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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Iron Empire

The Hittites were an ancient people who built an empire that lasted for about a thousand years, from around 1340 to 1200 BCE in what is now modern Turkey and parts of northern Syria. 

An Indo-European people, the Hittites were originally from around the Caspian Sea who later moved into southern Turkey around 2000 BC. Unlike other Semitic people who had lived in the area, the Hittites rode horses, and even built wagons and chariots.   
Depiction of a Hittite chariot (from an Egyptian relief)

Most information about the Hittites came from the royal library discovered in 1906 in the ruins of Khattushas, the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire, near Bogaz Koi in Turkey. The library—one of the largest and oldest to be discovered—yielded 10,000 clay tablets containing a wealth of information about the empire, written in cuneiform. Archaeologists were able to gather information from these and other documents and from the remains of their great fortified cities.

Around 3000 BC, the Hittites, riding in horses and chariots and armed with bronze weapons, swept down from the north and swiftly conquered the inhabitants of Asia Minor who were mostly farmers and herdsmen. By 2000 BC, the areas conquered by them were united into a powerful empire by a king named Labarna. This empire lasted until 1650 BC. Another Hittite empire (called by historians the “New Hittite Kingdom”) arose in 1450 BC, more powerful than the previous one.

The Hittites learned to process iron around 1500 BCE and were known to be the first to use iron extensively. Their iron mines on the Black Sea represented the world supply at the time. This metal revolutionized weaponry, and was  instrumental in expanding their empire.

The smelting of iron was a secret closely guarded by the Hittites, who believed that the metal was a gift from the gods. 
But they could not keep the secret for very long. 
The demise of the empire, which flourished during the Bronze Age, helped usher in the region's Iron Age.  

Like other invaders of Mesopotamia before them, the Hittites also adopted the religion, literature, and laws of the area, effectively continuing the heritage of the old Sumerian culture. 

Extent of the Hittite Empire (in blue)

The Hittite government may have been the first constitutional monarchy. The Pankus, an assembly of noblemen that monitored the king’s activities, probably had the power to remove, and install a new king. The king was the supreme ruler, supreme judge, commander-in-chief of the army, and the high priest. Cities and provinces throughout the empire were governed by an appointee of the king, which was usually a member of the royal family.

The boundaries of the Hittite empire included wide grassy plains, mountains, seacoast, river valleys, and deserts. Grain, olives, and grapes were grown in the fertile valleys of the western region of the empire. In the more mountainous region, raising stock was important. In Taurus and southwest Anatolia, copper, silver, iron, and gold mines were to be found. The metalworking techniques of the Hittites were the most advanced during this time. Trade was also an important part of the empire’s economy, as Anatolia not only connects Asia to Europe; it also straddles the sea route to the Mediterranean. 

The Hittite state was feudal; that is, vassals were awarded lands to manage and provided with serfs in exchange for military service. Life in this society was closely regulated by law. The price of agricultural lands and products were fixed. So, too, were the wages of free men and slaves. Hittite laws were not as harsh as the Babylonian laws; criminals like thieves usually were made to pay heavy fines. The death penalty was reserved for serious crimes, like rape and murder.

Family life in Hittite society was the normal patriarchal. The father is the head of the family, and he can give his daughter away in marriage after the bridegroom has paid a price for the bride. An interesting characteristic of the Hittite society is the prominent role played by women, especially the queen. Queens in the Hittite empire could be included in treaties concluded with other kingdoms. One, Puduhepa, wife of King Hattusilis III, even had correspondence with other rulers. Women in Hittite society were highly respected and had an important part.   
Puduhepa (right) makes an offering to the goddess Hepat 

Hittite society had many officials, men and women, both secular and religious, but how they learned their trade historians had not yet fully established. However, in most cases professions during this era were learned in practice. Occupations such as that of the blacksmith, carpenter, or potter were passed from father to son. This kind of education could cost nothing, but what if a father or mother wanted his/her child to be trained in a certain profession by somebody else? Apparently, cases of this sort had happened often. Historians had found in the Hittite law code a stipulation that fixed the payment for the professional.    

The cuneiform script at this time was a collection of some 350 signs. Teaching people to read and write it must have been a major branch of education. The scribe, too, had to learn to write in the Akkadian language, which was the language of diplomacy then. A school of some sort must have existed to train a highly skilled professional such as a scribe. 

Many of the deities of the Sumerians and the Babylonians were adopted by the Hittites. An unusual characteristic of the Hittites was that they tend to accept the gods and goddesses of the people they had conquered. As a result, their religion was a mixture of the religions of the people that lived in Anatolia and in other parts of the empire. They took care not to offend their various gods, and built numerous shrines to honor these deities. 
Teshub, Hittite god of the sky, weather , and storm
The religious center of the empire was The Great Temple at Hattusas, below the hill on which the palace stood. The king also served as the high priest, which helped in unifying the different cultures that made up the whole empire. The Hittite religion not only tolerated other beliefs but accepted other gods as well. As a result, the Hittites had many gods (polytheistic). “The thousand gods of the Hatti” is an invocation often found by archaeologists in the Hittite state documents. Many of their gods remain unidentified, but the chief gods were the storm god, Teshub, and the sun goddess.  

The last half of the 14th century BCE saw the empire in frequent conflict with the Egyptians over Syria, which culminated in a great battle fought in Kadesh, Syria. The result of this battle between the Hittites, under King Muwatali (reigned from around 1315-1296 BC), and the Egyptians, under Ramses II, was inconclusive. Neither was the clear victor, although Egypt claimed a great victory. As a result of this war, a truce was concluded between the two kingdoms--the oldest recorded treaty in history.

These wars, however, took a toll on the empire. Add to that the coups d’ etat, revolt, plague, poor harvests, and weak leaders, the Hittite empire was severely unprepared for the subsequent invasion that occurred about 1200 BC. A group of nomadic tribes, called the “Sea People” in ancient Egyptian records, put an end to the empire that existed for a thousand years. The capital city, Hattusas, was burnt to the ground; its people either killed or fled. 

If you want to know more about this remarkable people, watch this BBC documentary, on "The Dark Lords of Hattusha":

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