A Civilization which Hid its Dead: The Hittites
Maybe it’s because our habit of viewing history through military goggles, or our feelings that Anatolia has always been ours even though we have not cared much for its rich past. Anyway, from our childhood to school years we have always held the Hittites dear to our hearts, counting them as our kin. Disregarding their far more ancient civilization, we considered Egyptians our “enemies”, taking pride from “the lesson Hittites taught them” at the Battle of Kadesh.
Then, with dwindling interest of the new generations of our people in the distant past, this civilization of 3500 years ago faded out of our hearts, as it did from the stage of history.
And when we sought to build a new bridge that would take us to these former owners of Anatolia through an interview with Dr. Çiğdem Maner, assistant professor at Koç University’s Archaeology Department, another side of Hittites, no less intriguing than their glorious achievements, broached to surface: the mysteries shrouding their rise and fall…
It’s not clear where they’ve come from, or where they’ve gone. As if appearing out of the blue, they suddenly emerged as a powerful kingdom in Anatolia, shared until then by small-sized commercial colonies. It then moved on to become an empire and a military, technological, economic and cultural superpower which established its sovereignty over most of Anatolia, extended borders almost to the gates of Babylon, ruled half of Syria, controlled the Mediterranean trade and forged ties with Egypt, Babylon, the Greek states, Crete and Cyprus, confronting the might of thousands-year-old Egypt, forcing it to the table of truce after an epic battle. Hittites built imposing cities, developed a written language, an efficient bureaucracy, a social order based on laws, excelled in metalsmithing, in art, in weapons technology and formed powerful armies. And only 450 years after their ascent to the stage of history, they mysteriously disappeared into oblivion.
In archaeology, the data provided by libraries, tablets, palaces and temples are complemented by stories told by the dead and their cemeteries. From the most noble to the humblest, the graves of people, their mode of burial and possessions buried with them supply clues about the level of civilization, the public life, people’s beliefs and their culture. Today’s technology even allows a peek at the genetic cross-section of a civilization through the DNA extracted from mummies or bones thousands of years old. But sadly as it is, when making their exit the Hittites left only a few dead behind.
In our interview with Dr. Maner we come to learn this fact , presumably known only to archaeologists, when we ask her the size of possible Hittite compartment in our genetic makeup. After all, even since the pre-historic times, Anatolia, with its location on the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, has been a passageway for invasions, a premium real estate to settle on with its soil so much greener, fertile and productive than it is today. Then, coming in from Central Asia, our forebears had obviously not found this land devoid of inhabitants. So, was a genetic sequencing that would reveal possible traces of Hittite contribution to our ancestry within the bounds of possibility?
The answer is negative. “Because,” says the expert on transition from Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age, ”no royal graves have been found so far and there are very few samples of communal graves. Hence, physical data about the Hittites’ dead are very scanty.” Any available information comes from the Hittite records or documents. The emperors’ bodies were cremated and ashes were kept in a “stone house”. Even where that stone house could be appears to be a matter of controversy. “It is said that the stone house was above the ground, but I dont’t believe that; it doesn’t sound logical.”
This conspicious lack of interest on the part of Hittite rulers in the aftermath of death is in sharp contrast with the traditions of the other civilizations of the time. She points to “unbeliavably rich contents of royal graves in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia.” Indeed, don’t the museums overflow with the gold and silver finery, jewelry, gilt masks of the pharaohs? Is there anyone who hasn’t watched in awe the TV documentaries showing burial chambers holding mummies of pharaohs, noblemen, high clerics and bureaaucrats,which must have taken years to build or carve into rock, to decorate, embellish the walls with lavishly colored scenes and hieroglyphs telling of exploits, crammed with material possessions that might come handy in their afterlives, not to mention potfuls of favourite foods and choice fruits for their eating pleasure? While even the location of the Hittite kings’ “stone houses” above or under the ground was a matter of debate, didn’t those of the pharaohs extended to the sky in the form of imposing pyramids?
While conceding the difficulty of understanding the contrast in the importance attached to pomp and glory by the Egyptians and Hittites when one would expect the two superpowers of the time to influence one another to some degree, she points to a critical difference which might explain the puzzle: Whereas the pharaohs were considered gods on Earth, the Hittite kings were “envoys” of the gods. Besides that distinction, they were also generals, lawmakers and chief priests in god’s name. The kings were deified only after their deaths.
Like their lifestyles, Hittites’ rise to power and their exit remain largely shrouded in mystery despite investigations which have been going on for the past 120 years . What’s known is that they are of
Indo-European stock as manifested by their script and language. Besides their Hittite language, they are known to have also used Luwi, which is among the oldest in the family of Indo-European languages. ”Hittite even predates Sanskrit,” Dr. Maner points out. They used cuneiform in texts written on clay and then baked as tablets. But, they wrote Luvian with hieroglyphs or cuneiform of their own, which they used in inscriptions on monumental buildings and on stamps.
As for their emergence on the stage, they started by gaining prominence among the Assyrian trade colonies in Anatolia around 1650 BC, then rising to the status of a kingdom dominating the good part of Anatolia, finally expanding as far as Babylon and Syria to become an empire.
The Indo-European stamp on their language fuels diverse theories as to their origins. According to one, they have come from the Balkans, from territories now occupied by the present-day Bulgaria. A second theory brings them in from the Caucasus. Yet a third one makes them an indigenous people of Anatolia of antiquity. “Because they speak a tongue from the Indo-European family, everyone tries to bring them from somewhere”, she says. “As for me, I think they had their roots in Anatolia.”
Since the departure of Hittites from the center stage which they occupied as a superpower roughly between 1650-1200 BC is likewise blanketed by a misty haze, it also provides fertile ground for theories and legends.
What’s known is that the Hittites had abandoned their settlements, including their capital Hattusha around 1200 BC to disappear into obscurity. They are thought to have migrated to southeast where they mixed with Aramites, Assyrians, Phoenicians and other peoples in those areas which came under Assyrian domination shortly afterwards. And following the demise of the Assyrian Empire with the capture of their capital, Nineveh, by the Meds, Anatolia witnessed waves of immigration by Greek tribes, which came as the final nail in the coffin of the once-glorious Hittite empire. “Of course, the disappearance of the Hittites was in terms of information,” Dr. Maner hastens to point out. ”Not in terms of people. They surface even in the Bible which mentions the marriage of Jewish queen Esther to a Hittite named Het.”
Some researchers connect Hittites’ mass emigration with the invasion of “Sea Peoples” mentioned in some texts. There are those who think they were pirate-like bands coming from Eastern Mediterranean, from around Cyprus. Dr Maner thinks otherwise. “Pirates would cross the Taurus range, the plains of Adana and Konya and trek all the way to Çorum (the present day province close to the Black Sea , harboring Hittite capital of Hattusha); it’s inconceivable.” She also points to the lack of any signs of torching or devastation, the classic signatures of invaders, at Hattusha and other Hittite centers.
She says a more plausible explanation for the mass-migration could be a climate change manifesting itself with consecutive draughts.
Text of the Kadesh treaty inscribed on a clay tablet after the most ancient and bigggest battle of antiquity fought between the Hittites and Egyptians in 1274 .
She recounts the effect of climatic fluctuations at rural areas of Eregli near Konya, Central Turkey, where she is engaged in surface surveys . “For instance, a frost, hitting the orchards in 2014, destroyed the apricots, cherries and apples while still in blossom.” “Nowadays, when you lose your produce, you can always turn to groceries, to buy whatever you need with cash or credit. But in old times people had no such luxury. Climatic events such as draughts or frosts, particularly when they come one after the other, mean exhaustion of any available stocks within six or seven months at most, followed by famine and death. “ Maner points to records citing recurring draughts in the 13th century BC, compelling the Hittite kings to seek help from Egyptians with whom good ties were forged with the Kadesh Treaty after the great battle. Although the latter sent thousands of tons of wheat, it failed to end people’s plight, the Empire tottered, Hattusha and other centers were abandoned and people had to migrate en-masse.
What’s the current status of archaeological activities at Hittite sites?
In Hattusha, the excavations which started 120 years ago are monopolized by the Germans. And Dr. Maner gives them credit for a very successful work and a trove of valuable findings. That’s because they are all from German Archaeological Institute and are not fettered by academic responsibilities. But only about a quarter of Hattusha could be brought to surface so far, a fact attesting to the imposing dimensions of the Hittite capital. As for the size of its population, no one can say anything definite. Because, as mentioned earlier, no graves have been found other than an odd few, bearing not too many occupants to speak silently of their lives .
Since the activities at other sites falling into the Turks’ fold are conducted by ranking academics from universities who have to split their time between field work and heavy academic and administrative responsibilities, the digs are timed to summer and restricted to a month or two at best. Limited size of budgets, coupled with administrative and legal hurdles to clear add to the woes. Nevertheless, success stories were in no short supply.
An example is the work directed by Professor Ayşegül Süel of Ankara University at Shappinuwa, a Hittite center also in the Çorum province, which was a center surpassing even Hattusha in size where the emperors occasionally resided. Kuşaklıhöyük (Sarisa) and Kayalıpınar at the Central Anatolian province of Sivas, the better known Alacahöyük in Çorum, Maşathöyük at Tokat province as well as some other tumuli in Southeastern Turkey are sites where digs are currently being conducted.
More recent work , however, takes the form of archaeological field surveys. That’s mainly because the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums in charge is not too enthusiastic for new excavations and is more favorable to cultural heritage projects. Another factor making the extraction of dig licenses on the newly-discovered tumuli is the fact that nearby villages had chosen e their tops as the site for their cemeteries.
So, how the current work is carried out?
“Höyüks (settlement mounds)immediately advertise themselves with their shapes which do not conform to the general topography of the area” Dr. Maner says. “After finally persuading suspicious villagers that we are not treasure hunters,” she goes on, “we survey the area and from the pieces of pottery we find, we try to figure out the time it was inhabited.” A feature of the excavations is the modern gear used, like geophhysical equipment and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) which sends radio beams to shallow layers under the ground and chart its makeup. Since houses during the time of Hiittites were constructed of mudbricks and wooden beams and these instruments are particularly sensitive to burnt mudbricks, good results can be obtained. Nowadays, the trend is to preserve the archaeological sites in hopes that they will add to the pool of cultural heritage in the form of archaeoparks or open air museums.
At the end of this enlightening interview, we thank Dr. Maner and take our leave, having freed ourselves from the cliches dating to 1940’s in schoolbooks which she bemoans, and gained a wider insight to the mysteries of the Hittites.