The Battle of Kadesh, also known as the Battle of Qadesh, took place near the present Lebanon-Syria border and was a battle between the armies of the New Kingdom of Egypt under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II.
The city of Kadesh was a city in Syria that was an important commercial center in the ancient Middle Eastern world.
The Battle of Kadesh is the most well-documented military conflict in ancient Middle Eastern history, with both sides claiming a decisive win. For generations, the description of a great Egyptian battle at Kadesh recounted by Ramesses II has been recorded in the Poem of Pentaur.
The Poem was accepted for many years as a recounting of factual events. Ramesses II, or Ramses, was so proud of this victory that he had the poem detail his heroism against overwhelming odds during the battle enshrined in temples at Abydos, Luxor, Karnak, Abu Simbel, and his own Ramesseum or mortuary temple. Most historians now view these texts as exaggerated rather than an accurate account of actual events, determining that the Battle of Kadesh ended in a draw.
Early academics followed archaeologist and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted’s interpretation of the Poem. Breasted wrote extensively in his 1903 analysis of the Poem of Pentaur that the events described were literal, historical reality, therefore confirming Ramesses II’s narrative of the Battle of Kadesh.
Egyptian claims regarding the validity of the Poem were not contested until a clay replica of the Hittite version of the war was discovered in the city of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire, during the late Bronze Age.
What Led to the Battle of Kadesh?
The Battle of Kadesh and subsequent battles among Hittite and Egyptian forces eventually led to the world’s first peace treaty in 1258 BCE. The battle of Kadesh peace treaty between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittites was an agreement that each regent was to respect each other’s borders and not wage war against their neighboring King.
This treaty was significant for several reasons: it allowed for free communication, commerce, and trade between the two countries, which benefited both countries considerably more than their years of aggressive conflict.
The ancient Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom became increasingly interested in recovering control of Egyptian territories in Syria after ousting the Hyksos and the 15th Dynasty around 1550 BC. The early wars of Ramesses II into Canaan, near present-day Palestine, culminated in the Battle of Kadesh.
By gradually marching his way through, Ramesses destroyed Syria. The Pharaoh launched his first campaign into the region during the fourth year of his reign. His first expedition and subsequent ones to follow are inscribed in the commemorative stelae, or slated stone, at Nahr el-Kalb, close to what is now the city of Beirut in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Mutawalli II’s of Hittite engaged in the conflict to regain territory in the Amurru kingdom in present-day northern Lebanon and north-western Syria. Ramesses commanded an army comprised of four divisions: Amun, Re, Seth, and established the fourth Ptah to concur with these territories.
These troops established by Ramesses II were called the Nearin in Amurru and were given the orders to protect the harbor of Sumur in present-day Syria. This division of the military during these battles is crucial to the battle’s outcome. Additionally, the presence of Sherden warriors within the Egyptian army was substantial during these battles.
The Sherden were conquered by the Egyptians during their attempt to conquer Egypt and were considered skilled warriors. This is the first appearance of the Sherden as Egyptian mercenaries, and they would play a growing part in Late Bronze Age history, eventually emerging among the Sea Peoples, arrow-wielding warriors that traveled by water to the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age.
The Battle of Kadesh
Kadesh is the first battle to be uncovered, containing a complete description of the events that transpired during the fighting.
As part of this conflict, which took place in 1275 BC, soldiers loyal to Ramesses II and those loyal to the Hittite Empire came together outside the city of Kadesh.
During this fight, Ramesses and his soldiers were on the verge of being captured and annihilated by a well-planned ruse by the Hittite. However, the fortune that day was on the Pharaoh’s side, and according to the story told in the Epic Poem, he came out victorious in battle. Ultimately, this fight would signal the end of Ramesses’ war in the region, resulting in the signing of the world’s first peace treaty between two countries.
As previously noted, the Battle of Kadesh was thoroughly chronicled, at least according to the Egyptians. Ramesses had several descriptions of the fight engraved in various sites across the city. The accounts of the battle took up whole walls, pillars, and the inside of various buildings. Each depiction is meticulously drawn, and each depicts the same story of Ramesses’ grandeur and military skill during the battle.
Several translations of The Poem of Pentaur published in the early 19th century provide an idea of how the Egyptian military was coordinated and during the period before the battle. The Poem details the military’s departure and the campaign that led up to the fight. The Hittites are eventually introduced to us when Ramesses finally arrives in the city. As soon as his majesty arrived in the city, he discovered the chief of another rivaling nation was present to aid the Hittite.
According to the Poem, the rival chief gathered armies of many countries from the ends of the earth to witness the battle. This initial descriptive passage indicated that the Hittites had a superior army, more allies, and many soldiers were donned with impressive chariots on the battlefield.
After the first chapter of the Poem, the reader gets the impression that the Hittites are devoting their entire military to this war. This translation also provides us with the names of Ramesses’ four divisions and tells us about the downfall of the first division’s ambush and subsequent withdrawal to Ramesses’ position on the battlefield.
The Poem continues by providing a description of the fight itself and how Ramesses beat the Hittites on his own. The Poem reveals a plethora of things that provide insight into what life was like during the period and what a battle of that scale looked like in ancient times.
Battle locations, the composition of the opposing army’s militia, and the names of units were involved. These details also provide details about what truly transpired at the beginning of the fight. Later translations revealed additional insights into the validity of the Poem.
Another 19th-century translation recalls an ambush northwest of Kadesh; the narrative provides us with a comprehensive description of Ramesses’ reaction to being ambushed.
“Then Ramesses sprang up like his father, Montu in strength, with all his weapons in hand and his armor on, just as Baal had done, ready to fight.”
It also highlights the reality that, at this point in the fight, Ramesses was surrounded by the stronger Hittite forces: “Then he glanced behind him and saw that the adversary was all about him, with 2000 and 500 of their chariots of war.”
Although the numbers of those surrounding Ramesses in this section are overstated, and he was most certainly not alone, as some sources suggest, it demonstrates that the Egyptian command was cut off from much of their force.
The Poem continues by detailing Ramesses’ plea to Amun, the Egyptian god of the air, for assistance. Amun heard Ramesses’ call according to the Poem, and the god answered him with his strength. Ramesses’ courage is brought forth through his pleas to Amun, and the brutality of the fight is described in graphic detail.
Ramesses proved himself to be a capable leader through the forces he brought along with him on the campaign trail and through the grand display of his infantry and chariots. Through various translations of the Poem, the Hittites were nowhere near Kadesh.
As a result, he divided his forces to attack the city from several directions and secure the surrounding territories. As Ramesses marches away from his main army and sets camp with only his bodyguard, he is described in the Poem as confident, touching on the overconfident leader.
While Ramesses was resting, the Hittites amassed an army on the battlefield that rivaled the Egyptians. The Poem may or may not be accurate in terms of the descriptions given about the numbers supplied by each militia. In the aftermath of the armies assembling on the battlefield, the ambush on Ramesses’ first militia division allows the Hittites to find an open to Ramesses’ location.
It is also at this point when the call for Amon comes into play. Ramesses himself became encircled by his enemies near his camp and would have been within reach of where the army could reinforce the King. They would also have been close enough to not only observe the peril that the Pharaoh was in, but they should also have been close enough to hear the call to arms as the Hittite troops descended upon his camp and surrounded him.
The arrival of the god Amun to Ramesses’ call for help shifts the battle in the Egyptian ruler’s favor. Present-day historians consider the translations as being directed towards Ramesses’ army, as opposed to a deity, and interpret Ramesses’ call for help as a rallying cry that made his troops rally and stronger from Ramesses’ call to Amun for assistance.
This rallying cry and moment of inspiration on the battlefield allowed Ramesses to utilize the troops he had near him while he waited for other army divisions to join him.
The Hittites were supplied on the battlefield with massive chariots, compared to their Egyptian counterparts; the chariots used by the Hittites were able to hold three people and were three- likely to be heavier and less agile than those used by the Egyptians.
However, because of the weight and scale of their chariot’s, Ramesses would have had the ability to outmaneuver his adversary, which is critical to winning a fight in the first place. The poem details that the second day of the battle brought intense combat and concluded with the King of the Hittites calling for a peace treaty to end the bloodshed.
Regardless of whether the numbers of each militia were even close, this war would have been a tremendous endeavor, with vast armies clashing in the process. If the fatality lists are true, or even close to what was reported and indicated in the Poem, then the Hittites suffered a significant setback.
Who Won the Battle of Kadesh?
Archeological evidence and other historical writings that cover the battle of Kadesh from different perspectives reveal that the Egyptian retelling of historical events is dramatized. Several examples of various researchers carry out the precise task of piecing together the actual events of what occurred on the battlefield.
Archaeologists and historians of the present day have concluded that the Egyptians did not win the Battle of Kadesh. They made every effort to succeed or survive in the face of overwhelming odds, and it appears that the bulk of Egyptian soldiers survived the conflict. Although the fight resulted in a formal agreement between the two empires, the battle was complicated by various additional considerations.
The Egyptian wars did not conclude with the Battle of Kadesh, they did not defeat the opposing army, and they did not slay the Hittite King, according to what appears to have happened according to the epic Poem.
What can be inferred as accurately based on the Poem’s retelling of the story is that the Battle of Kadesh did bring success to the Egyptians. The first success of the battle was that the Egyptian army returned intact, with their King alive even though they were up against far bigger forces with more advanced weaponry.
Another success of the battle was the Egyptians’ ability to reassert control over the territory in question. Was this a significant fight for Ramesses? Without a doubt, it was, as evidenced by the large number of inscriptions and carvings that he devoted to chronicling and preserving the memory of the conflict.
The huge amount of temple art and documents projected into Egyptians’ cultural and historical memory are considerably more represented than any other successful missions into the region. In terms of quantity and quality, the battle was likely projected as a victory on purpose. This act prevented damage to his reputation as a victorious deity by the treaty conditions between the two countries following the war.
It was hardly a resounding win, to put it mildly. The sheer fact that the Hittites continue to exist after this war demonstrates that the victory cannot be counted as a complete conquest. Following the Battle of Kadesh and the peace treaty, Ramesses makes no more additional moves to advance the city, demonstrating that the fighting was so ferocious that both sides decided to call for peace after the conflict.
Who do you think won the Battle of Kadesh? Based on historical interpretations and the evidence of the world’s first peace treaty between the ancient Egyptians and the Hittite peoples, it appears the Battle of Kadesh was a draw. Through the projections of the battle in ancient Egyptian art and culture, Ramesses desired to have the memory of his role in the battle highlighted. Want the highlights of important moments from the Battle of Kadesh? Read our 5 Interesting Facts About the Battle of Kadesh below for the major historical moments during the battle.
We’ve covered the Battle of Kadesh’s history and representation in ancient Egyptian literature. Let’s review five of the most important facts about the history of the Battle of Kadesh:
- According to some estimates, the fight involved between 5,000 and 6,000 chariots, making it the biggest such combat in history.
- The Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty is the earliest known surviving peace treaty.
- Because the Hittites were proficient in metallurgy, they were able to teach the Egyptians how to create better weapons and tools. At the same time, the Egyptians were able to teach the Hittites their unique technique in agriculture.
- King Ramses II’s army was made up of 20,000 soldiers, and 2,000 chariots to face off against the army of the Hittites, led by their King Muwatalli II, made up of 40,000 soldiers and 3,000 chariots designed to be heavier than the traditional Egyptian chariot.
- Originally intended to be one of the venues for his Kadesh narrative of texts and war scenes, the Pharaoh altered the Karnak Hypostyle Hall in Egypt before it was completed. Additionally, scenes from his later wars in Syria and Palestine were carved on top of the incomplete Kadesh scenes.
Now you know that the peace treaty signed at the end of the Battle of Kadesh is an indication that the battle ended in a draw. Understanding how Ramesses recorded his role in the battle in Egyptian history as the victor, how would you describe the ancient Egyptians role in the Battle of Kadesh?