.
Exactly what finished off the Hittites appears to have been their own internal struggles for power between rival factions. Civil wars emerged. The capital city itself struggled to get supplies. Near the end, it appears the Hittites set their own city on fire before heading to southeastern Anatolia. Perhaps the reasoning was that they’d rather not leave the fortification for others to potentially use against them.
The last vestige of the Hittite Kingdom was ruled by Suppiluliuma II, who died in 1178 BCE. The end of the Hittites comes also at the beginning of what is now referred to as the Dark Age. It marks the end of the Bronze Age and begins a transition to the Iron Age, a transition that would take 300 years.
While the Hittite Empire and Kingdom died in Anatolia, Hittite culture would continue to thrive in Northern Syria and Southeastern Anatolia for a few more centuries, though never regaining the glory of the old Hittite Empire, and never again consolidating as one.
The City of Hattusa.
Before I discuss the culture of the Hittites, I want to first talk about the heart of the Hittite Empire, the city of Hattusa itself.
The capital city of Hattusa tells us something about the nature of the people that built it. What stands out about the city of Hattusa is, as capitals of Empires go, it defies all convention of all other capitals. The city itself was not built on a natural trade route. It wasn’t built on the coast. It wasn’t built near a river.
While Amarna, the short-lived Egyptian capital intentionally built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten in the middle of a desert, could be said to have similar characteristics to this city, it’s brief existence (a couple of decades) can hardly be compared to the centuries of existence for Hattusa. Furthermore, Amarna was built using the resources of a great Empire. It was not the source of the flowering of a great Empire, such as Hattusa would become.
The city of Hattusa was built 50 miles away from the nearest river. The city was built hundreds of miles away from any coastline. It was built in a remote rugged region with little access in or out of the city, surrounded by, even built on the sides of, mountains, almost smack dab in the middle of Anatolia, present-day Turkey.
The location of Hattusa, due to its elevation, was also a poor choice if you consider climate as a factor. The region suffered harsh winters, with the city being snowed in for months on end during the winter season.
Unlike all of the other Empire capitals, save for the fleeting city of Amarna, Hattusa was not a city that emerged organically but rather appears to be intentionally designed from the start. It was created to be a super fortress, with miles of outer walls and acres of inner walls protecting the city’s central building, the King’s palace.
Given the origins of the Hittites, rising among a period where Anatolian city-states warred for supremacy, it makes sense that the Hittites would be so defensive-minded, and so deliberate in that defensive design.
The nature of the creation of the city itself reveals a lot about the nature of the Hittites, which transitions us to the culture of the Hittites.
I decided to separate the cultural aspect of the Hittites from the historical record for a couple of reasons,
First, I wanted to create a space to focus solely on the cultural aspect of the Hittites, and second, I wanted you the reader/listener to have an historical context to frame this cultural reality around.
It is the cultural aspect of the Hittites, much more than the names and dates, that so intrigues me about this Empire, and was the driving force behind my desire to create this presentation in the first place, for reasons I’ll discuss after we get through this section of the presentation.
First, let’s look at the Hittite, or Nesili, religion.
The Hittite religion was pantheistic, with the Hittites adopting every god from every people they came across. They became known as the people of a thousand gods. The Hittites reckoned they always wanted to have the gods on their side, even the gods of their enemies.
It could also be suggested that assimilating the gods of their enemies also blunted, in part, the useful method of demonizing the other. If the Hittites worshipped the same gods as you, then a significant division into the category of the other was now nullified.
The parallels between them and the Romans here are obvious, with the Romans being notorious for freely adopting the gods of their enemies as their own. Both civilizations had learned, from the start, how advantageous it could be to assimilate the cultures of the peoples they conquered, with the Romans building a foundation based on Etruscan culture and the Hittites building a foundation based on Hattian culture.
The Hittite gods were anthropomorphic, and are considered by many scholars to be, in many instances, the origins of the gods of the Greeks and, later, the Romans, such as Zeus for the Greeks and Jupiter for the Romans. The Hittite storm god, for instance, Teshub, is considered to be the source for the Greek Zeus, which is the direct source for the Roman Jupiter.
The Hittites believed that the gods needed the offerings and devotions of the people, while the people needed the gods to be blessed in this world.
The King was considered the chief priest of the Kingdom. The King was considered to be the one who spoke to the gods on behalf of the people, and who shared the will of the gods to the people.
He was also expected to curry favor from the gods to bless the Hittites in daily life and in war. The King, however, was the one the gods held accountable if his people did not properly worship the gods or conduct themselves in ways the gods considered good.
You can understand better, then, how a King such as Mursili II would assume the sins of his people when the plague struck and his brothers and wife died. The notion of a King taking on the sins of the people and being the one to face the wrath of the gods could also be said to be a prototype of the Christ model that would come more than a thousand years after the Hittites had disappeared.
Like the King of the Hittites, Christ the King also assumed the wrath of God for the sins of the people. From a Christian perspective, perhaps the Hittites had a shadowy glimpse of Christ, and thus they reflected this in their religion. From a non-Christian perspective, perhaps the religion of the Hittites had some influence on the Jewish tribes that, right around the time of the battle of Kadesh, were beginning to write down their own sacred texts.
While the King was not considered born a god, upon accession, he was considered to be “adopted” by the gods. While alive, the King was not considered a god, but merely an adopted god. When the King died, though, he was said to have become a god. You would never say he died, but rather that he became a god upon death, having been adopted as one while still a mortal.
We talked about Queen Puduhepa, the wife of Hattusili III, and chief priestess. Among many things attributed to her included documenting, codifying and standardizing the customs and rituals of the Hittite religion. This happened around 1265 BCE.
She catalogued the different rituals and standardized them. She clarified the pantheon, including assigning a hierarchy of the gods.
Most of you have heard of the code of Hammurabi, written around 1754 BCE. A little less than 200 years after the code of Hammurabi was written, the Hittites created their own law code, which is what we’re going to cover next, the laws of the Hittites.
The Hittites were very contractually focused, with many Hittites carrying small stone cylinders with them that could be rolled on clay, creating seals that worked as identification cards of sorts, as well as signatures on legal documents. It was not uncommon for a Hittite to have one, sometimes more, personal seals on him, used for different types of contracts.
These seals existed before the codification of their laws under Telipinus. In 1525 BCE, the Telipinus Proclamation was written. The Proclamation first dealt with rules for succession to the throne. In addition to the rules for succession, the Proclamation codified Hittite law, which was a compensation-based law code, not a retribution-based law code, with some notable exceptions.
The law code was preserved and regularly revised, with records of the revision preserved, alongside the original laws. It was a living, breathing law code. This effort by the Hittites to keep a record of the changes to their law code was unique to the ancient world at that time.
The underlying motive for the laws formed by Telipinus was, ostensibly, an effort to satisfy the sun god, who demanded that vulnerable classes be protected from exploitation by stronger classes. The underpinning religious belief that the King was liable for the sins of the people must also surely have been a factor in motivating Telipinus to write law codes intended to check the exploitation of the lower classes by the upper classes, though the power reality might also suggest that, be it conscious or subconscious, the creation of these laws was a recognition of two dangers.
The first danger was this, an upper class that could exploit the lower classes could also then create more power for itself, power that could challenge the throne of the King. The second danger was this, an exploited lower class could eventually revolt.
The nature of the capital city of the Empire was such that the margin between thriving and dying was not that great. Any tumult within the city that affected the ability of the lower city to perform the hard work needed to keep the city going was a danger to the King, and to the city itself.
Some laws, however, were retributive in nature, such as the law that to challenge the decree of a dignitary would be penalized with a beheading. It makes sense this exception would be there, as unquestioning faith, and/or submission to the judgment of the dignitaries, adjudicators, or elders was critical to the Hittite concept of what I would say was a proto-form of Rule of Law, the stabilizing factor of the Empire.
This proto-form of Rule of Law being found in the Hittite law code suggests, again, yet another way the Hittites may have influenced many civilizations around it, and even civilizations such as Greece and Rome that would come after it.
I should note here that evidence in the Hittite records reveals that the Hittites were in regular contact with the Myceneans, the predecessors of what would become classical Greece.
To further make my case that the Hittites were, in fact, practicing a form of Rule of Law, let’s look at more evidence that suggests this was the case.
The Hittites were precedent-based. They kept massive archives to refer to past precedent as a way to justify current action, this was based on a core belief that the present is an amalgamation of the past. Not only does the present need to reference the past for a good outcome in the here and now, but to ignore past precedent also puts the future at risk for turmoil.
These records were not just references for laws, but for worship, for customs, for historical reference, thus they kept meticulous records to assure they had a solid past reference to fall back on.
Because of this belief, scribes were critical to Hittite culture. Scribes began their education early on. They were expected to know more than how to write in their own language, they were expected to be able to write in multiple languages. They were also expected to be well-versed in the histories of the people surrounding the Hittites.
This can be rooted, I believe, to the nature of their religion, which was accountability based, with the greatest accountability falling on the King himself, who would pay the price for the sins of the people. The Hittites created a system of accountability that began with the gods themselves, who relied upon the people to sacrifice to them and to worship them. The gods had to deliver to keep the people sacrificing and worshiping.
But the people were also expected to deliver to the gods. What were they expected to deliver? Justice, Fairness, to treat their neighbors well, to worship the gods, and offer sacrifices.
Finally, the King was responsible to assure that the people delivered to the gods the justice, fairness, sacrifice, and worship they desired. All of this required a clear understanding of what justice, fairness, sacrifice, and worship meant. This created a need for precedent, to assure future generations that they were getting it right, else the system of accountability would be broken, and everyone would suffer, including, even, the gods.
What was demanded of the people was two things first and foremost, to fear the gods and be loyal to the King. The fear of the gods led to complex regulations that touched almost every aspect of their lives, including regulations on when and how to have sex with one another. Disloyalty to the King, to the city, was an offense that could lead to maiming or death.
As we look at Hittite literature, we’re going to come across yet more evidence that the Hittites practiced a form of Rule of Law well before the Greeks and the Romans.
The Hittites had a vast record of literature preserved in Hattusa. These stories also seem to have influenced some of the stories in the bible, as well as Greek and Roman mythology. I’ve already outlined how the nature of the relationship of the King to the gods was a proto-Christian archetype.
For Greek and Roman religions, Hurrian myths of the origin of their gods, which were documented and altered by the Hittites, bear striking similarity to the Greek origin stories as reflected in the writings of Hesiod and Homer.
The Plague Prayers- circa early to mid 1400s BCE.
Mursili II came to believe that the way his father, Suppiluliuma, took power, by killing his younger brother, was the sin that caused the gods to inflict the land with a plague. He attempted to make amends by pleading with the gods for forgiveness in public ceremonies. These plague prayers have been preserved.
The prayers appear to have been written by Mursili himself. In the prayers, he takes on the sins of his father and pleads for forgiveness from the gods. Also in the prayers, Mursili goes after his step-mother, the Babylonian Queen, Tawananna, whom he blames for destroying his father’s house from within.
The Plague Prayers further illustrate how this particular King, Mursili, lived out his role as the King who took on the sin of his people, and thus the wrath of the gods.
This last example of Hittite literature also brings us back to our case for the Hittites practicing a form of Rule of Law.
The Apology of Hattusili, circa 1267 BCE.
After Hattusili III violated the Telipinus Proclamation’s rules for succession by vanquishing his nephew, Urhi-Teshub, he wrote one of the earliest preserved autobiographies in known written history, the Apology of Hattusili.
In the document, he made a case for why he vanquished his nephew. The document details his early life at a level hitherto unheard of in the ancient world. He accused his nephew of plotting to take unjust actions against his own people, thus compelling Hattusili to arrest him.
During the time the Apology was written, Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt and had begun to write what would become known as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
This next part is my personal theory, and, I will admit, it is not one without issue, as I will explain.
Long before the Magna Carta hemmed in the power of King John in 1215, a precedent had been set in the Hittite Kingdom that Kings were not above the law. This is my theoretical assertion.
Whether there was any truth to the claims in the Hattusili apology is not as important as the fact that the Royal court accepted the claims, and thus de facto conceded that Kings were not above the law. Had they not conceded the point, then, it can be argued, the struggle for the throne would have continued, as Hattusili would not have had the confidence of the most powerful people of the kingdom.
However, some historians believe that the act by Hattusili led to the civil wars that would eventually undo the Empire, but others (and I am inclined to side with them) point out that the reign of Hattusili wasn’t merely stable, it was a golden age of the Hittite Empire, with great building works completed and the full codification of their religion also set to record.
While warring factions may have used Hattsuli’s vanquishing of Urhi-Teshub as a pretext to contesting for the crown, the case can also be made that it was not the act that created the civil war, but the lack of the consolidation of power by any one man that necessitated the need to invoke Hattusili’s transgression to attempt to gain leverage over rival factions.
I have presented to you brief outlines of the historical record, as well as of the culture of the Hittites, but what I have presented to you is new information, relative to the span of human history, information that comes 3,000 years after the last records of the Hittites were etched into stone, or wedged onto clay. For 3,000 years, the story of the Hittites remained unknown, waiting to be discovered at the turn of the 20th century, with some information, such as how the Hittites fell, coming at the beginning of the 21st century.
During the late 19th Century, archeologists were finding writings in a language that no one seemed to recognize. These artifacts were found throughout Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. The mysterious language became an obsession for some.
The artifacts all dated to a period of time between 1600 and 1100 BCE, a time that saw three great empires, Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria, rise and fall. The speculation grew that, perhaps, there was a fourth great Empire.
The earliest discovery of the Hittite language was by Ludwig Burchhardt, a swiss traveler, who discovered a petroglyph in the Syrian city of of Hama. That discovery was around 1810. The discovery was documented in the London Museum, where it lay unnoticed for 60 years. Interest in the petroglyph, along with similar finds, picked up with the discovery of the Armana letters in 1887, which contained references to the Hittite Empire in numerous instances.
A German professor by the name of Hugo Winckler was one of the people who grew to become obsessed with cracking the riddle of the unknown language. In Istanbul, in 1905, the professor was presented with a cuneiform tablet that had writing on it which no one could recognize. Winckler knew multiple ancient languages, including Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian.
He was told the tablet came from some ruins discovered in central Anatolia, near a town called Bogazkoy. Winkler and the team headed off to Bogzkoy, driving deeper and deeper into remote regions until he happened across the massive ruins of the Hittite capital, Hattusa.
Of course, Winkler did not know this at the time. But he knew that whoever created these ruins, must have also possessed a civilization sophisticated enough to be a contender for the then-mythical fourth Empire.
After weeks of searching, Winckler and his team kept finding more and more tablets written in the unknown language, until, finally, his team discovered a tablet written in a known language, Babylonian. The tablet they found was none other than a document of the treaty between Rameses the Great and King Hattusili.
What caught Winckler’s eye was that the words seem to be coming from Rameses, and he referred to Hattusili as a great King, a title reserved only for the most important of Kings, Kings such as ruled great empires, not petty Kingdoms. Winckler had found his fourth Empire.
Winckler, however, died before an even greater discovery, the discovery of a library that held over 30,000 Hittite tablets, had been made. And while the discovery of the tablets was a major breakthrough, the language of the Hittites was still unknown.
“Now you eat bread and you drink water.”
In 1917, a Czech linguist named Bedřich Hrozný finally cracked the Hittite code. And he did it with two key words, Ninda-an, which was a word used by multiple languages to mean bread, and wa-a-tar, an English word you may know, water. He had discovered that Hittite was, in fact, an Indo-European language. In this same sentence included the word “ez-za,” which was similar to an old high german word meaning to eat.
The sentence, “Now you eat bread and you drink water,” emerged, from which the work of deciphering the whole of the Hittite language rapidly unfolded.
The work could now begin of translating the 30,000 tablets, from which I was able to relate, in small part, the story of the Hittites.
But the 30,000 tablets were silent on exactly how the Hittites came to their sudden end. For that, many decades would pass. A discovery of hieroglyphs would eventually lead to an unraveling of the mystery of the Hittites. Written in Hittite but in a little-known hieroglyph form, researchers from around the world contributed to the deciphering of these enigmatic carvings.
What the hieroglyphs revealed is that the Hittites had devolved into civil war as rival factions competed for the throne. The archeological evidence showed extensive fire damage to key parts of the city.
A lesson in power:
In the 30,000 tablets, a story of the Hittites emerges that reveals a complex people, people capable of producing poetry, people capable of desiring justice, of demonstrating compassion for those with less power, but that was only part of the story.
I touched upon the nature of their religion, the nature of their laws, their literature, but what I have presented is a small sliver of the complexity of all three aspects of their culture. What the 30,000 tablets showed was that the Hittites were a culture primarily based on fear and loyalty.
They feared their enemies. For this reason, they strove to create an invincible stronghold in an impossible land. They strove to build a ruthless war machine that could vanquish their enemies before their enemies vanquished them.
They feared their gods, and thus they created a complex law code filled with restrictions that touched almost every aspect of their lives, lest they offend their gods through bad behavior.
They were, perhaps, the predecessors of Rule of Law in the West. But they were also a civilization that echoed what would come through the even more controlling, even more fear and loyalty-based city-state, the Spartans.
Even today, these two characteristics, loyalty and fear, are still the favorite tools of Empire builders, powerful people who need to control vast numbers of other people in order to extend their empires.
They did not emerge so much as they were engineered, from the top down, for one purpose, to consolidate and extend power for the benefit of the ruling elite. They built a system, reflected in their very city, that placed them at the mercy of the lowest classes, and thus it required a near-total control of every aspect of their lives.
Without the appeal to fear, without the appeal to loyalty, what person would trade the life, even of a hunter gatherer, for the life of a city dweller who daily toiled just to assure that this city set among the mountains would have water delivered to it?
Are the nation-states of today, such as America, China, Russia, not also using their own appeals to fear and loyalty to control the ruled at the benefit of the ruling?
I see the constant parades on my social media feeds of the boogeymen of America, the Russians, ISIS, the Democrats, the Republicans, the SJWs, the Alt Righters, the Gun Grabbers, Antifa.
I see constant parades on my social media of the calls to loyalty. You must respect the flag. You must respect our military, our police. You must protect the Democracy. You must defend the little people. Feed the poor. Vanquish the Enemy.
What broke up the Hittites, in the end, was not a revolt from the ruled, but a struggle for power among those who would vie for the throne. Perhaps those who escaped into the wilderness after the collapse may have been better off than living a life behind the walls, daily toiling for the rulers, just to keep the fortress alive.
Are we here in America to wait for the rulers to pick each other off, or are we to set about weening ourselves off our dependence on the fortress built in an impossible place, where its very existence necessitates the need to control the very people that keep it alive?
A lesson in certainty:
The very nature of the discovery of the Hittites serves as another lesson for us today. For 3,000 years, when people reflected on the past, a key part of that past was omitted. It wasn’t omitted intentionally, it was omitted because the Hittites, as a final act, assured that their city would not give up its secrets, would not become the home to another people, when they set it on fire.
Historians wrote about the emergence of civilization. Historians wrote about the foundations of Western Civilization. They wrote with much certainty about the reality of history, but all the while, unbeknownst to them, a key component of that history was left out, a component that led, directly and indirectly, to the foundation of the languages spoken in Europe, to the religions practiced by some of the key civilizations of Europe and, perhaps, even to the so-called western concept of Rule of Law, almost a thousand years before Sparta wrote a constitution or the Romans formed their republic.
They painted a complex portrait of the evolution of civilization in general, and western civilization in particular. Yet, all the while, a key player in both those stories, the Hittites, was left undocumented until the 20th century, with the full story of the Hittites still being discovered even as I write this.
That 3,000-year absence of the Hittites serves as a reminder to us all that certainty may not be so certain at all. What we think we understand, what we think we know could one day be challenged by even more discoveries that could yet lead us, once again, to rethink what we know about the emergence of ‘civilization’ or ‘states.’
For those of us who reject the model of governance known as the state, or, as I like to put it, coercive enterprise governance, understanding how humans stepped away from voluntary governance and embraced coercive enterprise governance is key to understanding how, perhaps, one day, humans can, once again, return back to the voluntary forms of governance that knit our communities together for most of our existence here on planet earth.
The Hittites show us that what we think we understand about that emergence may not reflect the actual truth of how that emergence occurred. I’m betting there are plenty of surprises ahead, surprises that could, one day, even surpass the incredibly, implausible surprise of discovering one of the most powerful empires of the bronze age, an Empire that had lasting effects on the very civilization you now find yourself in, a full 3000 years after it disappeared.