Ancient Egypt - The Battle of Kadesh

Updated: Feb 23


The buildup to the battle of Kadesh involved his early campaigns into Canaan. This first took place in Year 4 and involved a Canaanite prince who was mortally wounded by an Egyptian archer. This Canaanite army was subsequently routed, and these princes were carried off as prisoners to Egypt. During this campaign, Ramesses II captured the Hittite vassal state of Amurru. In response, the king of the Hittites, Muwatallis II, marched south into Kadesh to confront the Egyptians.

In Year 5, Ramesses gathered together one of the greatest forces of Egyptian troops ever seen: about 20,000 men who were organized into four divisions of 5000 each, named respectively after the gods Amun, Ra, Ptah, and Seth. His chariot force numbered around 2,000. Muwatallis II assembled an even greater army with about 20,000 – 40,000 men and 3,000 chariots.

Ramesses II set out from his new capital of Pi-Ramesses and, following in Tuthmosis III's footsteps of some 200 years earlier, moved up through the Gaza strip. With such a large army, which included the baggage trains and camp followers, the movement north was slow and extended over a vast area. About 7 miles south from Kadesh, Ramesses II and the advance guard captured two spies who reported that the Hittite army was over 100 miles to the north. Ramesses II, therefore, moved forward confidently with the first division, Amun, crossing the Orontes River and camping to the west of Kadesh. He was soon shaken, however, when two more spies were caught, who revealed under torture, that the Hittite army was just on the other side of Kadesh.

Without time to react, Hittite chariots crossed the river and charged the middle of the Ra Division and began making their way to his location. The Ra Division was caught in the open and scattered in all directions. The Hittite chariotry then rounded north and attacked the Egyptian camp, crashing through the Amun Division causing panic. Ramesses II described the scene of being deserted and left to deal with the enemy alone:

'...No officer was with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army,

no shield-bearer... I was before them like Seth in his moment.

I found the mass of the chariots in whose midst I was,

scattering them before my horses.'

-Ramesses II's Inscription at Temple Karnak

Although dramatized, Ramesses II did personally lead several charges into the Hittite ranks together with his personal guard, some of the chariots from the Amun Division, and survivors from the routed Division of Ra. The Hittites, who believed their enemies to be totally routed, stopped to plunder the Egyptian camp, and in doing so, became easy targets for Ramesses II's counter attack. They drove the looters back towards the Orontes River, while in the ensuing pursuit, the heavier Hittite chariots were easily overtaken and dispatched by the lighter, faster Egyptian chariots. The Prince of Aleppo, fighting with the Hittites, nearly drowned, and his predicament was ridiculed in Egyptian records.

Muwatallis II ordered a second attack after quickly regrouping, but abandoned the idea upon observing the Ptah Division, which had finally arrived from the south. By this point, nightfall had set in. Like most other ancient armies, they did not fight at night and so both armies settled into their respective camps.

The next day, the Egyptians and Hittites fought to a standoff. The Hittite army was ultimately forced to retreat, but the Egyptians were unsuccessful in capturing Kadesh. Logistically unable to support a long siege of the walled city of Kadesh, Ramesses II returned to Egypt. Further campaigns were undertaken against the Hittites in subsequent years, but eventually Ramesses II realized that he could not hold the northern reaches of Syria, just as the Hittites could not control the south.

Internal troubles and growing Assyrian threats to the East made the now Hittite king, Hattusilis III, cease the annual attacks against Egypt. The running borderland conflicts were finally ended some 15 years after the Battle of Kadesh by an official peace treaty in the 21st Year of Ramesses II's reign, roughly 1258 B.C. The treaty survives carved on the walls of Karnak and the Ramesseum, in Egypt. The Hittite version has also been discovered, by one of those coincidences of fate, in the Hittite capital at Hattusas. An enlarged replica of the Kadesh Agreement would later hang on the wall of the United Nations Headquarters as the earliest international peace treaty known to historians.


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