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The Hittites: Civilization, History & Definition

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Taught by

Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

This lesson will explore the history of the Indo-European group known as the Hittites. The Hittites began as a group of tribes sharing a common language and land. They unified as a single empire to become a major competitor in the quest for land and resources.

Introduction

Have you ever wondered where the term 'Iron Age' comes from? The Iron Age began when iron replaced bronze as the most popular metal used for making weapons. This was the accomplishment of a group of people known as the Hittites. They monopolized ironwork until the fall of their empire, when they were forced to spread to other areas. The Hittites can attribute much of their success to their adeptness for metallurgy.

Iron and Chariots

The Hittites developed new techniques for using iron around 1500 BC. Up until this time, weapons were generally made from bronze. Bronze is harder and heavier than iron. The use of iron weapons, which remained unique to the Hittites, helped create successful military campaigns. After the fall of the Hittite empire, ironsmiths migrated into many areas, taking with them their knowledge of ironwork. Iron weapons popularized by Hittites were used until Imperial times.

Another reason the Hittites were successful in battle was their use of light chariots. The chariots they used were powered by two horses. They were fast and narrow enough to fit onto small roads and paths.

Hittites

The Hittites may have first occupied Anatolia in the 17th century BC. The Hittites were made up of several tribes who spoke Indo-European languages. Hattusilis, who was a priest and a king, established their capital at Bogazkoy in the 17th century. The city was set on a steep slope and contained at least five great temples.

Map of Hittite Land
Hittite Map

Hattusilis aspired to build and empire. He pushed his military forces to the Mediterranean Sea and also into northern areas of Syria. Hattusilis brought scribes from Syria who could write in cuneiform , an ancient form of writing using wedge shapes. Cuneiform tablets are one of the best sources for studying Hittites. Thanks to Hastussillis's ambitious military actions, we are able to better understand the culture and major events of the Hittites.

Hittite history is generally divided into two major time periods: the Old Kingdom (1700-1500 BC) and the New Kingdom (1400-1180 BC). Sometimes included is an obscure period referred to as the Middle Kingdom (1500-1400 BC).

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom was established by a ruler named Labarna. The aim of the rulers of this time was to gain control and consolidate the various groups of Hittites into a singular kingdom. The Old Kingdom came to an end with the death of its late ruler, Telepenus. Telepenus wrote in a proclamation that held solid control and peace within his kingdom.

The Middle Kingdom

Very few records have been found in the century after Telepenus's death (1500 BC). One reason documents may be scarce is because the Hittites were likely under attack constantly. Many researchers look to the Old and New Kingdoms for answers because of the obscurity of the Middle Kingdom.

One important occurrence during this time was an alliance formed with Egypt. The alliance soon faltered as Egypt allied itself with a new enemy of the Hittites: the Mitanni.

Peace Treaty between Hittites and Egyptians
Hittite-Egyptian Peace Treaty

The New Kingdom

This time period is sometimes called the Hittite Empire period. It was during this time period that the kingship became hereditary. Kings began acting as high priests for the kingdom, and were seen as godlike.

As the Hittite Empire continued to grow in power, so did other kingdoms like the Assyrians, the Mitanni, and the Hurrians. The Hittites' civilization initially began to take on Hurrian ideals, which would become much more prominent in later times.

The Hittites relied on trade routes for their growth and to obtain resources like iron. After the Battle of Kadesh, the Hittites saw their power begin to decline as the Assyrians became more powerful. The success of the empirical movement of the Assyrians and other groups led to the fall of the Hittite Empire. As their kingdom fell, the Hittites spread to other areas, taking with them their penchant for metallurgy.

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