Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
In this episode we travel north, and visit the Hittites, one of the great powers of the ancient Middle East. We discuss their art. What form did it take? What messages was it designed to convey? And who to?
We might expect imperial art to be full of depictions of kings fighting battles, or otherwise promoting their personal reputation. But Hittite art is not like that. How are kings shown instead? And what do these images tell us about the relationship between the Hittites and the “thousand gods” they worshipped.
Our guest is an expert in both landscape architecture and landscape archaeology. She specialises in Hittite culture, and researches the archaeology of empires. So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you. Thank you, Jon.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver. I’m an assistant professor at Bilkent University, which is in Ankara, Turkey. And while I teach at the Department of urban design and landscape architecture, I am an archaeologist by training as well. And my main expertise lies in bronze and iron age Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. So roughly third millennium BCE to mid first millennium BCE. And my even more specific expertise lies in the Hittite Empire. And Hittite culture, which I will be talking about today, actually.
Let’s start with the Hittites. Who were they? When and where did they live?
When we speak about the Hittites, we hear them sometimes in the literature as the Hittite Kingdom or the Hittite Empire. And there are different reasons about that. But we are talking about a political entity that started in central Anatolia, in central Turkey, roughly in the mid 17th century BCE–so roughly 1650s–and collapsed with the end of the Bronze Age around 1180 BCE. And while the political entity is mainly within these centuries, they are a people whose customs closely followed some of the earlier traditions of Anatolia–again the peninsula which constitutes most of modern Turkey today–and after the collapse of the Empire, we see some forms of Hittite culture continue with some city states that are called Neo-Hittite. So, it is a larger cultural phenomenon. But today what I will be talking about and what we refer to as the Hittite kingdom or Hittite Empire is a politically centralised entity between the 17th and 12th centuries BCE in modern Turkey.
What is the nature and scope of Hittite art?
So when we talk about Hittite art, we can distinguish roughly three, let’s say, different trajectories. And these are all different kinds of artefacts or objects or surfaces that are adorned with productive visual culture. So first, we have what we can call architectural surfaces. So fortification walls, orthostats–which are structural elements in buildings, so stone slabs that were adorned with figural representations–gates, sculptures, or fortification walls. So the city gates, adorned with relief sculpture of high quality, wall paintings, which we have admittedly very little evidence for.
And then we have a related but distinct phenomenon which regularly took place outside of city walls, in the form of what we call landscape monuments. And these were rock surfaces, but living rock surfaces adorned with figural decoration of gods and goddesses mainly, but sometimes also humans as well. And one of the most important and famous examples of this is the sanctuary of Yazilikaya, which is just two kilometers away from the Hittite capital at Hattusa. And here in a large gallery, we see many gods and goddesses depicted in a procession, a walking procession, towards a central image of the main god and goddess meeting, with also some sub-chambers, depicting kings and gods as well. So we are really talking about a very embedded phenomenon that took place out in the open landscape.
And finally, we have mobile or semi-mobile media, such as sculptures in the round–which we have, again, admittedly very little evidence for; statuettes of mainly gods and goddesses–divine figures; figurines, again, mostly of divine figures; and vessels made of clay, that were adorned with scenes in relief that mainly depict ceremonies, rituals. Sometimes with the king, sometimes without. And metal vessels, again, which depicted a different series of events, sometimes ceremonies, but sometimes things like hunts, and animals.
And finally, we have as a rather large category, glyptic art, so seals and their impressions. And the Hittites used two different kinds of seals. The more conventional Hittite way of using the seals was what we call a stamp seal, which is this large, circular surfaces that would be stamped upon a clay tablet, leaving one whole circular impression. Or they also used in more limited fashion, the Mesopotamian culture of cylinder seals, which were these rounded cylinders with visuals and text on them, that would be rolled over a clay tablet. And that would leave a continuous impression. So overall: architectural surfaces, landscape monuments, and mobile or semi-mobile media is the scope of Hittite art in general.
Who is this art for? And what was it supposed to tell them?
So when we talk about Hittite art, one thing to point out immediately, is that it is very imperial in its nature. So it was state sponsored, and it clearly served the benefit of the state. And that is, of course, something that is not unique to Hittite at all. That is something that we continue to see even today. So I think we can say that Hittite art was supposed to tell different things to different audiences. Again, as art even in our modern world tends to do so.
One of the important things about Hittite art was the way that it incorporated texts along with the figural imagery. And for that the Hittites used a hieroglyphic script. So not an alphabet, like the one that we use, but a hieroglyphic script, which used images or symbols, let’s call them, to denote syllables and words. And that script called the hieroglyphic Luwian was something that the Hittites used mainly on artistic renderings. And there the symbol, for instance, for the Hittite kings, that was capped with a semi-circular, rounded-ended figure as well–together, meaning the Great King–was something that we see over and over again. And I would argue that this kind of symbol actually assumed a role of depicting kingship to very large audiences. So from there, we can argue that this kind of non-figural, but almost figural symbolic art forms had something to tell to the larger audiences about the power of the state.
At the same time, especially when we are talking about seals and seal impressions, I think the main audience there can be thought about as the ruling elites of both the Hittites themselves and the neighbouring regions, enemy and friend alike. And they would be the recipients of these tablets with the seals, the envelopes with the seal and imagery depicted on them. And there we see the message of a powerful kingdom that is trying to legitimise its power to both its own ruling class, but also the enemies and friends it has in the neighbouring regions. And I think beyond these more mortal constituents, if you will, Hittite art also served to give some messages to the immortal divine world as well. For instance, there are prayers from the Hittite records. An example being the queen, Puduhepa, praying to the goddess Lelwani for the well-being of her husband Hattusili III, the king. And she says to Lelwani: “If you give him the cure, if he is healthy again, I will dedicate to you a golden statue of the king”. So here, we understand that these kinds of what we deem as art also served to mitigate relationships between the divine and humans as well. So one of the constituents of this art was also the divine world.
How does Hittite art compared to other ancient Middle Eastern traditions?
Well, when we think about this, I think one of the main differences lies in quantity. And here with quantity, I am mainly referring to the instances of these artworks that we have evidence for. And these are by no means very few. But when we look at the instances on which humans are depicted in the art, we see that this is much less than other Near Eastern traditions such as the Egyptians or the Neo-Assyrian empire. So the Neo-Assyrians are later than the Hittites, of course. But when we think about the imagery of King Ashurbanipal’s palace, at the site of Nineveh, for instance, from the seventh century BCE, we see that it is adorned with a lot of visual representations. And it depicts a lot of humans and animals within that, as well as divine or immortal beings too. But the king, for instance, is depicted many times.
Another Ancient Near Eastern example, and this time contemporary to the Hittites, can be the Egyptian New Kingdom. So a pharaoh such as Ramesses II, and his depictions in the temple of Abu Simbel, that’s colossal statues, clearly depicted the body of the king as an emblem, of power and of control. And when we look at the Hittite case, we do not see that. The king is depicted very scarcely. And while we have more representations of humans in general, they still are much less frequent than the other ancient Near Eastern traditions we have in general.
Why are there so few images of Hittite kings and queens in human form?
So one of the ideas floated about this was, for instance, by Petra Goedegebuure, who thought that this could have something to do with iconoclasm and the fear of iconoclasm. If you represent a king or queen in human form, you would be opening him or her up to the dangers that could be transferred to him or her through the damage done to the representation of that person.
While I think this is, for instance, a very plausible explanation, on the other hand, or let’s say, furthermore, I also think that the Hittites did not need the figural, or anthropomorphic, let’s call them human form, representations in the same capacity. And here I will refer back to something that I talked about before–these hieroglyphic scripts, which could actually signify the presence of the king on a monument or the patronage of the king on a monument by using two symbols in conjunction to each other, which would be read as Great King. And while of course, literacy in the ancient world is a big question and we assume the majority of the population would be illiterate, with a script such as the hieroglyphic Luwian, in which you can use symbols to denote certain phenomena. I think the sign of the Great King would be visible and legible to the entire population.
So I think by using those hieroglyphic symbols, the Hittite kings were able to suggest their presence and power and patronage without being depicted in the human form. But later on in the history of the state when they start being more in contact with the larger Ancient Near East, especially with the clash they’ve had with Egypt at Kadesh, but also their expansion into northern Syria, starting in the 14th century BCE. I think the encounter the Hittites had with these populations really forced them to use human representations more, because that was … in those geographies, that was one of the emblems of power. To be the king, you were this human depicted on artworks, on seals, on sculpture, and that was part of your power to be present bodily. So I think, while the Hittites initially did not need it, eventually, their encounters with these neighbouring regions brought these anthropomorphic or human-form representations to the table as something the king had to start using.
Do Hittite kings have significance as individuals, or do they embody a kind of timeless kingship?
That’s an excellent question, actually. Because I think that is one of the functions that these differentiated representations served. And with these different representations, I mean, the hieroglyphic Luwian symbols that meant the Great King, and the human form representations of the Hittite kings, that showed them as a human in the presence of a god. And here since the hieroglyphic signs just mean the Great King. And they normally would just flank the name of the king, for instance, on the glyptic evidence–on the seals. And what that would mean is, even if you could not read the specific name of the king, once you saw the signs for the Great King, you would understand that this represents a Great King.
The same with landscape monuments. Even if you were not sure about which king was a patron, as long as you saw those two signs as the Great King, you would understand that this was a state sponsored imperial royal monument. But when we see the Hittite king represented in human form, in almost all of the instances, he is accompanied by a short hieroglyphic Luwian inscription–sometimes longer–that gives us his name as well. So there, we have a specific individual who is represented as a human and whose name is written next to him.
So I think there, we actually see a differentiation between, as you call it a timeless kingship, that whoever … whichever individual has that throne is not important, but the crown lives on. And it’s an institution versus a specific king, who is depicted as a human that is under the protection of the gods. And actually, when we look at the frequency and the number of representations of Hittite kings in this human form, we see that two specific kings, Muwatalli II and Tudhaliya IV, have the most anthropomorphic representations. And both of their reigns were actually times of trouble. And I think that also is another way to see these human form representations, as specifically emphasising the individual over the office, and saying that he is the legitimate owner of this throne.
When we do in fact see the Hittite king in human form, what does he look like?
So again, when we see him, we see him with different kinds of props and again costumes, if you will. And mainly he has two genres of representation. And in the literature, you can see these referred to as the ceremonial and as the martial. In the ceremonial depictions or the so-called ceremonial depictions, the king wears a long dress, and he has this rounded cap on his head. He has shoes with upward toes, curled toes, and he carries a curved wand, which is called a lituus. And this kind of representation takes after the representations of the sun god. And again, blurring this distinction between the god and the human is sometimes it is impossible to understand who is being depicted. But luckily, in most instances, we have labels in hieroglyphic Luwian that we can use to differentiate between these people or gods.
In the second kind of imagery in the martial images, we see the king with a conical pointed hat, a short skirt, again with shoes with upward curled toes, and he carries a lance or a bow. And this takes mainly after the storm god. So again, taking the references from the divine world, but attempting to use it for depicting the Hittite kingdom. And while these are the, let’s say, the way that the king is depicted, when we look at the instances in which he is depicted, we see that he is always in the presence of some form of divine energy. He is either being embraced by a protective god, or he is facing a god and giving the reverations (= reverences) to him, or he is libating to a god, so pouring liquids as a way of showing references to a god. Or he is dead. And in Hittite terms, that means, if the king is dead, he has become a god upon death. So then he is dead and a god himself. And in each instance, then we see that his bodily presence and representation goes hand in hand with his exposure to, and presence with, the divine powers. So that becomes, I think, also an interesting way to evaluate these depictions of the Hittite kings.
Are images of people reliable guides to what they actually looked like, or are they more generic?
I would say they are rather generic, if we just focus on the representation of the human. And even between the gods and humans, the bodily representation is more or less the same. What sets different professions or different kinds of people or gods and goddesses apart is mainly the props and costumes, if you will, they have. So, for instance, if a god is depicted, we would expect to see him with a conical hat that is adorned with horns. And that is, again, a tradition that has roots in Mesopotamia. These horned caps would be symbols of divinity, or on again, Hittite art, sometimes we have relief vases, or metal vessels that depict a religious ceremony with a lot of attendees. And we can there differentiate a musician, because he’s carrying an harp and playing it. Or we can distinguish a jester, because he’s doing some tricks on a ladder. So it is more of these props that set people apart, and not their actual physical representation.
What role do you think Hittite art played in the relationships between the mortal and divine worlds?
I actually alluded to this a little bit while talking about the functions of art earlier, and the way that the representations of the kings and gods looked alike in certain instances. I think overall, we can say that there were a couple of different functions that this Hittite art fulfilled to mitigate the human world with the divine world. And the first is actually a way of saying that the gods are veneered (= venerated), and the gods are a part of the Hittite state. And the Hittite king is the steward of them on the land. And this is something that we have references for in the texts, as well as the worldview of this Hittite political power.
But I think the other message that is given to the people is that the Hittite kings and the immortal divine world are so inextricably linked, that the Hittite king is the legitimate ruler of the land. In other words, the Hittite king is a combination of divine energy, if you will. And he is, if he is present, he is present with divine energy. So the king has to be understood as a link between the mortals and the immortals. And this is what representations seek to tell us.
Was it then, or is it now, possible to connect images to specific historical events, such as we might find recorded in the texts?
One interesting detail there is, the evidence we have right now is really depicting these kings in these ceremonial costume or the martial form. And in both instances, they are either alone, so by themselves depicted just in this generic pose, or they are embraced by a god. And even when there are other humans in that scene, the king always turns his back to those humans. So the priests, musicians, whoever else is in a scene, they follow the king and the king does not see them. So I think in that sense, the representations of the kings are so alone, and in a way because of that so generic, that it is very difficult to form relationships between specific narratives and the event being depicted.
I think the closest we get would be a king pouring libations, so pouring liquids in reverence of a god, could be recognised as a ceremonial event that would take place during the past. But apart from that, there really is not enough detail and variety in the visual corpus to match it with the textual corpus in which we have, for instance, historic accounts, animals of kings that tell of specific conquests of specific regions. And while the textual evidence has that detail, the visual evidence is actually quite static in a way. So it would be very difficult to establish links between certain events and specific representations.
How can we follow your work?
Most of what I do I put on Academia. So that would be a good venue to look up. And when I am not actually working on Hittite art or Hittite kings, I am out surveying in the fields west of Ankara with a survey called the Polatlı landscape archaeology and survey project. And that has its own Instagram account called Polatlı survey. So if you’re interested in that, you can follow that account as well. And we’re also trying to establish a website for that.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. It was a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for the invite, and for having me.
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