Hittites in Canaan

The Bible claims, and the archaeological evidence supports the claim, that the Hittites were in Canaan during Abraham’s sojourn in that land.

Hittite adventurism

For the Hittite kings (and for other militarily successful kings) going to war was an annual ritual, and a game. The risks were great, but so were the rewards.

From small beginnings in central Anatolia, the Hittite kings extended their power over Anatolia. The early days of the Hittites are shrouded in obscurity, but the much later Proclamation of Telipinu depicts the beginnings of the Old Kingdom:

Formerly Labarna was Great King. His sons, his brothers, as well as his in-laws, his relatives, and his troops were united. The land was small, but on whatever campaign he went, he held the enemy land in subjugation by (his) might. He destroyed the lands, one after another: he overwhelmed the lands and made them borders of the sea. When he came back from campaign each (of) his sons went to some land.

It was a family-held fiefdom, and as such was inherently unstable. Family rivalry repeatedly threatened to bring it down and, of course, the subjected people were not content with their loss of independence.

The definitive break-through for the Hittites in their grab for power came during the reign of Labarna’s successor, Hattusili (1586 BC – 1556 BC). Establishing his capital in north-central Anatolia, Hattusili secured the lands nearest to the capital, looting the lands for the enrichment of his kingdom and the glory of his gods. From here, Hattusili launched an audacious campaign to take possessions in the Syrian lands bordering on southern Anatolia, coming up against the powerful Syrian kingdom of Iamhad, based in Aleppo.

Hattusili first raid was little more than an extensive looting exercise, although he did unsuccessfully attempt to lay seige to the city of Ursu. As a result of this campaign the Hittites learnt the Hurrian approach to siege-craft.

The next year, Hattusili entertained himself by raiding the lands to the west of his capital, leaving his eastern borderlands exposed to Hurrian attacks, and allowing subject cities to rebel. Responding quickly, Hattusili sent the Hurrians fleeing. Whereas a formerly subject city of named Nenassa quickly surrendered to him, the city named Ulma resisted three times. Its punishment was to be utterly destroyed by the Hittites. After this, Sallahsuwa, a city on the old trade route between Anatolia and Assyria also resisted, and it was also attacked and destroyed.

The next year, Hattusili was ready to launch his second Syrian campaign. He was fierce warrier, and took and destroyed a number of small cities on his way. Hattusili showed no mercy to the vanquished, although mercy was shown to those who surrendered without resistance. According to his annals, he thought of himself as a lion seizing its prey:

I entered Zippasna, and I ascended Zippasna in the dead of night. I entered into battle with them and heaped dust upon them. Like a lion I gazed fiercely upon Habba and destroyed Zippasna. I took possession of its gods and brought them to the temple of the Sun Goddess of Arinna.

Hattusili’s most celebrated achievement was to have crossed the Euphrates on foot, therefore emulating (in the opposite direction) the feat of Sargon the Great 700 years earlier. However, in this campaign, and in later campaigns, Hattusili failed to take Aleippo, the capital of the Syrian Iamhad kingdom.

All his military successes gave Hattusili less lasting satisfaction than he hoped. This is because he came to understand that his own family were not willing to obey his will. His son joined in a rebellion by the city of which the son was the governor. Even Hattusili’s daughter joined in a rebellious attempt to put someone on the throne to succeed him. After all his trials and approaching death, he appointed his grandson, Mursili to succeed him.

All we know of Mursili’s reign is a very short record found in the much later Proclamation of Telipinu. Nevertheless, this record is of utmost importance in understanding a possible unheralded Hittite incursion into Canaan.

When Mursili became king in Hattusa, his sons, his brothers, his in-laws, his relatives, and his troops were united, too. He held the enemy lands in subjugation by (his) might. He overwhelmed the lands and he made them borders of the sea. He went to Halpa [Aleppo], he destroyed Halpa, and he brought civilian captives of Halpa and its goods to Hattusa. Later he went to Babylon, he destroyed Babylon, he repulsed the Hurrians, and he kept the civilian captives of Babylon and its goods in Hattusa.

So much activity, and so few words. Even though it is difficult to comprehend how a relatively small band of adventurers were able to take Babylon, or even the purpose of this adventure (except to gather booty), at least we can understand the geography of the destruction of Aleppo and the raid on Babylon without difficulty. Establishing the geography of his battle with the Hurrians is more difficult. The evidence suggests it was against the Hurrians in Canaan.

Hurrian expansion

The Hurrians are likely to have entered the region to the north of Mesopotamia quite early, and to have infiltrated into Mesopotamia over a long period of time, establishing independent city states in various places. While there is no definite evidence for the Hurrians establishing city states in Canaan before Mursili’s invasion of Syria, it remains likely. Either Mursili or the Hurrians must have been responsible for the destruction of Jericho, which carbon dating places somewhere in the years between 1617 BC and 1530 BC. Such an event required effective siege warfare, an art in which the Hurrians and then the Hittites were adept.

At least we know that Hurrians had already infiltrated into Canaan in small numbers in the seventeenth century, and by the second half of the fifteenth century about one-third of the names in the Tanaach tablets (a city in Canaan) were of Hurrian origin. Also, as soon as the Egyptians became particularly interested in Canaan, namely during the reign of Thutmoses III, they called Canaan “Hurri-land.” Finally, we know that Hurrian rulers held a number of kingships in Canaan in the Amarna period (in the fourteenth century). [Na’aman, 3-8; Redford, 129-140]

A possible scenario is that the Hurrian adventurers entered Canaan sometime in the period before Mursili’s invasion of Syria, and Mursili’s armies contested control of this territory with them. Hittite vindictiveness makes it possible that the Hittites under Mursili were responsible for the destruction of the city of Jericho and its walls.

Hazor – a Hittite city

Leaving the speculation about the Hurrians to one side, we have some grounds to assume that the Hittites controlled Hazor up to the time the city was destroyed by Joshua, around 1200 BC.

Hittite influence within Hazor was noticed by the Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. The first piece of direct evidence for the Hittites in Hazor that he found is quite mundane: dressed stone (basalt) slabs that were used as base for the superstructure or as inner facings of brick walls. Their technical name is “orthostats,” which just means “standing upright [things].” The special feature of these orthostats is that they had drilled holes for dowels used to hold beams in place. It would have been difficult to drill such holes in the hard basalt stone before iron implements, which can serve as an explanation of why they were not frequently found: it is even possible that the Hittites had an iron tool that they could use for this purpose. Orthostasts with exactly the same holes were also uncovered in the Hittite capital, Hattusa, and in the Hittite Syrian city of Alalakh.

Yadin also discovered a very impressive lion orthostat (also with the same drill-holes), of a type found in the Syrian city of Alalakh (which became a Hittite possession under Suppiluliumas I, 1344 BC – 1322 BC). The Hazor orthostat is of superior artistic quality to that found in Alalakh.

Lion orthostat - Hazor
Lion orthostat – Hazor

The presence of Hittite statuary in Hazor, taken in conjunction with the fact that it is possible that Mursili’s activities in Syria could have extended into Canaan, at least makes Hittite control of the city a possibility.

Another piece of direct evidence is the reference to the Hittites in Genesis. This concerns Abraham’s negotiations with the Hittites over a piece of land in which to bury his wife. It has been pointed out that these negotiations followed the path expected under Hittite law. This is a case where a written text (in Genesis) may be able to be used to expand the knowledge we gain from archaeology.

When Mursili returned home he was assassinated in a plot hatched by his son-in-law, Hantili, who became king in Mursili’s place. If Mursili had conquered Hazor, as suggested here, he would have left a family relative in charge of that city, yet this relative of the dead king might have had little reason to be loyal to Hantili. It would not be surprising if Hittite rulers of Hazor considered themselves to be henceforth independent of the rulers in Hattusa, just as seems to have been the case.

Hazor and the Egyptians

There was always something different about Hazor when compared with other Canaanite towns. It did not join in common cause with the kings of those towns, but managed its own affairs quite separately.

The evidence suggests that Hazor entered into a treaty with Egypt and this treaty kept it free of later Egyptian punitive raids.

This evidence from Egypt, which leaves open the possibility of non-Canaanite control of Hazor, then the evidence of the orthostats, and finally the Biblical witness to a Hittite presence in the land allow us to draw the conclusion that Hittites were in possession of Hazor from the time of Mursili I until the city came to be utterly destroyed by the Israelites, under Joshua. It can also be said that introducing the Hittites into the history of Canaan helps to clarify other unexplained events in Canaan, such as the destruction of Jericho, mentioned above.


The non-Biblical evidence for Hittite presence in Canaan is circumstantial, yet when added to the Biblical direct and textual evidence for a Hittite presence in Canaan it is certainly the simplest explanation. If so, the Hittite presence in Canaan should be placed in Hazor, not in Hebron as later Israelites assumed to be case.


Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

Manfred R. Lehmann, “Abraham’s Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 129, (1953), 15-18.

Nadav Na’aman, Canaan in the Second Millennium B.C.E. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2005), Vol. 2.

Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times(Princeton University Press, 1992).

Yigael Yadin, Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible (New York: Random House, 1975).

Proclamation of Telipinu: https://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/the-proclamation-of-telipinu/text, retrieved 12 January 2015.