Until the early twentieth century, scholars knew the Hittites chiefly from references in non-Hittite sources. Uriah, for example, whom (the Bible tells us) King David arranged to have killed in battle in order to keep his wife Bathsheba, was a Hittite. And in Egypt a great inscription preserved the text in hieroglyphics of a treaty of 1280 B.C. between Ramses II and a Hittite king. In A.D. 1906-1908, excavations at an ancient Hittite capital, Hattusas, on the plateau of Anatolia, brought to light several thousand tablets, largely in cuneiform script and written in the Indo-European Hittite language and in many others as well.
These records revealed that a strong Hittite kingdom emerged about 1700 B.C. Its Indo-European king and his aristocracy controlled a native Anatolian population. Between 1700 and c. 1530, this kingdom made great conquests in Syria and resumed expansion toward Babylon. By 1500 the monarchy had become hereditary. Under Shuppiluliuma (r.c. 1375-1335), a contemporary of Akhenaten, it reached its height, as the Hittites took advantage of Egyptian internal weakness to assert themselves.
Influenced by what he had learned of Akhenaten, Shuppiluliuma began to insist that he be addressed as “My Sun” and to use the solar disk as a symbol. Thenceforth, Hittite sovereigns also were deified, though only after death. The onslaught of the Sea Peoples that damaged the Egyptian New Kingdom about 1200 also put an end to the centralized Hittite state, although various smaller “neo-Hittite” principalities continued to exist in Asia Minor down to the late eighth century B.C. They wrote Hittite in hieroglyphics. Much progress was made during the 1930s in deciphering their script, but the first major helpful bilingual text in hieroglyphic Hittite and Phoenician was not found until after World War II.
The Anatolians, the Indo-European Hittite upper class, the Mesopotamians, and the Egyptians all made contributions to Hittite religion. Foreign gods were welcomed and domesticated. No matter where they had originally come from, once part of Hittite religion these gods received homage in forms derived from Mesopotamia. But there were differences here, too. Women played a more prominent role in Hittite religion and society than they did either in Mesopotamia or in Egypt; and alone among the peoples of the ancient Near East, the Hittites cremated their kings.
Though Hittite literature is full of Mesopotamian echoes, the Hittites also wrote sober official histories. The treaty, too, was apparently a Hittite invention. Hittite architecture expressed itself in fortresses built on peaks, which became the nuclei of cities. The Hittites’ skill at defending themselves, combined with their interest in trade and diplomacy, had given them a dominant position as far as the city of Ugarit which, having one of the best harbors on the eastern Mediterranean, became an emporium for the whole of the region’s goods.