Archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have uncovered the burned ruins of a city sacked by the Hittites 3,500 years ago during the reign of a ruler known as “The Lion King”.
Located in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of Turkey, the ancient city of Sam’al was a kingdom situated along a trade route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.
It also happened to be a prime target for Ḫattušili I, the founder of the Hittite empire who ruled for 30 years during a time of expansion and progress by his civilization.
He also associated himself with lions, earning him the nickname “The Lion King” by scholars.
According to the University of Chicago Press Journal:
Ḫattušili I established his kingship in the city of Ḫattuša sometime in the latter half of the seventeenth century BC, ca. 1650 according to the middle chronology. Born with the name Labarna, he took the throne name Ḫattušili, meaning “man of Ḫattuša,” and proceeded to build up the young Hittite kingdom out of a political and cultural backwater. In the reign of Ḫattušili I, cuneiform writing was adopted, and the first copy of the Hittite law code was probably committed to the clay.
His reign is notable for these and other reasons, among them, the fact that the texts from his reign use the lion as a symbol of his kingship.
That the lion simile is the only simile applied to Hittite kings and that the lion is a favorite symbol of Ḫattušili I has already been observed. In his Annals, Ḫattušili I employs the simile in reference to himself as a powerful military leader.
Indeed, in one such boast found on a cuneiform tablet that gives details of at least six years of his reign, Ḫattušili I boasted about conquering cities to expand his influence.
I crossed the Ceyhan River and overthrew Hassuwa like a lion with it’s paws. When I struck, I moved dust over it and all it’s goods and filled up Ḫattuša. And later, like a lion I kept Habbu at bay and destroyed Zippasna and its gods I took up and took them to the Sun Goddess of Arinna.
And so, when the archaeological team unearthed burned ruins at the Sam’al site, they knew exactly who was responsible.
“We’re ready to say a well-known Hittite king, named Ḫattušili I, did it,” University of Chicago professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations David Schloen said in a statement to UChicago News. “It’s an incredibly lucky find. Every archaeologist hopes for an intact destruction layer because it gives you a snapshot of a day in the life of this town.”
But they also found even more than that as several items, including pottery and a dagger that had laid undisturbed for thousands of years right where they were left, presumably abandoned when the Hittites invaded.
“Pottery is still sitting inside the buildings where the inhabitants left it in 1650 B.C.,” Schloen said. “You know that everything is where it would be on a typical day, which is really valuable cultural knowledge.”
In fact, some of the vessels must have contained flammable liquids such as alcohol or oil because the fire burned hotter in some spots.
“You can tell the burning was intense,” Schloen said; for example, several storage pots had deeply burned debris around them as though they had contained flammable materials like oil or wine. In another room, a dagger lay on the floor where its owner had dropped it millennia ago.
Eventually, like most empires, they reach a limit. For the Hittites, they came up against the powerful Egyptian empire, and Ḫattušili I could go no further.
“As it expanded, it butted heads with the other superpower of the day—Egypt,” Schloen said.
The city of Sam’al would rise again, only to be abandoned later on in 609 BC under the control of the Assyrians.
By then, the Hittite empire had long since collapsed.
Despite the constant back and forth between empires, the ruins remained, as did the artifacts. Thus, researchers have the opportunity to learn much. And it’s the Hittite language that the university has painstakingly pieced together over decades to form a dictionary of the language that has aided teams in the field giving them the ability to place events in context.
“What’s really valuable is having the cultural context to explain all of this,” Schloen said. “This intellectual foundation allows us to excavate a site and have enough of a narrative to try to understand what the economic and cultural impacts of these empires were on a city’s inhabitants.”
“There are very few universities in the world with these kinds of substantial, large-scale, sustained field projects that are training grounds for the next generation of archaeologists,” he concluded. “You can’t learn archaeology sitting in a library—you have to learn it out in a field, and this takes resources and a real institutional commitment. We are especially grateful to our sponsors for supporting this project.”
Ḫattušili I turned the Hittite empire into a mighty force to be reckoned with during his reign, and Sam’al, like many other cities, was unfortunate enough to be within his radius. And now both are just ancient history left for us to discover so we can learn about the past to learn more about ourselves and the world we live in.
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