home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the hittites

25 june 2023

Damien Stone's book on the Hittites is a strong contribution to the excellent Reaktion series Lost Civilizations. If, like me, you knew little beyond the fact that the Hittites lived in Anatolia, spoke an Indo-European language, and had kings with ludicrously long names, you will learn a great deal from The Hittites.

No, really – one of the most famous Hittite kings was named Suppiluliuma. Other popular Hittite king names included Hattusili, Tudhaliya, and Arnuwanda. Imagine being a Hittite and getting a job as an editor of baby-name books. I just hope they did not combine this nomenclature with some sort of terrible taboo on mispronouncing the name of a ruler.

But in other respects, the Hittites were your basic Bronze Age empire. Big on palaces, monumental artworks, legal texts, weaponry, writing up the exploits of their amply-named kings, and collecting precious-metal tributes from their many vassals. Of course, as Stone points out, we picture ancient cultures through these attributes because they're the durable ones. Hittite fashion and furniture design haven't survived any better than those of the Mycenaeans or the Mesopotamians.

The Hittites remain intriguing for their language, their artistic traditions, and their abrupt disappearance c.1177 B.C..

They spoke a language distantly akin to English, a fact first noticed by alert linguist Bedřlich Hrozný, who noticed in the 1910s that the Hittite word for water was watar. Actually that's a fortuitous preservation of a very old Indo-European term, but Hittite was indeed decoded by noticing that so many of its vocabulary items had a cousin in one Indo-European tongue or another. Scholars had been able to sound out Hittite for a while, because Hittites adopted a cuneiform script from nearby Mesopotamia. But they lacked a framework for processing the words they could read, and Hrozný provided one.

As to how the Hittites, in central Anatolia, ended up with their Indo-European language, it's still anybody's guess. One school of thought in historical linguistics sees Anatolia as the Indo-European homeland, so perhaps they just stayed where they started. Alternatively, either by conquest or colonization or both, some groups filtered into western Asia from the north and west and soon used the abundant resources of what is now central Turkey as a regional power-base.

Hittite art is highly distinctive.

Billie Jean Collins, writing on the eclectic nature of Hittite art, suggests that "although the quality of the style of art showcased on the Hittite rock reliefs is difficult to defend when set beside the magnificent works of art from Egypt and Mesopotamia, it has the advantage, at least, of being original." (87)
Collins is one of the greatest experts on Hittite art, so I'm not going to demur, except to wonder if compelling art needs defense. Stone's Hittites includes many striking illustrations that show art – from huge sculptures to tiny amulets – that resembles, as Collins says, nothing at all in other traditions. Hittite styles range from energetic stylization to proto-realism; Hittite artists blend natural observation with cosmic symbolism (or at least with the kind of non-representational stylization that invites symbolic interpretation). Looking at Hittite art after long exposure to the art of Assyrians and Egyptians and Greeks is like opening an entirely new ancient world to view.

And then, why did they vanish? Of course it's likely that the Hittites didn't vanish at all. It's likely that they are still right where they ever were, that they figure in the ancestry of many of the present-day people of Turkey. Their leaders seem to have disappeared almost in the process of fleeing their capital, which might have fallen to climate change, epidemic, eruptions, the Sea Peoples, or all of the above. The rank and file probably accepted new dispensations, learned Greek and eventually Turkish, and remained in place as the local populace to this day.

Stone, Damien. The Hittites. London: Reaktion, 2023.