Who were the Hittites?

David Tresilian , Thursday 12 Sep 2019

A major exhibition at the Louvre in Paris has been shedding light on the Hittites, a formidable foe of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, writes David Tresilian

Who were the Hittites?

Centred in southern Anatolia and the Levant in what is now Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, the ancient Hittite Empire flourished in the 14th century BCE before disappearing almost so completely that it was not until the later 19th and early 20th centuries that archaeologists were able to match the written records of ancient Hittite civilisation with its archaeological and material remains.

It has long been known that the ancient Hittites were a formidable foe of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, with Hittite armies pushing down into the Levant from their base at Hattusa in central Anatolia during the reign of the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), who ruled from 1353 to 1336 BCE, and bringing most of the region under their control until they almost began to threaten the eastern route into Egypt.

So great was the Hittite threat that the widow of the ancient Egyptian boy pharaoh Tutankhamun wrote to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I seeking to wed one of his sons in order to seal a diplomatic understanding between the two states. The Hittite prince Zannanza was then duly dispatched to Egypt. However, this gesture only made tensions worse, since when Zannanza inexplicably died on the way to the Egyptian court, his father accused the new pharaoh, Ay, of having killed him, further poisoning relations.

It was only when Ramses II, the third king of the subsequent 19th Dynasty, came to the throne in 1279 BCE that the atmosphere finally cleared in Egypt’s favour. In the fourth year of his reign, Ramses set out northwards into the Levant in order to regain the territories lost to the Hittites. The Battle of Kadesh in 1275 BCE between ancient Egyptian forces led by Ramses II and Hittite forces led by the Hittite king Muwatalli II at Kadesh north of what is now Damascus was not an unequivocal victory for the Egyptians, but an armistice was agreed together with new and more secure frontiers.

Ramses subsequently married the eldest daughter of the Hittite king, freeing Egyptian forces from the threat from the north in order to concentrate on a threat from the west in the shape of invading Libyans. He was also able to focus on his temple-building programme in Upper Egypt, bequeathing to the world not only his extensions to the Karnak Temple at Luxor but also the Abu Simbel Temple south of Aswan marking the southern borders of ancient Egypt.

Much is known about the Hittites from ancient Egyptian sources, since the New Kingdom scribes kept careful copies of diplomatic correspondence between the two states, including the details of inter-dynastic marriages. Some of this correspondence has come down to us today. The Battle of Kadesh, one of the only military campaigns of comparable date that can be reconstructed in detail, is also known of chiefly because of the records kept by ancient Egyptian officials and its inclusion in the lists of the military and other achievements of Ramses II engraved on temple walls. There is also a long ancient Egyptian poem celebrating Ramses’s victory over the Hittites.

Much less is known about the Hittites from their own accounts, and until quite recently Hittite history had mostly to be reconstructed from the outside. As the current exhibition on the Hittites at the Louvre Museum in Paris explains, this situation only really began to change with the archaeological excavations that took place at Hittite archaeological sites in the Levant and Anatolia in the last decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th. Even today lacunae remain.

However, the exhibition, entitled Royaumes oubliés, de l’empire hittite aux Araméens and taking in both the apogee of Hittite power and the Empire’s subsequent fragmentation into a set of petty kingdoms, may well help to fill at least some of these in the minds of visitors.

Bringing together material from major European museums including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, it tackles a still little-known civilisation from the ancient Middle East and makes intriguing connections between Hittite art and architecture and those of neighbouring civilisations, including the ancient Assyrians in what is now Iraq.

It turns out that the ancient Hittites, almost forgotten until the 19th century and only really rediscovered in the burst of archaeological activity that took place across the Levant before the First World War, may well be experiencing a renaissance in public esteem that is drawing new attention to their achievements.


While the exhibition is a remarkable achievement for the Louvre, staging for the first time in France and possibly also in Europe an exhibition on a major scale on this long-forgotten civilisation, perhaps the most striking aspect of the exhibition for visitors is the wealth of Hittite sculpture on display.
Some of this may well look familiar to those acquainted with the art of ancient Assyria, for example, or even to an extent with that of ancient Egypt, yet there are many intriguing twists in ancient Hittite art, departures from other civilisational norms, that may bring the visitor up sharp before some of the pieces on show. Some aspects of these may well be familiar, while other will be far less so.

The Hittites were alive to the possibilities of the animal world, for example, when looking round for subjects for sculpture, though they were less animal-minded than their ancient Egyptian rivals when picking out subjects for religious worship. There are thus no animal gods of the type that fill the ancient Egyptian pantheon in the ancient Hittite religion. However, like the ancient Egyptians the Hittites were interested in the artistic possibilities of animal-human composites, including variations on the famous sphinx made up of a human head, often that of the reigning monarch, pasted onto a lion’s body.

The exhibition thus includes some monumental Hittite sphinxes contributed from the collections of the Louvre, though unlike the ancient Egyptian version these may be triple animal-human composites at least, being made up of elements taken from three separate species and not just two. A typical Hittite sphinx can thus have a lion’s body, a man’s head, and elaborate feathered wings. In addition to familiar composites of this sort, the Hittites also invented others, such as the “scorpion-man,” a human-headed nondescript beast with the tail of a scorpion, and the “fish-man,” a human head and torso grafted onto a fish’s tail something like a merman.

According to the exhibition, this breaking down of species boundaries was a way of understanding the organisation of living things, creating “links between beings that are normally separate… and making the world coherent and unified.” It established a continuity with the natural world, rather than separating human beings from it, though it also seems clear that the Hittites saw such composite beings as threatening figures that were outside of the natural order. They are chiefly used as guardian figures in ancient Hittite art and when made into monumental sculptures they were used to guard the entrances to buildings.

The exhibition includes many such sculptures in addition to metalwork, gold and silver jewellery, architectural elements including wall panels, and clay tablets bearing fragments of correspondence. Much of this is official in character, and it includes a letter written to Ramses II regarding the marriage of the daughter of the Hittite king to the ancient Egyptian pharaoh and a collection of seals bearing witness to the importance of bureaucracy in Hittite culture, perhaps another link to the other ancient cultures of the Middle East.

A second room contains carved stone sculptures from excavations carried out in the many smaller kingdoms that arose in the region after the fragmentation of the Hittite Empire in the 12th century BCE. These included Karkemish in northern Syria, excavated before the First World War by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley and the young T.E. Lawrence, as well as others scattered across southeast Anatolia and northern Syria such as Sam’al, Masuwari, Palastin, Hamath, Gurgum, Malizi, and Bit-Bahaini.

A third room tells the story of the excavations at Tell Halaf, also now in Syria, carried out by the German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim from 1911 to 1913. Excited by the discoveries he had found at the site, the centre of one of the post-Hittite kingdoms, von Oppenheim packed up his tools in 1913 determined to come back for another season the following year. The outbreak of the First World War frustrated his plans, and the excavations only began again in 1926, having been halted by the collapse of the former Ottoman and German Empires and the imposition of French control in the Levant.

In 1930, von Oppenheim set up a museum for his discoveries in Berlin, arranging the hundreds of orthostates (sculpted wall panels) and dozens of monumental sculptures he had found at Tell Halaf in the way he imagined they might have looked when they led into the site’s western palace in antiquity. However, in 1943 the museum was destroyed by phosphorous bombs, and the combination of the high temperatures of the resulting fires and the cold water used to put them out shattered the stone of the panels and sculptures into some 27,000 fragments.

Like pieces from an enormous jigsaw puzzle, these were reassembled between 2001 and 2010 by restorers at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Some of the reassembled sculptures are on display in the Louvre exhibition, and while they are a little worse for wear after some three thousand years and the vicissitudes of two world wars they are now once again able to greet their visitors intact.

Royaumes oubliés, de l’empire hittite aux Araméens, Louvre, Paris, until 12 August.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly*

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