Palestine and Syria appear to have been originally inhabited by three different tribes.
(1.) The Semites, living on the east of the isthmus of Suez. They were nomadic and pastoral tribes.
(2.) The Phoenicians, who were merchants and traders; and
(3.) the Hittites, who were the warlike element of this confederation of tribes. They inhabited the whole region between the Euphrates and Damascus, their chief cities being Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Kadesh, now Tell Neby Mendeh, in the Orontes valley, about six miles south of the Lake of Homs. These Hittites seem to have risen to great power as a nation, as for a long time they were formidable rivals of the Egyptian and Assyrian empires. In the book of Joshua they always appear as the dominant race to the north of Galilee.
Somewhere about the twenty-third century B.C. the Syrian confederation, led probably by the Hittites, arched against Lower Egypt, which they took possession of, making Zoan their capital. Their rulers were the Hyksos, or shepherd kings. They were at length finally driven out of Egypt. Rameses II. sought vengeance against the "vile Kheta," as he called them, and encountered and defeated them in the great battle of Kadesh, four centuries after Abraham. (see JOSHUA.)
They are first referred to in Scripture in the history of Abraham, who bought from Ephron the Hittite the field and the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 15:20: 23:3-18). They were then settled at Kirjath-arba. From this tribe Esau took his first two wives (26:34; 36:2).
They are afterwards mentioned in the usual way among the inhabitants of the Promised Land (Exodus 23:28). They were closely allied to the Amorites, and are frequently mentioned along with them as inhabiting the mountains of Palestine. When the spies entered the land they seem to have occupied with the Amorites the mountain region of Judah (Numbers 13:29). They took part with the other Canaanites against the Israelites (Joshua 9:1; 11:3).
After this there are few references to them in Scripture. Mention is made of "Ahimelech the Hittite" (1 Samuel 26:6), and of "Uriah the Hittite," one of David's chief officers (2 Samuel 23:39; 1 Chronicles 11:41). In the days of Solomon they were a powerful confederation in the north of Syria, and were ruled by "kings." They are met with after the Exile still a distinct people (Ezra 9:1; Comp. Nehemiah 13:23-28).
The Hebrew merchants exported horses from Egypt not only for the kings of Israel, but also for the Hittites (1 Kings 10:28, 29). From the Egyptian monuments we learn that "the Hittites were a people with yellow skins and `Mongoloid' features, whose receding foreheads, oblique eyes, and protruding upper jaws are represented as faithfully on their own monuments as they are on those of Egypt, so that we cannot accuse the Egyptian artists of caricaturing their enemies. The Amorites, on the contrary, were a tall and handsome people. They are depicted with white skins, blue eyes, and reddish hair, all the characteristics, in fact, of the white race" (Sayce's The Hittites). The original seat of the Hittite tribes was the mountain ranges of Taurus. They belonged to Asia Minor, and not to Syria.