Hittite Art
Hittites Architecture and Sculpture at Hattusa and Yazilikaya.

Pin it

Hittite Silver Drinking Vessel
(rhyton) (c.1300)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
A beautiful piece of Hittite metalwork
from Asia Minor.

Hittite Art (c.1600-1180 BCE)


Characteristics of Hittite Art
Syro-Hittite Culture
Related Articles

NOTE: For more about the cultures and civilizations of Antiquity,
please see: Ancient Art (2,500,000 BCE - 400 CE).

Hittite Capital of Hattusha
The key archeological site of the
Hittite Empire, renowned for its
temples, palaces and fortifications,
the decorative carvings of its Lions'
Gate and Royal Gate, and the
collection of rock art at Yazilikaya.
Hittite culture is best known
above all for its contribution to
Mesopotamian sculpture in a
variety of media and sizes.

For more on early civilization,
please see Classical Antiquity
(from 800 BCE to 450 CE).

For a contemporaneous
culture to the south, see:
Mycenean Art (1650-1200).




The Hittites were an Asia Minor people who, about 2000 BCE, began organizing a number of city-states scattered across the mountaineous plateau of Anatolia (Turkey). They were the first people in the area to mine and use iron, and by 1600 BCE they established themselves at Hattusa (today's Bogazkale, or Bogazkoy) in northern Anatolia (Turkey) around 1600 BCE, before expanding to control most of the surrounding region. The ancient art of the Hittite kingdom - notably its architecture and relief sculpture - was produced largely during this imperial phase which reached its height in the 14th century BCE under King Suppiluliuma I. At this point, the Hittites controlled an area which included most of Anatolia, Upper Mesopotamia (Iraq) as well as Syria and Lebanon. Although Hittite art had its own style, it was undoubtedly influenced by Sumerian art - the leading cultural strain within Mesopotamian art - and also by Egyptian art, not least because of Egyptian virtuosity at stone cutting and carving. Assyrian art, too, would play its part but only several centuries later. The Hittite empire collapsed about 1180, but the Hittites reappeared in several "Neo-Hittite" city-states - which they controlled in collaboration with Aramaeans and other peoples - some of which endured until around 750 BCE. According to Vahan Kurkjian, in his book The Hittite Empire, our main source of knowledge about Hittite culture derives from archeological discoveries of royal archives in the Hittite capital of Hattusa. These archives consisted of hundreds of stone tablets inscribed with Mesopotamian cuneiform letters, written in the Semitic language of Babylonia and Assyria. One of the most revealing tablets (written in Akkadian script and dating to c.1275-1220 BCE) contains correspondence from Egyptian Queen Nefertari (wife of Ramses II) to Hittite Queen Puduhepa written shortly after the Kadesh Peace Treaty. (The tablet is now in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, in Ankara.) Prior to these finds, the only source of information about Hittite civilization had been the Hebrew Old Testament of the Bible. Important sites of Hittite arts and crafts include Hattusa, Inandik, Eskiyapar, Alacahoyuk, Alisar and Ferzant.

Note: For another Anatolian culture, from the era of Mesolithic art, see the important archeological site of Gobekli Tepe (c.9,500 BCE).



Characteristics of Hittite Art

The visual art of the Hittites, though influenced by work from several far places, was most closely related to that of the Mesopotamians. The Hittite seals, for example, were strongly reminiscent of Assyrian models. But the main body of the art uncovered in Hittite cities is of independent and prior origin. It consists especially of low-relief sculptures cut in stone - these were to be copied and refined by the Assyrians until they became the marvellous mile-long murals of the palaces at Nineveh - and freestanding sphinxes that likewise were to be adopted, as gateway guardians, by the Mesopotamians and, after them, the Persians. One highlight of this type of art is the relief of the God of War carved onto the King's Gate at Hattusa (now in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara). The carved reliefs around Hattusa's Lions' Gate are equally impressive. In general, however, Hittite artistic creativity in art, while strong, simple, and forthright, is undistinguished in technique and limited in imagination. Its character, however, is unmistakable.

The state religion of the Hittites was one of nature-worship. The weather-god and the sun-goddess appeared at the top of an amazingly long list of minor gods representing the elements or natural objects. Each of the federated city-states might have its local god; and indeed "the thousand gods of Hatti" are invoked in many state documents and treaties. A great deal of Hittite sculpture is concerned with these gods, and with religious festivals when the king made official visits of worship to them. In one case a procession of all the gods is presented.


The Hittite capital, strategically situated over a rocky gorge, had a citadel protected by double walls and defensive towers, and was entered through huge arched gateways flanked by statues and reliefs - typically featuring lions or sphinxes - anticipating those of the Late Assyrian palaces at Nineveh and Nimrud. Carved on the inside of one archway is a famous relief sculpture of a soldier wearing the typical Hittite short kilt and conical helmet.

Elsewhere in Hattusa there are four temples, the largest of which has been thoroughly excavated. It is a massive structure, surrounded by storage chambers, with a central courtyard fringed with pillared colonnades and a small corner shrine. These features and the isolated position of the main sanctuary have no equivalents in the temple architecture of Mesopotamia.

Compare the Hittite taste for monumental architecture (and sculpture) with Egyptian Pyramid Architecture (c.2650-1800 BCE). See also: Ancient Egyptian Architecture (c.3,000-200 BCE).


Hittite artists were specialists in carving sculpture out of natural rock formations. They were many centuries ahead of the Persians who carved out the famous tombs and sculptures at Naksh-I-Rustum. (Compare this with examples of monumental Egyptian sculpture, such as the Sphinx.)

Although remains of this rock art have been reported from many parts of the old Hittite country, the best known monument is the shrine at Yazilikaya, close to Bogazkoy, the Hittite capital. It is here that a procession of the "thousand gods" was attempted. It is really two processions, on two cliffs that converge upon a central sanctuary. Unfortunately, probably because of climatic erosion, these bas-reliefs - carved on the vertical faces of the rock on the open cliffs - seem artistically on the simple, heavy side. Moreover part of the iconography is borrowed from the Hurrians, a tribe with whom the Hittite royal family had intermarried. However, the figures in the sanctuary itself, are sculpted with an almost religious intensity. The figure of a young king (Tudhaliyas IV), for instance, depicted in the safe embrace of a god is as impressive as the unmistakable symbolism of a large dagger thrust into the rock in front of him.

Better examples of the Hittite genius are to be seen in the stone sculpture decorating the gates of Hattusa itself, as well as the bas-reliefs from inside walls, such as those excavated at Carchemish, an important ancient capital on the frontier between Turkey and Syria, or the stone fragment in the Louvre Museum illustrating a stag hunt. These were produced during a later period in Hittite history, (c.900 BCE), but are revealing nevertheless. As can be seen in the Stag Hunt, the formalization is more pronounced than in earlier Sumerian murals at Ur and elsewhere. There is a tendency to square the figures, and each one is kept uniformly flat against a featureless flat background. Altogether the Hittite "style" shows a better sense of filling space compositionally; but it falls far short of the vividness and naturalness of depiction in the later Assyrian reliefs. (For the greatest examples of narrative relief work, see: Roman Relief Sculpture 117-324 CE.)

Syro-Hittite Culture

Around 1180 BCE the Hittite empire came to an end and the Hittites were driven from their base on the Anatolian plateau by the Phrygians, allies of the Trojans from western Anatolia. Then during the period 1000-800 BCE they resurfaced as occupants of small city-states such as Milid (today's Arslantepe-Malatya), Sam'al (Zincirli), and Carchemish, in the Taurus mountains of southern Anatolia or northern Syria, where they shared political authority with indigenous tribes such as the Aramaeans and others. Syro-Hittite art and architecture during this time was of a hybrid and somewhat inferior character greatly influenced by Assyria, to whom the Hittites paid homage, and also by Phoenicia and Egypt. A feature of their buildings are the monumental carved upright megaliths (orthostats), that line the base of many of the walls rough, black basalt alternating with white limestone. Columns are usually made out of wood, with bases and capitals of stone, and large statues, greater than life-size, are another common feature.

Syro-Hittite palaces usually consisted of one or more "bit hilani" units, consisting of a monumental entrance, approached by a broad but low flight of steps, with a columned portico, and a long reception room, with numerous retiring rooms. A perfect illustration of this type of Hittite palace architecture is the Kaparu Palace at Tall Halaf. (For another contemporaneous tradition of palace architecture, see: Minoan Art on Crete.)

Related Articles

- Art of Ancient Persia (3,500 BCE onwards)
- Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE)
- Etruscan Art (c.700-90 BCE)
- Greek Architecture (c.650-27 BCE)
- Greek Pottery (from 3,000 BCE)
- Roman Architecture (c.500 BCE - 500 CE)

• For more about the arts and crafts of the Hittites, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.