Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Twenty-Six

The Rise of the Hittites

Between 1790 and 1560 BC, the Hittites build an empire in Asia Minor, while Kassites take over in Babylon

BY THE TIME SAMSUILUNA DIED, around 1712, the Babylonian empire of his father Hammurabi (“Old Babylonia”) had lost most of its holdings to the south and east. Elam had revolted. The ancient power centers of Sumer had mostly been destroyed and lay almost deserted. The land was desolate and infertile; an upstart line of kings about which absolutely nothing is known, the so-called Sealand Dynasty, claimed to rule the wasteland. The king seated at Babylon could still wield his power over land to the north and to the west, but only as far over as Mari. Past Mari, the king of Aleppo kept his independence.

After Samsuiluna, a succession of unremarkable kings claimed the throne of Babylon. Very little is known of them. The most detailed document to survive from the Babylonian court, in the hundred years after Samsuiluna, is an account of the exact behavior of the planet Venus as it rose and set.

The decline of one power coincided with the strengthening of another. Back in the days when Semites were wandering down into Mesopotamia and over into Canaan, another people with a different kind of language lived farther north, between the Caspian and Black Seas. Some of these northern peoples made their way east and became the ancestors of those Aryans who eventually travelled down into India. But others had gone west, into Asia Minor, and settled in a series of villages along the coast.

By around 2300, this particular Indo-European tribe had spread up through the entire western side of the peninsula and along the Halys river.72 They carried on a healthy trade with islands to the west and also with the peoples to the east, especially with the city of Assur; for this reason the merchants of Assur built their trading posts here.

While Hammurabi was storming through Mesopotamia, uniting it by force, the villages of the Indo-Europeans in Asia Minor were coalescing into small kingdoms under various warleaders. We don’t know who any of them were, so it’s impossible to be any more vivid about this process. All we know is that the Egyptians had heard of these kingdoms, and knew them to be a single people. The Egyptians called them Ht, a designation taken from the peoples’ own name for their homeland: Hatti, the territory of the Hittites.

The Hittites learned to write from the merchants of Assur who lived nearby; their early inscriptions and accounts are all in the cuneiform script used by the ancient Assyrians. By 1790, the chief of the Hittite city of Kussara was keeping his own records. The Hittites had entered history.1

This chief, Anittas, had inherited a very small two-city kingdom from his father, who had managed to conquer the nearby (and unsuspecting) city of Nesa by mounting a nighttime raid on it and kidnapping its king. In his father’s day, Anittas had served as official Lord of the Watchtower, a job which required him to keep track of the reports from all the lookouts, who were spaced around the border of the tiny kingdom in watchtowers.2 When his father died, Anittas—who at that time called himself merely the “prince of Kussara”—began his own wars of conquest. He campaigned against the nearby strong city of Hattusas, which he finally sacked when it continued to resist him.3 He also cursed it, the same fate which may have overtaken Agade: “On its site I sowed weeds,” he announced. “May the Storm God strike down anyone who becomes king after me and resettles Hattusa!”4 Then he turned towards the city of Purushkhanda, which occupied, among the Hittite peoples, much the same place as Nippur occupied in the land of Sumer: it was a capital of the mind, a city whose ruler could claim a sort of moral authority over the cities of others. The king of Purushkhanda, perhaps with one eye on the distant column of smoke rising from Hattusas, surrendered without a fight.

Like his contemporary Hammurabi, who was at that moment fighting his way across the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, Anittas had created a nation. “I have conquered every land where the sun rises,” Anittas announced, somewhat grandly, and began to refer to himself not as “prince” but as “great king.”5 He ruled his kingdom for a full forty years, a more than respectable period for any ancient king; he died within a year of Hammurabi, although there is no indication that the two ever exchanged messages.


26.1 The Hittite Homeland

The kingdom built by Anittas remained centered at his home city of Kussara until a couple of generations later, when a later king decided to ignore the curse and rebuild Hattusas. There were seven springs nearby, fertile land around it, and a cliff where a palace could be built and easily defended. The site was too good to leave deserted.

As soon as he had transferred his capital from Kussara to Hattusas, this king became known as Hattusilis I: “the one from Hattuses.”6 He began to make armed expeditions out of Asia Minor, down into the Western Semite kingdoms on the northeastern Mediterranean coast, and captured some of the smaller cities for himself. Anittas had created the Hittite nation, but Hattusilis I made it into an empire that ruled over more than one people. He was a great warrior, possibly the greatest in the world at his time: the Harappan cities were sinking, Hammurabi was dead, in Egypt the kings of Thebes and Avaris were at war, and the reign of Minos was long past.

Despite his successes, Hattusilis died wretchedly unhappy, not in Hattusas but back in his old home of Kussara, where he had asked to be carried on his deathbed. A Hittite document called the Testament records his deathbed speech to his grandson Mursilis. Hattusilis breaks out in savage condemnation of his son and daughter, who had listened to discontented Hittite nobleman and allowed their minds to be poisoned against him. “They said to you: Revolt against your father,” Hattusilis complains, “and they became rebellious, and they began to conspire.”7

He has already disinherited the two grown children, and appointed his nephew heir instead. But in his last hours, Hattusilis rejects his nephew as well. He is, according to the Testament, “without compassion…cold and pitiless…heedless of the word of the king.” His character, apparently, is partly his mother’s fault; Hattusilis next turns on this woman, his own sister, and in furiously mixed metaphors calls her a snake in the grass who bellows like a cow.8 The old king chooses another nephew named Mursilis as his heir instead and then dies, after a lifetime of military victories and family disappointments.

Mursilis, only thirteen or fourteen, was surrounded not only by the regents who were supposed to watch over him, but also by his seething disinherited cousins, uncles, and aunts. Despite this sticky beginning, the young Mursilis managed to survive to the age of accession (no mean feat in those days). He seems to have been lucky in his guardians; one of his regents, the Hittite prince Pimpira, was particularly concerned that he be not just a king, but a just and compassionate king. “Give bread to the one who is hungry,” a Hittite chronicle records Pimpira as ordering, “clothing to the one who is naked; bring those distressed by cold into the heat.”9

Once on the throne, though, Mursilis was more concerned with the conquest of new land than with the compassionate administration of the empire he already owned. A later Hittite treaty with Aleppo, by way of reviewing the previous relations between the two treatying parties, spells out his next move: “After Hattusilis, Mursilis the great king, the grandson of Hattusilis the great king, destroyed the kingship of Aleppo and Aleppo itself.”10

Spurred on by his success at Aleppo, Mursilis began to march towards Babylon. He found various Kassite warleaders in his path, but he either conquered or made alliance with them. By 1595, he had arrived at Babylon’s walls. The explosion that followed was more like a damp splutter. Babylon, under the rule of Hammurabi’s great-great-grandson, put up little resistance. According to Mursilis’s own accounts, he overran the city, took its people prisoner, and put the king in chains.11 The final fate of this last descendant of Hammurabi is unknown.

Mursilis decided not to add Babylon to his empire. He had made his point: he was, like his grandfather, the most powerful conqueror in the world. Babylon was too far away from Hattusas to be governed with any security. Instead, Mursilis left the city desolate and marched back to his capital in victory. When he was well away, Kassite chiefs from nearby moved in to take over the ruins. The Amorite domination of Babylon had ended.73

Mursilis paraded into Hattusas hauling both captives and treasure with him. Behind the cheers, though, an assassination plot was slowly taking shape.

The culprit was his cupbearer, Hantili, a trusted official who also happened to be his brother-in-law. In Mursilis’s absence, Hantili had grown accustomed to ruling on behalf of the throne; he was not likely to have welcomed the sudden curtailment to his authority. Not long after Mursilis returned from Babylon, Hantili and another palace official murdered the king, and Hantili took the throne. “They did an evil thing,” the Hittite chronicles tell us. “They killed Mursilis; they shed blood.”12

Hantili managed to keep the throne for almost three decades, during which the Hittites settled into their role as major players on the world scene. But he had set an unfortunate precedent. As soon as Hantili was dead, a court official killed Hantili’s son and all of his grandsons and seized the throne. He, in turn, was killed by his own son, who was later murdered and replaced by a usurper, who then fell victim himself to assassination.

The dynastic succession of the Hittites had settled into a game of hunt-the-king. During these years, the royal palace at Hattusas acquired a twenty-five-foot-thick wall around it.13 For the Hittite rulers, life within the borders of the kingdom was more dangerous than any military campaign.


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