Around 1200 BC, the great Hittite empire and Mycenaean Greece were swept into oblivion in a series of natural disasters and the ruinous march of the Sea Peoples. We call this period the Bronze Age Collapse.
While the empires of Assyria and Egypt endured the collapse, albeit in a much-reduced state, the world afterwards entered a dark age of sorts. Literacy vanished across Greece and the Hittite Empire, and the complex political infrastructure of the Bronze Age's heyday became a forgotten art. From this smoky aftermath new, smaller kingdoms gradually arose all around old Hittite and Greek lands.
In Greece, a people known as the Dorians came to the fore and flourished, many centuries later, as the Greeks of the Golden Age (think Athens, Plato, Pericles et al.)
In Anatolia - the vast old Hittite heartland - the Phrygians, the Carians and the Kingdom of Urartu rose to prominence.
But the Hittites had not vanished from history completely. In the last throes of the Bronze Age Collapse, a small group of Hittites (sensibly) fled their old lands, leaving behind their ancient capital of Hattusa and heading east in search of shelter.
They came to northern Syria, and specifically the river city of Carchemish - once a mere border viceroyalty of the Hittite throne, ruled by one of the king's cousins and far from the Anatolian heart of the empire. Now, the city was all that remained. Carchemish became - in effect - a life raft for Hittite culture and custom, preserving them through the Sea Peoples' devastations and the ensuing dark age.
Geographically, Carchemish made for a perfect safehaven - fortified, and shielded on one side by the River Euphrates, it had a reputation for being 'unbreakable'. Indeed, It had for centuries previously served as something of a Hittite border fortress and a perfect vantage point to guard a ford across the Euphrates and to watch for any military activity over on the (Assyrian) far banks.
More, sited over 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast, it was comfortably distant from the shore attacks of the Sea Peoples, and far enough up-country to be missed by the brunt of their later inland assaults.
This enclave of refugees did endure, and went on to form what we call the Neo-Hittite Kingdoms - a collection of allied mini-states. Indeed, circa 1100 BC - around one hundred years after the Sea Peoples had faded from the scene - the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser, refers to Ini-Tesub, the king of Carchemish, as a "King of Hatti" (in other words, the King of the Hittites). In another inscription, while passing through the city of Malatya - a good one hundred miles north of Carchemish - Tiglath-Pileser identifies it as being "in the land of Hatti", so the Hittite enclave had clearly expanded.
Some of the relief art found at Carchemish is quite striking - clearly a blend of the original Hittite style mixed with the artistic flair of their near neighbours (and eventual conquerors) the Assyrians. Examples can be seen below:
And of course, we soon arrive in the Biblical era, where the Canaanites, Abraham and Hebron, speak of a strange hill people in the near north. They describe these people as the "Sons of Heth" (Heth being the name of a patriarch amongst the hill tribes), or "The Hethites". Indeed, it is from this Biblical reference that we get our modern name "The Hittites" (the people we call Hittites actually referred to themselves as "The People of the Land of Hatti").
Hittite rule in that small northern Syrian kingdom did not last forever, eventually falling prey to the resurgent Assyrians by the 8th century BC. However, the echoes of their ancient culture remains to this day. Indeed, the Republic of Hatay ('Hatti') - the most southeastern province of modern Turkey and situated around Neo-Hittite lands - is but one quiet echo of the greatness that once prowled around Anatolia and Syria, some 3,000 years ago.
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
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