how did the plague of Muršili II alter the political landscape in Bronze Age Anatolia?


The role infectious diseases played in the development of human history has been an area of active research. Numerous academic papers and books have been dedicated to the study of this topic. Pandemics were first recorded in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Two pandemics during the Antiquity had perhaps changed the course of history. The first one was Antonine Plague that ravaged Rome from 165 – 180 CE. The plague shattered the prosperity of the Roman Empire, and according to Economic Historian Peter Temin, marked the turning point in Rome’s long economic decline. The second one was the Justinian Plague that turned Constantinople, the magnificent capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to hell-on-Earth from 541 – 542 CE. Other intensively investigated pandemics in history included the Black Death, the spread of smallpox to the New World after the Columbian exchange, and the Spanish flu that happened in the late 1910s. Many publications have been dedicated to the study of the pathogens responsible for the aforementioned plagues and their impacts on the progress of history.

However, I would like to dedicate this very brief introductory article to a much less-known plague that happened in the remote past. This pandemic was the Plague that ravaged the Hittite Empire in 14th century BCE during late Bronze Age. It was underexplored in academic discussions, yet it might have profound impacts on the course of ancient Near Eastern history. It has been conveniently named “the plague of Muršili II” after the prayer tablets composed by Hittite King Muršili II which recorded this disaster.

King Šuppiluliuma’s war on the Egyptians and its unintended consequence

Šuppiluliuma I was a well-known King of the New Kingdom in Hittite history; he ruled the empire from approximately 1,350 BCE till 1,322 BCE. Before his ascending to the throne, he had already earned the reputation of being his father Tudḫaliya III’s most capable general and advisor. When the Kaskan invasion brought the mighty empire to the brink of destruction, he and his father cooperated with each other closely to answer the challenges. They eventually expelled the invaders from Hittite homeland and recovered the original territorial extent of the empire.

However, for unknown reasons, Tudḫaliya III did not designate Šuppiluliuma as his legitimate heir, despite his significant contributions to the restoration of the empire. He had chosen Tudḫaliya the younger instead of Šuppiluliuma to inherit the throne. At the beginning, Šuppiluliuma showed respect to the arrangement, probably because he respected his father and there was very little he could do as long as his father was alive. However, the seeds of jealousy might have already been sown. Under obscure circumstances, Šuppiluliuma decided to overthrow his elder brother who was the legitimate king in a coup d'état in approximately 1,350 BCE. Tudḫaliya the younger was assassinated alongside with his supporters, and Šuppiluliuma seized the throne as Šuppiluliuma I.

Šuppiluliuma I was an ambitious king, he campaigned extensively to extend the territory controlled by Ḫattuša to Syria and Western Anatolia. He laid siege to Carchemish when the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun suddenly died. His young wife Ankhesenamun sent a letter to King Šuppiluliuma, asking him to give her a Hittite prince as her new husband. She assured the Hittite King that the prince would become the Egyptian Pharaoh. Her move was almost unprecedented in Egyptian history and modern scholars generally believe that she was acting out of desperation due to intense internal power struggle in the Egyptian court.

Šuppiluliuma I probably doubted her true intention, as Hittite historical documents described that the Hittite king suspected that the Hittite prince would he held prisoner and the Egyptians would make him hostage. Nevertheless, he sent his son Zannanza to marry the widowed Egyptian queen. Zannanza mysteriously vanished at the Hittite-Egyptian border and was presumably dead. Šuppiluliuma I was extremely grievous and outrageous when he heard the terrible news that his son was dead. He immediately organized a retaliatory military strike led by the crown prince Arnuwanda. This military action ended in Hittite victory, but also brought an unintended consequence.

Beginning of a nightmare

Arnuwanda’s war on Egypt defeated the latter’s positions in Syria, but the Egyptian prisoners of war also brought with them a mysterious infectious disease that ravaged Hittite homeland for 20 years to come. The economic loss and loss of human lives were difficult to estimate. Modern scholars know almost nothing about the pathogen which caused this outbreak, apart from the fact that fever as a major symptom was recorded in Hittite literary sources. The Hittite tradition of cremation had also rendered modern forensic means useless in determining the exact cause of the plague.

Unfortunately, Šuppiluliuma I contracted the disease sometime in 1,322 BCE and he passed away shortly afterwards. The crown prince Arnuwanda, now the new king Arnuwanda II, also fell terribly ill. Hittite tablets did not specify which disease he got, but it was most probably the same plague that carried off his father. The news that Arnuwanda II was terminally ill quickly spread and enemies of the Hittites were on the move. Hannutti, the general entrusted with the mission of pacifying the Northern border region, was killed in action, and Arnuwanda II himself also died within 18 months of his coronation. After losing two kings and an important general within such a short period, the situation became increasing dire. Šuppiluliuma I’s youngest son Muršili II ascended to the throne in the depth of the crisis. He proved to be a capable commander on the battlefield, but the root cause of the plague had yet to be identified, and disease was still spreading out of control. To the young king, he was responsible for finding out the reason why it happened and devising a solution to save his country.

The Five Plague Prayers of Muršili II

In any Bronze Age civilization, when a plague occurred, there was very little that could be done. Ancient people knew that plague could be transmitted between people, but the route of transmission was unknown, and modern public health measures like quarantine was unheard of at that time. People did not know micro-organisms were the culprit of plagues, they thought plagues were supernatural phenomena, and they could only search for an answer in the paranormal realm.

For Muršili II, he knew he needed to ask an oracle in the temples, the oracle told him that the plague was a punishment for his father’s wrongful deeds: the assassination of his brother, King Tudḫaliya the younger, the violation of a treaty signed with the Egyptians, and the neglect of the offerings to Euphrates river. Muršili II prayed to multiple Hittite deities and offered sacrifices. Among the prayers, seven survived to present days, and five of them had a very specific theme: the plague. Therefore, those five documents are collectively called “The Five Plague Prayers of Muršili II”. He dedicated three prayers to the Hittite pantheon, two to the Sun goddess Arinna, one to the Storm-god of Hittite, and the remaining one to Telipinu.

The detailed prayers were recorded on clay tablets categorized as CTH376 to CTH379. King Muršili appealed to the deities by reciting the devastating effects of the plague. The punishment was too heavy for the empire and its people. Surging death toll and economic crisis not only exposed the empire’s weaknesses to its enemies, but he also made a specific appeal to the Hittite deities: temples were running out of servants and staffs to cultivate land, prepare bread and conduct religious rituals. Muršili II stressed his innocence as he had taken no part in his father’s transgressions, but he also accepted that he bore the debt of his father’s sins. His pleas were among the most beautiful and valuable literature composition in the entire Hittite history. To cite an example:

Muršili’s Plague Prayer clay tablet

Plague prayer tablet of Muršili II

“Hear me, O Storm-god, my lord, and save my life! I say to you as follows: The bird takes refuge in the cage, and the cage preserves its life. Or if something bothers some servant and he makes a plea to his lord, his lord listens to him, has pity on him, and he sets right what was bothering him. Or if some servant has committed a sin, but he confesses his sin before his lord, his lord may do with him whatever he wishes; but since he has confessed his sin before his lord, his lord’s soul is appeased, and the lord will not call that servant to account. I have confessed the sin of my father. It is so. I have done it…And since Hatti has made restitution through the plague, it has made restitution for it twenty-fold. Indeed, it has already become that much. And yet the soul of the Storm-god of Hatti, my lord, and of all the gods, my lords, is not at all appeased…And if perhaps people have been dying for this reason, then during the time that I set it right, let there be no more deaths among those makers of offering bread and libation pourers to the gods who are still left…O Storm-god of Hatti, my lord, save my life, and may the plague be removed from Hatti.”

Muršili’s “Second” Plague Prayer to the Storm-god of Hatti (CTH378.2), Column 9 (rev. 20’-36’) to Column 11 (A rev. 41’-44’ - C iv 14’-22’)

Another fragment of Muršili’s Plague Prayer

Plague prayer tablet of Muršili II

These five surviving prayers revealed the inner feeling and the human side of this great historical figure to modern scholars more than three millennia after the time he lived. His anxiousness and sincerity were revealed vividly in the prayers, and they became a window for us to peek into King Muršili’s mind and soul. We did not know whether these religious ceremonies offered any help to the situation, but we know that the plague gradually subsided sometime later during his reign. We are not aware of any other prayers concerning the plague during his successors’ reigns.

These prayers also revealed the strong sense of desperation and helplessness faced by King Muršili. The population of his country dwindled. Agricultural activities and the army strength were seriously impacted. The empire quickly fell prey to its enemies. Muršili II did more than just praying to gods, he also led the army personally and defended his country when it faced danger. His efforts were not futile, he had proven to the world that he was a capable commander and a great king who could defeat the most formidable enemies. He proved his critics wrong and he earned himself respect and glory.

Impacts of the Plague on the Politics and Economics of the Hittite Empire

The plague ravaged the Hittite Empire for more than 20 years, as the plague prayer tablets indicated. The exact amount of economic loss and death toll were hard to estimate. However, its immediate impact on the Hittite politics must have been profound considering the back-to-back death of and two Hittite kings and the choice of words in Muršili II’s prayers. However, the long-term impacts of this plague have been subjected to debates. Historical archives in the Hittite world and archaeological evidences suggested that the basis of the empire remained largely unmoved. After Muršili II died, his son and successor Muwatalli II battled the mighty Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II in the Battle of Kadesh. In 1,274 BCE, the Hittites mobilized tens of thousands of troops and 2-3,000 chariots to confront the Egyptians, resulting in a tactical stalemate. The massive number of troops involved might have been exaggerated, but it reflected that the Hittite Empire was still at its height. Also, archaeological excavations have yet to turn out conclusive evidences of mass graves typical of a plague of these proportions.

However, in the long run, this plague might have exacerbated the population deficit problem, which was a structural problem of the Hittite Empire. It resulted in two impacts: the abandonment of agricultural land, causing grain shortage; and the abandonment of strategically important cities bordering the Northern Kaska region, causing national security concerns.

Neo-Assyrian refugee deportation relief

Neo-Assyrian Empire was notorious for its mass deportation of conquered population. An estimated 4.5 million people were forced to leave their homes in the three centuries of Assyrian domination. The photo shows a scene of deported Israelis leaving Lachish under close monitoring by Assyrian soldiers.

Neo-Assyrian army mass deportation of captives

The Hittite solution to the deurbanization problem was a mass-scale forced resettlement program similar to later Neo-Assyrian policies of mass deportation of conquered people. Conquered people from foreign lands were relocated to the Hittite heartland against their wills, and the Hittite authorities attempted resettlement of the Northern border regions. Nerik, the Northern-most Hittite city ever discovered which ruin in the archaeological site of Oymaağaç Höyük was discovered and excavated by German and Turkish archaeologists since 2005, was an example of this resettlement program. However, these two strategies did not fundamentally solve the problem. Kaska tribes in the north still threatened the national interest of the empire, and might have played a role in the empire’s eventual downfall in early 12th century BCE. Deportation and resettlement programs also triggered resistance among those who were forced to leave their homeland. They often fled the Hittite territory to other kingdoms nearby as refugees and seek for asylum. Hittite kings needed to pressure the other kings in the region using political and military means to force them to surrender the fugitives, but the outcome was doubtful.

Hittite holy city of Nerik

Modern archaeological site of Oymaağaç Höyük, is a prime example of Hittite frontier city in the North resettled by Hittite Kings Urhi-Teshub and Ḫattušili III.

Ruin of Nerik in Turkey

The abandonment of agricultural land and declining food production was a problem that plagued the Hittite empire in the long run. According to archaeological evidences, Hittite civilization mastered sophisticated irrigation technologies and the government also invested heavily in irrigation and water management infrastructures. However, these massive investments failed to boost agricultural output because there were simply not enough laborers to work on the farms. The shortage of agricultural labors became the largest obstacle to the improvement in agricultural production in Bronze Age Anatolia.

Towards the end of the empire’s history, the problem became more acute. As early as the conclusion of the Treaty of Kadesh, the Hittite Empire required shipment of grains from Egypt to feed its population. The Egyptian pharaoh even claimed that he exported grain to Hittite Empire to keep them alive. Before Hittite Empire’s eventual downfall, another tablet showed that the Hittite king was pressuring his vassals not to hinder the shipment of grain and he emphasized that “this is a matter of life and death”. All lines of evidences pointed to the conclusion that Hittite had become heavily dependent on imported food to survive.

The True reason behind the Hittite Empire’s downfall?

We cannot be certain that whether the population lost during the plague eventually recovered, however, evidences showed that the shortage of population became an even more acute problem towards the end of the Bronze Age. The lack of agricultural laborers, combined with the deurbanization problem at the border region, all restricted the development of the Hittite Empire. Perhaps the plague itself did not leave evidences of mass deaths, and the hypothesis that the plague caused the eventual demise of the Hittite Empire remains a premature conclusion. However, the plague might have exacerbated the problem of population shortage in Hittite history, and thus was a turning point in its history. This could still be a tempting hypothesis to explain the Empire’s fall. With the excavation and translation of more tablets from the Hittite Empire, new evidences might eventually shed new light on this fascinating question.

References and footnotes

  1. Singer I. (2002) Writings from the Ancient World: Hittite Prayers, Ch. 3 pp. 47-69. Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, USA.

  2. Bryce T. (2005) The Kingdom of the Hittites, Ch. 7 pp. 178-183, Ch. 8 pp. 205-207, 216-219, Ch. 10 pp. 249-250, 260, Ch.13 pp. 331-332. Oxford University Press. Oxford, UK.

  3. Dickinson O. (2010) The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean, Ch. 36 pp.488. Oxford University Press. New York, USA.

  4. Radner K. (2017) A Companion to Assyria, Ch. 9 pp. 209-212. WILEY Blackwell. Chichester, UK.

  5. Mieroop Marc V. D. (2016) A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition, Ch. 12 pp. 247-250. WILEY Blackwell. Chichester, UK.