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The Hittites

Early in the second millennium BC, there appeared in western Asia, peoples speaking Indo-European languages. Originally nomadic and pastoral they penetrated into Asia Minor and established there, the Hittite state, with its capital at Hattusas (around Turkey). By the middle of the 17th century BC, they had acquired control of central Anatolia and were attacking cities in northern Syria. In 1595 BC, they captured Babylon, though only temporarily.

But in the 15th and early 14th centuries BC, the Hurrian state of Mitani – also controlled by an Indo-European aristocracy – had the upper hand in northern Syria and Mesopotamia. The greatest of the Hittite kings, Suppiluliumas, sacked the Mitanian capital, and captured northern Syria in 1370 BC. For nearly two centuries, the Hittites were now one of the great powers of the Middle East.

Their main rival was Egypt under the kings of the XVIII and XIX Dynasties. The Battle of Kades in 1286 BC (one of the most famous battles of that time) was between Rameses II and the Hittites, and in spite of the boastful language of the Egyptian inscription. Rameses seems to have been on the losing side. The Hittites continued to control most of Syria.

Hittite dialects were written both in cuneiform and in a new hieroglyphic script. Although many of their writings have been deciphered, they reveal less than impressive things. The Hittites, it seems, excelled at war and little else beyond. Their chariots were formidable machines, heavier than those of Egypt, and manned by three rather than two warriors. Hittite fortifications were also impressive works of martial engineering.

Yet in spite of all their military advantage, the Hittite Empire seems to have fallen early in the 12th century BC, an easy prey to the great invasion of the Sea People (looked at elsewhere on this site). During this time the Hittites virtually disappeared from Anatolia, and their position of dominance was later taken by the Phrygians. A few Hittite splinter states remained in northern Syria, and much of the art that survives the Hittites is from this period. There was also one such state in Jebusite Jerusalem (their rulers are mentioned in the Old Testament). The Hittite history was pretty much forgotten for three millennia until modern archaeologists re-discovered the remains of that civilization.

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