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The Battle of Kadesh - Two Empires Collide

The date of the battle of Kadesh is uncertain - 1300 or 1299 B.C. according to some, 1286, 1285 or 1275 B.C., according to others. A Hittite army caught an Egyptian division by surprise and came close to capturing the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. The Egyptian army somehow rallied, turning what looked like a disastrous defeat into something of a draw.  Kadesh did not mean the fall of Egypt's 19th Dynasty, but it did put an end to dreams of expansion. On the Hittite side, the battle inspired, not confidence, but a certain timidity, when it came to hostilities with Egypt. While avoiding war, both sides were slow to make peace.  After 16 years they would finally conclude a formal treaty, the terms of which the Egyptians inscribed on the walls of the temple at Karnak.

If Kadesh elevated the status of the Hittite Empire to that of a major military power in the region, it also represented something of a last hurrah for both the Hittites and Egyptians.  Hatussa, the Hittite capital, would be conquered and destroyed around 1200 or 1190 B.C., by an unknown invader, possibly the same Sea Peoples who would invade Egypt. The Egyptians, under Ramses III, would beat back one invading force in 1191 and ultimately destroy them.  However, the struggles with the Sea Peoples would leave Egypt exhausted.

Kadesh and the Boundaries of Empire

Kadesh (now Tell Nebi Mend, southwest of Homs) is located about 90 miles north of the Syrian city of Damascus. The decision to fight there was related to its location as the de facto boundary between the Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms.

Egypt had a long-standing association with the region known as Syria-Palestine.  Since it was geographically a next-door neighbor, it would be a logical choice for trade.  Egypt had, in fact, been importing timber from Syria during the 1st and 2nd Dynasties of the Archaic Period (c 3000 - 2780 B.C.).  Egypt found the Sinai Peninsula, with its copper deposits, another reason to expand to the east.  During the period of the Old Kingdom (2575 B.C. - 2134 B.C.), Egypt was involved with trade throughout Asia, even conducting military campaigns there in the 6th Dynasty.  Memphis, the old administrative capital founded around 2900 B.C., located some 20 miles from Cairo, would develop into a major trading center, sending ships to trade along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and Greece.  During the period of the Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty) from 1991 to 1778 B.C., Egypt dominated Syria-Palestine.

Sometime after 1730 B.C. a group of Asiatic Semites, known as the Hyksos, or "rulers of foreign countries," in Egyptian, began migrating into Egypt.  They eventually became strong enough to oust the kings.  Establishing a capital at Avaris in the eastern delta, by c. 1674 B.C. they controlled all of Egypt and Nubia.  During their rule, they introduced the horse and chariot, the composite bow, and the vertical loom.  They faced a revolt by the princes of Thebes during the 17th Dynasty (1573 B.C.).  The founder of the 18th Dynasty, Ahmose I, would finally succeed in expelling them from Egypt. 

Eliminating the "foreign" threat at home provided only a limited sense of security.  Far to the east of Syria, in Upper Mesopotamia, a peoples called the Hurrians had established a kingdom called Mitanni. The Hurrians are believed to have originated around Lake Van or Lake Urmia in Armenia, but they may been considered by the Egyptians as part of the Hyksos peoples recently driven out of Egypt or, if not, at least related to them.  (Like the Hyksos of Egypt they made extensive use of the horse and chariot.)  Whatever their relation, by 1500 B.C., Hurrian military success had not only alarmed Egypt, but had also seriously reduced Hittite domains.  Mitanni had extended its influence to eastern Anatolia, forced the Hittites out of Syria and Palestine, and controlled Assyria.

The Egyptians launched a number of campaigns against Mitanni, beginning in the reign of Thutmose I (c. 1526 - 1508 B.C.) during the 18th Dynasty.  The campaigns of Thutmose I and his son, Thutmose II (c. 1508 -1490 B.C.), appear to have achieved little.  Thutmose III (c. 1490 - 1436 B.C.) seemed destined to repeat the lackluster results of his father and grandfather, since his first five expeditions failed. (He would conduct seventeen annual campaigns in all.)  It was on the sixth campaign that Thutmose III achieved something significant. He managed to capture Kadesh, the site of the future battle with the Hittites.  The next year he would sail up the Euphrates to reach the kingdom of Mitanni itself.

By the end of the seventeenth campaign Egypt had largely eliminated the threat posed by the Hurrians.  But in solving one problem, the Egyptians had created new ones.  The Kingdom of Mitanni had served as a check on Hittite ambitions and Egyptian military success allowed the Hittites to recover.  Egypt soon found it necessary to reverse course and ally itself with Mitanni against a new Hittite threat. Thutmose IV (c. 1411 - 1397) married a Mitannian princess.

The Hittite king Suppiluliumas (Suppiluliuma) (c.1386 B.C.  (or 1380) - 1335 B.C.), spent the first few years of his reign reestablishing and consolidating control of the kingdom.  He would not challenge Mittani until 1374, when he launched a disastrous invasion of Syria.  Six years later, in 1368, he conquered the Kingdom of Nuhasse, in northern Syria. The practical result was to cut Mitanni off from its ally Egypt.  In 1366 B.C., he took his army across the Euphrates and conquered Isuwa, to the north of Mitanni. Turning south his army approached Wassukani, the Mitanni capital, causing the king Tushratta to flee.  Suppiluliumas turned around and headed west into Syria.  The campaign would culminate with the capture of Kadesh.  Suppiluliumas would leave the city of Carchemish alone, but thirteen years later he would take it after a seven-day siege.

Calculating the odds...

When Ramses II ascended the throne he was probably only twenty or twenty-five.  The battle of Kadesh occurred in the fifth year of his reign.  It might be easy to write off the battle to the impetuosity of youth.  Ramses would clearly have welcomed any opportunity to prove himself by defeating a powerful enemy.  However,  there were other considerations which were probably factored into the equation, even by a youthful pharaoh.  Near the top of such a list would be the strength of the Hittite Empire.  Two, seemingly contradictory scenarios would argue for war.  If the Hittites were weak, the chances of victory in a conflict were in Egypt's favor.  If the Hittites were already in a strong position, as indicated by the conquest of Mitanni, it was better to launch a preemptive attack, in hopes of preventing them from growing stronger.

Ramses had reasons to believe that the Hittite Empire was in a weakened position.  Disease had played a part.  Suppiluliumas' death in 1346 (or1335) had been caused by plague, probably transmitted by Egyptian or Syrian prisoners of war.  His son and successor, Arnuwanda, also died from the plague.  It would take twenty years to run its course, and, if it did not totally decimate the population, losses were substantial.  There were also indications of dissension in Hittite governmental circles.  King Muwatilli, who ruled in the south, twice instituted legal proceedings, possibly for conspiracy, against his brother Hattusili, who served as viceroy in the north.  The strongest evidence may have been the defection Prince Bentesina of Amarru to the Egyptians, (even if the defection was likely the result of Egyptian bribes). Amarru, a Syrian kingdom on the Mediterranean coast, had served the Hittites as a buffer state.  Officially Ramses was dispatching an army in response to Amarru's appeal for help.  Unofficially, he was hoping to emulate Thutmose III's successful campaign against Mitanni by conquering all of Syria.

Some indication of just how serious the political divisions within the Hittite kingdom had become, can be found in the actions of Hattusili, the brother of Muwatilli.  Following the battle of Kadesh, he gave refuge to Bentesina, the prince of Amurru, who had defected to the Egyptians before the battle.  It was said he did this just to spite his brother.  In addition, he married one of his sons to Bentesina's daughter.

Opposing Forces...

The Egyptian and Hittite armies facing each other at Kadesh were about equal in size, 20,000 each.  If the records are correct, the Hittites had managed to equip their forces with an extremely large number of chariots, 3,500, manned by 10,500 charioteers, somewhat more than half the force.  Of the 20,000 in the Hittite army, 8,000 were foreign auxiliaries, including some from Mitanni, the state which had been conquered just half a century before. The Egyptian force consisted of four divisions, the Amon, Re, Ptah, and Sutekh, of 5,000 infantry, each with a contingent of 500 chariots.

Both the Hittites and Egyptians had incorporated the spoked wheel into their chariot design, which meant that both sides had fairly light and maneuverable vehicles.  (Early design had used solid wooden disks, which limited speed.)  Tactics were somewhat different.  The Hittites viewed the chariot as part troop transport, part fighting platform.  In addition to a driver, they carried two "infantrymen," who could immediately take advantage of the disruption caused by the chariot charge.  If the Hittites had 3,500 chariots, they would have been able to attack with 7,000 men. The Egyptian chariots, in contrast, carried just one fighter plus a driver.  While they would have delivered fewer fighters to the front, they would have had a weight and speed advantage.  The tactical theory may have been to use them more as launching platforms for archers, as a means of harassing infantry, or, as a defensive force capable of disrupting an opposing chariot charge.

The Egyptian army was led by Ramses II.  He was not lacking in confidence, although just five years into his reign, he was inexperienced when it came to military matters. The army he commanded was seasoned and tough.  The Egyptian military tradition included the successful expulsion of the Hyksos in the 17th and 18th Dynasties. It also included the Syrian campaigns of Thutmose III some 150 years before, and Ramses may have been especially mindful of the capture of Kadesh.

The name of the king commanding the Hittite forces was Muwatalli (ca. 1315 - 1282 B.C.).  He had been on the throne for 30 years at the time of the battle, and would survive the encounter by only three years.  He may have been corpulent and good-natured, but he clearly was energetic.  The Hittite army he commanded was more diverse than that of the Egyptians. Arzawa and Mitanni, vassal states, contributed troops, as well as states in Syria.  The Hittite military had conquered the Mitanni kingdom about 80 years before Kadesh and had conquered Kadesh itself in 1366.  Further back in time, Marsilis I, had marched an army 500 miles down the Euphrates to capture and sack the city of Babylon in 1595 B.C..  Their legendary use of the chariot was matched by their reputation for successful siege operations, including the construction of battering rams.

The course of battle...

Amurru was a coastal kingdom located between the Mediterranean and the Orontes River, just west of Kadesh. In such close proximity to Amurru, Kadesh was the logical first step of a campaign to regain Syria-Palestine. Amurru's defection to the Egyptians offered their army a territorial buffer protecting their flank, while Kadesh would provide a base from which to launch further attacks.

From the start, Ramses' campaign suffered from a shortage of basic intelligence about either the land he was invading or the whereabouts of the Hittite forces.  It is somewhat surprising that the prince of Amurru, having defected to Egypt, could provide little local information about the Hittites.  Rather than exercising caution, Ramses displayed a certain impatience with the early stages of the campaign.  Perhaps expecting a short siege at Kadesh, Ramses decided to take part of the army with him and set up a camp outside the city.  He was reassured when two Hittite deserters told him that Muwatalli and the Hittite army were about 100 miles away, at Aleppo.

Preparations for a siege had left Ramses' army unprepared for a battle. The Hittite deserters, it turns out, were not deserters at all, and the armies of Muwatalli were not 100 miles away, but very close.  Ramses had only the 5,000 men of the Amon division with him when he set up camp on the north side of Kadesh.  In the event of trouble, the Re division, moving north to join him, was the closest help.  The Ptah and Sutech divisions were further south.

Muwatalli, who had been camped north of Kadesh, probably split his army.  One contingent of chariots crossed the Orontes, turned south and then re-crossed the river, where it was in a position to attack the Re division.  Even worse for the division, the Hittites had not been detected.  When the attack came it was hit in the flank.  How many casualties it suffered is unknown, but the survivors were scattered.  The Hittite army swung around and returned north, intent on attacking the Egyptian encampment.  Ramses was unaware that the Re division had been attacked, and that Muwatalli had managed to conceal the remaining part of his army among a clump of trees.  (Such a large force with horses would have been difficult to hide, so it may be that he ordered it away from the camp, then moved it back into position at the time of the attack.)  Ramses only became aware of its presence after one of his patrols captured some Hittite scouts.  Following a beating, they admitted that the Hittite armies were nearby.  This information was so late in coming that, by the time Ramses fully comprehended the danger, the Hittites were moving into position.  Belatedly he ordered the army to prepare for an attack, while sending a messenger off to the Ptah division for help.

The Hittite chariot attack against the Amon division came close to repeating the success against the Re division.  (With the Egyptians bottled up in the camp, the division would have been wiped out, rather than just scattered.)  The Egyptians had only managed to put up a barricade of shields, which the initial chariot charge managed to break through.   Ramses, in hieroglyphic accounts, would emphasize his personal bravery in throwing back the Hittite forces. Despite Egyptian counterattacks, the Hittites made steady gains, until they decided to dismount and plunder the camp.   The arriving relief force, (described as "recruits from the land of Amurru," by Egyptian scribes, but possibly the Ptah division), now surprised the Hittites.  Whether they were driven back into Kadesh by the Egyptians, or chose to disengage, is not clear.  The fighting continued the next day, however neither side made significant gains.

The aftermath...

The Egyptian account of the battle ended with Ramses pursuing the Hittite forces to the gates of Kadesh.  The hieroglyphs suggest that Muwatalli, following his initial success, lost his nerve and refused to commit his reserve forces. He surrounded himself with an infantry force, content to watch while the Egytians slaughtered his army.  The fact that he did commit his chariot reserves, amounting to 1,000 chariots, suggests a possible alternative - he may not have been able to get his infantry across the Brook El-Mukadiyeh river.

Ramses, in the official records, claimed victory.  He pointed to his personal acts of bravery during the fighting and to the lack of follow-through on the part of his opponent. In some ways he had a point.  Muwatalli, with a brilliantly executed battle plan, had come close to victory, only to have the plan unravel at the last moment.  Victory, Ramses seemed to suggest, was to be measured by the total annihilation of the enemy.  Since the pharaoh and his army had escaped destruction and even given chase to the retreating Hittites in the final stages of the battle, he was the victor.  Kadesh may have been a victory, but the Syrian campaign was a failure.  Muwatalli still controlled Kadesh, the Hittite military remained a potent threat, and Ramses' army was in no condition to carry out a prolonged campaign that season.   It returned to Egypt.

Egyptian accounts say little about the casualties suffered by the Egyptian army in the battle or  the condition it was in when it returned. Did the Re division recover from the attack or had it been wiped out?  Perhaps the Hittites allowed it a dignified withdrawal, or possibly they harassed it until it had safely reached Egypt's borders.  Despite his battlefield heroics, Ramses chose to abandon Amurru, the defecting state which had served as the catalyst for the conflict.  The Hittites reclaimed it and installed a new prince.  Syrian states which might have been contemplating rebellion, remained part of the Hittite Empire.

Chastened by Kadesh, Ramses chose not to test the Hittite Empire in the year following the battle, nor in the year after that.  The Hittites, in turn, left Egypt alone.  So long as Egypt did not interfere inside the established boundaries of her kingdom, the Hittites were not inclined to expand their boundaries with Egyptian territory.  Sixteen years after the battle, both sides signed a treaty.  Ramses was still pharaoh in Egypt, but Hattusili III had become king on the death of Muwatalli.  The sudden desire for peace reflected, not so much a settlement of a boundary dispute, but rather a need to unite against a common enemy.  At the time Assyria was the power which threatened them both.  The Egyptians may also have recognized that the newly arriving Sea Peoples posed a more immediate threat than the Hittite Empire.

Suggestions for further reading.

S. G. F. Brandon, ed., "Milestones of History: Ancient Empires," Newsweek Books, (New York, NY 1973)

Roberta Conlan, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Anatolia: Cauldron of Culture. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1995)

Glenn D. Considine, ed., "Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, Ninth Edition." Wiley-Interscience, (New York, NY 2002)

Thomas H. Flaherty, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs. " Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1992)

Janet Serlin Garber, ed. "The Concise Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations," Franklin Watts, (New York, NY 1978)

Jim Hicks, "The Emergence of Man: The Empire Builders." Time, Inc., (New York, NY 1974)

Richard Holmes, ed. "The Oxford Companion to Military History." Oxford University Press, (Oxford, UK 2001)

George P. Hunt, Managing ed., "The Epic of Man. " Time, Incorporated, (New York, NY 1961)

Johannes Lehmann, "The Hittites: People of a Thousand Gods." The Viking Press, (New York, NY 1977)

"Reader's Digest History of Man: The Last Two Million Years." The Reader's Digest Association, (New York, NY 1974)

"The World Book Encyclopedia, 2003 Edition." World Book, Inc, (Chicago, IL 2003)