Flashback 3300 years – a visit to the Hittites of Hattusha

Natascha in deep snow at the gate of the Lions in Hattusha

For nearly an hour we have plodded up the mountain in Hattusha, sometimes sinking into the snow up to the knees. Suddenly a gate made from huge blocks of stone appears in the heavily falling snow. Every stone is hewn in a different shape so that they fit perfectly. “This must be the Lion Gate.” And indeed two huge stone lions sit on the door-step and stare in the distance to keep evil influences and evil men at bay.

The portal figures are two of the few original sculptures left at the archaeological site of Hattusha, the ancient capital city of the Hittites. Hattusha was only rediscovered in 1906 by the German archaeologist Hugo Winckle. The city walls and their gates were among the first structures he found.

Natascha in raingear at the gate of the Sphinxes in Hattusha with much snow

We make our way along the old city wall to the Sphinx gate. The hughe stone blocks sit 10 m high up on the rampant wall. Of the four sphinxes guarding this southernmost gate, only three have survived the ages. Just this one has remained in Hattusha. One sphinx is in the museum in Istanbul, another one in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. There it mysteriously got an inventory number after being sent there for restoration. Somehow, it then never found its way back to Turkey.

Isa in snow and fog

The German excavations in Hattusha

“In the 19th century, Turkey was one of the first countries to introduce a law forbidding foreign archaeologists to remove their finds from the country.” The next day, we are lucky enough not only to have a blue sky but also to meet Andreas Schachner, the German excavation leader of Hattusha. He has taken a day off to take some photos of snow-covered Hattusha. Conveniently, he offers to take us along in his 4WD. His predecessors at the German Archaeological Society have dug at Hattusha, near the village of Boğazkale, for 100 years with only brief intermissions. “Depending on our funding we can dig between two and four months each summer,” Schachner tells us.

View from a hill on excavations of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusha

Until Hugo Winckler came to Hattusha, almost nothing had been known about the Hittite empire. The 2500 cuneiform tablets of an ancient library he found were written in a language that nobody understood. But once they had been deciphered (by B. Hrozný), a vivid picture of a powerful empire emerged. Archaeologists believe that the Hittites spoke an Indo-Germanic language and may have immigrated to Anatolia from Europe.

Building up a strong army and transforming their capital to an impregnable fortress, by the 14th century BC they became one of the greatest powers in the Middle East, besides Egypt and Mesopotamia. They once ransacked Babylon. In 1274 BC the Hittites clashed with the Egyptian troops of Pharaoh Ramses II in the Battle of Khadesh in today’s northern Syria. The battle ended with a narrow victory for the Hittites, resulting in the world’s first known peace treaty, the Treaty of Khadesh. A copy of it adorns the wall of the UN Headquarters in New York.

More Hittites to find in Hattusha

Lion Gate in Hattusha

“Only about 20% of the area are excavated so far” explains Schachner, while pointing out the current digging site. “Previously it was thought that there were large free areas between the temples. It seemed that the whole upper town was primarily used for cult rituals. But geophysical examinations show that there were lots of buildings everywhere. Currently we excavate some living quarters.”

Up to now, more than 30 temples have been discovered, as well as the king’s palace, several fortresses and some houses of the old town in the lower part of Hattusha. However, much is still unknown about the vast Hittite empire – especially its end. The Hittites seem to have disappeared from the historical stage quite suddenly. The unexcavated areas may hold some cues. And … there is still the top prize to be won: the royal tombs.

Recommendations

Deutsches Archäologisches Institut – German Archaeological Institute
BBC documentary: The dark Lords of Hattusha (2006)

 NB: Our travel to Hattusha was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

 

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