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Before Kadesh: The Hittites Join the Superpowers Club

How did the Hittites go from small state to supreme Superpower? This article follows king Suppiluliuma as establishes Hatti as a major player.

Despite Suppluliuma’s remarkable expansion, he wasn’t yet a Great King in the Superpowers Club. To accomplish this, he had to enter the International arena: Syria-Palestine. 

Hatti Vs Mitanni

This was not going to be an easy task. Mitanni was at the height of its power with Tushratta commanding a huge empire, and being allied to Egypt. In fact, Supiluliuma’s astounding series of victories to the west was probably the catalyst for Mitanni’s alliance to Egypt in the first place. The Amarna letters even show that Tushratta boasts of a victory against the Hittites, sending Egypt booty from a raid into Hittite territory.

Suppluliuma’s approach to Syria-Palestine was smart. Recognising that attempting to control Mitanni’s vassal city-states would invite hostility from an Egypto-Mitannian alliance, he decided to pick off areas of northern Syro-Palestine that came under Egyptian authority. The two vassal Kings were Aziru, king of Amurru, and Aitakama, king of the infamous Kadesh.

Seduced by the Hittites’ promise of protection,  Aziru and Aitakama began to act independently of the Egyptians, and that became a problem for their Egyptian-loyal neighbouring city-states, who started to come under pressure from these expanding areas. 

This is exactly where Rib-Hadda of Byblos fits into the picture: those persistent letters to Akhenaten in Egypt, requesting military support, are initiated by Aziru of Amurru’s Hittite-backed expansion.

Hatti Enters Syro-Palestine

The Hittites were now in a position to guarantee their presence in the Near East as a Superpower by attacking Mitanni to gain direct access to Syro-Palestinian city-states. Supiluliuma entered the Mitannian capital, Washshukanni, where Tushratta hid behind his city walls. Supiluliumu supported a new Mitannian king, Artatama II, and so the once-great Mitannian empire was reduced to a vassal of the Hittite empire. Why did the Hittites not simply destroy and consume Mitanni? Hopefully you can see now, in week 4 of the course, that we cannot simply take one culture in isolation, but that the Near East was a thoroughly interconnected place in the Late Bronze Age. To understand why the Hittites preserved Mitanni, we have to look, once again, at the bigger picture. It seems that Mitanni was coming under pressure from the east, in the form of the Assyrians. Rather than remove Mitanni altogether and face the Assyrians directly, the ever-shrewd Supiluliuma decided to keep Mitanni as a buffer zone between himself and the Assyrians. The path was now clear for the Hittites, and they marched into Syro-Palestine, subsuming all areas formerly under Mitannian control, as well as Amurru and Kadesh (once Egyptian vassals). Perhaps Suppiluliuma knew that this was a good time to start to strip away Egypt’s assets: Akhenaten had died, and soon after, Tutankhamen had come to the throne and was busy re-establishing tradition after Akhenaten’s ‘revolution’.

So Supiluliuma and his Hittite empire had come a long way in a short space of time, and were now the dominant force in the ancient Near East, well and truly earning their Superpower status.

The next noteworthy Hittite ruler is Mursili II. This king had a lot to live up to, coming to the throne soon after the Great King Supiluliuma. One of the major problems faced by him was rebellious city-states. While these issues preoccupied Mursili II, the Egyptians had a new military ruler, Horemheb, and were ready to re-enter the Near East with force. To add to Hittite worries, by the reign of Mursili’s son, Muwatalli II, Assyria had wiped Mitanni out altogether. Egypt reinstated its campaigns in the Near East, and a few reigns later, an ambitious young Pharaoh came to power, named Ramesses II. Early on his reign, he attempted to take back territory from the Hittites that was once under Egyptian control, and so the scene is set for one of the Near East’s most famous international encounters: the Battle of Kadesh.

© The University of Liverpool
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Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

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