lunedì 20 agosto 2012

The Hittites, mysterious people of a Thousand Gods

Hattusas, Turkey - The Lion's gate of Hattusas, flanked by two colossal lion statues - (Photo by Author)

Until no more than one century ago, very little was known of the Hittites, a people shrouded in mystery. Still, the Hittites were no minor civilization in antiquity: the Hittite empire stretched as far as the Bosphorus and what is today’s Syria. It was a major super-power of the ancient Near East, which frequently clashed with the other super-powers of the area, most notably Egypt. A large number of letters are known from various sites in Turkey and Egypt which prove intense diplomatic relationships between Egypt and the Hittites. The first peace treaty in History (of which we possess both copies) was signed between the Hittite King Muwattali II and Ramses II of Egypt after the battle of Kadesh in Syria.

Oddly enough, the Hittites were frequently mentioned in the Bible and even credited as the original founders of Jerusalem (Ezekiel, 16:1). It is also said in Genesis (23:2) that Abraham bought a cave in Hebron (in what is today’s Palestine) to bury his wife Sarah from the Hittites. Even though it is doubtful whether the Biblical Hittites were the same as the Anatolian people called by the same name, This however led to a historical misrepresentation of the Hittites as a people somehow ancestor to the more recent Canaanites.

When the first European travelers of the early XIX Century found the strange and monumental ruins near Bogazkőy, in central Turkey, they were puzzled as to the identity of their mysterious builders, which also appeared to possess a hieroglyphic writing unlike any other known from antiquity. It was only towards the end of the XIX Century that the ruins of Bogazkőy were finally identified with those of Hattusas, the ancient capital of the Hittites which had until then only been known from epigraphic writings.

Perhaps one of the reasons why so little was known of the Hittites in modern times was the sudden and catastrophic destruction which befell their Empire as most of the ancient Near East towards the end of the Bronze Age, about 1,200 BC.  The fall of Hattusas, which was never rebuilt, also marked the end of the Hittite empire.
It seems that Hattusas and all its inhabitants perished in a great catastrophe whose exact nature is still the subject of much speculation. Consider this description of the ruins as reported after the 1931-1939 excavations by its excavator:

Wherever we set our spades, we found unmistakable signs of a devastating fire that had consumed everything that would burn, reduced brickwork to reddened masses of slag, and made limestone blocks explode in fragments. Sometimes one got the impression that the materials that happened to be in the buildings could never have been enough to raise such a blaze, such a heat; no thing, not a house, not a temple, not a hut escaped the work of destruction” [1]

Hattusas was not the only city to be destroyed by fire, as other cities of Central Anatolia appeared to have met the same fate: Alaça Hoyuk, some 25 Km to the North, also perished in a fiery catastrophe; Hittite palaces at Masat and Fraktin, as well as the fortified citadel of Karaogan, near present day Ankara, were also burnt to the ground in a catastrophic fire [2]
The End of the great Hittite empire was complete: there is no sign of Hittite re-occupation at Hattusas after its destruction, and the site remained a desolate ruin until its re-discovery in modern times. It is perhaps no chance that about the same time the great centers of the Near East were abruptly incinerated: Burnt in great flames were the ancient cities of Palestine and the fortresses of Syria,  and even the Egyptian cities of the delta succumbed and were turned to smoking ruins.
It is difficult to imagine what invading army could have overthrown in a space of years (or perhaps even less) an empire so powerful as to compete with Egypt for control over the near East at its height, less than one Century before.  And even more difficult it is to imagine what enemy could have so easily penetrated into that city of Hattusas, defended as it was by the strongest defensive walls of any bronze age city in the Near East or elsewhere in the ancient world, in such a manner as to lay complete destruction over the whole of the Hittite empire.
There are even those, among historians, who suggest it was no invading army to engulf all of the ancient Near East in flames, but rather a “fire from Heaven”, perhaps a large meteorite or a comet.

A paved road in  the "Lower City". Roads in Hattusas were unusually large and spacious, probably to allow  transit to large chariots and carriages - (Photo by Author)
Only the scattered foundations of buildings remain of what were probably storage rooms or  royal archives adjacent to the Great Temple in the Lower City. The first excavators of Hattusas were surprised by the thick layer of vitrified bricks and calcinated stones which were clearly left over by a fire so violent as to make limestone explode in fragments - (Photo by Author)
                This is however not the only mystery of Hittite civilization. The Hittites were a Indo-European people which first moved into Anatolia in the 17th or 18th Century BC. However, there is proof Hattusas was already a major city in the area by that time. Already before 2,000 BC, Hattusas (whose original name was probably Hattush), had been settled by an indigenous people called the Hatti, of which very little is known except they spoke a probably non-Indo-European language. The first Hittite king who is known to have reigned on Hattusas was Hattusili I, which was then followed by a royal line of 27 Great Hittite Kings.

                Under Hittite rule, the city of Hattuas took the shape of one of the major capitals of the ancient Near East, comparable to ancient Assur and Ninevah. The city consisted of a “lower town”, where the main temple was located, and an “upper town” or fortified citadel of some 1 square Km surrounded by massive walls. Modern estimates for the population of Hattusas are in the 40,000 – 50,000 range.

Hattusas lies amidst barren and desolate landscape, on a wind-swept plateau which seems nowhere suitable to any permanent human habitation (the above picture was taken in early April). Still, it was one of the largest cities in the ancient world and the largest fortified settlement of the Bronze age throughout the entire Near East - Photo by Author
A small section of the walls of Hattusas was reconstructed by German archaeologists to recreate their original aspect.  The walls consisted mostly of mudbrick, resting on stone foundations - (Photo by Author)
What is striking about Hattusas is that the site chosen for its construction seems nowhere fit for a large capital, being covered by rugged terrain amidst steep rock formations: to give you an idea of how steep and unsuitable the terrain is, suffice to say that the difference in elevation between the “lower city” and the “upper city” was well in the range of 300 meters!
Hattusas itself sits on top of barren and wind-swept plateau at 1,200 meters above sea level, which enjoys what is possibly the worst weather conditions in central Anatolia. Even in April the site is mostly covered by snow. 

The main entrance to the Great Temple of Hattusas, in the "Lower City". Notice the huge limestone foundation walls - (Photo by Author)
A secondary entrance to the Great Temple. The giant blocks of stone, some of which as heavy as 50 tons, still bear the marks and the cracks of a devastating fire that laid complete distruction on Hattusas - (Photo by Author)
Looking towards the reconstructed gateway and walls, one can appreciate the full extension of the "Lower City".  The large megalithic wall in the foreground is part of the Great Temple, while the structures immediately beneath were likely used as warehouses or storerooms - (Photo by Author)
             The great temple occupies a privileged position in the “lower City”. It was probably built by Hattusili III (1265-1235 BC), although the exact date of its construction is not known. It consists of a massive precint of some 14,000 square meters, with the temple itself measuring 42x65 meters. The area eventually included several smaller shrines, storerooms, and paved streets connecting the various buildings.
The temple, which was likely dedicated to the local Hittite version of the Storm God, is notable for its distinct megalithic construction: the base courses consist of huge ashlars of dark green andesite stone (unlike most buildings at Hattusas, which are built of local gray limestone), some of which as large as 6-8 meters long and weighing over 40 tons. The temple has three cultic chambers, which are slightly off-set from the general axis of the temple. The main altar room also possessed a couple of “windows” oriented towards some point to the horizon which bear an uncanny resemblance to Inca masonry and the great Sun Temple of Qorikancha in ancient Cuzco.

The inner courtyard of the Great Temple was occupied by several smaller structures and shrines, of which only the massive stone foundations remain - (Photo by Author)
The main altar of the Great Temple was located in a large oblong room, where the bases of two windows can be seen on each side of the altar. These were likely astronomically oriented towards the rising of specific stars and constellations - (Photo by Author) 
Here one can fully appreciate the megalithic character of the Great Temple construction. The large stone in the background is over 6 meters (18 feet) long, 2 meters tall by 2 meters thick, which account for an exstimated weight of over 60 tons. Unlike the white limestone which is commonly found elsewhere at the site, these giant megaliths are made of a very hard igneous rock called andesite and bear trace of a much more intense erosion - (Photo by Author)
Another enigmatic feature of the temple, which one also finds almost everywhere amidst the ancient ruins of  Hattusas, is a large number of perfectly circular drill-holes cut deep into the rock as if by means of some tube drill capable of drilling perfectly clear holes in a stone as hard as granite. There is no conclusive explanation as to the real purpose of this holes. There are hundreds of them and they are in some cases so closely fitted together as to almost entirely cover the surface of a stone block. It has been suggested these holes served to hold the bronze pins required to support the wooden frame of buildings, which were then filled with mudbrick. I think this is a somehow unsatisfactory explanation: why take such a gigantic effort as to cut huge monoliths of stone, all neatly fitted and joined together, only to make foundations for buildings which consisted of no more than a timber frame filled with mudbricks? This is even more mysterious if one considers the apparently random pattern of holes one finds on certain large stones. The Hittites were amongst the first civilizations to use iron, which allowed them to craft strong tools to drill round holes into the stone. The question is Why?

A close-up of one of the perfectly circular drill holes that can be found in large numbers all over the site.  The internal contours of the holes are extremely neat and smooth to the touch as if dug by some precision instrument - (Photo by Author)
Another stone with holes, located some way up from the lower citadel. Each stone contains as much as 20 holes, which in this case were carefully arranged in rows - (Photo by Author)
Within the great Temple precinct one also finds a large green-stone boulder (probably nephrite or jadeite) which has been the subject of much speculation (it is believed it was a gift by Ramses II to the Hittites following the peace treaty of Kadesh, although the claim cannot be proven). The stone has a perfectly smooth touch and an almost mirror-polish. It was certainly the object of some cult, but one wonders how it came there in the first place…

One of the entrances to the Lower City of Hattusas, which was likely part of the large Temple precint (or temenos). Notice the enormous size of the blocks used and the heavy stone erosion - (Photo by Author)
The strange green stone lying in one of the side chambers of the Great Temple complex. It is a cube of almost 1 meter by side, perfectly polished to achieve mirror-like surfaces. The origins of this stone, as well as its real purpose are a complete mystery - (Photo by Author)
These huge monolithic door thresholds once separated a set of large oblong rooms which were likely  used as storerooms for cultic objects - (Photo by Author)
Another enigmatic monolith in the "Lower City", close to the outer temenos wall of the Great Temple. Because of its shape and position, it was likely an ablution basis used in temple ceremonies. One can also see the hole made for the drainage channel on the short side - (Photo by Author)
                Also the citadel of Buyűkkaya and the outer city walls were built using large megalithic stones (the ancient walls of Hattusas extend over a length of some 6,5 Km, among the largest of any Bronze-age site). The city gates are especially remarkable as they show a polygonal style of masonry not unlike that of Mycenaean bronze-age walls. The most famous gates are the “Gate of the Lions” and the “Gate of the King”, which took their name after the bas-reliefs decorating the frames.

One of the lower gateways of the citadel. Notice the parabolic-shaped door frames  and the distinctively megalithic character of double-door walls construction. At this point the walls were over 12 meters thick (while elsewhere they are usually 5-to-6 meters thick - (Photo by Author)
The Gate of the King, so called for a bas-relief depicting a marching King (or God?) on the inner door frame  (now in the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara). Notice also here the parabolic doorway frames and the double-door system. No doubt Hattusas was amongst the most heavily fortified citadels of the Bronze Age - (Photo by Author)
Another view of the polygonal walls and towers next to the Gate of the King. The huge boulders of stone comprising the bulk of the walls are over 2 to 3 tons in weight - (Photo by Author)
There is also another gate called the “Gateway of Sphinxes” resting upon a platform which is itself known as the “Gate of the Earth” (Yerkapi). This is truly the most remarkable monument of the “Upper city”, consisting of a large oblong pyramid some 250 by 70 meters wide and 30 meters high. A kind of rampart was built on top of this platform, consisting of a single line of walls with several towers and two gateways decorated by sphinxes (now in the Istanbul and Bogazkoy Museum, after they were returned by the German government to Turkey). This enigmatic structure is usually called a “fortress” or a “rampart” (perhaps to avoid calling it a pyramid, that is, what it actually looks like). One wonders what defensive purpose could it serve: not only would an invading enemy find very conveniently located stairways leading up to the summit of the “rampart”, but even a large tunnel piercing it from side to side over a length of 69 meters (which would have of course led the enemy right in the middle of the “citadel”, entirely bypassing the supposed “rampart”). Some archaeologists of course claim the tunnel would have been a deadly trap to any invader, like some sort of “death’s corridor”, but there is no proof the tunnel was ever blocked.  Also, one wonders why one would build a “rampart” with a side larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza and then cut a comfortable tunnel throughout its width for any invader to simply bypass it. To me it is plain non-sense. The only reasonable explanation is that the Yerkapi served some yet obscure cultic purpose (perhaps with the supposed “towers” on top marking some calendrically relevant points?), which was perhaps linked to Sun or Star observation. I must admit the tunnel crossing the “pyramid” of Yerkapi over its entire width closely reminded me of a giant telescope pointing to some distant star (which star?).

The perfectly rectilinear tunnel crossing the "Pyramid" of Yerkapi over its entire width.  The style of corbel-vault construction is closely reminescent of Mycenean bronze-age architecture - (Photo by Author)
The entrance to the tunnel (also called Gate of the Earth) on the long side of the Yerkapi Pyramid. Hardly something that could have gone unnoticed, especially to an invading army... - (Photo by Author)
One of the corners of the Yerkapi pyramid. The outer casing is arranged on two terraces and was lined with  large white limestone boulders - (Photo by Author)
Another view of the outer casing of the Yerkapi pyramid. One can also see the large and spacious stairway conveniently located on one of the sides. It would be a complete non-sense to build such a stairway on a supposed military rampart - (Photo by Author)
Looking down from the top of the Yerkapi pyramid  towards the bottom of the large stairway.  Everywhere around is barren and desolate landscape - (Photo by Author)
                Another notable feature of the ancient site is the so called “Temple district” occupying a vast area of the “Upper city” of Hattusas. So far, the remains of over 30 temples have been identified. These were likely shrines to the Gods of the nations conquered by the Hittites, which were thus controlled and kept under Hittite power. The larger temples are as large as 1,200 to 1,500 square meters, often surrounded by a temenos wall which often consists of large polygonal stones very finely fitted together and dressed.

Large megalithic walls in the "Temple district", still mostly covered by snow. The building and masonry style is closely reminescent of Inca construction techniques - (Photo by Author)

Other views of the megalithic walls of the Upper Temple district. The stones are very neatly fitted together and often have complex interlocking joints as in the picture above. Almost nothing survives of the large temples that must have stood on these platforms, except few fragments of a blackish basalt stone - (Photo by Author)
                Finally, the site of Hattusas also boasts a number of hieroglyphic inscriptions bearing trace of the so-called “Luwian” script (still mostly undeciphred). The “Hieroglyph chamber”, located in the Eastern part of the Upper citadel contains lengthy inscriptions and depictions of the Sun-God and King Shupiluliuma II within two monumental vaulted chambers.

A large rock was clearly cut along its entire width to built a shrine and a temple to the Mountain Gods. Similarly to the Phrygians, the Hittites also worshipped Mountains and rocks of unusual shape as abodes of the Gods - (Photo by Author)
Another rock-cut trench in the lower town, open to the winds, which is closely reminescent of altars and observation platforms - (Photo by Author)
On this rock one can still see a faint hieroglyphic inscription on many lines, which is the longest Hittite inscription known, dating to the last years of Hattusas - (Photo by Author)
One of the hieroglyphic chambers in the Upper citadel. These likely served some cultic purpose related to the Underworld deities. Also note the massive corble vault made of finely fitted boulders - (Photo by Author)

[1] N. Bittel, R. Neumann, Bogazkoy-Hattuas, Excavations results of the German Archaeological Institute and the German Oriental Society in the Years 1931-1939, vol. 1 (1952)
[2] L. Robbins, Collapse of the Bronze Age: the story of Greece, Troy, Israel, Egypt and the People of the Sea, iUniverse, (2001)
For a detailed description of the site and high-quality reconstructions see:

1 commento:

  1. The assignment of mysterious Hittite structures to some "obscure cultic purpose" is a poor analysis in my opinion. The Hittites obviously enjoyed an advanced technology of stone masonry. It takes much more than iron to bore perfectly round, straight holes in igneous rock or carve out symmetrical trenches and other shapes from huge boulders, and these are just the surviving tip of the technology iceberg due to the durability of stone. It would help to at least wonder about other advanced technologies they and their peers might have mastered.

    For instance, radiological studies might be done on this site. If abnormal concentrations of long-lived isotopes are found it will point to a different explanation for the destruction of Hattuas. There are many stories from prior civilizations that suggest very advanced weaponry. A conviction that the Hittites and their neighboring empires were not far removed from savages can only retard our understanding of their real nature.