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

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

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.

The Phrygians ended up fighting the Assyrians and managed to defend their lands. They were Indo-Europeans and spoke a language related to Italo-Celtic. During the last years of the Phrygian Kingdom, the famed Midas became king. Some historians theorize that Midas’ hand turned everything into gold - representing the wealth of the kingdom. Rich or poor, the Phrygian Kingdom fell due to an invasion by the Cimmerians of the Black Sea coast.

Midas and Dionysus by Poussin (1594-1665), showing the end of the myth in which Midas thanks Dionysus for freeing him of the gift/curse previously granted. Nymphenburg Palace. Munich, Germany.

Midas and Dionysus by Poussin (1594-1665), showing the end of the myth in which Midas thanks Dionysus for freeing him of the gift/curse previously granted. Nymphenburg Palace. Munich, Germany. ( Public Domain )

Greek Colonies Settle in Anatolia

Also during the fall of the Hittites, the Greeks west of Anatolia had internal conflicts. The Dorian Greeks were fighting the Ionians. The Ionians were losing, and they sought refuge from Athens, the strongest Greek city at the time. Athens had people colonizing western Anatolia at the time, but there was land that remained empty. Athens granted permission for the Ionians to settle in Anatolia. The Ionians settled and took advantage of the Hittites’ ruined cities. They formed the city of Miletus, the biggest Ionian city, from the old remains of the ancient Hittite city of Millawanda. Ionians also built the cities of Ephesus; a city that will gain much relevance with time, and an ancient Greek colony composed of fisherman called Byzantium in the 7th Century BC. Byzantium was strategically placed upon a peninsula, and four centuries later, a man by the name of Constantine saw the colony and turned it into the ancient metropolis of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, which houses 17 million people.

Ruins of an ancient Greek theater in Miletus, Turkey.

Ruins of an ancient Greek theater in Miletus, Turkey. (Bernard Gagnon/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Dorians lived in southern Greece and had the island of Crete under their dominion. They followed the Ionians and colonized southwestern Anatolia, founding the city of Halicarnassus, hometown of Herodotus; this city is now known as Bodrum. The Aeolian Greeks also followed in the footsteps of the Ionians and colonized Anatolia, taking places north of the Ionians and making the island of Lesbos their headquarters. The Greeks fought one each other and continued to have border disputes for decades to come.

The Lydians Conquer Greek Lands

The fall of the Hittites also gave birth to the Lydian civilization. Lydians spoke a language related to Hittite Indo-European and formed their civilization around southwestern Anatolia, but more inland than the Greeks. They formed the city of Sardis, in the modern region of Manisa. Like the Phrygians, they were weak at first, but with time they became a force to be reckoned with. The Lydians ended up   conquering their Greek neighbors to the west and formed a unified kingdom with most of western Anatolia under their belt. They are also credited with the first use of minted coins.

Lydian coin, 6th century BC. Pergamon museum. Berlin.

Lydian coin, 6th century BC. Pergamon museum. Berlin. ( Public Domain )

Some historians, such as Herodotus, claim a group of Lydian colonists sailed to Italy and formed the Etruscan civilization, but the theory has its opponents and debate continues to this day. The Lydian Kingdom was at the height of its power during time of King Croesus, who was renowned for his wealth. The Persians and other civilizations used the simile, “rich as Croesus” to describe the wealth of rich people. This is the second king from Anatolia to have his legend based on money and wealth. Unlike other Anatolian kingdoms, the Lydians fell during their strongest time - at the hands of the Persian Empire.

Croesus Receiving Tribute from a Lydian Peasant (1629).

Croesus Receiving Tribute from a Lydian Peasant (1629). ( Public Domain )

A Mega-Power Emerges in Anatolia

Persia was the first mega-power to enter Anatolia. The predecessor of the Persian Empire was the Median Empire, which had established itself in eastern Anatolia after defeating the Assyrians. The Persians were subjects of the Median Empire. After Cyaxarses, the Emperor of the Medes, died, his son Astyages replaced him. Astyages married his daughter to the Persian King to solidify his rule. Astyages’ daughter had a son named Cyrus. Astyages wanted to kill Cyrus due to a bad dream about him, and ordered Harpagus to do the deed. Harpagus gave him away to a poor family instead. Years later, Cyrus was shown to Astyages who was furious and apparently fed Harpagus his own son. Harpagus was enraged and Cyrus became the king of the Persians after the death of his biological father, Cambyses.

‘Cyrus and Astyages.’ Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus.

‘Cyrus and Astyages.’ Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. ( Public Domain )

A few years later, Cyrus overthrew Astyages and formed the Persian Empire with the help of Harpagus - this happened in 550 BC. After the internal conflict, Cyrus assembled his troops and set the Lydian Kingdom to the west as his destination. Three years after he overthrew Astyages, he was sieging the capital of Lydia, Sardis. He conquered all of Anatolia and established the biggest empire the world had seen up until that time.

This is the first volume of the Anatolian Histories; the second volume will cover the period from Alexander the Great to modern times.

Top Image: Artist’s representation of the Hittite city of Hattusa in Anatolia. Source: Ancient Wisdom

By Kartal Gurbuz Kaya


Herodotus, et al. Histories. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2014.

Mallory, J.P.; Adams, D.Q. (1997), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Taylor & Francis

Macqueen, J. G. (1986) The Hittites, and Their Contemporaries in Asia Minor, revised and enlarged, Ancient Peoples and Places series (ed. G. Daniel), Thames and Hudson

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