en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 12, Number 8October 1961

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Thirty centuries ago the Hittites held sway in the Middle East, then, strangely enough, became

The People that History Forgot

The winds that sigh across the flatlands carry voices from the past. They speak softly, until the wind rises to a howl. Dust billows into unintelligible shapes, then falls to continue its endless drift across Turkey's central plateau country. Travelers to this bleak and wind-swept land hear the voices and see the dust dancers. As they walk the hot plains, they feel that there are ghosts all around them.

And perhaps there are. For this is the land of a powerful and mysterious people who lived and battled here three thousand years ago, who built an imposing empire, then—incredibly—vanished from human memory.

This is the land of the Hittites.

Theirs is one of mankind's strangest and most intriguing stories. It is known today that from 1900 B.C. to about 1200 B.C. they were one of the great powers of the Middle East, rivaling Babylonia, Assyria and Egypt—and superior to all three in statesmanship, lawgiving and warfare. They ruled Asia Minor, into which they had come as Indo-European invaders, and forged a commonwealth of city-states out of the tribes and kingdoms they found there. Little of their art or literature remains, but on thousands of clay tablets and on rocks and stone-faced hills they left inscriptions—sculptures of their gods, their kings and their people, and writings in cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Unlike some of their neighbors, the Hittites were not cruel. They were, however, excellent strategists, tacticians and warriors. They were superb horsemen, inventors of the most formidable war machine of their time—the light, two-wheeled battle chariot. Under the relentless attack of the Hittite infantry and chariot-drawn legions, even the power of Egypt broke.

With all these glories the Hittites, when their empire at last declined, should have been remembered through the ages. Egypt was. So was Babylonia. But by a freak of history, the Hittites were forgotten for 30 centuries—from the end of their power around 1200 B.C. until their rediscovery in the last century. All that was known of them during this long time was what was contained in several, brief Old Testament accounts. In "Genesis" it states that Abraham, when his wife, Sarah, died, bought a burying place for her from Ephron, the Hittite. But from the various Biblical references to them, the Hittites appear merely as one of several minor tribes in Asia Minor. This is how they were still regarded even as late as 1834, when Charles Texier made his journey of discovery to central Turkey.

He had gone in search of an old Roman town and had arrived at the village of Boghazköy. When the people there told him about some ruins nearby, he went to examine them. Texier was astounded when he saw the ruins. This was not the rubble left from a small Roman town but the remains of an immense city that obviously had been built by some great but forgotten people. Yet scholars had no knowledge of any such people. Texier announced his discovery—but admitted that he could not explain what his discovery meant.

What Texier had in fact stumbled upon was nothing less than the ruins of Hatrusas, the great walled capital of the Hittite empire. By the late 1800's scholars came to appreciate the significance of Texier's discovery, and the newest branch of archaeology, Hittitoldgy, had been born. It is still fresh and exciting, and each year new discoveries in Turkey are bringing the ancient and forgotten world of the Hittites farther out of the darkness that cloaked it for more than three millenia.

Imaginative archaeologists, guided by the aged remnants of a lost civilization, give a fairly complete picture of what life was like in the days when the Hittites prospered. Modern travelers, as they tramp over the deserted plains, find it easy to lose track of time, to conjure up in the mind's eye the land and its people as they were more than three thousand years ago.

Spreading out across the plateau that lies inside the great curve of the Halys River is a farm that boasts its owner's care and pride. The farm is rich with vineyards and with orchards of apple, pear and pomegranate trees. There are beehives in swarm, and in the pasture goats and sheep are feeding. Over in the barley field a man is plowing with a team of oxen.

This is the farm of Tiwataparas, a Hittite landowner. He is short and swarthy with a markedly curved nose. After the fashion of most Hittites, his forehead is shaved but his dark hair, divided into three locks, falls freely down his neck. He wears neither mustache nor beard.

Tiwataparas is dressed in a knee-length woolen tunic with short sleeves and a belt. Across his left shoulder he wears a bright red, fringed mantle. His shoes, turned up at the toes, are thick-soled. His clothes, heavier and made of better material than used by the Syrians or Egyptians, attest to the rigorous winters endured on the Hittite plateaus. In answer to questions about his farm, Tiwataparas replies in a language that shows a faint resemblance to Latin or Greek, although most of the words clearly belong to some entirely different tongue.

In Tiwataparas' house are a number of cooking and serving vessels and other-utensils of copper, bronze and pottery. But Tiwataparas displays one object, a small dagger, of which he is especially proud. It is made of iron, a rare and precious metal among the Hittites. His home also contains small bronze replicas of the weather god and sun god, chief deities among a bewildering array of gods borrowed from Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Indians.

Although Tiwataparas' farm is many miles from the Hittite capital of Hattusas, he daily feels the influence of Hittite law-givers. A code of law, 200 paragraphs long, regulates both his personal and business life. When he sells his barley of honey, for example, he is paid in silver coins at prices regulated by the code. In criminal matters, Hittite justice is held to be very fair—even lenient.

Only rarely does Tiwataparas make the long journey to Hattusas, but he has pointed out the well-traveled road to many making a first trip to this center of Hittite power. To one approaching the city, the great double walls appear first in the distance. Square towers, looking out onto the surrounding terrain, are spaced along the walls. In front of the first wall, is the mouth of a tunnel, out of which the city's defenders can rush in a surprise attack on any enemy who besieges the city.

At that very moment a thunderous sound issues from the direction of the walled city. From a large stone gateway pours a host of Hittite troops in the light, two-wheeled Hittite war chariots that are feared throughout Asia Minor. Unlike the older chariots of the Sumerians—heavy, wood platforms with solid, clumsy wheels—the Hittite chariots are graceful and highly maneuverable. Their wheels are rimmed and have six spokes. Each chariot is drawn by a pair of spirited horses, whose driver handles them with the skill that has made Hittite horsemanship admired over the entire Middle East. At the head of the chariot shaft between the horses is fixed a large copper crescent. It is a good luck charm—and as the sun glances off it as the chariots charge into battle, it helps terrify the enemy.

Each chariot holds three men—the driver and two warriors. Some are dressed in belted knee-length woolen tunics. Others, bare to the waist, wear what resembles a kilt. The warriors wear tufted, bronze helmets and carry short curved swords and battle-axes. They also have bows, and quivers of arrows are mounted on the sides of the chariots. A shower of arrows upon a foe terror-stricken at the sight of the chariots often brings victory at the first charge.

Behind the chariots come the infantry. Some of the troops carry bows or slings, while others are armed with short lances or broad-bladed choppers. In battle the Hittite army attacks in close order, concentrating its strength at one point along the enemy's line, a point which seldom resists the shock of the Hittite onrush.

The troops are on their way to the greatest struggle in Hittite history. Their king, Muwatallis, has decided to put a stop to the expansionist drive of Egypt under the new Pharaoh, Ramses II. So the Hittite war chariots, glinting with sunlight through the dust raised by their horses, roll onward toward Kadesh, far off on the Orontes River, not far from the Syrian border. This year, 1296 B.C., will be the last year of life for many Hittite soldiers, but their comrades will return victorious over the Egyptians.

All this is what a visitor, magically returned to the plains of Asia Minor, could have seen and heard as he lived among the Hittites in their days of greatness. Seeing them and their achievements, he would not have believed it possible that almost all memory of such a people could disappear for more than three thousand years. But the patient work of the archaeologists and scholars have at last, in a very real sense, brought the Hittites to life again.

This article appeared on pages 18-20 of the October 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for October 1961 images.