Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittites

A little-visited but historically important attraction in Turkey are the ruins of an ancient city known as Hattusa, located near present-day Boğazkale, within the great bend of the Kizilirmak River. We can add a extension to this from our Cappadocia tours. The city was once the capital of the Hittite empire, a Bronze Age superpower whose kingdom spanned Anatolia and northern Syria, from the Aegean in the west to the Euphrates in the east.


The Hittites, cited in the Old Testament as Hittim, were the people of Asia Minor who inhabited the land of Hatti on the central plateau of Anatolia, what is now Turkey, and parts of northern Syria. The Hittites, whose origin is unknown, spoke an Indo-European language. They invaded (or originated from) the region, which became known as Hatti, around 1900 B.C. and they imposed their language, culture and dominance on the original inhabitants, the primitive HATTI who spoke a binding language that did not belong to the Indo-European trunk.

Although the first Hittite chronology is not very certain, it is possible that the first city established by the Hittites was Nesa, near present-day Kayseri (Turkey). Shortly after 1800 B.C. They conquered the city of Hattusa, the remains of which are in the current Turkish archaeological site of Bogazköy. Knowledge of Hittite history is only known until the 17th century BC, when its main king, called Labarna (1680-1650 BC) or Tabarna, founded the so-called Old Hittite Kingdom, making Hattusas its capital.

Labarna conquered practically all of central Anatolia and extended his dominions to the Mediterranean Sea. His successors increased the Hittite conquests into northern Syria.

Mursil I (1620-1590 B.C.) conquered what is now Aleppo, in Syria, and razed Babylon around 1595 B.C., ending the 1st Amorite Dynasty of Babylon.

After the murder of Mursil, a period of weakness followed that ended during the reign of King Telipinu (who reigned around 1525-1500 B.C.). To ensure the stability of the kingdom, he enacted a strict succession law and took forceful measures to suppress violence. Of Telipinu’s successors only their names are known.

The Hittite empire is mentioned several times in the Bible as one of the most powerful empires of old. They were contemporaries of the ancient Egyptians and turned out to be their equals. In the battle of Kadesh, the Hittites fought against the powerful Egyptian empire and were about to end the life of Pharaoh Ramses the Great, forcing the Egyptians to withdraw. Years later, the Egyptians and Hittites signed a peace treaty, believed to be the oldest in the world, with Ramses himself marrying a Hittite princess to seal the deal.

Peace Treaty between the Egyptians and the Hittites, on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. It is believed to be the first example in the history of a written international agreement.

The Hittites played a central role in ancient history, much more of the credit given to them in modern history books. The Hittites developed the lightest and fastest chariots in the world and, although they belonged to the Bronze Age, they already made use of iron tools.

Incredibly, until as recently as the twentieth century, the Hittites were considered something like something fantastic since no evidence of their existence was ever found. This changed with the discovery and excavation of Hattusa, along with the discovery of tens of thousands of clay tablets documenting many of the Hittites’ diplomatic activities, the most important of which is the peace agreement signed after the Battle of Kadesh between the Hittites and the Egyptians in the 13th century BC.

Hattusa is located at the southern end of the Budaközü Plain, on a slope about 300 meters above the valley. Formerly it was surrounded by cultivated fields, rich pasture lands and forests that supplied enough wood for the construction and maintenance of a great city. The site was originally inhabited by the Hattian indigenous people before it became the capital of the Hittites sometime around 2,000 BC.

Hattusa was destroyed, along with the Hittite state itself, in the 12th century BC. Excavations suggest that the city was burned, however, this destruction appears to have taken place after many of Hattusa’s residents had left the city, taking valuables as well as important official city records. The site discovered by archaeologists was little more than a ghost town in its final days.

At its peak, the city covered 1.8 square kilometers and comprised an interior and exterior part with an 8-kilometer-long wall in between, which today is partially visible. The interior of the city was occupied by a citadel with large administrative buildings and temples. The royal residence, or acropolis, was built on a high hill.

To the south of the city there was an area of approximately 1 square kilometer (lower town of Hattusa), also walled, with doors decorated with reliefs showing warriors, lions and sphinxes. Four temples stood here, each around an arcaded courtyard, along with civilian buildings and residential structures. Various cemeteries were erected outside the walls. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people are believed to have lived in the city of Hattusa during its glory days.

The so-called New Hittite Kingdom was founded around 1450 B.C. One of its most important members, the royal prince Subiluliuma (1380-1346 BC), usurped the throne during a period of foreign invasions. After liberating his country and defeating his main enemy, the Mitanni kingdom, located in northern Mesopotamia, he led his armies beyond Syria. There his conquests were simple due to the weakening of Egyptian power during the Amarna era and the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, also called Amenhotep IV (or Amenofis IV). In this way, the Hittite kingdom under Subiluliuma became a great empire that rivaled the power of Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria. After Subiluliuma’s death, the Hittites managed to maintain most of their Empire, although only through continuous wars. During the 15th and 14th centuries B.C., his possessions extended west to the Aegean Sea, east to Armenia, southeast to upper Mesopotamia, and south from Syria to present-day Lebanon.

During the second half of the fourteenth century B.C., the Hittites maintained continuous conflicts with Egypt. These two great powers fought to control Syria until the battle of Qades (c. 1296) between the Hittite king Muwatalli (1315-1296 B.C.) and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Although Ramses II proclaimed that he had won a great victory, the Hittites continued to keep their possessions in Syria. The Hittite King Hatusili III (who reigned around 1289-1265 B.C.) signed a peace treaty with Ramses II years later, a treaty that also bears the name of Qadesh and sealed it by giving his daughter in marriage. Subsequently, relations between Hittites and Egyptians continued to be friendly, until the Hittite Empire fell shortly after 1200 B.C. for unknown causes, among which could be the so-called “invasions of the peoples of the Sea” and the attack of the ferocious gasgas.

Neohitite City-States

The fall of the Hittite Empire, actually a political superstructure, was followed by confusion and conflict. Subsequently, a series of Neohitite Citizen-States reveal their existence in sources in southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria. The most famous was Karkemish. These states were populated by a mixed ethnic group called the Syro-Hittite, composed mainly of Hittites, peoples belonging to the former Hittite Empire, and the first inhabitants of both areas. Syro-Hittite rulers used the Luvite language written in hieroglyphs. Some of these city-states were conquered in the 10th century B.C. by the Aramaeans; the rest became provinces of the Assyrian Empire under Sargon II, around 715 B.C. Even after the Assyrians conquered all of Syria, they still called it Hatti.

First documents and translations

The earliest important sources on the Hittites come from Egyptian documents, mainly those from the 19th Dynasty, and from passages in the Bible. The first of these passages, in which the Hittites are called “sons of Heth”, probably refers to the one known as the period of the Hittite Kingdom. Later passages allude to the Syro-Hittites.

In 1906, in excavations at Bogazköy, the royal archives of the Hittites were discovered. This discovery raises doubts about many Egyptian evidences. For example, some military contests are mentioned as victories for the Hittites, while in Egyptian documents, the same contests are identified as Hittite defeats. The discovery of the archives was particularly important because it enabled scholars to decipher the Hittite language, and also revealed information about previously unknown aspects of culture, such as its political organization, legislation, religion, and literature.

Most of the texts found in the archives were written in the Hittite language, although the treaties and the state letters were written in Akkadian, the international language of the time. Other texts were written in the Hurrian language of southeastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, a language unrelated to any known linguistic trunk. The Hittites used the cuneiform writing system adopted from the Babylonians, although they also used a hieroglyphic system to inscribe a language closely related to the Hittite, probably a Luvite dialect. Although hieroglyphs were used during the Empire period, most of the inscriptions belong to the period after their fall. The literature of the Hittites was highly developed, as historical documents and narratives show.