In Search of the Hittites

The monthly biblical archeology column

Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of The Ministry.

WE UNDERSTOOD full well that the search for the Hittite Empire would be a grueling ordeal, often taking us into the remote areas of Turkey. Unfamiliar with the local language, communication would be extremely difficult. The four of us—Dr. Walton J. Brown, director of the Department of Education for the General Conference; his wife, Doreen; my wife, Olive, and I—picked up a Renault 12 in Istanbul. Returning two and a half weeks later, we had clocked up 7,000 kilometers (4,000 miles) and suffered three flat tires.

But why such an interest in old ruins, scarcely even known today by those who now inhabit the areas? Why the search for places like Zenjirli, Boghazkoy, and Karatepe, names now known almost exclusively by the archeologists?

My interest was first aroused in 1957 upon my first visit to Egypt when I saw upon the walls of the huge Karnak temple where the egotistical Ramses II had carved his account of the now-famous Battle of Kadesh fought against the Hittites (Kheta). When the Egyptian hieroglyphic script was first deciphered and the account read, the scholars of the day knew nothing of a Hittite nation, except the references to be found in the Old Testament. Since most of them then doubted the historical veracity of the Bible, they questioned whether such a people had ever really lived or, at the most, been important.

Although the Hittites are mentioned forty-eight times in the Scriptures, even Bible believers would scarcely have dared to envision an empire so vast as modern finds have disclosed, stretching from northern Syria to include all of Asia Minor. The story of the rediscovery of this lost empire must certainly go down in history as one of the greatest sagas of exploration ever told.

Although a subject of great interest to me since that summer day at Karnak, the full impact of it all could only be gained by following the tantalizing trail of the archeologists and seeing firsthand the massive evidence now laid bare on mountain slopes and simmering plains and the impressive reliefs crowding the museums from the large National Archeological Museum at Istanbul and the famed Hittite Museum in Ankara to the scores of small village museums that have sprung up all over the vast territory now known as Turkey, together with others of neighboring Syria.

The first scholar to publicly claim evidence for the identification of the lost Hittites was Archibald Henry Sayce, who in 1879 wrote a paper entitled, "The Hittites in Asia Minor." The next year, his lecture on the subject before the Society for Biblical Archeology in London made the headlines, touching off a controversy that was to continue for many years. At that time the classic German encyclopedia, Meyer's Neues Konversations- lexicon, carried only seven lines on the Hittites. The evidence was indeed scanty. To many scholars, Sayce was the "inventor of the Hittites."

What did Sayce possess that prompted such bold assertions? First, he had the Bible, and his confidence in its inspiration and historical accuracy was unshaken. His claims were permeated with Bible references.

Second, he had some archeological evidence, although at that time it was mostly speculative, derived primarily from strange hieroglyphic-like inscribed stones that had been observed at Hamath in northern Syria, Smyrna on the west coast of Turkey, and Carchemish along the west bank of the Euphrates. Also, the vast remains of Boghazkoy, 120 miles east of Ankara, later to be identified as the capital of the old Hittite Empire, had been visited and its wonders described.

All of these he related to a single people—a people long lost from history. There were also the "Kheta" inscriptions at Karnak and other places of Egypt. Sayce put it all together and "guessed" that these must be the Hittites of Biblical fame. He had gone so far as to decipher the first few symbols of the strange hieroglyphic, but there was no way of proving that the reading was correct.

In 1884 William Wright published a book entitled, The Empire of the Hittites, with Decipherment of the Hittite Inscriptions by Professor A. H. Sayce. It was with this that the story of Hittitology may be said to have begun. No longer could the claims be discarded or the Hittites ignored.

Further investigation revealed that the "Kheta" people, whoever they might have been, had become so powerful that the great Thutmose III had for a time been forced to pay tribute to them. In Mesopotamia, where they were called "Hatti," they attacked and captured Babylon about 1550 B.C., thus ending the Old Babylonian Dynasty that flourished in the days of Hammurabi. Assyrian cuneiform records also noted victorious battles of Tiglath-Pileser against them about 1100 B.C. Later tablets speak of their exploits until the fall of Carchemish in 717 B.C. These people must have affected world history for some 900 years.

New Evidence Pours In

A major victory for Sayce came with the discovery in 1887 of the now-famous Tell el-Amarna tablets. These historic documents included scores of tablets telling of numerous Hittite raids across the Egyptian Empire's northern border into Syria. Also, there were actual Hittite letters speaking of relations between the Hittites and Egyptians. Written in the Akkadian cuneiform writing then used for international correspondence, the inscriptions could be read at once by the scholars. One tablet gave the first definite date for a Hittite king. The tab lets definitely identified the "Hatti" people with the Hittites. Also, they gave evidence that the Hittite Empire had not centered in Northern Syria, as even Sayce had suspected, but in Asia Minor. From there they infiltrated into Syria after 1400 B.C.

The first major excavations to be carried on at a Hittite site were undertaken in 1888 at Zenjirli in the southern foot hills of the Taurus Mountains. Our visit to the site took us back to those adventurous days, for things have changed very little through the years, the mudbrick village appearing very much the same now as described in the accounts of the work there by the German archeologist Karl Humann.

Just to find the site, perched on one end of an egg-shaped mound, was an experience not soon to be forgotten. After repeated efforts we finally communicated our mission to the villagers occupying the other end of the mound and were led across ruin and rubble to where the excavations had taken place 87 years before. Altogether, 82 crates of huge stone reliefs had been hauled from there to Istanbul. A few days be fore we had seen many of them in the archeological museum.


In 1906 the first major excavations were begun at Boghazkoy by Hugo Winkler. Little had changed since the site was first visited by a Frenchman, Charles Texier, 71 years before. And little had changed to the time of our visit, except for the diggings, which are still in progress. The isolated village, far off the main thoroughfare today, the old, squeaky, solid-wooden-wheeled, oxendrawn carts—everything we saw re minded us of conditions as they had existed during the early years of exploration and before. The carts seem the same today as those pictured on the ancient Hittite reliefs.

Winkler's work was continued in 1907 and again from 1911-1912. He was ill most of the time and died in 1913. Altogether he brought to light some 10,000 clay tablets, the greatest find of tablets since the discovery of King Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh and the archives of Tell el-Amarna. The many government documents among them soon convinced him that he had actually found the capital city.

Boghazkoy is now known to have been the capital of the Hittite Empire from the second half of the seventeenth century B.C. until about 1200 B.C. when the hostile Sea Peoples invaded the land and burned the city to the ground. There after the Hittites became organized into small city-kingdoms, as at Carchemish, until swallowed up by the Assyrians about 700 B.C.

Although I have read quite a bit about Boghazkoy, I was surprised at the extent of the metropolis. We approached from the south, driving northward from Cappadocia, following the gravel Yosgat road mile after mile through the rolling and often rugged hills. Finally, descending toward the valley, we could see the vast remains of the great citadel spread out before us. But this was only a part of the once-great city. After we explored its ruins, the man at the gate directed us up a narrow, winding road. Following this we passed the sites of five temples, and soon found ourselves paralleling the great walls that had once encircled the area. We stopped to photo graph and marvel at the great King's Gate and Lion Gate that pierced the walls. We walked through the tremendous 220-foot tunnel built beneath the massive wall.

Then we drove a few kilometers to the great open-air rock sanctuary of Yazilikaya and then on to Alacahoyuk, about twenty-three miles distant. Here the remains are similarly sensational. Particularly impressive is the great Sphinx Gateway, a restoration of which, along with many of the reliefs from the diggings here, makes up a fascinating dis play in the Ankara Hittite Museum.

Winkler had dug but twenty days at Boghazkoy when, though sick and grouchy, as he was sitting in his mud hut reading the cuneiform inscriptions he suddenly became wild with excitement. There before him was correspondence between Ramses II and the Hittite king relating to the treaty drawn up following the famous Battle of Kadesh. Subsequent tablets provided further texts of that most famous battle of ancient history. According to the Hittite version, Ramses II, rather than emerging as the great hero, was apparently fortunate to escape with his life. Later, in consummating the treaty, Ramses took one of the Hittite king's daughters to be his wife.

In 1907, John Garstang visited Boghazkoy and in 1910 published The Land of the Hittites: An Account of Re cent Explorations and Discoveries in Asia Minor, with Descriptions of the Hittite Monuments, with Maps and Plans, Ninety-nine Photographs and a Bibliography. This impressive volume became the standard work in Hittitology for many years.

The following year Winkler resumed his diggings at Boghazkoy and Hogarth, Wooley, and Lawrence began their excavations at Carchemish. Al though with the outbreak of World War I all digging came to a halt, a very vital key to future investigation was made available during this period of international conflict. This was the decipherment of the cuneiform Hittite writing by the brilliant young Czech scholar, Friedrich Hrozny, who had the good fortune during the war years of being relieved of military duty in the Viennese Army so that he might carry on research on the Hittite tablets. His research included several weeks of study in the museum at Istanbul. The 246-page volume that resulted was published in 1917. It has been acclaimed as the most complete decipherment of a dead language ever given to the world.

Three different styles of Hittite writing had now come to light. These were the Akkadian cuneiform, which could already be read, the Hittite cuneiform deciphered by Hrozny, and finally the mysterious Hittite hieroglyphic, such as that originally seen on the Hamath, Smyrna, and Carchemish stones. This writing represented an unknown language written by an unknown people using unknown symbols. The possibility of its ever being deciphered was scarcely dreamed of. The only hope would be a bilingual inscription.

In 1934 some 300 clay seals were found at Boghazkoy by Kurt Bittel, who since 1931 has been in charge of excavations there. One hundred of these turned out to be bilingual. Although offering some help, still a much lengthier bilingual would be absolutely essential. But would such an inscription ever be found?

That it actually was is as fantastic as George Smith's finding the missing tab lets of the Gilgamesh Epic at Nineveh. The almost unbelievable find was made in 1947 by Helmuth T. Bossert high atop the black mountains of Karatepe, ninety-three miles northeast of Adana amid the remnants of great fortification walls, evidences of a citadel, a temple palace, together with many well-preserved reliefs, including the great stone lion that first attracted him to the site.

What he found was a Phoenician inscription that proved to be the longest old Phoenician running text so far dis covered, along with the hieroglyphic Hittite version of the same text. The unknown language of an unknown people written with unknown symbols could now be deciphered and read by the scholars.

Discovery at Karatepe

Our 1975 search for the lost Hittite Empire would not have been complete without a visit to Karatepe. Going through the village of Kadirli we began the ascent following the narrow gravel road that winds through the mountains, through broad valleys, and now and again amid twisting ridges and rocky crests, finally pulling up to the newly leveled off parking area near the summit. There we followed the path leading up to the ticket office, and beyond that to what is now known to have been the summer residence of King Azitawadda, whose name appears on the famed bi lingual inscription.

Karatepe is a fantastic open-air museum, with most of its reliefs still in place just as they have been since the harsh underbrush that surrounded them has been cleared away. As we viewed the impressive remains, it was hard to imagine that we were standing where such an important chapter in the search for the lost Hittites was dramatically written only a few years ago.

Much more could be said of these strange people lost from history for 2,500 years. Mention could be made of the finds at Maras and the fifteen or so identified Hittite sites in the area of Kayseri and greater Cappadocia alone, along with those near Ankara and many others. The final chapters are still being written. The work goes on. And each new paragraph adds new luster, under standing, and credibility to that Book that a little more than a century ago prompted Archibald Henry Sayce to begin the search.

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Orley M. Berg is an executive editor of The Ministry.

January 1976

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