The Hittites were an ancient Anatolian people who spoke a language of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family, and established a kingdom centered at Hattusa (Hittite ) in north-central Anatolia ca. the 18th century BC. The Hittite empire reached its height ca. the 14th century BCE, encompassing a large part of Anatolia, north-western Syria about as far south as the mouth of the Litani River (a territory known as Amqu), and eastward into upper Mesopotamia. After ca. 1180 BCE, the empire disintegrated into several independent "Neo-Hittite" city-states, some surviving until as late as the 8th century BC. The Anatolian plain was located in central Asia Minor. This was an excellent area for the growth and development of a civilization.
The term "Hittites" was taken from the KJV translation of the Hebrew Bible, translating HTY, or BNY-HT "Children of Heth" (Heth being son of Canaan). The archaeologists who discovered the Anatolian Hittites in the 19th century initially identified them with these Biblical Hittites. Today the identification of the Biblical peoples with either the Hattusa-based empire or the Neo-Hittite kingdoms is a matter of dispute.
The Hittite kingdom was commonly called the Land of Hatti by the Hittites themselves. The fullest expression is, "The Land of the City of Hattusa". This description could be applied to either the entire empire, or more narrowly just to the core territory, depending upon context. The word "Hatti" is actually an Akkadogram, rather than Hittite; it is never declined according to Hittite grammar rules. Despite the use of "Hatti", the Hittites should be distinguished from the Hattians, an earlier people who inhabited the same region until the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, and spoke a non-Indo-European language called Hattic. The Hittites themselves referred to their language as Nesili (or in one case, Kanesili), an adverbial form meaning "in the manner of (Ka)nesa", presumably reflecting a high concentration of Hittite speakers in the ancient city of Kanesh (modern Kültepe, Turkey). Many modern city names in Turkey are first recorded under their Hittite names, such as Sinop and Adana, reflecting the contiguity of modern Anatolia with its ancient past.
Although belonging to the Bronze Age, the Hittites were forerunners of the Iron Age, developing the manufacture of iron artifacts from as early as the 14th century BCE, when letters to foreign rulers reveal the demand for their iron goods. The Hittites were not, however, the first to work iron, and iron remained a precious metal throughout the history of their empire. The Hittites were also famous for their skill in building and using chariots.
The Hittites used cuneiform letters. Archaeological expeditions have discovered in Hattushash entire sets of royal archives in cuneiform tablets, written either in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the time, or in the various dialects of the Hittite confederation.
The first archaeological evidence for the Hittites appeared in tablets found at the Assyrian colony of Kültepe (ancient Karum Kanesh), containing records of trade between Assyrian merchants and a certain "land of Hatti". Some names in the tablets were neither Hattic nor Assyrian, but clearly Indo-European.
The script on a monument at Boğazköy by a "People of Hattusas" discovered by William Wright in 1884 was found to match peculiar hieroglyphic scripts from Aleppo and Hamath in Northern Syria. In 1887, excavations at Tell El-Amarna in Egypt uncovered the diplomatic correspondence of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaton. Two of the letters from a "kingdom of Kheta" -- apparently located in the same general region as the Mesopotamian references to "land of Hatti" -- were written in standard Akkadian cuneiform script, but in an unknown language; although scholars could read it, no one could understand it. Shortly after this, Archibald Sayce proposed that Hatti or Khatti in Anatolia was identical with the "kingdom of Kheta" mentioned in these Egyptian texts, as well as with the biblical Hittites. Others such as Max Muller agreed that Khatti was probably Kheta, but proposed connecting it with Biblical Kittim, rather than with the "Children of Heth". Sayce's identification came to be widely accepted over the course of the early 20th century; and the name "Hittite" has become attached to the civilization uncovered at Boğazköy.
During sporadic excavations at Boğazköy (Hattusa) that began in 1906, the archaeologist Hugo Winckler found a royal archive with 10,000 tablets, inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian and the same unknown language as the Egyptian letters from Kheta — thus confirming the identity of the two names. He also proved that the ruins at Boğazköy were the remains of the capital of an empire that at one point controlled northern Syria.
Under the direction of the German Archaeological Institute, excavations at Hattusa have been underway since 1907, with interruptions during both wars. Kültepe has been successfully excavated by Professor Tahsin Özgüç since 1948. Smaller scale excavations have also been carried out in the immediate surroundings of Hattusa, including the rock sanctuary of Yazılıkaya, which contains numerous rock-cut reliefs portraying the Hittite rulers and the gods of the Hittite pantheon.
The Hittite kingdom was centered around the lands surrounding Hattusa and Neša, known as "the land Hatti" (). After Hattusa was made capital, the area encompassed by the bend of the Halys River (which they called the Marassantiya) was considered the core of the Empire, and some Hittite laws make a distinction between "this side of the river" and "that side of the river", for example, the reward for the capture of an eloped slave after he managed to flee beyond the Halys is higher than that for a slave caught before he could reach the river.
To the west and south of the core territory lay the region known as Luwiya in the earliest Hittite texts. This terminology was replaced by the names Arzawa and Kizzuwatna with the rise of those kingdoms. Nevertheless, the Hittites continued to refer to the language that originated in these areas as Luwian. Prior to the rise of Kizzuwatna, the heart of that territory in Cilicia was first referred to by the Hittites as Adaniya. Upon its revolt from the Hittites during the reign of Ammuna, it assumed the name of Kizzuwatna and successfully expanded northward to encompass the lower Anti-Taurus mountains as well. To the north lived the mountainous people called the Kaskians. To the southeast of the Hittites lay the Hurrian empire of Mitanni. At its peak during the reign of Mursili II, the Hittite empire stretched from Arzawa in the west to Mitanni in the east, many of the Kaskian territories to the north including Hayasa-Azzi in the far northeast, and on south into Canaan approximately as far as the southern border of Lebanon, incorporating all of these territories within its domain.
The Hittite kingdom is conventionally divided into three periods, the Old Hittite Kingdom (ca. 1750–1500 BC), the Middle Hittite Kingdom (ca. 1500–1430 BC) and the New Hittite Kingdom (the Hittite Empire proper, ca. 1430–1180 BC).
The earliest known member of a Hittite speaking dynasty, Pithana, was based at the city of Kussara. In the 18th century BC Anitta, his son and successor, made the Hittite speaking city of Neša into one of his capitals and adopted the Hittite language for his inscriptions there. However, Kussara remained the dynastic capital for about a century until Labarna II adopted Hattusa as the dynastic seat, possibly taking the throne name of Hattusili, "man of Hattusa", at that time.
The Old Kingdom, centered at Hattusa, peaked during the 16th century BC, and even managed to sack Babylon at one point, but made no attempt to govern there, enabling the Kassite to rise to prominence there and rule it for over 400 years.
During the 15th century BC, Hittite power fell into obscurity, re-emerging with the reign of Tudhaliya I from ca. 1400 BC. Under Suppiluliuma I and Mursili II, the Empire was extended to most of Anatolia and parts of Syria and Canaan, so that by 1300 BC the Hittites were bordering on the Egyptian sphere of influence, leading to the inconclusive Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC.
Civil war and rivalling claims to the throne, combined with the external threat of the Sea Peoples weakened the Hittites and by 1160 BC, the Empire had collapsed. "Neo-Hittite" post-Empire states, petty kingdoms under Assyrian rule, may have lingered on until ca. 700 BC, and the Bronze Age Hittite and Luwian dialects evolved into the sparsely attested Lydian, Lycian and Carian languages.
The Hittites are thought to have had the first constitutional monarchy. This consisted of a king, royal family, the pankus (who monitored the king's activities), and an often rebellious aristocracy. The Hittites also made huge advances in legislation and justice. They produced the Hittite laws. These laws rarely used death as a punishment. For example, the punishment for theft was to pay back the amount stolen.
The Hittite language (or Nesite) is recorded fragmentarily from about the 19th century BC (in the Kültepe texts, see Ishara). It remained in use until about 1100 BC. Hittite is the best attested member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family.
The language of the Hattusa tablets was eventually deciphered by a Czech linguist, Bedřich Hrozný (1879—1952), who on 24 November, 1915 announced his results in a lecture at the Near Eastern Society of Berlin. His book about his discovery was printed in Leipzig in 1917, under the title The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family. The preface of the book begins with:
For this reason, the language came to be known as the Hittite language, even though that was not what its speakers had called it. The Hittites themselves apparently called their language nešili "(in the manner) of (the city of) Neša" and hence it has been suggested that the more technically correct term, "Nesite", be used instead. Nonetheless, convention continues and "Hittite" remains the standard term used.
Due to its marked differences in its structure and phonology, some early philologists, most notably Warren Cowgill even argued that it should be classified as a sister language to the Indo-European languages, rather than a daughter language (see Indo-Hittite). By the end of the Hittite Empire, the Hittite language had become a written language of administration and diplomatic correspondence. The population of most of the Hittite Empire by this time spoke Luwian dialects, another Indo-European language of the Anatolian family that had originated to the west of the Hittite region.
Hittite religion and mythology was heavily influenced by Mesopotamian mythology, increasingly so as history progressed. In earlier times, Indo-European elements may still be clearly discerned, for example Tarhunt the god of thunder, and his conflict with the serpent Illuyanka.
The Hebrew Bible refers to "Hittites" in several passages, ranging from Genesis to the post-Exilic Ezra-Nehemiah. Genesis 10 (the Table of Nations) links them to an eponymous ancestor Heth, a descendant of Ham through his son Canaan. The Hittites are thereby counted among the Canaanites, the autochthonous inhabitants of the Promised Land. The Hittites are usually depicted as a people living among the Israelites - Abraham purchases the Patriarchal burial-plot of Machpelah from them, and Hittites serve as high military officers in David's army. In 2 Kings 7:6, however, they are a people with their own kingdoms (the passage refers to "kings" in the plural), apparently located outside geographic Canaan, and sufficiently powerful to put a Syrian army to flight.
It is a matter of considerable scholarly debate whether the biblical "Hittites" signified any or all of: 1) the original Hattites of Hatti; 2) their Indo-European conquerors (Nesili), who retained the name "Hatti" for Central Anatolia, and are today referred to as the "Hittites" (the subject of this article); or 3) a Canaanite group who may or may not have been related to either or both of the Anatolian groups, and who also may or may not be identical with the later Neo-Hittite (Luwian) polities.
Other biblical scholars have argued that rather than being connected with Heth, son of Canaan, instead the Anatolian land of Hatti was mentioned in Old Testament literature and apocrypha as "Kittim" (Chittim), a people said to be named for a son of Javan.
The exact origins of the Hittites have been shrouded in mystery for quite some time. While it has been argued that Hittite culture and language developed locally in Anatolia , it has been far more common to view the Hittites and their ways as intrusive. Possible geographic origins from the west (Balkans), east (via or along the Caspian Sea or from the Armenian highlands), and north (across the Black sea) are just some of the proposed migration routes. The process has been viewed as one of conquering elites but alternatively as peaceful coupled with gradual assimilation. In archaeological terms, relationships of the Hittites to the Ezero culture of the Balkans and Maikop culture of the Caucasus have been considered within the migration framework.
A genetic study based on modern male Anatolian y-chromosome DNA has revealed gene flow from multiple geographic origins which may correspond to various migrations over time. The predominant male lineages of Anatolian males are shared with European and neighboring Near Eastern populations (94.1%). Lineages related to Central Asia, India, and Africa were far less prevalent among the males sampled. No specific lineage was determined or identified as "Hittite", however the y-chromosome haplogroup G-M201 was implied to have a possible association with the Hattians.