Thursday, September 09, 2010

Upside-Down Pyramid Moment::The Hittites

One of my favorite teachers used to say that one of the fun things about history is that you could always look at the same data and see something you never before.  "For example," he intoned, "I just last night realized that you can't turn a pyramid upside down."

I think I'm having an upside-down pyramid moment.  The subject is the Hittites, who developed a great empire in and around Central Anatolia from (say) the 18th to the 12th Century BC..  At least in this part of the world, it was about the fourth empire ever, following the Akkadians, Ur-three, and Babylon.

It is also the first of these empires to be located outside of a river basin.  At least at its height, away from the water: its focal point is the Anatolian plateau, up around 3,000 feet.

Which brings me to my pyramid moment:  this is a terrible place to build an empire.  Paul Collier argues that if you want to avoid poverty as a nation, one of the things you don't want to be is "landlocked."  Especially not with unfriendly neighbors, of which the Hittites seemed to have plenty--and if they weren't unfriendly to begin with, the Hittites would make them so (forget Switzerland: it only looks landlocked; in fact it is the center of a thriving market).

Which brings me back to my point?  Why?   Even better, how?  As I scan the "empires" file in the cerebral file cabinet, I can't think of many empires at any time or place who function so completely from a land base.  And you can usually come up with exception-that-proves-the-rule reasons.   Mongols, for example: they didn't create an empire so much as pillage other people's.

I can't think of any such reason for the Hittites.  I'll bet you hadn't been worrying about this question.  Now you can.


Scott de B. said...

There was a thriving trade between Anatolia and Mesopotamia from a fairly early date, as the Assyrian colony at Kanesh (Kultepe) attests. At its height the Hittites were in close contact with Egypt and the Aegean, and the Hittite presence in North Syria gave them access to trading entrepots such as Ugarit.

Anatolia wasn't some backwater. You don't really need a navy to conquer an empire -- look at the Assyrians, the Persians, and the empire of Alexander.

Ben Natkin said...

Both the Aztecs and the Incas. As the commenter above points out, most empires are based around controlling trade routes. A lot of, especially early, trade routes follow rivers, but that's not necessarily true. Delong also points out that war chariots mattered.