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Hittite Art

2000-750 BC: Hattusa architecture
Relief sculpture, goldsmithery

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Hittite Culture

The Hittites, arrived in Anatolia (Turkey) from the Russian steppes, around 2000 BC.

They were the first Bronze Age culture in Asia Minor, to mine and smelt iron, and by 1600 BC they had established a kingdom centred on Hattusa in the northern uplands of Anatolia.

From here they slowly pushed outwards until eventually they controlled most of Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, as well as Syria and Lebanon. The ancient art of the Hittites was mostly created during this imperial phase.

Hittite art is most closely related to that of Mesopotamian art to the south. Hittite seals, for example, were related to Assyrian models

Hittite architecture was influenced by Sumerian culture, as well as the unrivalled stonework of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids of the second and third millennia BC. (For more, see: Ancient Egyptian architecture.)

That said, many artworks recovered from Hittite cities are of independent, prior origin, and had a noticeable influence on Assyrian and Babylonian culture.

Hittite low-relief sculptures, for instance, were copied and refined by Assyrian stone carvers who turned them into mile-long narratives of Assyrian conquest, at the royal palaces in Nimrud and Nineveh. For more, see: Assyrian Art (2600-609 BC)

Meantime, freestanding Hittite sphinxes were likewise adopted, as gateway guardians, by the Assyrians and the Persians.

In general, Hittite art, while strong and forthright, is undistinguished from a technical viewpoint, and limited in imagination. Its character, however, is unmistakable.

Two standout works are the relief of the God of War carved onto the King's Gate at Hattusa, and the reliefs on Hattusa's Lion Gate.

Like all ancient peoples of the region, the Hittites had strong religious beliefs.

Their state religion was one of nature-worship. They worshipped the weather-god and the sun-goddess, as well as Teshub (head of the Hurrian pantheon) the great god of mountains and thunder - whose symbols included the axe and the bull - plus an amazingly long list of minor gods representing the elements.

For example, 'the thousand gods of Hatti' are frequently invoked in many Hittite treaties and state documents.

Hittites were skilled warriors but they were even better diplomats.

Possibly, their erratic track record on the battlefield forced them to develop the art of international bargaining. In any event, they were responsible (with Egypt) for the first known international treaty, and used their diplomatic skills to maintain their power and influence in Anatolia, Syria and Mesopotamia, even when defeated in battle.

Origins & History

The Hittites were a Bronze Age Indo-European culture, likely related to the semi-nomadic Yamnaya culture from the Pontic–Caspian steppe in southern Russia, which emerged around 3000 BC.

In about 2000 BC, the Hittites migrated to central Anatolia, via the Caucasus, where they gradually established themselves at the expense of the indigenous Hattians and Hurrians.

Hittites spoke an Indo-European language - in fact, Hittite (together with Luwian, a separate Anatolian language from Luwiya) is believed to be the oldest of all Indo-European languages.

During the two centuries or so that it took to impose themselves, the Hittites divided into two royal factions: a Northern Branch, based around Hattusa and Zalpuwa, and a Southern Branch, around Kussara and Kanesh.

The rivalry between these factions acted as a brake on Hittite territorial ambitions. In addition, for most of their history, strong Hittite leaders were invariably followed by weaker successors, leading to periods of geographical expansion and contraction.

Hittite history is divided into three phases:

The Hittite state was established during the Old Kingdom period, about 1650 BC, under Ḫattušili I (r. 1650-1620 BC), also known as Labarna.

By this point, Hittite forces had captured Hattusa, and were dominant across the upland regions of central Anatolia, including Phrygia, Hatti, Unteres, Kizzuwatna, Cappadocia, and most of Tarhuntassa.

They made no serious attempt to colonize the western coastal region, or mountainous Pala to the north, while the southern region was securely held by the Mitanni people, who had absorbed many dispossessed Hurrians.

Ḫattušili was succeeded by his grandson Mursili I (r. 1620-1590 BC), who enjoyed further military successes. These included his conquest of Mari and Babylonia, in 1595, and his sack of Babylon in 1591, which he passed over to the Kassites.

Mursili I's assassination in 1590 led to a power vaccum and a period of intense rivalry between the two royal factions, deftly exploited by the Mitanni, who promptly overran the Syrian city of Aleppo and other Hittite possessions.

During the following Middle Kingdom period, Hittites came under pressure from the Kaska (Kaskians), who had taken over the mountainous region of Pala, between the Hittites and the Black Sea.

As a result, the Hittite capital at Hattusa was relocated to Sapinuwa and later Samuha.

Despite, or rather because of, their weakness during the Middle Kingdom Period, the Hittites began to develop exceptional diplomatic skills, which they used to establish relationships with their neighbours and thus retain influence and control over their territories.

The New Kingdom (1400-1190 BC) saw a recovery in Hittite fortunes. Tudhaliya I overran the kingdoms of Aleppo, Arzawa and Mitanni, before successive weak kings led to the sack of Hattusa.

But later in the 14th century, the Hittite Empire reached its greatest extent under King Suppiluliuma I (r. 1344-1322 BC) and his heirs, who reconquered Aleppo and Carchemish, re-defeated the Mitanni and seized Egyptian possessions in the Levant.

These conquests left Suppiluliuma a major power broker in the region, a status which was confirmed when the Egyptian Queen Ankhesenamun, the widow of Tutankhamun, asked Suppilulimua for one of his sons as her husband.

This led nowhere, however, as the prince died on his way to Egypt, which led to long-term conflict between the two kingdoms.

Eventually, the Hittite army under Muwatalli II clashed with the troops of Ramesses II at the bloody but indecisive Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), north of Damascus.

Neither side proved able to decisively defeat the other in battle. Finally in 1258 BC, a peace treaty was signed between them.

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Hittite Art

Hittite culture is best known for its architecture and sculpture (reliefs and giant statues).


Hattusa, was the key archeological site of the Hittite Empire. It was noted for its temples, palaces and fortifications, as well as the carvings of kings and underworld gods, at Yazilikaya.

Hattusa possessed a citadel protected by double walls and defensive towers. Entrance into the city was through huge arched gateways flanked by statues and reliefs, such as those carved onto its Royal Gate and Lion Gate.

The sculptures featured lions or sphinxes - anticipating those of the Neo-Assyrian palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh.

King's Gate at Hattusa

The King's Gate is located in the southeastern wall of the city. It flanked by two towers, and had two sets of wooden doors, inner and outer, which opened inwards. It is similar in size and shape to the Lion Gate in the southwestern wall.

These two entrances were the most famous of Hattusa's six city gates, and formed part of the city's sacred processional route, which started out from Temple No 5, exited the city at the King's Gate, and then continued around the outside to the Lion Gate, where it re-entered the city.

The name 'King's Gate' derives from the 2.25-metre stone relief of an important-looking man on the left of the inner gate.

This larger than life-size figure holds an axe, and carries a crescent sword in his belt. He wears a spiked helmet with wide cheek-guards and a protective collar, and was initially presumed to represent a Hittite king.

Today, however, researchers believe it shows a god of war who protects the people passing through the gate.

The reason for this, is because of a horn depicted on his helmet. In the Hittite pantheon, this type of horn usually signifies a god.

Lion Gate at Hattusa

According to Hittite tablet texts, the city's gates were closed at night, and a seal was attached. In the morning the seal was broken in the presence of the authorities, proving no one had entered.

The Lion Gate was built in the early 14th century BC, and stands in the south-western wall.

It is flanked by two towers and comprises two parabolic gates: an internal one and an external one, which opened inwards.

The exterior doors were likely covered in bronze to maximize their resistance.

It is named after the two leonine statues, depicting the front halves of two lions, that were carved into huge blocks of stone on either side of the external doors.

Originally, the lions' eye sockets were lined with various decorative materials.

The Lion Gate exemplifies Hittite sculpture of the 14th century BC. It is not comparable with the much largerpylons and colossi at the entrance of Egyptian temples. See Ancient Egyptian Art (3000-30 BC).

The stone blocks used in its construction are connected with so-called polygonal technique. Not even the thinnest sliver of paper could be squeezed between the stones, so perfect was the fit.

The Lions Gate is constructed in the same way as stone masons in Mycenaean Greece made the Lion Gate entrance to the city of Mycenae.

To compare the difference between (say) the Hittite Lion Gate, and the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, see: Babylonian Art (1792-539 BC),

In addition to its fortifications and gates, there are five temples in Hattusa, the largest of which is a massive structure, complete with a warren of storage chambers. Its main feature is a central courtyard fringed with colonnades and a corner shrine.

Compare Ancient Egyptian Temples (3000-30 BC).

Digging Up Hattusa

For a quick guide to digging up the ancient world, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.


Hittite sculptors were experts in carving reliefs out of natural rock. They were centuries ahead of the Elamites and other Ancient Persians who carved out the famous sculptures at Naksh-I-Rustum, near the ancient city of Persepolis.

The best known example of Hittite rock reliefs is the shrine at Yazilikaya, close to Hattusa.

It is here that artists attempted to depict a procession of the 'thousand gods.' In actuality, it is really two processions, carved on two cliff-faces that converge upon a central sanctuary.

Alas, due to the effects of weather, these low-reliefs seem a little simple and leaden.

However, the figures in the sanctuary itself, are carved with great intensity. The image of a young king (Tudhaliyas IV), for example, captured in the safe embrace of a god, is as impressive as the dramatic symbolism of a large dagger thrust into the rock in front of him.

Even better examples of stonework can be seen in the stone sculpture decorating Hattusa's city gates, as well as the low-reliefs from inside walls at Carchemish, an important ancient city on the border between Syria and Turkey.

These were produced during the Syro-Hittite period (900 BC), but are interesting nevertheless.

As we can see in the 'Stag Hunt' relief, the style is more formalized than in earlier Sumerian murals at Ur and elsewhere.

The figures are too squarish, and each one appears uniformly flat against a featureless background.

If the Hittite 'style' demonstrates a better sense of composition, it falls woefully short of the compelling nature of later Neo-Assyrian reliefs.

Zincirli Höyük

The walled teardrop-shaped citadel on the highest point of the Zincirli Höyük settlement, in the eastern Taurus mountains of Turkey's Gaziantep Province, is another important Neo-Hittite site, possibly an offshoot of the Hittite rump-state at Karkemish.

Among the notable artifacts recovered from the site, are five giant statues of lions carved from stone, known as the Samʼal lions.

These animals were made to guard the gates of the city, but in the end may have been ritually buried together within the citadel.

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Ancient pottery was not a Hittite speciality. Although some masterpieces exist, the great majority of Hittite pottery is plain ware with standardized shapes, and no decoration.

For a location only a few hundred kilometres from where the sublime Ancient Greek pottery would soon emerge, Hittite disinterest in painted pottery is surprising.

Metalwork & goldsmithing

The supremacy of Hittite war chariots is well documented. By the 17th century BC, they had lighter iron hub wheels and carried three warriors armed with iron weaponry, compared to the Egyptian chariot's two.

Hittite blacksmiths were masters of their craft, and so were Hittite goldsmiths, who created beautiful figurines and objects made of gold, silver, bronze and other precious metals.

The beautiful 14th century BC gold figure of a Seated Goddess with a Child, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is a case in point.

Bronze Age Collapse

The Neo-Assyrians, whose heartlands lay to the southeast, were fast becoming a rival power to the Hittites in Northern half of Mesopotamia, and took full advantage of a Hittite Empire, weakened by the long conflict with Egypt.

Despite an alliance with Egypt, as well a few temporary victories achieved by Tudhaliya IV (r. 1245–1215 BC), the Hittites were unable to resist Assyrian pressure. Ultimately, they were heavily defeated by the Neo Assyrians at the Battle of Nihriya (1237 BC).

This was followed by a series of violent and culturally disruptive events - known collectively as the Bronze Age Collapse (1200-1150 BC), which shook several Bronze Age Civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In the case of the Hittites, their heartland in the uplands of central Anatolian was overrun by successive waves of invaders from the west and north.

This combined with more defeats at the hands of the Assyrians to the south, eventually led to the collapse of the Hittite Empire and culture (1160 BC). The Hittite people were absorbed into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

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Syro-Hittite Culture & Architecture

Following the collapse of the empire, Hittite or 'Syro-Hittite' culture resurfaced in several "Neo-Hittite" city-states - such as Milid (today's Arslantepe-Malatya), Sam'al (Zincirli), and Carchemish.

These settlements were ruled in partnership with the Aramaeans and other peoples, with some enduring until about 750 BC.

The Syro-Hittite architecture of this period was of a hybrid and somewhat inferior style, greatly influenced by Assyria, and also by Phoenicia and Egypt.

Their buildings often feature carved orthostats (large stone slabs), that line the base of many of the walls.

Columns are typically made from wood, with bases and capitals of stone. They also feature a number of greater than life-size statues.

Syro-Hittite palaces were 'bit hilani' structures - bit hilani being Akkadian for 'house of pillars'.

This type of structure usually featured a monumental entrance, approached by a broad but low flight of steps, with a columned portico, which led to a great hall or long throne room, surrounded by numerous other chambers.

A perfect illustration of this type of Hittite palace architecture is the Kaparu Palace at Tall Halaf.

See also: Iron Age art (1200-200 BC).

Hittite Legacy

According to Vahan Kurkjian, in his book 'A History of Armenia' (1958), our principal source of knowledge about Hittite culture comes from cuneiform writings on 30,000 or so clay tablets, in the royal archives at Hattusa.

Until these discoveries, the only information about Hittite civilization came to us from the Hebrew Old Testament of the Bible.

Since then, additional tablet archives have been identified at other centres in Turkey, such as Tabigga (Maşat Höyük) and Sapinuwa (Ortaköy).

During the 1920s, interest in the Hittites mushroomed due to the founding of the Republic of Turkey (1923).

A new academic field of Hittitology was also established, as well as the foundation of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, which houses the world's most extensive exhibition of Hittite art and culture.

In 1986, the Hittite capital of Hattusa - its ruins are close to the modern town of Boğazkale (Boğazköy) - was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its temples, royal residences and fortifications, and its art.

The latter includes the rich ornamentation of the Lions' Gate and the Royal Gate, and the collection of rock carvings at Yazilikaya.

Examples of Hittite Art

Hittite Bronzes/ Gold Objects

Hittite Sculptures

Hittite Seals

Hittite Pottery/terracottas


(1) Kurkjian, Vahan. 'The Hittite Empire' in his book 'A History of Armenia' (1958) Armenian General Benevolent Union of America.
(2) Bryce, Trevor R. (2005) The Kingdom of the Hittites (2nd revised ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199279081.
(3) Gilibert, Alessandra (2011). Syro-Hittite Monumental Art and the Archaeology of Performance: The Stone Reliefs at Carchemish and Zincirli in the Earlier First Millennium BCE. Berlin-New York: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9783110222258.
(4) Akurgal, Ekrem (2001). The Hattian and Hittite Civilizations. Ankara: Ministry of Culture. ISBN 9789751727565.
(5) Macqueen, J. G. (1986) The Hittites, and Their Contemporaries in Asia Minor, revised and enlarged, Ancient Peoples and Places series (ed. G. Daniel), Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-02108-2.

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