Thirty-three hundred years ago, below the sun-drenched walls of Kadesh, the Egyptian and Hittite empires fought for control of the land now known as Syria in the first battle about which modern man has detailed contemporary accounts.
For the first 100 generations of its recorded history, the kingdom of Egypt had been very nonmilitant. Except for the occasional civil war and skirmishing for control of Nubia, Egypt experienced little military action. At one point during the Middle Kingdom, the king felt so secure that he sent his personal bodyguard to Nubia on semipermanent garrison duty.
Egypt had no need for a strong military because the deserts to the east and west, and the Mediterranean to the north, protected her from invasion. To the south, the Egyptians ruled Nubia as a conquered province. The Egyptians believed they already possessed the richest lands in the known world, so they had no desire for conquest.
That era of peace and tranquility ended with what historians call the ‘Second Intermediate Period.’ By 1700 bc the Hyksos (‘Rulers from Foreign Lands’) had conquered Lower Egypt and extended their influence up the Nile from their capital at Avaris in the eastern delta. A vassal prince ruled Nubia, while the kings of Upper Egypt at Thebes paid tribute to the Hyksos.
The rise of Egyptian militarism coincided with the advent of the New Kingdom. Around 1650 bc, Queen Kamose defeated the Hyksos, driving them down the Nile toward the delta. Her grandson Ahmose completed the task of driving the Hyksos from Egypt when he took Avaris in 1590 bc, then pursued them to Sharuhen, in Palestine, which he besieged and destroyed.
The war against the Hyksos whetted the Egyptian appetite for battle. Around 1500 bc, Thutmose I marched as far north as Syria. Later, after winning a resounding victory at the Battle of Megiddo in 1483, Thutmose III established the Egyptian empire with a border in southern Syria.
Thutmose III was ancient Egypt’s greatest military leader. His immediate successors, though less brilliant, were capable enough to maintain the borders of the empire. During the reigns of the succeeding kings, Egypt’s enemies either seized lands adjacent to those borders or weakened the bonds between the Egyptian king and his vassal rulers. Egypt’s reigning monarch was identified by his palace, the High House, or Peron, which evolved into the modern term ‘pharaoh.’
Historians tout the reign of Akhenaten (1372-1354 bc) for the advances made in the concept of monotheism. For the Egyptian empire, however, his reign was a disaster. At the same time that Akhenaten was concentrating on religious reform — and virtually ignoring international affairs — a threat to Egypt’s empire arose from the Anatolian plateau of modern Turkey.
About 1740 bc Tudhaliyas I had re-established the city of Hattusas (near modern Boghazköy, Turkey). Despite the fact that King Anittas of Kussara had destroyed the town about 1900 bc and had placed a curse on the site, the Hittite kings traced their ancestry back to him.
Less than 100 years later, King Labarnas united neighboring city-states to form the Hittite empire. At first the king was answerable to a council of nobles, the Pankus, but civil war later led to the concentration of power in the king’s hands.
Early in the 14th century bc, Suppiluliumas I (1375-1355 bc) created a new Hittite empire by defeating Kaska and Arxawa and eventually absorbing the Mitanni, an Asiatic people of whom little is known, save that they had constituted the backbone of resistance to Egyptians during the reigns of Thutmose I and III. As the Mitanni fought the Egyptians to the south, the Hittites advanced against the Mitanni from the north. The Mitanni threw back the initial Hittite advance, but increasing pressure from the north eventually pushed the Mitanni into an alliance with the Egyptians. A daughter of the Mitanni king even became one of Thutmose III’s wives.
The Egyptian-Mitanni alliance maintained the balance of power in Asia Minor for 30 years, but all that changed during the reign of Akhenaten. The assassination of Mitanni King Tushratta resulted in civil war among aspirants to his throne. Hittite King Suppiluliumas quickly took advantage of the situation when the Mitanni crown prince, Mattiwaza, fled to the Hittites for protection. Suppiluliumas married his daughter to Mattiwaza, then forced the remainder of the Mitanni kingdom to accept him as king. That change put the Mitanni into the Hittite sphere of influence and tilted the balance of power.
With Hittite influence in the area growing, other vassal states of Egypt revolted, forcing the second king of the 19th Dynasty, Seti I, to make a foray into Syria to try to re-establish Egyptian influence. His success was only temporary. As soon as Seti I returned to Egypt, the Hittite king, Mursilis II, marched south to take the town of Kadesh on the Orontes River. Once taken, Kadesh became the strongpoint of the Hittite defenses in Syria, although the Hittites ruled through a viceroy in Carchemish.
In spite of their aggressive activities in expanding their political influence in Asia Minor, the Hittite kings actually tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the Egyptians. They paid tribute to the Egyptian king, and avoided attacking Egyptians lands.
Nevertheless, the two powers were on a collision course, and war finally erupted as the result of the political maneuvering of Ramses II, who succeeded his father, Seti, in 1301 bc, at age 20. Early in his reign, Ramses convinced Prince Bentesina of Amurru to switch alliances. To protect (and to expand) that new influence, Ramses planned to invade Syria. As those plans were implemented, both Ramses and the Hittite king, Muwutallis, began raising large armies.
The bulk of the Egyptian army was infantry, raised by press gangs that roamed the Nile River valley. The principal infantry weapons were the javelin and the short sword. Every fifth man (probably an officer) carried a baton. For protection, the Egyptians wore close-fitting helmets and mailed tunics made from matting. Each man carried a shield of oxhide over a wooden frame, square at the bottom and rounded at the top. While it protected him, this heavy shield also limited the infantryman’s mobility on the battlefield.
Although Ramses’ infantrymen were mostly Egyptian — supplemented by Sardian mercenaries hired specifically for this campaign — his bowmen were almost exclusively Nubian, armed with composite bows made of laminated layers of bone and wood.
The most powerful weapon of the Bronze Age was the chariot, and the Egyptians had a small, permanent chariot force. The chariots were relatively small and light, each carrying two men — a driver and a warrior. The Egyptians viewed chariots as mobile firing platforms; the driver would maneuver it about on the battlefield, while the warrior showered the enemy formation with arrows.
While the bulk of the Egyptian army was infantry, the Hittite strength lay in its own chariotry. The Hittites’ acumen in battle was the result of their rigorous training, plus their success in horse breeding and horse training. Those factors combined to give the Hittite commander more maneuverability with which to exploit opportunities as they arose on the battlefield.
The regular Hittite army was small — just a king’s bodyguard and a small force to patrol the frontiers and to put down rebellions. In time of a major conflict, however, the king was able to draw upon troops from the local population and from his vassals. Suppiluliumas I began the policy of turning conquered lands into vassal states. That practice precluded the need for large Hittite garrisons, and at the same time it allowed the king to call upon the native population for troops.
As Ramses had done, Muwutallis also filled out his ranks with mercenaries, including a group of Lycian pirates.
Muwutallis organized his army into groups of 10. One officer commanded a 10-man unit, 10 of those units formed a group, and then 10 groups formed an even larger group, and so on. The Hittite warriors wore pointed helmets and long robes.
The Hittite chariot had a body made of leather mounted on a wooden frame. That frame in turn was mounted between two spoked wheels, with the axle positioned farther forward than on an Egyptian chariot in order to support the weight of three men: a driver, a warrior and a shield-bearer. Although the warrior carried a curved sword, his principal weapon was the spear. The Hittites used their chariots in mass formation as a shock force to break the enemy’s infantry lines, after which the chariots, joined by the infantry, would exploit the resulting confusion to rout the enemy force.
Ramses opened his campaign in the summer of 1296 bc by seizing a port in southern Lebanon. A small Hittite army under Muwutallis advanced on the town, but Ramses drove it off.
Ramses, the arrogantly self-confident 25-year-old heir to a 1,000-year-old empire, intended to strike east from the Mediterranean to the Orontes River, which he would then follow north into Syria (in effect, emulating the successful strategy pursued by Thutmose III 100 years before). That was exactly what Muwutallis wanted Ramses to do, however. An experienced campaigner then into the 20th year of his reign, the Hittite king planned to draw the Egyptians as deep into his territory as he could before engaging them in battle.
Ramses organized his army into six distinct units. The majority of the men were in four divisions, each named after an Egyptian god: Amon, Re, Ptah, and Set. Each division was a combined arms unit of 9,000 men — chariots, infantry and bowmen. The fifth unit was made up of Ramses’ personal bodyguard. The last unit was a group of Canaanites (the Na’arum). Little is known about them, but they apparently were an auxiliary or reserve force.
The two armies were almost equal in size. Ramses had more than 35,000 men in his various units. Muwutallis had 3,500 chariots (10,500 men) and 17,000 infantry, for a total of 27,500. If the Egyptians had more men, the Hittites had many times more chariots.
Ramses sent the Na’arum up the coast to seize Sumura on the Mediterranean to give him a better line of communications with his navy. With the remainder of his army, he marched east to the Orontes. Less than one day’s march from Kadesh, Ramses camped at the high (i.e., southern) end of the Buka’a Valley. At that point, the Orontes flowed through a narrow rocky gorge several hundred feet deep. The river was not crossable until it reached Shabtuna, several miles to the north. At dawn, Ramses could see Kadesh in the distance through the haze. With his bodyguard in the van, the Egyptian monarch led his army north along the east bank of the river.
Before he reached Shabtuna, Ramses’ men brought in two Shosu (Bedouins) who claimed to have been loyal vassals of Egypt conscripted into the Hittite army. They told Ramses what he wanted to hear — that Muwutallis was afraid of him and had retreated with his army toward Aleppo, far to the north.
Without bothering to put scouts out in front, Ramses pressed on ahead with just his bodyguard. In his haste to besiege Kadesh, he left his army spread out behind him through the Buka’a Valley.
The Egyptians crossed the Orontes at Shabtuna, then passed through the forest of Robaui and the clearing that lay between it and Kadesh. West of the town, they crossed a brook, el-Mukadiyek, to reach the clear ground northwest of the city. When Ramses arrived there at about 2:30 p.m., the Division of Amon was still south of Kadesh, struggling to catch up. Once that division arrived, the Egyptians erected a fortified camp, its perimeter marked by a palisade formed with the shields of the infantry.
Ramses’ confidence was shaken when a liaison squadron then brought in a pair of Hittite spies it had captured. The Egyptians forced the two to talk by beating them with sticks. They told Ramses that he had just walked into a trap: ‘Behold, the prince…has many people with him, that he has victoriously brought with him from all the countries. They are armed. They have infantry, and chariots, and weapons, and are more in number than the sands of the sea. Behold, they are in fighting order hidden behind the town of Kadesh.’
Muwutallis had indeed lured Ramses into a trap. The two Shosu who had reported the Hittites to be far away actually had been sent by the Hittite king for the purpose of lulling Ramses into a false sense of security. Ramses then compounded his problem by allowing his army to become spread out.
Instead of being far to the north, the Hittites were within striking distance, just east of Kadesh. Only a few hours earlier, in fact, the entire Hittite force had been camped on the very ground where Ramses’ army now camped. Why the Egyptians had not noticed evidence of that encampment is not clear today.
Although Ramses called his princes together and berated them for failing to provide him with accurate intelligence, he still was not overly concerned over the situation. The Division of Amon had arrived and was going into camp. The Division of Re was just south of Kadesh, emerging from the Forest of Robaui. Ramses had half his army present. He ordered his vizier (chief of staff) to send a messenger to bring up the Division of Ptah. With three-quarters of his army at or within marching distance of Kadesh, he was confident there was little to worry about. What Ramses did not realize was that his divided army was, in fact, teetering on the brink of disaster.
Earlier in the day, the Hittites had withdrawn out of sight east of Kadesh. Then as Ramses arrived at the town, Muwutallis advanced in two sections. The Hittite king’s main force, including the majority of his chariots, swung left to cross the Orontes River south of Kadesh, to strike at the rear of the Egyptian army. Muwutallis himself, with the infantry and a reserve force of 1,000 three-man chariots, swung right — intending to block the Egyptian retreat across the Orontes to the north.
As the Egyptian Division of Re marched on Kadesh, there was no sense of urgency — the king’s orders had not reached it yet, and would not arrive until it was too late. The Egyptian officers were behind the troops, still in the Forest of Robaui, as the division slowly crawled across the plain, the infantrymen trudging along with their heavy shields slung across their backs.
West of the Orontes, meanwhile, the Hittite chariots quickly spread out into attack formation, then charged. Twenty-five hundred chariots ripped into the rear of the division. Some Egyptians were killed there, others were captured. Some of the survivors fled back into the forest, but most simply ran north toward Kadesh, spreading panic through the rest of the division and making it impossible for anyone to rally it. Within minutes, the Division of Re had ceased to exist as a fighting unit.
Ramses was still berating his officers when the first refugees (including two of his sons) arrived by chariot. At last the Egyptian king realized that he faced disaster. Turning to his vizier, Ramses ordered him to go after the Division of Ptah himself; the Division of Set was so far back that Ramses ignored it.
As the refugees from the Division of Re poured into Ramses’ camp, their panic spread among the Division of Amon. Its soldiers, too, joined the flight from the Hittites, leaving Ramses and his bodyguard cut off. ‘Then the infantry and chariotry fled before them, northward, to the place where his majesty was,’ wrote Ramses’ poet-historian Penator. ‘Lo, the foe…surrounded the attendants of his majesty, who were by his side.’
The vanguard of Hittite chariots crashed through the wall of Egyptian shields, but the royal bodyguard proved to be more than a match for them. Throwing themselves at the horses, some of the bodyguard dragged the chariots to a stop. That allowed other Egyptians to swarm over them, killing many Hittites.
As the Hittite assault reached its high tide, however, only one chariot in the Egyptian camp had its horses in harness for a counterattack — Ramses’ own war chariot, drawn by horses named Victory in Thebes and Mut is Satisfied. Ramses summoned his driver, Mennu, but the man was too afraid to come.
At that point, according to Penator, a humbled Ramses prayed to the god Amon for the strength and courage to save his army, and perhaps the empire, from destruction. Then, wrapping the reins about his waist to control the horses so his hands were free, Ramses singlehandedly charged the Hittites, grimly determined to restore his fortunes or die trying.
The Egyptian account says Ramses managed to ride completely around the Hittite host, returning to his own camp unharmed. The account — which was written not as an objective work of history but as a flattering tribute to Ramses’ prowess as a leader and a warrior — neglected to mention that the Hittites, who understandably believed their enemies to be totally routed, had stopped to loot the Egyptian camp. Only two groups of Hittites remained in their chariots, one on the east and another on the west flank of the main force. By the time Ramses returned to his camp, a small group of Egyptian chariotry had formed, made up of his personal bodyguard and some of the chariots recovered from the broken Divisions of Amon and Re. Ramses rallied them to charge against the Hittite force to the west. The Egyptian king quickly decided the number of chariots there was too great, however, and chose to avoid a direct engagement. Retiring back to his camp, he immediately launched an attack against the Hittite force to the east. This time his counterstroke was successful, driving the Hittites back across the Orontes. In the first few minutes of battle, the Egyptian army had all but been destroyed. Now it was the Hittites’ turn to suffer a major disaster.
The main Hittite force was still on foot, looting the Egyptian camp, when the Na’arum arrived from the west — apparently the Hittite force on the western flank had fled at their approach.
Although the Na’arum had chariots, the bulk of their force was infantry. They were equipped and trained to fight on foot, whereas the Hittites were not. With swinging swords and flying spears, the Na’arum poured into the Egyptian camp, overwhelming the Hittites. The surviving Hittites fled toward Kadesh.
Muwutallis, who up to that point had seen the battle go entirely his way, suffered a staggering setback, but he still had his reserve chariotry and his infantry. For some reason, though, Muwutallis chose to dispatch only his 1,000 chariots against Ramses’ relative handful, while he and his infantry remained on the other side of the river, an action the Egyptians attributed to cowardice.
As the Hittite chariots crossed the Orontes, Ramses changed tactics. Instead of maintaining his distance, Ramses decided to close with the enemy, a form of battle seemingly favorable to the Hittites.
Actually, Ramses wanted to use the terrain as an ally. The Hittite chariots had to cross the river and mount the riverbank to reach the plain where the Egyptians were. The Hittite chariots were most effective at battle speed. Ramses wanted to close with them before they could reach that speed. Also, by fighting them close to the river, he kept the Hittites from deploying into formation. That protected Ramses’ flanks and allowed him to fight only a fraction of the Hittite force at one time.
The Hittite chariots splashed through the river and had started up the far bank when the Egyptians descended on them. The impact drove them back into the water. Muwutallis ordered another charge. Again, the Egyptians waited until the Hittite chariots forded the river, then charged and once again drove them back. Muwutallis reorganized his ranks before sending his chariots across the river a third time, but with the same, unsuccessful result.
For almost three hours Muwutallis threw his chariots across the river, and for three hours the Egyptians, led by Ramses, drove them back. ‘Then his majesty advanced swiftly and charged into the foe of the vanquished,’ said the Egyptian chronicle. ‘At the sixth charge among them, being like Baal [the Cannite equivalent of Set, the Egyptian god of war] behind them in the hour of his might, I made slaughter among them, and there was none that escaped me.’ (It is interesting to note that while most of the Egyptian account of the battle was written in the third person, the narrative abruptly changed to the first person in the description of the last Hittite attack.)
On the Hittite side, the casualties included high-ranking figures. Soldiers pulled the half-drowned prince of Charbu from the Orontes and had to revive him by holding him upside down. Less fortunate was Muwutallis’ brother Metarema, who was killed by an Egyptian arrow before he could reach the river. Also dead were Cherpaser, the royal scribe; Tergannasa and Pays, Muwutallis’ charioteers; Teedura, chief of the bodyguard; Kamayta, a corps commander; and Aagem, commander of the mercenaries.
The battle had begun about 4 p.m. At about 7, the lead elements of the Division of Ptah, with Ramses’ vizier in the lead, emerged from the Forest of Robaui. The arrival of that third Egyptian division threatened the Hittite rear.
The Egyptian account says the Hittites retreated inside Kadesh, but is is improbable that so many men could have stayed inside the city. More likely, Muwutallis retired toward Aleppo.
The next morning, Ramses proclaimed that he had won a great victory. In a sense, it had been. After blundering into a devastating ambush, the young king had escaped death or capture and, displaying courageous leadership, had rallied his scattered troops. Even so, the Egyptians had suffered heavy casualties, Kadesh’s defenses were unbroken, and Muwutallis’ army, though badly bloodied, was still intact, with more than 1,000 chariots still at his disposal. Chastened, Ramses prudently gathered the remnants of his army and marched toward Damascus.
Muwutallis, too, had had enough, although once safely back at Hattusas, he, too, proclaimed a great victory. Later, he tried to foment another revolt against the Egyptians, but he died while Ramses was preparing to crush the uprising. Among other successes, Ramses took Dapur, south of Aleppo, in 1290 bc.
The Battle of Kadesh holds great interest to scholars of military strategy but, as pointed out by Egyptian press attaché and Egyptologist Ahmed Nouby Moussa, its epilogue was equally historic in the realm of international diplomacy. After a dynastic struggle, Khattusilis III succeeded Muwutallis and subsequently invited Egyptian plenipotentiaries to Hattusas for what would amount to the first summit conference between two equally matched powers. In 1280 bc, Ramses and Khattusilis signed history’s oldest recorded international agreement, establishing a condominium between the two empires. After 13 years of peace, Ramses sealed the treaty by marrying one of Khattusilis’ daughters. With his northeastern borders secure, the Egyptian king ruled on until 1235 bc — a reign of 67 years, during which his name would be literally etched in stone as Ramses the Great.
This article was written by Robert Collins Suhr and originally appeared in the August 1995 issue of Military History magazine.
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