Hahittim Vetarbutam (The Hittites and Their Civilization), by Itamar Singer The Bialik Institute, the Library of the Encyclopaedia Biblica, and the Project for the Translation of Literary Masterpieces (Hebrew), 312 pages, NIS 111

During the Late Bronze Age, in the second half of the second millennium B.C.E., the Hittites ruled a mighty empire that stretched from Anatolia (modern Turkey) and northern Syria toward Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and Ahhiyawa (the Mycenaean entity in the Aegean). As was the way of ancient empires, the Hittites' state collapsed and their rich culture sank into oblivion. Apart from mentions in the Bible, no written traces were know to have survived. And though Hittite civilization has been excavated and published extensively over the past hundred years, it still remains largely unknown to the general public.

In recent years, the Hittites have had a boost, though, in popular literature -- with books, in English and in German, by Trevor Bryce, Horst Klengel and Billie Jean Collins, and thanks to collections of mythological compositions, diplomatic texts, laws, letters and prayers translated by Harry Hoffner, Gary Beckman and Itamar Singer. Comprehensive exhibitions of Hittite archaeology, accompanied by catalogs, have been shown in Germany (2002 ), and this year's exhibition "Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C." at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York examined the role of the Hittites in spreading cultural property from Asia to Europe and vice versa in the context of international relations during the 2nd millennium B.C.E.

This long-awaited book from Itamar Singer, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and one of our generation's leading Hittitologists, is the first in Hebrew on the topic. It is an up-to-date volume that addresses the general -- although it must be said, educated -- public. Basing himself on texts and archaeology, he reconstructs Hittite culture in a captivating way, so that even the uninitiated can follow the Hittites' cultural history. Each chapter is devoted to a specific topic and documents translated into clear and simple Hebrew can be found at the end of the book. The author also offers suggestions for additional reading.

The book covers the history of the Hittites from their earliest documentation in Anatolia during the period of the Assyrian colonies, in the 19th century B.C.E. (from which it is already possible to establish a Hittite presence on Anatolian soil ), through the founding of the early Hittite kingdom in the 17th century, and on to the empire's collapse in the 12th century B.C.E. It also touches upon the "Neo-Hittite" kingdoms that arose in Syria and southern Anatolia after the fall of the empire, without which the discussion would not have been complete. In fact, the "Kings of the Hittites" mentioned in the Bible alongside the Kings of Aram (I Kings 10:29; II Kings 7:6; II Chronicles 1:17 ) were rulers of the Neo-Hittite kingdoms west of the Euphrates, which are called "The Land of Hatti" in inscriptions of the kings of Babylonia and Assyria.

The roots of Hittite culture are Indo-European, mingled with native Anatolian traditions of proto-Hattian in the north and Hurrian elements in the east and south (we owe much of our knowledge of these traditions to the Hittite archives). Added to these were Mesopotamian and Syrian influences. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language, like Persian, Sanskrit and its offshoots, and most of the languages of Europe. It is the oldest of the Indo-European languages to have been written - in cuneiform; even more ancient than Greek and Latin.

Diplomatic correspondence

In 1902 the Norwegian scholar Jorgen Alexander Knudtzon, who studied the el-Amarna archive that consists of Pharaoh Akhenaten's diplomatic correspondence in Akkadian, then the written lingua franca of the Near East, pointed to three letters not written in Akkadian, in which he noted Indo-European (or as he put it, Indo-Germanic ) elements. One letter, from the king of Mitanni (in today's northern Syria ), was written in Hurrian; the other two were from the king of Arzawa (western Anatolia ), whose location was not known at that time.

However, the breakthrough in the deciphering of Hittite is credited to Czech Assyriologist Bedrich Hrozny, who based his work on Knudtzon's insights. In a lecture Hrozny delivered in 1915 to the German Oriental Society, which had put at scholars' disposal the tablets discovered at Hattusa (modern Bogazkoy, Turkey), he focused on the sentence nu NINDA-an ezzatteni watar-ma ekutteni.

As an Assyriologist familiar with Akkadian and Sumerian cuneiform, Hrozny recognized the ideogram "NINDA" - "bread" - and assumed that the word "ezzatteni" would represent eating, from a root common to Greek, Latin and the German word essen. The word "watar" resembles English "water," German "Wasser," and it is followed by a conjugation of the verb "to drink" - "ekutteni." The suffix "-teni" at the end of the verbs was identified as second-person plural, and so he translated: "Then you will eat bread and drink water."

Bogazkoy is what remains of the site of ancient Hattusa, capital of "The Land of Hatti" (as it was called by its inhabitants of various ethnic origins), about 160 kilometers east of Ankara. Its excavation began in 1906 with funding from the German Oriental Society, and today it is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. The city's excavations yielded tens of thousands of cuneiform diplomatic, administrative and legal documents as well as religious and mythological texts, from which it is possible to reconstruct the history of the Hittite kingdom, society and religion.

The documents shed light on the life of the capital itself. From them one learns that the "mayor" of the city and its security officer were in charge of its system of fortifications -- three gates guarded, respectively, by statues of sphinxes, lions and a warrior god -- and of the underground passages. The city's needs were supplied from huge granaries and when the grain supplies dwindled, in the 13th century B.C.E., the Hittites sent a delegation headed by a prince to Egypt to organize shipments of grain to Hatti.

The documents also describe the religious rites and the items that were provided to those ceremonies' participants from temple storehouses - for example, the large temple in Hattusa was surrounded by storehouses and the officiants lived in its annex. The descriptions of Hittite festival observances illuminate the rituals in temples both inside the city and outside of it, in nature. Images of the kingdom's gods were engraved in the smooth rock faces of the chambers of the sanctuary at Yazilikaya, north of Bogazkoy, which was dedicated to the main pair of gods in the Hittite pantheon - the Storm God and his mate. In the large gallery, a procession of gods stride toward a procession of goddesses, gathering in the temple for the New Year. Above them, their (Hurrian) names are carved in Luwian hieroglyphics (named after an Indo-European language the Hittites used for writing on seals and on stone). The small gallery may have served as a royal funerary shrine as suggested by the gods of the underworld depicted in it.

One can also learn about the gods' appearance from the documents and from the archaeology. Documents from the end of the empire detail the shape of divine statues, their symbols and dwellings. It emerges that "the thousand gods of Hatti" can appear in the shape of humans, of animals or of various objects and monuments.

Hittite law is a compilation of unwritten precedents that organized all areas of life: homicide and bodily harm, runaway slaves, marriage, land tenure, return of lost property, taxes and exemptions from them, laws concerning theft and injury to animals, theft and damage to plants and implements, trespassing, blasphemy, setting of prices, bestiality, rape and incest. Hittite law was liberal and moderate and was based on compensation for the injured party or his family, not on bodily punishment, as was the custom among other peoples in the ancient Near East. The Proclamation of King Telepinu (15th century B.C.E. ) was aimed at regularizing the dynastic succession in order to avoid quarrels and bloodshed within the royal family. Eventually political opponents were exiled instead of being executed.

Leaving their mark on Israel

Many diplomatic treaties were found in the Hattusa archives, which constitute a milestone in the development of political thought. In the 13th century, after the Battle of Kadesh, the policy pursued by King Hattusili III led to the signing of the "Silver Peace" (so called because of the silver tablets on which the original treaty was inscribed) with Ramses II. A reproduction of it is set into the entrance to the Security Council chamber at the United Nations as a model for the nations of the world. The original Akkadian version of the silver peace treaty, on clay tablets, was discovered by Hugo Winckler in 1906 and its translation into the ancient Egyptian language is inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak.

In the treaty, the powers agree to refrain from hostile actions and to cooperate with each other. Eventually Ramses II even married a Hittite princess. In the era of the Hittite-Egyptian peace, the two powers enjoyed stable relations and exchanges of gifts. Diplomats, merchants, craftsmen and members of other professions passed back and forth through Palestine (and perhaps even settled there), leaving behind material objects, mostly seals and a handful of works of art. Along with the objects, technologies and ideas were also transmitted that left their marks on the cultures of Canaan and Israel.

Hattusili III also maintained stable relations with Babylon and Assyria. It was only in western Anatolia that all was not quiet. The conflict was with Wilusa, identified with (W )ilios-Troy in Homer's epics, and over the control of some islands, among them Lazpa (Lesbos ). Wilusa had been subordinate to the Hittites since the 17th century B.C.E. Hattusili's brother and predecessor, Muwatalli II, who defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of Kadesh on the Orontes River, signed a treaty with King Alaksandu of Wilusa, identified as Alexander, prince of Troy. Many believe the tradition reflected in the Iliad is based on the ancient reality in western Anatolia during the second millennium B.C.E., which was the arena of contention between the Hittites and Ahhiyawa (Mycenaean Greece ), the Achaeans (Greeks ) in the Homeric texts.

Biblical parallels

Very briefly, it is worth mentioning the magical rites aimed at changing fate, preserving family peace, helping women in childbirth, dealing with impotence, treating illnesses and lifting impurity. Among the Hittite rituals which have parallels in the Bible, are the sending of a scapegoat (to an enemy country to lift a plague ) or the consulting of gods of the underworld and ghosts of the dead through digging pits in the ground, the biblical magical installation for divination called "ob" (First Samuel 28:7 ).

There is also a clear parallel between the Bible and Hittite writings in other areas. In the mythological texts, there is the creation of man from clay, an idea shared by the cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. Or in the law - in the statutes on marital status, the law of levirate marriage and the laws concerning rape.

With the fall of the empire, Hittite fugitives from Anatolia fled to relatively peaceful southern Anatolia and northern Syria, where some measure of Hittite culture could still be found. Neo-Hittite kingdoms arose there, most notably Carchemish, which was ruled by viceroys, sons of the Hittite king starting in the 14th century B.C.E. These kingdoms, which survived the tempestuous period of the 12th century into the first millennium B.C.E., continued Hittite traditions such as monumental inscriptions in Luwian. These are the Hittites whom the biblical author had in mind when labeling some foreigners as Hittites.

Similarities also exist between words in Hittite and in Hebrew, for example in "culture words" common to both languages such as the word for wine -- yayyin in Hebrew, which is wiyanis in Hittite. And what about the names of "the sons of Heth" (Genesis 23:3, 5, 7, 10, 16, 18, 20 ) -- Ephron, Uriah and Ahimelech -- Hittites with Semitic names?

Itamar Singer's book is a treasure trove of knowledge celebrating the Hittites. It answers to the lack of a Hebrew book on the Hittites and their culture, which is one of the pillars of Western civilization.

Dr. Irit Ziffer is an archaeologist, and a curator at the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

Haaretz Books, October 2009