Hittite Architecture & Art

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, explore the architecture and art of an ancient culture who ruled Asia Minor thousands of years ago. We'll look at the material they worked with, how they used art and architecture to look formidable to others, and other facts.

Who Were the Hittites?

Weather gods, carved lion gates and massive stone walls. What do these elements have in common? They were made by the Hittites.

The Hittites were a people who lived in Anatolia (today the country of Turkey and parts of Syria). This part of the world is also known as Asia Minor. The Hittites, possibly descendants of an earlier culture called the Hatti, rose to prominence between 1600 and 1180 BC, eventually ruling over much of Asia Minor.

The culture and lives of the Hittites are a bit mysterious. Scholars didn't know much about them until the late 19th century, and most of their structures and cities are today little more than ruins. They lived in a barren, mostly rocky landscape and somehow were able to make the most of an inhospitable territory to rise to power.

The Hittites lived in a rocky landscape. This massive sculpture was cut right out of the limestone cliff
Hittite carving in a cliff

Their kingdom centered on the city of Hattusa, on a high plateau in the north-central part of Turkey. Hattusa was heavily fortified. The Hittites were often at war.

The Hittites were traders and developed excellent metalworking skills. They began making objects like tools and weapons from iron around 1400 BC, which gave them an advantage over their competitors. Iron was a stronger material than items made from bronze, which many cultures used before the advent of iron.

The Hittite empire collapsed after roughly 1180 BC, for reasons that remain unclear. Some of its culture probably became part of the mix of later peoples who inhabited Turkey and Asia Minor, But elements Hittite stone architecture and art remain, tantalizing clues to a powerful past.

Hittite Architecture

Because they lived in a rocky land dotted with limestone cliffs, the Hittites had plentiful natural resources for building. Much of their architecture has been lost, but that which remains is of heavy stone construction. It's architecture with a clear defensive purpose.

Surrounding Hattusa and other cities were heavy double-walled fortifications, some with tunnels. As the city expanded over time, so did the fortifications. The Hittites were always prepared to defend themselves. Some walls had large, arched gateways with massive entrance sculptures of lions and sphinxes.

The Hittites used a style of stone work called cyclopean masonry, structures built with large stones of many different sizes but not held together with a binder like mortar (a mix of sand, cement and water).

A Hittite monument, showing the predominance of stone use in their architecture
Hittite architecture

The Hittites created a type of palace structure called a bit-hilani, which was an entrance hall surrounded by columns. People approached the hall by climbing a staircase lined with pillars.

The Hittites also built massive temple structures with multiple storage spaces, central courtyards and surrounding rows of columns. Four large temples were built at Hattusa, only one of which has ever been excavated.

Hittite Art

The Hittites created art objects of metal and made pottery items like rhytons, a type of drinking vessel. They also carved tiny cylinder seals from precious stones that when printed served as official signatures for documents.

Hittite clay rhyton in the shape of a gazelle
Hittite rhyton

But the Hittites excelled at stone carving, especially relief sculptures, where the figure was carved out of a solid stone surface but remained attached to it. Reliefs included some scenes of kings, animals and warriors in chariots.

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