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A Lost Empire

posted Jun 25, 2019, 2:43 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 25, 2019, 3:10 AM ]

An Ancient Monument...

In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus - known as "The Father of history" - travelled to western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and ventured into an old rocky canyon known as the Karabel Pass. Here, he set eyes upon an ancient relief carved into the rock high up on pass-side. It depicted a male warrior with a bow, spear and curved sword, crowned with a peaked helm. 

‘With my own shoulders, I won this land,’ reads the inscription below the relief. Herodotus was perplexed for a time: the strange warrior did not look familiar to his well-travelled eye. Eventually, he came to the unsatisfying conclusion that this was an Egyptian creation – carved by a conquering Pharaoh who had marched from the Nile, around the Levant, across Anatolia and all the way to the Aegean coast. Now there were probably plenty of Pharaohs who would have been rather chuffed to have won such far-flung lands... but here's the thing: now we know for sure that it was not Egyptian. It was crafted by a people lost to history for some seven hundred years by Herodotus' time; a people who would remain forgotten for another two millennia afterwards - the Hittites.

Until the early 20th century, we thought of the Hittites as nothing more than a peripheral and insignificant hill tribe living near the biblical Israelites of Canaan. Nobody realised that before this, during the late Bronze Age, they had in fact once been a colossal state, ruling all Anatolia and northern Syria as one of the ancient world's superpowers.

How could such knowledge be lost? Well, the Bronze Age Collapse, as it is known, is thought to have been catastrophic, and only fragmentary evidence remains from that long-ago era. This cataclysm tore down the Hittite Empire amongst several other great powers, and changed the world forever. It is under the dust and rubble of this collapse that memories of the Hittites were buried, evidently lost to Herodotus and men of his era. In more recent history, the Ottoman Sultans sadly chose to ignore the rich history of Anatolia which pre-dated their reign. Thus, the wonders that had gone before were left buried, and the land itself was largely closed to curious archaeologists. 

Strange Ruins...

It was only in the later days of the Ottoman regime that Turkey was opened up to the world. The French archaeologist-adventurer Charles Texier was one of the earliest modern explorers to take advantage of this by venturing across Anatolia’s central plateau. He was searching for the Roman city of Tavium, and so he began to ask the rural folk if there were any ruins nearby that had not been investigated. But the locals instead insisted on telling him about some mysterious ruins in the high, rugged lands east of Ankara - ruins that were not Roman or Greek... but much, much older. Intrigued, he set off at once. 

Upon his arrival, he stopped, confounded, enchanted, his eyes transfixed upon the foundations of a colossal stone city in that bleak, lonely wilderness. The ancient ruins were decorated with more carvings of strange gods and people in that same odd-looking garb from the Karabel Pass relief. But he realised that this was not Egyptian, nor Assyrian, certainly not Roman or Greek. Within the ruins, he found fragments of a hitherto unknown style of cuneiform writing. Little did he know it at the time, but he had just stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of his time, for this was Hattusa, capital of the lost Hittite Empire.



First: The hills of the lost capital now, and a reconstructed section of the lower town walls. During Hattusa's heyday, the rocky hillsides behind were studded with forts and the city acropolis sat on the highest point.
Second: A reconstruction of the Hititte capital in its pomp.
Third: The ruins of Hattusa's lion Gate during a typically unforgiving Anatolian winter.
Fourth: The Yazilikaya Rock Shrine, just north of Hattusa. Hittite kings and people would make regular ceremonial processions from the city to this sacred site to give offerings to the Gods.

Unearthing the Truth...

Texier's 'discovery' was ground-breaking, but there was still a long way to go before these ruins and the wonders buried underneath could be investigated, interpreted and understood. Here's how it all played out:

  • 1834: Texier makes his discovery of Hattusa
  • 1880: Having examined the peculiar cuneiform Texier brought back, the missionary Wright and Archibald Henry Sayce announced at a Society for Biblical Archaeology meeting that the as-yet undeciphered writing was that of 'the Hittites' - the same people who later occupied parts of biblical Canaan.
    • According to the Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, the Hittites were the descendants of Noah, through Ham, then Canaan, and then Heth. (Pat 87), thus ‘Hethites’ or 'Hittites'.
    • But, as my article Who were the Hittites will show, the people who had once lived in Hattusa were far older and far greater than those biblical descendants.
  • 1905: Hugo Winckler found a huge cache of hidden tablets and fragments of writings at Hattusa. This was more valuable than any treasure of gold or silver.
  • 1916: After a decade of trying, Archibald Sayce and Bedrich Hrozny at last deciphered the cuneiform texts so that we could finally see and understand the chronology and culture of the Hittite people.

Thanks to men like Texier, Sayce, Winckler, Hrozny and their modern counterparts Blasweiler, Bryce and many more, the Hittites are forgotten no more!

Want to know more about the Hittites? Read all about them in Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar