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Exploring the Concept of Treaty in the Ancient Hittite Empire

The ancient Hittite empire is recognized for signing the first peace treaty with ancient Egypt, and a replica of the treaty engraved on a clay tablet has been displayed in the wall of the Security Council at the United Nations in New York.
Hajime Yamamoto, a doctoral student of Kyoto University, questioned what the concept of the treaty meant to the Hittite people, since they had no word to express such a treaty. To find out the value and ideology behind the treaty, he began to study about it through the viewpoint of the Hittites.
Currently, he is a visiting student of the University of Chicago and has an opportunity to deepen his study with the University where a project, “Chicago Hittite Dictionary”, has been going on for about 30 years. The project has categorized tens of thousands of clay tablets and made it possible to find which tablets have the word “treaty” or verbs related with treaty.

The Hittites were an influential empire between about the middle of the 18th century BC and the end of the 12th century BC and located in Turkey. They were also known for the early use of iron weapons. The Hittite people were of the Indo-European language family and spoke the Hittite language. They entered the Anatolia peninsula and conquered the native inhabitants, and gradually built the empire.

The remains of the Hittite capitol “Hattusha” are located on a hill in Turkey’s interior. Yamamoto visited the site and thought that its size was 70 times bigger than a baseball field and a spectacular ruin. The highest point of the hill was a palace where many clay tablets were found. Most tablets describe treaties, diplomatic documents, and the ways of performing rituals and festivals for their gods by using Sumerian cuneiform script. Almost no tablet describes civilian life. Yamamoto inferred that the ruling party only wrote about themselves, and the language between them and civilians might be different.

The Hittite’s most famous war with ancient Egypt was the Battle of Kadesh. The conflict began over the concession of Syria, where good trade ports were available. The battle settled for a stalemate, and the two countries were at equilibrium for a while before entering to sign a peace treaty. One factor for signing the treaty would be the need to prepare for the rising power of Assyria. One of the provisions of the treaty was mutual military deployment when either side was attacked by other countries.

Yamamoto read all the clay tablets, which contained the words of treaty and verbs related to bind treaties, and analyzed how they were used in the sentences. In Hittite, ishiul is translated as treaty and derived from verb ishiya, which means bind.
To study what the verb ishiya means to bind, he made four patterns.
1. Binding something
2. Binding something with something
3. Binding something to something
4. Binding different things together
He also studied figurative uses of ishiya, whose original usage was binding ropes. As a result, he found that ishiya was used to bind something to something. It means that someone one binds people to obligations. The concept of ishiul was that someone in power imposes obligations on people, rather than an agreement signed by two countries.
In the case of equally powerful countries like the Hittites and Egypt, each country’s gods bound its king to his obligations. A provision such as, “Bad things will occur when you break a vow,” was included in an ishiul (treaty). Most countries in the era had multiple gods, and one of kings’ roles was being an oracle or priest.

Yamamoto also wondered if the two countries were able to keep a peace treaty even it were bound by their gods, and studied about affinal relationships.
Hittite king Hattusili III gave a daughter in marriage to Ramesses II of Egypt. He said that a marriage of convenience would be as important as signing a peace treaty.

The Hittites had internecine conflicts. Hattusili III forced his nephew to abdicate his throne by a coup, and became king himself. For this reason, he needed to demonstrate that he was recognized by kings of powerful countries like Egypt to gain internal support. Yamamoto said that it would be one of the factors for which the Hittites signed a peace treaty with Egypt.

The Hittites abandoned their capital city around the end of the 12th century BC, and no record was left as to where they had gone. They just left the capital because there was no trace of attack in the remains of Hattusha. In this era, internecine conflicts, famines, and earthquakes occurred. The Sea Peoples emerged and attacked the countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt also suffered a tremendous damage.
The reason for the disappearance of the Hittites is unknown, but Yamamoto inferred that it would be influenced by this combination of factors. The Old Testament describes Hitti, who lived around the northern part of Syria. They might be the people who had been under the Hittite culture.

Hajime Yamamoto said that he wanted to continue his study after returning to Kyoto University and becoming a faculty member to teach the charm of the Hittites and other countries in that era. He also said, “It is a very moving story that people of thousands of years ago took actions based on the same thoughts and feelings as present days.