- The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian (modern-day Turkey) people who formed an empire between 1600-1180 BCE.
- The Hittites manufactured advanced iron goods, ruled over their kingdom through government officials with independent authority over various branches of government, and worshipped storm gods.
- The Hittites’ ongoing conflicts with Egypt produced the world’s first known peace treaty.
The Hittites were an ancient group of Indo-Europeans who moved into Asia Minor and formed an empire at Hattusa in Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 1600 BCE.
The Hittite Empire reached great heights during the mid-1300s BCE, when it spread across Asia Minor, into the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia.
Like many Indo-Europeans, the Hittites were able to travel long distances and migrate to other lands due to the domestication of horses. The spread of technologies like the wheel and wagon, which were also used in ancient Mesopotamia and other early civilizations in the region, also assisted pastoralists and agrarian civilizations.
After about 1180 BCE, the empire ended and splintered into several independent Neo-Hittite—new Hittite—city-states, some of which survived until the eighth century BCE.
A map of the Hittite empire at its greatest extent in the mid-1300s. The Hittite empire is colored in green and is bordered by the Black Sea and the Mediterranean sea.
The Hittite language was a member of Indo-European, a family of related languages that today are widely spoken in the Americas, Europe, and Western and Southern Asia. Hittites are so named because of their initial identification with the Biblical Hittites, according to nineteenth-century archaeology. The Hittites are usually referred to as a people living among the Israelites.
Although their civilization thrived during the Bronze Age, starting around 3000 BCE, the Hittites were pioneers of the Iron Age and began manufacturing iron artifacts around 1400 BCE. This is significant because the Hittites’ use of iron and steel created tools and weapons that were more efficient than those made of bronze. A couple of theories exist about how the Hittites developed this technology. Some scholars believe the Hittites had been experimenting with metalworking for years, eventually leading them to discover a smelting process that would melt iron, which melts at a higher temperature than other metals like copper or tin. It’s also possible that the Hittites learned some of this technology from peoples in the Zagros Mountains in western Iran. The Hittites’ trading partners in Assyria and parts of the Egyptian empire had a high demand for iron products.
After 1180 BCE, amid general turmoil in the Levant with the sudden arrival of the Sea Peoples—people of unknown nationality who used ships to raid Mediterranean and Egyptian cities—the kingdom scattered into several independent Neo-Hittite city-states. The history of the Hittite civilization is known mostly from cuneiform texts found in the area of their former kingdom and from diplomatic and commercial mail found in archives in Egypt and the Middle East. The cuneiform writing suggests that the Hittites had some connection with Mesopotamian empires, either through direct communication or through the Hittites’ conquest of another central-Anatolian group, the Hatti, who had connections to the Sumerians—a Mesopotamian empire. Either way, Mesopotamians’ writing technology was transferred to the Hittites.
The head of the Hittite state was the king, followed by the heir-apparent—one of the king’s offspring born into the position of succeeding him. Some officials, however, exercised independent authority over various branches of the government, so the king did not control all aspects of the kingdom. For example, the Chief of the Royal Bodyguards, the Chief of the Scribes—who was in charge of bureaucracy—and even the Chief of the Wine Stewards!
The actual day-to-day life and culture of the Hittites is mysterious because the written documents from this culture deal mainly with the kings and their campaigns. It is known that the Hittites wrote using Akkadian script but in their own Indo-European language and used cylinder seals to sign documents and mark property as people did throughout Mesopotamia, suggesting a link between the two cultures.
However, Hittites may have learned about Mesopotamian customs through the Hatti, an Anatolian people the Hittites conquered, who had prior connections to Sumer in Mesopotamia. The details of Hittite life and culture we’ve learned seem to be slight variations on those of the Hatti. But we don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between these two groups given the small number of primary sources that have been found.
Storm gods were prominent in the Hittite pantheon—the set of all the gods in a polytheistic religion. Tarhunt was referred to as The Conqueror, The King of Kummiya, King of Heaven, and Lord of the land of Hatti. He was the god of battle and victory, especially against foreign powers. This might indicate that the Hittites placed value on military might.
The Battle of Kadesh
One military engagement the Hittites are famous for is the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II’s army in 1274 BCE. This battle is especially important because both sides claimed victory, which led to the first known peace treaty in the history of the world, in 1258 BCE.
Conflict between Hittites and Egyptians
The Hittites had been making headway into the Egyptian empire and had caused trouble for the Pharaoh Tutmoses III. Pharaoh Ramesses II resolved to drive the Hittites from his borders. He hoped to gain an advantage by capturing of the city of Kadesh, a center of commerce which the Hittites held. Ramesses marched from Egypt at the head of over 20,000 soldiers in four divisions to fight against the troops of Muwatalli, the king of the Hittites.
The Egyptian and Hittite armies were pretty evenly matched, which is probably why both were able to claim victory. The Egyptian chariots were faster because they only had two people aboard them, while the Hittite chariots accommodated an extra person, allowing more spears to be thrown from each chariot. The combination of chariots and iron tools, which were stronger than bronze ones, meant that the Egyptian and Hittite military technology was some of the most sophisticated of its time. Both civilizations boasted strong state power and the ability to send troops to war in order to fight for control over their empires.
Ramesses claimed a great victory for Egypt: he had defeated his enemy in battle. Muwatalli also claimed victory because he didn’t lose Kadesh. The Treaty of Kadesh—the first peace treaty—was an important document because it showed the ability of large civilizations to determine whether or not they were at war with each other.
What do you think?
- What do the Battle of Kadesh and the Treaty of Kadesh tell us about how leaders of big civilizations controlled the fates of their citizens?
Want to join the conversation?
- What does the article mean by "Hittites are so named because of their initial identification with the Biblical Hittites, are they not identified with/as the Biblical Hittites anymore?(13 votes)
- In the Hebrew Bible there's a group of people identified as "the Hittites". They could easily just be a local Canaanite tribe. (King David stole a wife from a Hittite named Uriah, for example. Uriah served in King David's army and was away at war at the time, and eventually King David had him killed and kept the wife.) Anyway, 19th century archaeologists, believing bible stories to be history, finding ruins of a previously unnamed group, attached the name of the biblical group to what they found.(17 votes)
- Was there something similar to the Rosetta stone that helped translate the Hittites' written language?(14 votes)
- I'm interested in exactly who the "sea people" mentioned in the lesson were or might have been?(5 votes)
- It is extremely unclear who the Sea Peoples were. Some have hypothesized that they may possibly have been Aegean tribes, raiders from Central Europe, scattered soldiers who now were pirates, or some other peoples(7 votes)
- What are storm gods? How do they differ from 'normal' gods?(2 votes)
- Hi Tatjana! Storm gods were part of the pantheon, or full set, of gods in the Hittites' polytheistic religion. Many individual Hittite towns worshipped their own storm gods. It's not clear from the written evidence we have whether storm gods were associated with controlling the weather or skies, or whether they represented other things like military strength. But either way, the Hittites believed these storm gods to be powerful.(10 votes)
- was this the first time a battle was won by both?(5 votes)
- Good question. I think so, but I am not quite sure. Check out the videos, they help a lot.(0 votes)
- With the obvious biblical component here in the Hittite naming, how does the biblical story line follow this timeline? What were the proto-semetic cultures (Early Jews and Canaanites) doing during this time period?(1 vote)
- Be careful. The Hittites referred to in the Bible were a Caananite tribe. The Hittites of Anatolia were not related to that bunch at all. Look them up and you'll see. Two different bunches with the same name.(6 votes)
- Who served in the two armies? Were they slaves who were forced to fight? Were they captives from previous conquests made to serve in the armies? Or were they citizen-soldiers who were called to fight when needed? Were those in the armies considered a separate class within the society?
Also was there a concept of private property in either the Hittite or Egyptian nations?(3 votes)
- As for the Hittites, you can learn the answers to your questions here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hittite(1 vote)
- When did they dominate South Asia(1 vote)
- Hittites and Anatolians did NOT dominate south asia (which is, roughly, the areas of modern Bengladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India.) The Hittites and Anatolians never made it that far.(4 votes)
- People have created all of these territories, and they have set boundaries. How do people set these boundaries so that they know which land is their land? I'm sure they don't have people around the border singing "This land is my land. This lands not your land....) ;)(2 votes)
- Interesting question. From what I learned with other civilizations the borders are not always clear. In this period of ancient history, boundaries may as well be as far as each kingdom is willing to defend. The larger the empire, the harder it is to defend, so each empire will likely keep to its own area surrounding its cities. Borders are not always stable in the ancient world, so just because an empire claims a region their could still be conflict and fighting over it.(1 vote)
- You say that 'Battle of Kadesh' was the first battle which gave us a sense of tactics and formations during a war. My question is, How? and Why? There was Rome at that time which fought marvelous battles with tactics and formation.(1 vote)
- Rome came a thousand or more years later. Put the dates on a timeline, and it will become very, very clear.(3 votes)