Pimp My Chariot: The Story of the Hittites

Today we’re going to learn about one of the lesser-known ancient civilizations, the Hittites. The Hittites were one of the Bronze Age Aegean superpowers along with the Assyrian, Mycenaean, Babylonian and Egyptian empires which they regularly traded and fought with. They were located in Anatolia or modern-day Turkey. The main body of the Hittite civilization lasted from 1600 BCE to 1178 BCE, but we’ll hit on that later.

The capital city of their empire was Hattusa, located in central Turkey near the modern town of Boğazkale. Hattusa boasted a population of 40 to 50 thousand residents at its height. The city was a massive fortress surrounded by large defensive walls that stretched to nearly 5 miles in length. The walls were supported by over 100 guard towers spanning their length.

The Hittites were ruled by a theocratic system in which their kings were also their priests. Their religion was a vast polytheistic pantheon centering around a storm god which is thought to be a forerunner to the better-known Greek pantheon of gods. There were several different temples built in their cities to honor various gods. Hattusa housed many different temples and shrines within its walls, as well as a well-preserved site known as the Great Temple. This Great Temple was part of a complex of many interconnected smaller temples and shrines and was dedicated to their great Storm God.

Hittite cities featured such modern amenities as aqueducts to bring water into the cities. They also included underground drainage systems to remove waste water. These drainage systems were made of mass-produced clay pipe segments. These segments featured holes on the top of segments for easy cleaning of the pipes. The segments also served to make replacing damaged and broken pipe segments quick and easy.

The Hittites were a very bureaucratic society and kept many records. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of clay tablets from Hittite sites written in cuneiform which they likely adopted from their Assyrian neighbors. We have to appreciate how tediously the Hittites kept records when other civilizations under study from this period have yielded far fewer written records. If you’re familiar with the history podcast, The Lesser Bonapartes, then you’ll know that host Glen would be a big fan of the Hittites for “baking those tablets”.

It is from the records kept within these tablets that archaeologists have been able to determine that the Trojan War written about by Homer in the Illiad may have been less legend that originally suspected. The city of Troy would have been located on the far west coast of the Hittite Empire and some tablet writings indicate invasion and skirmishes in this area from people coming from Greece fitting the timeframe of the Trojan War. This is further backed up by archaeological evidence of war and destruction at the site of Troy that has been dated back to this time. I wonder how the story of the Trojan War would have played out if Helen and Paris had fled 500 miles east to Hattusa?  

The Hittites had a mighty army. One of their greatest achievements was an upgrade they made to the ancient chariot which gave them an edge in battle. The Hittites moved the wheels on the chariot from the back to the center. This gave the chariot a much more stable balance and sturdier frame which enabled them to carry an extra man on them. While most chariots of the day had 1 or 2 men riding within, Hittite chariots were much heavier supporting up to 3 men. This effectively gave the Hittites an advantage as they had just invented the ancient equivalent of a heavy tank.

In the year 1531 BCE Hittite King Mursili I marched his army over 1000 miles southeast to the great city of Babylon. He then proceeded to thoroughly sack and conquer Babylon. Interestingly enough, rather than capturing the city and absorbing Babylon into his kingdom, King Mursili allows the Kassites to take control of the city after the Hittites left. This act effectively made the sacking of Babylon the longest recorded drive-by in ancient history.

Aside from playing host to the Trojan War of legend, and putting an end to the Old Babylonian Empire the Hittites also took place in one of the most well-documented battles in all of ancient history, the battle of Kadesh. This battle was fought between King Muwutalli II of the Hittites and Pharaoh Ramesses II of Egypt in 1274 BCE. Ramesses was keen on expanding Egyptian territory further north into Hittite controlled regions. He took 20 thousand men on a march north on his campaign while Muwutalli marched an army of 17 thousand troops south to meet him.

On the march north, Ramesses allowed several different units of his army to break off to sack and plunder nearby settlements while he and the rest of the army hurried north to Kadesh. While camped near Kadesh the Hittites encountered Ramesses weakened army and launched an ambush on the outnumbered Egyptians. The Hittites were able to confuse and scatter Egyptian forces early on in this battle but once Ramesses reinforcements arrived he was able to regroup and rally his troops. Ramesses was then able to push the Hittites back until they took refuge within the walled city of Kadesh.

Having suffered heavy loss from the initial surprise attack, Ramesses was unable to lay siege to the cloistered Hittites. He was forced to march his forces back south into the heart of Egyptian territory. Once safely home Ramesses wasted no time in proclaiming himself the victor of the great battle. Meanwhile, with the Egyptians gone, the Hittites faced little resistance as the army continued their campaign south conquering more Egyptian land before heading back north. There really was no clear victor of the engagement, though it would seem the Hittites got the better end of that deal in my opinion.

The Hittites were also known to produce iron in small quantities, the resources required in this were hard to come by at this time in history. They were not able to create enough to outfit an army, but they were making and trading smaller things like ceremonial daggers and knives to neighboring civilizations. We’ve found evidence of the Hittites beginning to smelt iron as far back as 1380 BCE which qualifies them as Bronze Age hipsters, making iron before it was cool.

The end of the Hittite Empire came in 1178 BCE after being invaded and severely weakened by the mysterious “sea people” tribes that decimated all of the major Aegean civilizations of the age. This massive invasion saw the collapse of the Hittites and eventually all of their major rivals as well. Though decimated in 1178 BCE some elements of the Hittite state did manage to carry on. These splinter elements of the Hittites became independent Neo-Hittite city-states that were able to last until around 800 BCE. Some of these city-states were even mentioned in the Old Testament as they were located much further east than the traditional homeland of the old Hittite Empire.

As with any Bronze Age Aegean society that I’ve studied, I’m always left wondering about the mysterious sea peoples. Who were they? Where did they come from? What made them leave their homes? Not much is known about these peoples other than they effectively brought about the end of the bronze age civilizations. The next 100 to 200 years saw a sharp decline in literacy in the region as well as a move away from city life into more rural and independent villages. The reign of the Hittites had come to an end. 

This article is also available in MiniMag format.

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