Artist’s representation of the Hittite city of Hattusa in Anatolia.

The Anatolian Histories Part 1: Emerging Empires and Lands Changing Hands

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What comes to the mind when one says Anatolia? Does the phrase “land of the rising sun” (as the ancient Greeks called it) appear? Or, because it technically belongs to the Middle East, do you think of an arid desert? Anatolia was arguably the most desired land of the ancient and medieval world. It saw the rise of the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and the Turks. Especially in ancient times, it seemed anyone who had some power in their hands desired to control Anatolian lands. By recounting the story of Anatolia, its importance will be displayed.

Early Civilizations in Anatolia

The story of Anatolia dates back to the Paleolithic (20,000-15,000 BC); but only tools and little villages dating to those times have been discovered so far. Actual civilizations came to Anatolia around the Neolithic period (15,000-4000 BC). During that time, several civilizations traveled to and lived in Anatolia; we can see their legacy in the prehistoric settlements of Gobekli Tepe, Çatalhöyük, Hacilar, Mersin, and Nevali Cori. These settlements tend to be much larger in size and complexity when compared to contemporary sites found in Europe. Çatalhöyük is arguably the most complex Neolithic settlement.

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations.

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations. (Omar hoftun/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

When the Neolithic gave way to the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC), more complex and efficient agricultural civilizations arose and their love for Anatolia either caused them to advance or gave way to their demise. 

The Hatti and Hittites in Anatolia

The Early Bronze Age gave birth to the Hatti, the first notable civilization of Anatolia. Not to be confused with the Hittites, the Hatti were a different civilization. Their origins are not known, but it is theorized that they came from the Caucasus Mountains looking for better land to live on. They had a written language, a religion, and a city called Kanesh. Clay documents have revealed the Hatti had connections and a trading partnership with the Akkadian Kingdom of Sargon the Great. It is important to note that while the Akkadians had land in Anatolia, it was only a few kilometers and they influenced Anatolia by political means only.

Around 2000 BC, the Indo-European Hittites arrived in Anatolia with their culture, language, and chariots. The Hatti people, who were not as organized, could not resist the Hittite advancement and soon they were absorbed into the Hittite culture. The Hittites formed a mighty kingdom in Anatolia. They mastered agriculture in the Anatolian plateau and built a capital, called Hattusa. The Hittites had the power to challenge the Egyptians and Assyrians, but their reign came to an end when the mysterious “Sea Peoples” spawned into the Levant and raided city after city around 1100 BC. The Hittites were having economic troubles before the raids began, and individual cities in the Hittite Kingdom gained more power. All of this resulted in the collapse of the kingdom and Syro-Hittite cities ruled independently in Anatolia. It is important to mention that during this time the city of Wilusa was also destroyed (commonly known as Troy). Wilusa was a major trading city for the Hittite Kingdom.

The Lion Gate, Hattusa, Turkey.

The Lion Gate, Hattusa, Turkey. ( Public Domain )

In the midst of the Hittite collapse, the Assyrian Kingdom was consolidating its power in Mesopotamia. When the Hittite cities became disunited and weak, Adad-nirari II of the Assyrians mustered up an army and conquered most of the Hittite lands; about 45% of Anatolia. Adad-nirari II also invaded Egypt. The next king, Ashurnasirpal II, conquered more land to the east. Assyria was the most dominant empire of its time. But like all other strong kingdoms of ancient history, it fell. A Mede named Cyaxares rebelled against the Assyrian Kingdom and formed an independent Median Kingdom. Cyaxares then allied himself with Scythia and Cimmeria, Assyria’s enemies. The coalition then attacked Assyria and destroyed the once-mighty kingdom.

Assyrian soldiers.

Assyrian soldiers. ( Public Domain )

The Rise of the Phrygians

After the fall of the Hittites and during the rise of the Assyrians, a group of people, possibly from Thrace, came into Anatolia. They are known as the Phrygians. These Phrygians formed a kingdom in northwestern Anatolia. Like the Hittites, they benefitted from the rich Anatolian soil and formed a capital, called Gordion. The Phrygians were weak at first and had to pay Assyrians tribute to live in the area. But as their population grew, they became stronger and more dominant in Anatolia. They even built a second city, called Ancyra. Ancyra was used as a major city by later civilizations and now it is the city of Ankara, the capital city of the Republic of Turkey.

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