By Darci Clark for Ancient Near East History April 2015
The kingdom of the Hittites, called Khatte (or Hatti), was one of the great superpowers of the Late Bronze Age. Located in central Anatolia, (modern Turkey), the Hittite Empire thrived from the fifteenth century B.C. until the early twelfth century B.C. and controlled a vast area from the Aegean coast to northern Syria. There has been much speculation among historians on what caused the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the decline of other Late Bronze Age superpowers, the Egyptians and the Greek Mycenaeans. Natural forces, such as climate change, earthquakes and drought, may have been contributing factors in Hatti’s decline, but other theories include innovations in warfare, systems collapse, social upheaval, and foreign invaders. While some of these theories may have fallen out of popularity and acceptance, it is probable that the collapse of the Hittite Empire was due to a combination of natural and man-made factors.
The radical climate change theory has been a subject of research recently, probably due to the discussion about the effects of climate change on our own civilization. A 2013 study of data from coastal sites in Cyprus and Syria showed evidence that a 300-year drought began around the beginning of the twelfth century B.C., coinciding with the Late Bronze Age collapse. Like the Hittite Empire, sites in Cyprus and Syria suffered destruction or decline in the same time period. A drought of this magnitude would have caused crop failures and widespread famine, as well as trade disruption across the Ancient Near East. The research in this study indicates that climate change precipitated an economic crisis at the end of the Late Bronze Age and caused population migrations as inhabitants moved to escape the drought affected areas.
Further evidence of the climate change was published in a study of pollen grains from sediment in the Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee which showed an increase in cultivation of dry-climate trees around the time of the Bronze Age collapse. Additional pollen data from Anatolia, Egypt, Cyprus, and Syria indicates broad changes in climate led to drought in those areas around the same time from 1250 to 1100 B.C.
There is textual evidence that Hatti was suffering from some type of famine in the mid-thirteenth century B.C. In a letter from the Hittite queen Puduhepa to the Egyptian king Ramses II she states, “I have no grain in my lands.” The Hittites were still importing food from Egypt during the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah from 1213-1203. An inscription by Merneptah indicate that the Hittite Empire suffered from famine for at least the last century of its existence. It is worth noting that while Hatti was clearly affected negatively by drought, the region had experienced periods of drought before which had not destroyed the kingdom. Drought likely contributed to social upheaval and local uprisings as people challenged kingly authority to gain control of grain storehouses. The famine Hatti experienced may also be blamed on a disruption in the grain supply rather than radical climate change. Severe drought brought on by climate change could not have been the only cause of the Hittite Late Bronze Age collapse.
In addition to climate change, it has been theorized that many Late Bronze Age cities, including the Hittite capital Hattusa, were destroyed by earthquakes rather than foreign invaders. The biggest proponent of the earthquake theory was Claude Schaeffer who excavated the city of Ugarit in Syria. Initially Schaeffer agreed with the conventional theory that Ugarit had been destroyed by the mysterious foreign invaders called the “Sea Peoples” around 1200 B.C. He changed his mind after deciphering a tablet which led him to think that Ugarit was an enemy of Egypt. This fact led Schaeffer to conclude that if Ugarit was hostile to Egypt then it must not have been hostile to the Sea Peoples, who were Egypt’s enemy. Therefore Ugarit must have been destroyed by something other than the Sea Peoples; most likely a natural disaster such as an earthquake. Schaeffer applied his theory to other Late Bronze Age cities including Hattusa.
Schaeffer’s logic in determining this theory seems a bit muddled, but there was some visible evidence of earthquake damage at Ugarit. It can be difficult for archaeologists to determine whether a city was destroyed by earthquake or warfare, but there are ways to tell the difference. In a city destroyed by warfare there are usually remnants of weapons found, whereas a city destroyed by an earthquake will have walls leaning at strange angles or offset from their original foundations. Archaeoseismologists have determined that there were a series of earthquakes that affected not only Ugarit, but other cities including Hattusa, from 1225 B.C. to 1175 B.C. While such a prolonged series of earthquakes must have wreaked havoc and destruction in these cities, it is not likely that they were the main cause of the Late Bronze Age collapse. Archaeological evidence that these cities were partially rebuilt and reoccupied shows that while Late Bronze Age cities were affected by earthquakes, the societies were intact enough to begin rebuilding. If destruction from an earthquake had destroyed a city beyond repair, the remaining population would have needed to migrate to a new location. While destruction from earthquakes may have certainly been a contributing factor to the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, it is undoubtedly only part of the reason.
Another theory for the collapse was postulated by Robert Drews in 1993. Drews thought that a radical innovation in warfare led to the downfall of Late Bronze Age kingdoms including the Hittite Empire. Basically he theorized that barbarian peoples devised changes to infantry tactics, armor, and weaponry which was able to defeat the horses and chariots of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms. For centuries kingdoms depended on the strength in number of their chariots to win in battle. The chariotry was the senior branch of the Hittite military and was designed to provide a mobile firing platform for soldiers, rather than to overrun infantry soldiers. Chariots were an important component in the efficient Hittite military machine so if innovations in foreign infantry tactics did occur it could have seriously affected the Hittite king’s ability to win battles. At the Battle of Kadesh the Hittites commanded twenty-five hundred of their own chariots and another thousand from vassal kingdoms. Drews’ theory that the supremacy of the horse and chariot came to an end around 1200 B.C. may have played a part in the collapse of many Late Bronze Age kingdoms. The powerful Hittite army may have been unable to change their military operations to effectively combat new infantry tactics, leaving the kingdom vulnerable to attack from local or foreign enemies.
If a local enemy was indeed to blame for the Hittite collapse the most likely candidate is the Kaska people, a group of loosely affiliated northern tribes who were a constant threat to Hittite territories. The Kaska had invaded and occupied areas under Hittite control in the past and may have been the ones responsible for the final destruction of Hattusa.The currently accepted theory by archaeologists is that Hattusa was abandoned by the royal court prior to its destruction.The city may have been abandoned but there is still archaeological evidence that the royal acropolis, temples, and sections of the fortifications were burned circa 1200 B.C. The question is why would an invading force burn an abandoned city. If the Kaska people were responsible for the destruction at Hattusa, then it may have been to simply demonstrate their supremacy over the Hittites once and for all. In the century following the destruction of Hattusa, the Kaska people moved southward and relocated in lands previously controlled by the Hittites.
One of the most common explanations given for the collapse of the Hittite Empire and other Late Bronze Age kingdoms was the migration of groups known only as the “Sea Peoples.” Egyptian texts mention the Sea Peoples but where they came from is still a mystery. The name “Sea Peoples” was coined in the late nineteenth century in reference to an Egyptian text which referred to invaders from across the sea. One inscription from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu refers to the attack of the Sea Peoples:
“The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their lands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp [was set up] in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which had never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Danuna, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confidant and trusting.”
In the inscription the reference to “Khatte” is Hatti, the Hittite Empire. Depictions of these unknown groups are also found at Medinet Habu. The Sea Peoples wore a variety of clothing styles which indicates they were probably from different geographic locations and cultural backgrounds. Only one group listed in the inscription has been positively identified at this time. The Peleset are thought to be the Philistines, originally from Crete, but there is still speculation on the identity of the other groups mentioned. Even though they are called the Sea Peoples, some arrived by sea and others by land further obscuring their place of origin. For many years scholars pictured the Sea Peoples as barbarian invaders, guilty of pillaging and destroying many Late Bronze Age cities until they were defeated by Egypt. This view is no longer accepted today, and it is acknowledged that invasions by the Sea Peoples were not simply military attacks, but were migrations of large populations with people searching for new lands to settle. Consequently, the Sea Peoples cannot be held fully responsible for the collapse of the Hittite and other Late Bronze Age kingdoms. They were likely affected by the same environmental factors as the Hittites and needed to migrate or perish. Their attacks probably accelerated the demise of kingdoms which were already weakened by a combination of other factors.
There is a possibility the Hittite Empire was weakened internally due to social upheaval. The Hittites, Egyptians, and other great states of the Late Bronze Age were based on a palace controlled system which created a great economic discrepancy between the elite and agricultural classes. Some agricultural workers were so indebted to members of the elite class that they chose to try to escape the palace system. These people were called habiru and were considered social outcasts who lived outside the control and structure of the kingdom. It is thought a great number of people became habiru which was a great threat to the operation of the palace system in loss of labor. More pressure to produce the same amount of crops was placed on the workers who remained which only exacerbated the class warfare problem.The habiru became criminals and mercenaries which caused great disruption to political order and stability. Loss of labor became such a widespread problem that diplomatic exchanges between the kingdoms were made to deal with the habiru and return them to their home kingdoms.
This loss of labor may have caused even more problems for the Hittites than it did for other kingdoms. During the reigns of the Hittite kings Hattusili III (c. 1267-1237 B.C.) and his son Tudhaliya IV (c. 1237-1209 B.C.) a renovation and expansion of the capital city of Hattusa was planned. In addition to a new temple complex, the city was doubled in size, and new fortifications were constructed. There are several possible reasons Hattusili and Tudhaliya decided to embark on such a large construction project at a time when the Hittites were dependent on Egyptian grain shipments. The aforementioned pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 B.C.) refers to grain shipments sent “to keep alive this land of Hatti” while the project was underway. Hattusili may have conceived the plan to rebuild Hattusa on a grand scale to win favor and acceptance from his subjects. His son, Tudhaliya, may have moved on with the project out of homage to his father or the gods, but he may also have wanted to create the image that the Hittite Empire was still strong regardless of labor and agricultural problems. Whatever the reason, the expansion of Hattusa would have required a great deal of resources and labor to complete. The fact the Hittites were importing grain shows they were experiencing agricultural problems from either drought or loss of labor, but likely a combination of both. The building project would have taxed the Hittite economy even further and contributed to instability within the kingdom.
The final theory to consider is the systems collapse. A society is said to have collapsed “when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” The established level in this case means that a society must have been at a certain level of development for at least one or two generations. The Hittite Empire certainly qualifies in this definition of collapse along with other Late Bronze Age kingdoms in the region. The systems collapse in this case refers to the breakdown of established trade networks which eventually brought about the end of the bronze industry. Many of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms had fragile economies and were dependent on imports from other lands, including copper and tin for making bronze weapons. As noted before, the Hittites were importing grain from Egypt which was critical for their survival. Attacks by the Sea Peoples would have caused disruption in established trade networks creating even more instability in these kingdoms. If grain shipments were not able to get through it could have severely affected the people of the Hittite Empire.
There are many theories that have attempted to explain the collapse of the Hittite Empire. Famine seems to have played a major factor in the collapse and may have created a domino effect. Drought brought on by climate change affected the ability of Hittites to grow their own food and created a dependence on grain shipments from Egypt. General unrest among the Hittite agricultural classes and a loss of manpower due to those who became habiru would also have affected the empire’s food production and created social upheaval. A series of earthquakes would have only added to the problems the Hittites were facing. Innovations in warfare by foreign or domestic enemies would have made it difficult for the Hittite army to effectively protect the kingdom, especially if the kingdom was already weakened due to the other reasons mentioned. The migrations of the Sea Peoples, so often credited with the fall of the Hittites and other Late Bronze Age kingdoms, certainly played a part in their collapse but should not be considered the primary cause. They may have taken advantage of the opportunity to attack established trade routes to seize raw materials for their own use, but cannot be thought of as a singular army with a plan to weaken an enemy in this way. Since the Sea Peoples were a migrating population they were probably trying to escape some of the same problems which affected the Hittite Empire. They simply exploited the internal weaknesses in the Hittite and other Late Bronze Age kingdoms to acquire new lands for themselves. The Hittites created a large Late Bronze Age empire but could not overcome the numerous problems which weakened and ultimately destroyed their civilization.
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