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The Battle of Kadesh
By Jonathan Finegold Catalan , 2004; Revised
Category: Ancient Mesopotamia and Near East: Military History
Rank upon rank of Egyptian infantry marched northward, with leader to their head, to meet their enemy on the fields of battle. The great campaign could no longer be delayed, and the consequent battle, which ensued near a small town in modern day Lebanon, proved to be quite a display of arms, military deception, and it would be a magnificent trial of strength. Ramessês II, Pharaoh of Egypt, was set on repeating the successes of his father and creating a new name for himself, and his major target would be that very town, Kadesh, while his enemy, Muwatallis, King of the Hittites, would live up to his treaties of mutual defense, which were agreed to by the petty princes of the area and the royal crown.
Years before, Ramessês father, Sethos I, had also led a major force up the coast of Palestine and into modern day Lebanon and Syria. Beginning at his fortress of Tjel, located near modern day El-Kantara, Sethos I marched through the Sinai Peninsula. Soon afterwards, as he entered Palestine, he inflicted a great defeat on an army of rebels, referred to as the Shosu, and then he continued into southern Lebanon. Although evidence is scant, Sethos I did take Kadesh, and hieroglyphic documents point towards a battle between the Hittites and Sethos I, in which Sethos I is, ultimately, victorious. Following said victory, Sethos I left a garrison at the city of Beisan, or the Beth-shean of the old testament, and from there continued his manifold exp
So, with vigor and ambition, Ramessês II marched northward with a very improved army. The Egyptian army was composed of four divisions, that of Amun, Pre, Beisan, and Ptah. The three former divisions had formerly been involved in battle in the area under Sethos I, as shown by the stelae at Beisan. These divisions, evidently, held a strong number of archers, as well as various infantry types, most probably armed with copper, or imported bronze swords and stone maces. It is known that the Egyptians were at a complete disadvantage logistically, as Egypt held no tin reserves, making it extremely difficult for the Egyptians to produce their own armaments for their military, and several documents found at Egyptian temples list armament trade between Syria and Egypt. This latter fact could have possibly been another reason for the heavy Egyptian troop concentration south of Syria, and for the repeated attacks on the area. In any case, the Egyptians also made use of a mobile cavalry force, relying heavily on chariots introduced by the Hyksos, and improved upon by New Kingdom Pharaohs. Interestingly, Ramessês also improvised a force of cavalry, which seems to be the first attempt at it until the Persian Empire in the 6th Century B.C. The New Kingdom armies also relied profoundly on foreign manpower. The 'Poem', conserved by an Egyptian scribe, named Pentaur, (although he is not the author), recites the existence of a corps in the army marching north, composed of soldiers from a people called the Sherden. The Sherden had been an earlier scourge on the New Kingdom during their naval invasion, and are better known as the Sea Peoples. However, after their defeat, the survivors seem to have been incorporated by Ramessês II, as five hundred and twenty of their kind were present with Ramessês at the time of the Battle of Kadesh. However, tactics shown by the Egyptian army of the New Kingdom showed little improvement, since battles were frequently settled with archer duels, and quickly charged by the Egyptian battle line, although, Kadesh would not be a failure of Egyptian discipline, to say the least.
Across the border, the Hittites were proving no less able in their military tact and administrative skill. The king of the Hittites, Muwatallis, was left with a very gifted military machine, and it too had its share of successes in Syria and abroad. During the early 1200s, Egypt and Hittites had pursued very peaceful relations, especially with their mutual fear of the growth of the Assyrians in and around the year 1250 B.C. However, with the break of any chances of lasting peace by Sethos I, and the campaign against the Hittites renewed once again under the command of Ramessês II around the year 1274, Muwatallis was forced to forge a grand army and march south to meet the Egyptian threat. Of these, the most interesting addition to his army include a contingent given by the Dardanians, familiar from Homer's Iliad. From further Egyptian sources, it appears that the Hittites controlled much of Anatolia on the Aegean coastline, as the Hittites also received aid from the Lycians. The 'poem', gives reference to a multitude of allies of the Hittites, which joined the fray against Ramessês II, however, any numbers were most likely small, and played merely a minor role in the upcoming battle. The largest player in the upcoming battle of Kadesh would be its extremely well trained chariot force, which was second to none. The Hittite chariot was manned by a crew of three, wherein the Egyptian chariot had a crew of two - driver and fighter. This variation in the Hittite chariot seems to have been implemented to allow two fighters, one for defense, and another for attacking operations, allowing each one to worry about its job, and allowing superior performance on the battlefield. The attackers were given either a lance or a bow, and the superiority of crew members gave the Hittites an advantage in the number of men during a melee.
Ramessês reached Kadesh some time in the summer of 1275, and, in early morning, he ordered his army to begin crossing the river, Orontes. Kadesh lay just above the Orontes, as it was located in the center of the angle formed by the Orontes and a small tributary of said river. Behind Kadesh lay the plains of Lebanon, and, thus, Kadesh was the strategic gateway to this territory. During the morning operations to cross the river, Ramessês received two Bedouin fighters who claimed their interest in deserting the Hittite army. According to the steles which survive and depict the subsequent battle, Ramessês accepted them and immediately extracted information from his two newest soldiers. The two Bedouins told the Pharaoh that Muwatallis was still in the land of Khaleb, north of Kadesh, and Ramessês took the information eagerly. Why Ramessês relied on information from two ex-soldiers of the Hittite army is unknown, however, the fact that his forward scouts had failed to detect the presence of a Hittite army may have persuaded the king to accept the news as fact. In all haste, Ramessês II rushed north to Kadesh, protected by only his bodyguard, in an effort to take the city in a surprise assault. As soon as he had opened a gap five miles wide between his army and himself, he realized his mistake. He had opened camp and soon enough another two Hittite scouts had landed on his lap, and these told a very different story than that uttered by the Bedouins. The Hittite position had been betrayed. However, Ramessês II had little time to contemplate his strategic mistakes and the failure of his reconnaissance, as the Hittite army was already upon his army.
The Pre division was quickly shredded as a strong group of Hittite chariots forded the Orontes south of Kadesh, and arched into the Pre Division's rear, forcing the division to give way before the Hittites. What happens next is unclear, as all Egyptian sources begin to relate the courage of Ramessês II and his personal feat of arms against the hordes of Hittite chariots. Almost certainly, the Egyptian army was torn apart by the opening Hittite charge, and they fared little better in the melee. Throughout the battle, much of the Hittite army seemed to be pre-occupied in ransacking the Egyptian camp, and, consequently, set the stage for their eventual encirclement. In all respects, the fighting seemed particularly savage, and hundreds of death must have ensued. Several infantry contingents manned by the Hittites took part of the melee, which provided much of the stamina in order to allow the chariots to successfully sack the Egyptian camp. However, the tables would soon turn. The Egyptians that had not crossed the river Orontes just yet appeared just in the nick of time and hit the Hittites in the rear as they focused on the camp. From recent reconstructions, it seems that Muwatallis was surrounded and was forced to break out of the encirclement and retreat to Kadesh. It was an achievement that the Egyptian infantry had managed to hold the Hittites until further relief had arrived, and this is a testament to their discipline, but it remains amazing how little reconnaissance Ramessês II had completed prior to the battle, and how brashly he reacted to two very strange Bedouins.
After the battle Ramessês paraded the battle as a victory, one of the reasons so many steles depicting the battle have been found. Consequently, since no Hittite records have been found as of yet, most historians note the battle of Kadesh as an Egyptian history. However, from what subsequently occurred, this was simply not so. The 'Poem', the main written source on Kadesh, had notoriety on embellishing the battle, and, after recent reconstructions of the battle, it becomes fairly obvious that Muwatallis was unable to bring about his full force. In order to successfully sweep the Egyptians from the rear, Muwatallis' chariots had to ford the river Orontes, which would require some sort of bridge large enough to support two of these vehicles abreast. Meaning, that to complete such a maneuver so rapidly as to catch the enemy by surprise, only a few of the chariots could have been successfully transferred to the opposite side of the river, thereby failing to provide the Hittites with a complete advantage.
In any case, after the battle, sources seemed to contradict the success of the Egyptians. One third of the Egyptian army was slaughtered, and Hittite casualties were most likely around the same, since they too had been surprised and hit from the rear. Ramessês II would go on to blame his troops for the failed victory, and continued to express the skirmish as a personal battle in which he defeated the Hittites alone. Additionally, after the battle, Syria remained strongly in Hittite hands, and even some lands to the south fell to Muwatallis, who replaced the present kings in those regions with kings of his own choice. However, neither was it a complete Egyptian rout, as Ramessês, evidently, campaigned actively in Palestine around the year 1278. Therefore, the most likely outcome of the battle was a tactical draw and a victory for the Hittites in the strategical sense. It is true that after the battle the New Kingdom fell into a long period of decline, ending only with Persian intervention, and subsequent take over of Lower Egypt (that to the north of the modern day country).
Circa 1291 B.C., Ramessês II and the new Hittite king, Khattusilis, agreed to a treaty, copies of which were found both in the Egyptian capital of Thebes, and in the Hittite capital at Boghazkoy. The general agreement was one of mutual peace on the shared borders and a military alliance. The alliance was sealed with Ramessês marrying a Hittite queen.
Many historians have dismissed the battle as a mere skirmish meant to wear down armies before the larger battle expected to have occurred days after. However, that battle never came, and it is increasingly obvious why. It is likely that Ramessês II had been shaken by the overwhelming power of the Hittite military, and, with one third of his army now lying in the sands of Syria, he most likely decided that it would not be in his best interest to fight the enemy so far away from Egypt and so close to Anatolia. He may have been skeptical at any signs of success, and the moral in the Egyptian army could have been non existent. In any case, it wouldn't be soon before the Hittite Kingdom would leave the annals of history, and Egypt was thrown into an extensive period of civil war and numerous foreign invasions. In reality, there had been no victor at all.
Breasted, J.H., Ancient Records of Egypt
Cavillier, Giacomo, Some Tactical Remarks on the Battle of Kadesh
Ellis, Edward S., The Story of the Greatest Nations:Early Nations and Greece
Gardiner, Alan, The Egyptians
Gurney, O. R., The Hittites
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Sayce, Archibald H,. History of Nations: Ancient Empires of the East