Long before the Hittites, about whom we know so much today from excavations in central Turkey, were known, every serious reader of the Bible knew the name. According to the Book of Genesis Hittites sold a field and a burial cave to Abraham (Gn. 24), the ancestor of the people of Israel. Abraham's grandson Esau displeased his parents by taking Hittite wives from the neighboring peoples of Canaan (Gn. 26:34). Hittites are mentioned with other ethnic groups inhabiting the land of Canaan on the eve of the invasion under Joshua (Jos. 1:4, 3:10). These people had been at home in southern Palestine for centuries before the time of the Israelite monarchy and show no traces of foreign origin. Their names are linguistically Canaanite. Their customs and way of life were no different from those of other semitic groups in Palestine at that time. If they originated in the north among the stock of the Late Bronze Age Anatolian Hittites, they have lost all trace of their origin. In fact, the genealogical “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10 includes their eponymous ancestor, Heth, among the sons of Canaan. All this suggests that the “Hittites” of the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible were Canaanite aborigines, with no Anatolian roots.

On the other hand, the historical records of the Davidic and post-Davidic period in Israel clearly attest contacts with the “Hittite” kingdoms of northern Syria. The Hittites spoken of here are clearly foreigners. Their Syrian states represent the continuation of the Syrian vassal states of the great Hittite Empire of the Late Bronze Age.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, large stone blocks inscribed in a previously unknown hieroglyphic script were found built into mosques in Syria. Scholars correctly suspected that these inscriptions were the work of the ancient Hittite kingdoms of Syria. As the search for more of these inscriptions widened into Anatolia, attention was drawn to the remarkable hieroglyphic inscriptions on living rock in the vicinity of the small village of Boğazköy, about 160 km (100 mi.) east of Ankara, in central Turkey.


Excavations were begun on the large mound in 1906, under the joint directorship of Hugo Winckler and Theodore Makridi. What was found forever changed our concept of the Hittites [see Boğazköy]. More than ten thousand clay tablets were concentrated in two places on the large city mound: the first area was the palace administration complex on the acropolis; the second was the large temple library in the Lower City. Excavators found that several of the rooms in which the tablets from the acropolis were found had been libraries. Wooden shelving around the walls allowed the tablets to be systematically arranged. Small clay shelf labels identified the locations of important tablet collections. Several tablets contained what we would today call shelf lists, or catalogs, of the collection.

Most of the tablets were in fragments, having fallen from their shelves in the conflagration that destroyed the city in about 1180 BCE. Some were so badly overheated through direct, sustained contact with burning roof beams, that the clay blistered and became badly disfigured. But many tablets whose fragments were fairly large could be reconstituted by the epigraphers.

The city itself, as revealed by the archaeologists, was large by the standards of its day. The acropolis, on which the king's residential quarters and the palace administration were located, was entered by a gateway at its southwestern corner. At that point, it was connected by a large bridge or viaduct to the Upper City, to the south. This large area accommodated more than thirty temples and temple precincts for the “Thousand Gods” of the Hittite pantheon. Some of the city's most impressive reliefs were found in this area: depictions of the kingdom's major deities and several of its last kings.

Three impressive gateways punctuate the city's southern wall. The easternmost gateway is called the King's Gate because on its inner side stood a large relief depicting a heroic male figure, originally assumed to be a king, but possibly a god. A great festival procession exited the city through this gate and wound its way south and west to the Sphinx Gate at the central point in the southern wall. Farther west is the Lion Gate, so named from the relief of a large lion on the outside, easily observed by processions reentering the city at this point. The centrally located Sphinx Gate is equidistant from the Lion Gate and King's Gate.

To the northwest of the Upper City and directly west of the Acropolis area lies the Lower City. Its most conspicuous monument is the largest temple of ancient Ḫattuša. This temple has a twin cella, indicating that the primary deities worshipped here were the storm god of Hatti and the sun goddess of Arinna. The temple proper was built around a central courtyard. This complex in turn was surrounded, like the smaller temples in the Upper City, by a temenos wall. Southward, across a street from the main temple complex, a large building housed workshops for the temple personnel: priests, musicians, weavers, potters, smiths, carpenters, stonecutters, and others serving the needs of the temple. Huge pottery storage vessels containing grain and other commodities stood in the western rooms of the temple.

A road leading from the city gate in the extreme north-western corner of the city wound to the northeast for 1.5 km, where it reached the impressive sanctuary of Yazılıkaya, which means “inscribed rock” in Turkish. Here the Hittites had constructed temple buildings to guard access to a pair of natural rock galleries. Carved into the faces of these galleries in low relief are the figures of most of the gods and goddesses. The main chamber shows two processions of deities converging from the left and the right on a central point, where the chief male and female deities face each other. The left-hand procession shows male deities, the right-hand one, female. Across from the central panel on which the processions met stands a rock on which is carved the figure of King Tudḫaliya IV, under whom this sanctuary was finished. The second, smaller chamber contains reliefs depicting this same king in the protective embrace of his patron deity, the god Sharruma, and other reliefs that suggest this second chamber was mortuary in character.


The earliest sure evidence for the presence in Anatolia of the Indo-European groups associated with the Hittites is the occurrence of Hittite or Luwian names in the commercial documents from the Old Assyrian Colony Period (c. 1850–1700). It has been surmised that these groups entered Anatolia in about 2300, and that after approximately five hundred years of settled life there, at least three large groups were speaking three distinct languages developed from a common Proto-Anatolian branch of the earlier Proto-Indo-European language family. These distinct languages are today known as Hittite (or Nešite), Luwian, and Palaic. Other ethno-linguistic groups had been in central Anatolia before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. The best known of these are the Hattians, whose language we call Hattic.

During the Old Assyrian Colony period, there were Hittite groups. The king of one of these, whose name is Anitta, left behind a royal inscription, an Old Hittite copy of which was found at Ḫattuša. The inscription commemorates the stages of his military expansion from control of a small area around the city of Kaneš to control of most of central Anatolia, stretching from Ḫattuša, in the north, to Purušanda, in the south.

Hittite history begins in the Old Kingdom period (c. 1680–1420), with the establishment of a Hittite-speaking group on the site of the city of Ḫattuša. The dynasty founder bears the name Labarna, which later becomes a Caesarlike title for Hittite kings. His immediate successor, Ḫattušili I, was the first Hittite king to expand militarily into northern Syria, into an area that included Aleppo and Alalakh.

Ḫattušili's successor, Muršili I, led a spectacular, but short-lived, raid far to the east, where his army sacked the city of Babylon in about 1590 and brought to an end the city's first dynasty. After Muršili's death, a period of internal strife, regicides, and usurpations weakened the state. The area of its effective military control shrank drastically.

Around 1420 a new line of kings, bearing traditional Hittite throne names, but also identified on their seals by Ḫurrian names, came to power in Ḫattuša. The first of this line bore the name Tudḫaliya. Because a list of Hittite kings identifies a Tudḫaliya in the Old Kingdom, we traditionally call this new king Tudḫaliya II. The new line of kings with a Hurrian background cultivated political connections to the southeast, in Syria.

The fortunes of the new line rose dramatically around 1345, under the rule of a new king, Šuppiluliuma I, who led his armies into Syria and reduced the previously highly successful dynasty of Mitannian kings to the status of vassal kings. Šuppiluliuma I was a contemporary of the Egyptian pharaohs of the Amarna period. In fact, he just missed an opportunity to establish one of his sons on the throne of Egypt. But if Šuppiluliuma failed to gain a foothold in Egypt itself, he did not fail to secure Syria as a Hittite province. Kings of Aleppo, Carchemish, Ugarit, Nuḫašše, and Amurru entered into treaties with the Hittite Empire, making Šuppiluliuma's successors “great kings”—big players in the game of international politics of the ancient Near East. The Kingdom of Ḫatti became a super power. Armed competition, if not open conflict, with Egypt continued from Šuppiluliuma I to Ḫattušili III, when a treaty with Egypt formally ended the period of struggle and conflict. Ḫattušili III visited Egypt, where his daughter was married to the pharaoh Rameses II.

The final century after Ḫattušili III saw the flowering of the capital city with the building of the Upper City area, which shows Egyptian architectural influence so strikingly in the Sphinx Gate. Militarily, a new force was building in the east, Assyria. Ḫattušili's successor, Tudḫaliya IV, the finisher of Yazılıkaya and the Upper City, was much occupied militarily with staving off Assyrian advances. At one point, the central government was so weak that a prince named Kurunta from a parallel line, who was king of the small state of Tarḫuntašša, was able to dethrone Tudḫaliya IV and to leave his own royal seal on documents found in the Upper City. During the reigns of Tudḫaliya IV and his two successors, the Hittites extended their control to a part of the island of Cyprus. Local Cypriot representatives contracted by treaty to render vassal's tribute to the Hittite king.

During the Last Days of Ḫattuša (c. 1205–1180), a complex alignment of enemies, which may have included groups of “Sea Peoples” from the Aegean, finally reduced the capital city to flames. Not all urban centers of the Hittite Empire fell when the capital city Ḫattuša did. Carchemish in the east and Tarḫuntašša in the south survived to carry the tradition of descent from the line of kings from Ḫattuša into the first millennium.

Hittite Royalty.

Like other nation states of the ancient Near East, the Hittites were ruled by kings. A once-popular theory, according to which the Old Kingdom kings were chosen by members of a primitive senate, has been abandoned. Hittite kingship from the first was hereditary and dynastic. Royal succession passed from father to son, although the reigning king could designate any son he wished. He was not bound by law to choose the oldest.

The Hittite king controlled all areas of life. As the chief priest, he presided at the principal religious festivals and made offerings to the gods on behalf of his people. As the chief judge and lawgiver, he was responsible for the collection and distribution of the laws in the official corpus and served as the judge in the highest court in the land. Cases of particular gravity or difficulty were referred to this court. In addition, the king was head of the armed forces and as such usually accompanied the troops into the field. Only an aged king would be exempt from traveling on a military campaign. The king conducted all foreign policy, writing letters to the kings and high officials of foreign lands, contracting alliances, arranging marriages that tied his own royal line with the ruling families of other states, and occasionally even visiting other courts in person.

The king's dress conformed to the occasion. He is shown on rock reliefs in two forms of attire. In both he wears earrings and shoes with toes that turn up in a point. His priestly garb consisted of a long robe with sleeves, open in front, a skull cap, and a crook with its curved end pointing down-ward and to the rear. His military attire was a short, belted tunic, with a short sword or dagger hanging from the belt. He carried a bow over his shoulder and a spear in his hand. His headgear was conical, perhaps a kind of helmet.

The king's person was sacred. It was important to guard him from sources of impurity that might damage his sacred powers. Contact with the general public was therefore restricted. His food and clothing were prepared under strict conditions of purity control. If the king was ever threatened by an evil omen, a procedure known from Assyria was followed: a man was chosen as a royal stand-in until the death predicted by the omen occurred, at which time the true king returned to his post. All that we know about the Hittite ritual of enthronement, such as the anointing of the king with oil, we learned from the Hittite texts describing this substitute king procedure.

Hittite queens were more than sexual partners to their royal husbands. They had real powers of their own. Queens had their own personal royal seals and shared a royal seal with their husbands. Queens seem to have had the right to conduct official correspondence with foreign courts. When the king died, his primary wife remained queen as long as she lived, serving as her son's consort, although she did not become his sexual partner. If her son was young and inexperienced, she often assumed some duties normally reserved for the king, such as making legal decisions or issuing decrees. Queens in the Empire period seem to have had control over many aspects of the religious cult and over vast amounts of resources and temple property. As a result, queens who fell from favor were occasionally accused of misappropriation of temple funds.

Hittite laws distinguish two social classes: free and slave. Slaves were not without independent means, for the laws indicate that a slave could pay a free husband to marry his daughter. However, in addition to these two classes there were foreigners taken captive in battle and used to work crown lands. According to the law code, their rights differed from those of freemen or slaves: they could not sell their fields or their children. While texts mention kings emancipating slaves of the crown, we have no knowledge of the practice at the level of the common citizen. Because census lists of small estates do not indicate the presence of slaves, it is possible that only the very rich owned them.


The Hittite heartland was the central high plateau of Turkey, where broad valleys and rivers encouraged agriculture. Rainfall is seasonal but ample. Winters are hard with heavy snowfall, and summers are hot and very dry. The rains come in the spring, which is a short but lush season.

According to the Hittite texts, the principal domestic animals were oxen, sheep, goats, horses, mules, asses, pigs, and dogs. Of these, the first three were also used as sacrificial animals. Plowing was done with oxen, never with horses. Horses were used to draw chariots. Mules were used for carrying loads over long distances and were the most expensive of the equids, both because of their sure-footedness and the fact that they do not reproduce. Sheep were exploited for their wool, milk, and meat. The milk of the sheep and goat were also made into cheese. Some wild animals were hunted, principally deer and boars.

The many bird names in the texts attest the richness of the variety of the aviary, although most named birds are unidentified as to type. They include predatory birds, such as the eagle and the buzzard, and water birds, such as ducks. Although there is a generic term for fish, no species names are used.

Specific tree and bush names exist, both coniferous and deciduous. The dense forests of central Anatolia in Hittite times were harvested for timber, which was used for construction and fuel. Aromatic trees were highly prized for the sweet fragrance of their leaves and wood shavings.

Several grain types are known both from textual and archaeological evidence: Triticum aestivum (common bread wheat), emmer wheat, and several types of barley. It is not clear if the Hittites knew oats, although the use of a particular type of grain in the feeding of horses suggests that they did. The grains were used to make a large number of different types of named breads, cakes, and pulpy dishes like porridge.

A wide variety of fruits is attested, among them apples, pears, plums, and figs. The grapevine was cultivated for its fruit, which was dried into raisins, and for wine. Nuts are also mentioned, although the type has not been determined. Vegetables are also known from the texts. The appearance of one particularly popular bulbous plant of the onion family was celebrated with an annual religious festival.

Among the crafts and tradesmen were potters, leather workers, weavers, blacksmiths, bakers, beekeepers, carpenters, and physicians. Some crafts would only have been of interest to the wealthy: sculptors, gold- and silversmiths, glassmakers, divination specialists, and scribes. Physicians were not highly skilled; they used folk remedies and charms. Hittite royalty who were seriously ill secured highly trained physicians from Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The widespread notion that Hittite military supremacy was the result of a monopoly of iron production for weaponry is a myth. Although the Hittites could produce limited quantities of iron, but it was not used for weapons.

People who sold or traded their own products in small local markets are not referred to in texts. The “merchants” that are mentioned were grand entrepreneurs operating under royal patronage and engaging in international trade. For this reason, the penalty for killing a merchant was much higher than that for killing an ordinary free man.


The Hittites already possessed a written collection of two hundred laws in the Old Kingdom. Their laws resembled, in form and phraseology, the better-known collections of Mesopotamia and of the Hebrew Bible. All relevant topics of ancient law are covered: homicide, theft, assault and battery, marriage, sexual conduct, land tenure, and taxation. Like some Mesopotamian law collections, a tariff of ideal prices is included.

Hittite treaties with foreign countries show the outlines of what may be called the international law of the era. Treaties with states of equal power and prestige express obligations as reciprocal and those with inferior states as unequal. Concerns of the former are mutual guarantees of dynastic stability against overthrow by insiders or outsiders, mutual defense against foreign attacks, mutual extradition of fugitives, and the stabilization of international boundaries. Concerns of the latter include these as well as the vassal's obligations to pay annual tribute.


Hittite religion reflects the diversity of ethnic groups comprising the population. Hattians, Hurrians, Luwians, and Hittites—as well as smaller numbers of immigrant Syrians, Palestinians, or Assyrians—worshiped their own deities according to their traditional rites. The totality of the pantheon was called the Thousand Gods. Indeed, the number of attested divine names in the texts approximates one thousand. All but the smallest towns had many temples. Each town had local traditions about the cultic calendar that Hittite regional governors were instructed to honor and preserve.

The official archives in the capital, which are our almost exclusive source of information, are understandably limited in their concerns. Local cults and the domestic cult are almost totally ignored. The official state cult included seasonal festivals, celebrated in the spring and fall, and a monthly festival. The king, queen, or a royal prince represented the royal family at such festivals. There were two types of male priest and one female type. In addition, the religious texts reveal that musicians playing various stringed and percussion instruments accompanied cultic liturgy.


HITTITES. Stone relief from Yazılıkaya depicting the sword god. (Courtesy J. S. Jorgensen)

view larger image

The center of the cult was the serving of the statue of the deity. The image was given food and drink, a change of clothing, and entertainment in the form of music, acrobatics (including sword swallowing), and athletic contests. Prayers were offered for the removal of drought or plague, for the defeat of enemy armies, and for the welfare of the community and its king.

Divination was energetically pursued both at home and on trips. Omens were sought to determine the likely success of all sorts of ventures, from marriages to business to military campaigns. Oracles were questioned to determine the causes for divine anger manifested by catastrophes such as disease, drought, or military defeat. The most popular form of divination was the inspection of the internal organs of a sacrificed sheep, but several other kinds were practiced, including bird omens.

Language and Literature.

The Hittite language shows its Indo-European character primarily by its grammatical structure, but also by a minimal stock of primary vocabulary (padas, “foot”; watar, “water”; ed- “to eat”). It represents the earliest attested form of an Indo-European language.

Hittite texts include historical narratives (military annals), legal texts (law code, treaties, land grants, edicts), letters, myths and epics, hymns and prayers to deities, descriptions of religious festivals, prescriptions for the performance of magical rituals, and records of divination.

[See also Anatolia, article on Ancient Anatolia; Hittite; and Luwians.]


  • Bittel, Kurt. Hattusha: The Capital of the Hittites. New York, 1970.
    English-language survey, less current than Peter Neve's book, by the director of excavations at Ḫattuša.
  • Gurney, O. R. Some Aspects of Hittite Religion. Schweich Lectures, 1976. Oxford, 1977.
    Thorough coverage of Hittite religion.
  • Gurney, O. R. The Hittites. Rev. ed. London, 1990.
    The best general English-language introduction.
  • Güterbock, Hans G. “Some Aspects of Hittite Festivals.” In Compte rendu de la rencontre Assyriologique internationale, vol. 17, pp. 175–180. Brussels, 1969.
  • Güterbock, Hans G. “The Hittite Palace.” In Le palais et la royauté: Archéologie et civilisation; compte rendu de la 19e rencontre Assyriologique internationale, edited by Paul Garelli, pp. 305–314. Paris, 1974.
  • Güterbock, Hans G. “The Hittite Temple according to Written Sources.” In Le temple et le cult: Compte rendu de la 20e rencontre Assyriologique internationale, edited by E. J. van aDonzel, pp. 125–132. Leiden, 1975.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Some Contributions of Hittitology to Old Testament Study.” Tyndale Bulletin 20 (1969): 27–55.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. Alimenta Hethaeorum. American Oriental Series, vol. 55. New Haven, 1974.
    Complete study of Hittite flora, fauna, and food production.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Histories and Historians of the Ancient Near East: The Hittites.” Orientalia 49 (1980): 283–332.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Ancient Views of Prophecy and Fulfillment: Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987): 257–265.
    Short summary of Hittite divination procedures.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Hittite Religion.” In Religions of Antiquity, edited by Robert M. Seltzer, pp. 69–79. New York, 1989.
    Current and accurate general picture.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr., trans. Hittite Myths. Writings from the Ancient World, no. 2. Atlanta, 1990.
    Collection in English translation.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “The Last Days of Khattusha.” In The Crisis Years: The Twelfth Century B.C., from beyond the Danube to the Tigris, edited by William A. Ward and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, pp. 46–52. Dubuque, 1992. Contribution to a symposium held at Brown University, May 1990, providing current data on the final phase of Hittite history.
  • Hoffner, Harry A., Jr. “Ancient Anatolia: Legal and Social Institutions.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson et al. New York, 1993.
    Current and comprehensive discussion of Hittite law.
  • Klengel, Horst. “The Economy of the Hittite Household (É).” Oikoumene 5 (1986): 23–31.
  • Macqueen, James G. The Hittites and Their Contemporaries in Asia Minor. Boulder, 1986.
    Particularly useful for its large number of excellent illustrations.
  • Neve, Peter. Hattuša: Stadt der Götter und Tempel; Neue Ausgrabungen in der Hauptstadt der Hethiter. Mainz am Rhein, 1993.
    Up-to-date summary of the archaeology of the Hittite capital.

Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.