Battle of Kadesh (Qadesh)

The Battle of Kadesh is one of the most famous military engagements of the ancient world – largely because Ramesses II chose to celebrate his “win” in graphic and textual accounts on the walls of many Egyptian temples.

During the rule of Akhenaten there was a marked decline in the interest taken in the outlying parts of the Egyptian Empire. The Amurru, led by Abdi-Ashirta and then Aziru, took advantage of this to expand their power at the expense of Egyptian vassals and along with the Amurru both Ugarit and Kadesh (Qadesh) changed allegiance to the Hittites. Correspondence from loyal Syrian princes to Akhenaten requesting assistance was found in the cache known as the Amarna Letters, but it seems that these pleas went unanswered. Egypt’s once powerful ally the Mitanni were surrounded and following the assassination of Tushratta they ceased to be a major force in the region. Although some efforts were made to address this shift in the balance of power during the reign of Horemheb, it was not until the reign of Seti that any real progress was made in Syria. Seti oversaw successful military campaigns against both Amurru and Kadesh, but both reverted to Hittite control when his armies left to return home to Egypt.


Ramesses at the Battle of Kadesh

The battle represented a departure from the norm in Egyptian warfare and indeed warfare in the Eastern Mediterranean during this period. Previous Egyptian campaigns involved marching through territories attacking one settlement at a time or fighting the proxies of their enemies, rather than directly facing their foes in large scale battles. The Egyptians had met the Mitanni in skirmishes, and, although they had previously met the Hittites on the battlefield, these conflicts had not involved the full Hittite force led by their king. Even the famous Battle of Meggido had involved a coalition of city states led by the King of Kadesh. As De Meiroop notes, this battle is of interest not only because it is one of the first about which we have a wealth of detail but because it is the first to involve a “direct clash between two major armies”.

Ramesses II was determined that he would emulate and surpass the successes of his father Seti, so he assembled a large Egyptian army which he divided into four units, each with both chariots and infantry. There was Ra division, Amun division (led by Ramesses himself), Ptah division, and Seth division. As Ramesses approached Kadesh his troops apprehended two Hittite scouts who reported that the Hittite army was one hundred and twenty five miles north of Kadesh near the city of Khaleb (Aleppo). As it turned out, these “scouts” were in fact Hittite spies sent to lure Ramesses into a trap and the Hittite army was waiting behind Kadesh itself.

Ramesses marched to high ground north west of Kadesh with the Amun division and set up camp, followed at some distance by the Re division, while the Ptah and Seth divisions went to mobilise local people in support of the king.

Ramesses troops interrogate the spies

His troops then captured two genuine scouts who were “persuaded” to reveal the truth. Ramesses immediately sent messengers to instruct the rest of his army to join him, but the approaching Re division was attacked by a force of Hittite chariots and ran headlong into Ramesses camp causing panic and disarray.

Ramesses found himself separated from the bulk of his army and surrounded by Hittite chariots. Egyptian accounts of the battle suggest that there were 2,500 Hittite chariots in the initial attack and that they were augmented by a further 1,000 chariots when the Re division was routed. However, it is generally agreed that these numbers are exaggerated and we cannot be certain how many Hittite chariots actually reached Ramesses camp or how many were kept in reserve for the second wave.

In any case, Ramesses managed to repel both the first and second waves of chariots until the timely arrival of the contingent from Na’arn (or Ne’arin). This may have been, in part, because the Hittites wasted time looting the camp rather than finishing off the Egyptian forces or damaging their chariots to prevent a counter attack. It may also have been because Muwatallis failed to send any infantry support for the chariots and because his advancing chariots scattered, but did not destroy, the division of Re.

Battle of Kadesh
  1. Hittite camp
  2. Kadesh
  3. Egyptian camp / Division of Amun
  4. River Orontes
  5. Na’arn
  6. Division of Re
  7. Division of Ptah
  8. Division of Seth
  9. Forest

There is some debate over the identity of the Na’arn. It is likely they were mercenaries from Amurru or Cannan but some have suggested they were actually the division of Set (although this seems unlikely). In any case, with their help the Egyptians managed to push the Hittites back towards the river Orontes. Caught between the advancing Egyptian chariots and the river, the Hittites abandoned their chariots and tried to swim across the river to their camp, many losing their lives to the strong currents.

Spalinger suggests that Ramesses decision to set up on high ground implies that he expected to meet the forces of Kadesh in open battle rather than establish a siege against the city and surmises that the king failed to send a reconnaissance party across the river to the east, as had he done so they could not fail to see or hear the Hittite army which was hidden behind the city.

It was only after the Hittite ambush failed that Ramesses had his wish and met the Hittites in open battle, and the battle was inconclusive with losses on both sides and no clear winner. According to Egyptian sources Mutwatallis then sued for peace, although it is unlikely that he begged “do not overwhelm us” as is recorded in the “poem”. Hittite sources suggest that Ramesses was allowed to leave because the Hittite army had already suffered great losses and they needed to preserve their remaining forces to deal with other threats to their empire.

Win lose or draw?

Many historians consider the battle to have been a strategic defeat for the Egyptians and Ramesses is often accused of an arrogance bordering on megalomania because he depicted his “win” against the Hittites repeatedly on temple walls. Detractors complain that he exaggerated his military prowess and personal bravery in order to cover up the fact that he stumbled naively into an ambush, or accuse him of rewriting history in the hope that his subjects would not see past his propaganda and actually believe that he won a great battle. Yet, it seems clear that Ramesses himself believed his own hype, as he referred to the skirmish as an Egyptian victory in a letter to a Hittite king sometime after the peace treaty had been signed.

Perhaps the problem is partly in the modern interpretation of events. Given that Ramesses was caught in an ambush, which could easily have ended his life, it is perhaps not unreasonable that he considered the fact that he survived and indeed avoided a humiliating defeat as proof that the gods were on his side. The peace treaty basically preserved the status quo. The Hittites retained Kadesh but Egypt retained the parts of Amurru they had held before the battle and shortly afterwards the two powers signed a lasting peace. Thus, the battle could reasonably be seen as a draw.

Records of the Battle of Kadesh

The Battle of Kadesh is recorded in two primary written sources known as the “poem” and the “bulletin” supplemented by the pictorial record (on the walls of the temples at Abu Simbel, Luxor, Karnak and on the walls of the Ramesseum) which also includes short captions describing the events.

The two written sources appear in multiple copies. There are seven copies of the bulletin and eight copies of the poem. The Papyrus Sallier III includes a version of the “poem” as copied by the scribe Pentawerit during the reign of Merenptah (Ramesses son and successor). The poem focuses on the heroism of the pharaoh when faced by near certain defeat by the Hittites, while the bulletin is shorter and often described as the official report. However, Gardiner suggested that the bulletin was also a poetic composition and proposed that it should be viewed as an integral part of the pictorial record.

  • T. Bryce (1998) The Kingdom of the HittitesE. Hornung (1999) History of Ancient Egypt
  • T.G. James (2007) Pharaoh’s People: Scenes from Life in Imperial Egypt
  • M. Lichtheim (2006) Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol II
  • A. Loprieno (1996) “The ‘King’s Novel'” p277-295 of A. Loprieno (ed.), Ancient Egyptian Literature, history and formsB. Manley (1996) The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt
  • M. Van De Mieroop (2007) The Eastern Mediterranean in the age of Ramesses II
  • M Van de Mieroop (2010) A History of Ancient Egypt
  • A.J Spalinger (2005) War in Ancient Egypt: the New Kingdom

Copyright J Hill 2012