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The Battle of Kadesh, 1300 BC:

Public Relations Trumps Performance

Close to Tell Nebi Mend southwest of Lake Homs, along the southern bank of the Orontes River in modern northern Syria, the destinies of the two greatest empires of the age was determined near the ancient fortress city of Kadesh. There, the wills of two great kings - each motivated by by both dynastic and geopolitical considerations - met in a titanic struggle.

Ramesses The Great

Ramesses II, son of Seti I and his favorite Queen Tuya, was the third Pharaoh of the XIX Dynasty and dominated the 13th Century BC. Called “Ramesses the Great” even during antiquity, he was a man whose character and deeds elicit exaggerated adjectives; he lived for nearly a century and ruled for 67 years, the second longest reign of any Pharaoh (only Pepi II of the Sixth Dynasty @ 2300 BC ruled longer). He had 200 wives and consorts, and fathered nearly one hundred sons and sixty daughters, many of whom he outlived. He was an innovator in government, military affairs and diplomacy, and was the greatest “builder” of all the Pharaohs, especially of monuments to his own glory. Finally, there is general agreement that he was most likely the Pharaoh who “presided” over the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.

By 1300 BC the empires of Egypt and the Hatti, better known as the Hittites, had been locked in a vast geopolitical struggle for more than two centuries. The young pharaoh Ramesses II - a man in his mid twenties and at the beginning of what would be seven decades of rule - decided to move early to consolidate his power following a long and fractious internal struggle. Simultaneously, the long-simmering rivalry with the Hittites exploded into open warfare as the network of local Canaananite kings sensed the opportunity to capitalize on the perceived weakeness of the new Pharoah. They believed they could benefit from the fragmentation of the old system that had maintained the fragile balance of power between the Hittites and Egyptians.

As Seti I approached death, the King of Kadesh, long an Egyptian ally, switched his allegiance to the Hittites forcing an Egyptian response. Deep in what is now modern Syria, Kadesh marked the mid boundary of the traditional buffer zone that had separated the two superpowers and now threatened to fracture. Seti's successor, the young Ramesses II had no choice. He mustered his forces and marched north.

Ramesses II in his Chariot at Kadesh (Abu Simbel)

The Egyptian Army

Egypt's army, organized into four combined arms field divisions - each named for a god and based in a separate city - and numbering some 20,000 men boasted 2,500 2-horse chariots, the lightest and most maneuverable combat vehicles of the time and each bearing a two-man crew comprising the cream of Egyptian manhood drawn from the highest born. The chariots were especially adaptable to a broad range of terrain and with their higly skilled archers wielding composite bows, were capable of delivering a devastating attack against infantry and other chariots at stand-off range.

For more than a month, the Pharaoh's army, the largest assembled since Pharoah Thutmose III conquered the Canaanites, marched along the coastal Sinai road, subduing the rebellious strongholds guarding the approaches to Kadesh. Facing the brash, overly confident and relatively untested Ramesses was the tough, battle-hardened and wily Hittite King Muwatalli II, a man skilled in diplomacy and statecraft, ably assisted by his younger brother Prince Hattasuli, Commander of the Chariot host, a combat veteran of many battles, fiercely loyal, and a skilled coalition commander.

The Hittite Army

King Muwatalli commanded a larger army of 37,500 men, and mustered 3,500 heavily armed, and superbly trained chariot crews as his foe. Enjoying advantages in horsemanship, and technology, each Hittite vehicle was larger and heavier, mounted its axle in mid cab, and was thus more more stable (though slower and less maneuverable), and able to absorb more punishment.

Each chariot was drawn by two specially bred, fed, and and trained teams of horses - the result of a legendary horse-breader, whose training manual was one of the grveat treasures of antiquity. In addition, each chariot carried a crew of three, including a driver, a shield bearer, as well as a spear-bearing warrior, also armed with a composite bow, who was able to fight dismounted, providing light infantry support if the chariot engaged in close combat.

Unlike the foot soldiers supporting the Egyptians, who ran alongside the chariots, the bulk of the Hittite light infantry arrived on the battlefield transported by chariot, and thus fresh and ready for action. This was a tremendous advantage. The Hittite forces also included large contingents of infantry and chariots from their many vassal states. Finally, the Hittites enjoyed a major morale advantage - they had never been defeated.

Old Kadesh
Battle Overview (Source: K.A. Kitchen, Pharaoh Triumphant)

Kadesh is the first military campaign in recorded history about which we have comprehensive contemporary documentation describing leadership, organization of forces, overall operations, field tactics, and weapons,and in the end we are left with two very different vesrions of the actual outcome. Indeed, more than three thousand years later, we still cannot give a simple answer to the question, "Who won?". The implication of that simple truth is a lesson worth pondering when wars rage all over the globe and the outcomes remain as confusing as they were after Kadesh.

Phase One - With Egyptian forces widely dispersed, 2 "beduins" are "suddenly" captured and report the main enemy force is far to the North. Ramesses naively accepts the report and prepares his camp.
Ramesses II leads his personal bodyguard & Amun Division.
Phase Two - Suddenly, with no warning 2,500 Hittite chariots strike the Re Division on the eastern flank isolating it from the Amum division now setting up the Egyptian base camp to the north.
The Hittites Attack (Brian Palmer).
Phase Three - After destroying the Re Division the Hittites strike the Egyptian camp from the west, scattering the Amun Division
Ramesses and Menes fight for their lives (David Pentland).
Phase Four - With his Amun and Re Divisions shattered, and seemingly on the verge of disaster, Ramesses and his shield-bearer Menes lead a few survivors in a ferocious counterattack
Phase Five - As the Hittites pause to loot the Egyptian camp, the Ne'Arim reinforcements arrive from Amurru and rout the Hittites who flee back across the Orontes as the rest of the Egyptian forces reach the battlefield.

Note on dates, names, and other military details. Three dates are usually given for the battle, depending on the various techniques employed by scholars in dating the rulers of the Egyptian XIXth Dynasty: 1300 BC, 1285/4 BC, and 1275/1274 BC. There is universal agreement, however, that the clash took place in the fifth year of Ramesses II’s rule, during the 5th month, or late April, early May.

There is also considerable variation in the spelling of the names of Egyptian and Hittite rulers, geographical locations. Kadesh is typically used in English-based scholarship, although Qadesh is also used, especially by scholars working in French. Considerable variation also exists with respect to the designation, size and composition of military units, especially Egyptian formations. Many other details remain the subject of active discussion even more than a century after the initial discoveries of the Egyptians sources of descriptions of the battle were published by the pioneering University of Chicago Egyptologist James Henry Breasted in 1903.

I have adopted the dates and usage found in Antonio Santosuosso’s Mondavo Award-winning essay, “Kadesh Revised: Reconstructing the Battle Between the Egyptians and the Hittites”, Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 3 (July 1996), pp. 423-444 (available on the world-wide-web via JSTOR). Santasuosso, one of the few scholars to approach the battle as a military historian, reviews the details of the battle and presents the best summary in English of the generally accepted outline of what happened, as well as persuasive arguments about those details that remain in dispute.

The Sources

Note on Sources.The most important Egyptian contemporary archeological and literary evidence for reconstruction of the battle consists of two literary texts and a series of reliefs with captions. The Hittite sources include two cuneiform texts - the famous Peace Treaty and a historical account - both written in the reign of a later king. Some scholars claim that the so-called "Letter of the General" written by a contemporary subordinate of the city of Ugarit to an unknown king is also a source for the battle.

The sources include:

• The “Poem” - Two papyri versions survive, the P. Sallier III (British Museum), including the single page P. Raifé (Louvre) and the P. Chester Beatty III (British Museum). Eight hieratic "copies" of the Poem have been identified, all based on sculpted hieroglyphics on Temple walls.

• The “Report" or "Bulletin”, also called the "Official Report or Bulletin" based on seven hieroglyphic copies which have been identified on Temple Walls.

• Carved "Reliefs" and captions inscribed at the Temple of Amun at Thebes (Karnak complex), at the Abu Simbel Temple, and carvings and wall paintings at the "Ramesseum" also at Thebes (Luxor).

Egyptian chariot, 14th Century BC

The Poem

Papyrus Sallier III + P. Raifé Version of the Poem. During the reign of Merneptah, Ramses II’s successor, a treasury scribe in the north named Pen-ta-wer-it, copied the entire poem of the Battle of Kadesh for himself, or perhaps for his superior. He clearly was interested in it for its own sake as he also copied other papyri with the same theme, i.e., military events ­in which the king defends himself against his enemies. The emphasis appears to be on the king’s heroic deeds when faced with disaster. Pen-ta-wer-it changed the names of the deities referred to in some of the papyri (e.g., Amun-Re) to the northern gods, even though he says he copied the poem without making changes. At the end of the papyrus, Pen-ta-wer-it signed the document as copyist also including the name of his superior.

Most of the pages of the text are in the collection of the British Museum, London (ESA 10181). One page, the P. Raifé, is in the Louvre and another page is believed lost. The papyrus was placed in a tomb - Pen-ta-wer-it’s or his superior’s, perhaps as a gift - as part of the grave goods, copies being put into a library or other repository such as the House of Life.

Papyrus Sallier III was probably acquired in the early 19th century AD about the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. A man named Anastasi came to Egypt to sell food and provisions to the French army. He became a friend of the Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali, and found that he could make money in other ways once the army was no longer a source of income; i.e., selling Egyptian antiquities to Europeans. He sent agents to Memphis/Saqqara and Upper Egypt to collect such materials, including large numbers of papyri, which he collected in Alexandria. One batch was sold to a Frenchman named Sallier between 1820 and 1823, which were known to have come from tombs at Saqqara, and were taken to France. Jean Francois Champollion saw and translated them in about 1828. The British Museum bought the Anastasi collection for a large sum, and when Sallier died, his family sold his collections to the museum as well. In 1842 the British Museum published all of the Sallier and Anastasi papyri as a group.

The Chester Beatty III version of the Poem. The papyrus had several owners before it was deposited in the cemetery at Deir el-Medina. It is uncertain who the original owner was, but it passed into the hands of the scribe Qeniherkhepshef; on the other side of the papyrus, the scribe copied a poem about the Battle of Kadesh, which took place in the Fifth Year of the reign of Ramesses II (@1300 BC). Called the Dream Book, it passed to Khaemamen, Qeniherkhepshef's wife's second husband, and then to his son Amennakht (both added their name to the papyrus). The Dream Book was part of an archive, including a wide variety of literary, magical and documentary material, which passed down through the family for more than a century.

The Bulletin

The Reliefs

The Inscriptions and Captions at the Temple of Amun, Thebes (Luxor)

The Inscriptions at Abu Simbel

North Wall, Great Hall, Ramesses II in his Chariot
North Wall, Great Hall, Chariots Battling
Ramesses and his Shield-Bearer Menes charge the Hittites

Wall Decorations at the Ramesseum

Inner Wall of the Hypo Style Hall
Second Pylon, West Side of the North Jamb

History's Earliest Recorded Peace Treaty

The Battle in Popular Culture


Contemporary Images

Recreation of The Battle of Kadesh (University of Quebec)