Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh (Qadesh), Part II

The Actual Battle of Kadesh
(The Battle of Kadesh, Part II)

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The Traditional Account

Traditionally, the story of the Battle of Kadesh begins with the army of Ramesses II advancing upon the city of Kadesh in four corps. Ramesses II himself was with the lead element of the corps, known as Amun. While crossing the River Orontes (Arnath) to begin the approach to the city from the south, two Bedouin tribesmen, secretly in the employ of the Hittite king, led what appears to have been a gullible Ramesses the Great into believing that the Hittite army was many miles away to the north. Ramesses II, believing he had stolen a strategic advantage, having arrived on the battle grounds early, ordered the army of Amun onward without delay.

Ramesses II firing arrows  from his chariot, often depicted without a driver

However, after making camp to the northwest of Kadesh, Ramesses II was rather unnerved to discover from captured enemy scouts that the Hittite army had already arrived. Located behind the Kadesh tell, they were even now ready for battle. Hearing this news, Ramesses II sent his vizier to the army (really, more of a division) of Re some miles back to hurry them forward. However, they were ambushed by 2,500 Hittite chariots as they crossed the plain of Kadesh and so were overcome. This force then wheeled north and attacked Ramesses II's encampment, overrunning them as well. Though many of Amun's troops panicked and abandoned Ramesses to his fate, the Pharaoh donned his armor and from his chariot, almost single handedly held off the Hittite chariotry inflicting heavy losses on them. However, Ramesses II may really have been saved by the vision of booty within his camp, which seems to have occupied the enemy troops.

Overseeing the battle and observing the fate of his original chariot attack, the Hittite king ordered a further 1,000 chariots into the battle arena. However, just as these additional warriors reached the battle front, Ramesses II was saved by the arrival of the Ne'arin. This was a second body of troops that Ramesses II had detached from the main campaign and ordered to approach Kadesh from the north. With the aid of these troops, Ramesses II was able to fend off the Hittite attack and win the battle, leaving many of the enemy dead on the battle field and the survivors faced with the humiliation of having to swim back across the Orontes River to escape the wrath of the Pharaoh.

A depiction of the Battle  of Kadesh

Some accounts of the battle have the two warring parties facing off once again the next day, but the ultimate results of the contest was a truce, after which the Egyptians and Hittites withdrew to their respective homelands (Ramesses II, having crushed his enemies).

The above is basically the Egyptian account of the Battle of Kadesh, and it probably does provide a framework for the overall action, though over the years, hardly any detail has escaped the attention of analysts. Though the battle may indeed be the earliest military action recorded in detail, there are many specifics that are either missing or are subject to considerable debate. In fact, Ramesses II certainly presented the battle with an obvious prejudice, particularly towards his own actions and deeds, but indeed, even the main three sources that we have of the battle, consisting of a poem, bulletin and reliefs, even disagree on some of the facts, and the scattered information derived from Hittite sources only confuse the matter additionally.

Prelude to the Battle of Kadesh

The Battle of Kadesh fought by Ramesses II was a long time in the making, and not the first to be fought between the Hattities and Egyptians over this small, but strategically located vassal state. Ramesses II had probably accompanied his father, Seti I on one similar campaign prior to his ascending the throne of Egypt. However, though Seti I may have taken Kadesh, by the time of Ramesses II's reign, it was back in the hands of the Hattities.

From the onset of Ramesses II's reign, it is apparent that he intended to renew the struggle for domination in southern Syria, and so almost immediately he began preparing for the coming hostilities. He added a fourth field army to his military establishment, and expanded the eastern Delta city of Pi-Ramasses, his new capital, to act as a staging point for operations in the Levant.

In his fourth year, during the spring of 1301 BC, Ramesses led his army into southern Syria for the first time as king, reaching as far as Simyra and succeeding in returning the Amurru kingdom to the Egyptian fold.

Map of the General Region

Map of the General Region

It soon became evident to the Hittite king, Muwatallish, that in order to protect his holdings in Syria, he would have to confront the Egyptians in a major military campaign. The venue of this coming battle was never in doubt by either party. They would meet beneath the walls of Kadesh in order to settle once and for all the future of their respective empires in Syria.

In fact, it is likely that the Hittites and the Egyptians agreed on the site, as well as the time of battle in advance. Certainly, there is an inference of this considering that the two sides arrived on the scene of Kadesh at about the same time during the month of May, 1300 BC. It should be noted however that this was not an ideal battleground for the Egyptians. The Hittites were operating in a region that was under their control where their supply lines were short. They probably staged their campaign out of Carchemish, not far from Kadesh at all. Furthermore, the city of Kadesh, currently under their command, was large enough to accommodate the Hittite army should matters go awry. It provided a good defensive position, surrounded by both a mote and the Orontes River itself.

Ramesses II would also have to contend with one of the largest armies ever assembled by the kingdom of Hatti. Though no substantiating sources have ever been unearthed, Ramesses speaks of the Hittites having eighteen allied and vassal states providing some 3,700 chariots and 37,000 infantry. We know that these included Aleppo, Khatti, Naharin, Arzawa, Dardany, Keshkesh, Masa, Pidassa, Arwen (?), Karkisha, Luke, Carchemish, Ugarit, Dedy, Nuhashshe, Mushanet, Kadesh as well as the country of Kizwadna (Kizzuwadna), whom he commissioned to:

"...send one hundred horses equipped (with chariots) and a thousand foot soldiers to the army of the Sun, who will provide for them."

Throughout the months of March and April, Pi-Ramasses must have been a beehive of activity, as individual units were mustered into the four field armies (also sometimes referred to as divisions in some texts). One sign of times to come was the notable increase in the number of foreign troops in the regular Egyptian army. These included Nubians, Sherden, Libyans and Canaanites. The four armies were each made up of about 5,000 troops, for a total of 20,000 combatants. While no mention is actually made of the army's chariot strength, by this date the Egyptians should have been able to muster a significant force.

Ramesses left Egypt in April, probably taking the coast road to Gaza. It was there that Ramesses sent the Ne'arin, probably an elite unit, northward from Gaza along the coast road to Canaan, probably to secure the loyalty of the Canaanite coastal cities. On a specific day, they were probably ordered to arrive at Kadesh by way of the Eleutheros Valley in Amurru. The main body of his forces followed the route inland through Canaan, traversing the eastern side of Lake Galilee afterwards entering the Bekaa Valley in order to reach Kumidi.

The depiction of Kadesh from the Rameseum

Ramesses II had arrived near Kadesh and was encamped with the army of Amun about one day's march south from Kadesh. The location of their camp has been identified as a high, conspicuous mound known as Kamuat el-Harmel. We are actually not certain about the day that Ramesses II arrived at this location, but rather that he was at the camp on the ninth day of the month of Shemu (late May). The other three armies, named P'Re (Re), Ptah and Sutekh (Set), lay to the rear of the army of Amun, each separated by a distance of about 10.5 kilometers (one iter). While Ramesses II has been criticized for this division of his forces, it was standard operating procedure to distance the armies in this manner.

Unfortunately, we have no further specific references to time within the accounts of the battle, and many military analysts believe that the following events may have occurred over a broader length of time than what the fluid accounts of the battle might lead us to believe.

First Encounters with the Enemy

Ramesses II and the Army of Amun began to strike camp on the ninth day in order to cross the Orontes probably by the ford at Shabtuna (or nearby). It must have taken some considerable period of time for this to have been effected. Five thousand men, perhaps along with additional (and probably, considering the retinue that followed the King, substantial) support personnel, their equipment, including chariots, had to move down the ridge through the Labwi (Robawi) forest and ponderously cross the Orontes. This all probably took a great deal of time and even if the Army of Amun broke camp (a major undertaking in itself) early on the ninth day, they probably did not complete the crossing until at least mid-afternoon.

The initial approach onto  the Plain of Kadesh

Shortly after the crossing, two Shasu Bedouin were encountered and brought before the pharaoh. It has been generally assumed that they were a deliberate plant by the Hittite king to misinform Ramesses II, and indeed, they informed him that the Hittite army was some distance to the north in the land of Aleppo.

In bronze age encounters, this would have given Ramesses II considerable advantage. One of the most important aspects of such a battle, after a long march by opposing armies, was a period of rest and reorganization for battle readiness. Ramesses obviously took considerable assurance that he was in a superior position to the Hittite forces, and even the Egyptian accounts of the campaign do not attempt to hide his gullibility on this matter. However, historians may be too quick to lay blame on Ramesses II. The king clearly followed normal army operating procedures, and it was common for a screening force of chariots or horsemen to move ahead of the marching army. This advanced element was either absent, or may have shared the overconfidence of the pharaoh, but in any event, it would not have been the task of the king to oversee every operation of his army, for he had senior officers for that purpose.

At any rate, the Army of Amun arrived in a somewhat casual manner at their campsite on the plains of Kadesh, northwest of the city, perhaps late on the ninth day, not realizing that the entire Hittite army was camped on the opposite side of the Kadesh mound. While we do not know the precise location of his camp, it is likely that he used the same site as that of Seti I some years before. The Egyptian's no doubt set up camp with the expectations of an extended stay, for at the center of the camp they erected a shrine to the god Amun, together with the great tent of the pharaoh where Ramesses II "took his seat on a throne of gold".

Certainly it seems that if reconnaissance of any manner was ordered previously it was ineffectual, but now the Egyptian scouts made good by returning with two prisoners found lurking near the Egyptian camp. Refusing at first to talk, they were beaten before being dragged before Rameses II. The historical documents record that:

"Then said His Majesty, 'What are you'? They replied, 'We belong to the ruler of Hatti! He sent us out to see where Your Majesty was.' Said His Majesty to them, 'Where is he, the Ruler of Hatti? See, I heard it said that he was in the land of Aleppo, north of Tunip.' They replied, 'Behold, the Ruler of Hatti has already come, together with many foreign lands that he brought as allies...See, they are poised armed and ready to fight behind Old Kadesh?'"

The mound of Kadesh

It must have been a great shock to Ramesses II, who, only moments before, had figured he held an advantage to his adversary, having arrived on the plain of Kadesh first. As the full implications of this new information sank in, Ramesses must have understood that he and his army stared absolute disaster in the face. Not only was the Hittite army rested and ready for battle, but he had arrived at Kadesh with only a small part of his overall forces.

A conference was quickly called with his senior staff, where the king revealed to them their dire predicament. This resulted in the realization that all would be lost unless their forces could be quickly consolidated, and therefore, the king's vizier was quickly sent south in order to implement a rapid advance by Egypt's other forces. However, at this point the events that follow become somewhat difficult to recount.

Another view of the mound of Kadesh

If indeed the Egyptian Army left their camp and crossed the Orontes River on the ninth day, then it must have been somewhat late that day that the Hittite scouts were discovered, and even later by the time they were handed over to Ramesses after being tortured. Some authorities believe therefore that the vizier would not have reached the closest forces to Ramesses, the Army of Re, until the morning of the tenth day. However, that army had probably advanced northward just as the Army of Amun had, camping perhaps in the same location that the Ramesses II had occupied previous to his crossing of the Orontes. Hence, it is very possible that the vizier did in fact reach the southern forces late on the day of the ninth.

The Forces Engage

We know that the Army of Re mustered their forces and, as soon as they could break camp, attempted to close ranks with the Army of Amun as the vizier continued south in order to warn Egypt's other forces. Soon the Army of Re was crossing the River Orontes but Ramesses II would be disappointed if he expected their timely arrival. However, whether this division of the Egyptian army crossed the River late on the nine day of the month of Shemu or early on the tenth day is open to speculation. regardless, what transpired next could not have been as much of a surprise as the ancient text makes of it.

The Hittite chariot forces attack the Army of Re

As the Army of Re crossed the Orontes River, they were set upon by Hittite chariotry, who emerged from the tree line to the right of the column about three quarters of a mile distant. However, it should be noted that some time must have elapsed between the dispatch of the vizier and the Army of Re's crossing of the Orontes. They, along with the Army of Amun under the direct command of Ramesses, had some period of time to prepare themselves for the ensuing hostilities, for it must have taken time for the vizier to both have reached and warned the army of Re, as well for that division to have struck camp and crossed the Orontes.

Yet, this apparently did not prevent the destruction that followed. Having emerged from their cover the Hittite chariots crashed into the Army of Re, as they had been trained, causing widespread havoc. Many, if not most Egyptologists disagree with Ramesses stated figure of 2,500 chariots, for this would have been an overwhelming force that, first of all, would have required a significant time to cross over the Orontes but having succeeded, could have very likely decimated all of the Egyptian forces. For this reason, many analysts believe that the Hittite chariot forces that attacked the Army of Re were much smaller, perhaps only one fifth of the size documented by the Egyptians. This could explain much of what happened next. However, it must also be remembered that by this point, half of the Egyptian forces, consisting of some ten thousand men, along with half of the Egyptian chariotry were now on the plains of Kadesh, so the force of Hittite chariots may have been substantial given the initial destruction that was caused. Furthermore, the Hittite forces may not have had to cross over the Orontes proper, but rather a fairly small tributary.

Certainly the Hittite chariots scattered the Army of Re, but probably did not actually decimate it. After crashing through the ranks of the Egyptian column, they wheeled to the north following the vanguard of this division as they rushed to the perceived safety of the Amun lines. The army of Amun had little time to secure a combat stance, but given the alarming information provided by the Hittite scouts, they must have been in a state of readiness to some extent. It is doubtful that the column of Re, which probably stretched on for some two and one half miles, was completely overcome by the Hittite attack. As the remnants of the Army of Re approached the camp of Amun, followed in hot pursuit by the Hittite chariotry, lookouts should have seen the advancing storm, signaled by the dust plume created by such a disturbance, and alerted at least some of the camp to the impending battle.

The Hittie Chariots wheel  north and attack the Camp of Amun

Nevertheless, the Hittite chariots very quickly crashed through the front lines of Ramesses II's camp, but were quickly slowed by the impending obstacles of such a large camp. Even so, they created widespread panic amongst these troops as well, scattering the forces as they had evidently done with the army of Re. Yet, pharaoh had been alerted by this time to the attack, and in what seems to have been a rather cool, collected effort on his part, first instructed his court, which probably included a few princes, on their defense, and then proceeded to dress himself in armor and prepare his immediate guard for a battle which he would heroically lead.

By this time, the Hittite chariotry forces were concentrated within the camp and perhaps at a point where they had become somewhat disorganized. They were probably also in a position where maneuverability of their much larger chariots was difficult because of obstacles within the camp. Further, after attacking the Re column and wheeling northward for the camp of Amun, their horses must have surely been exhausted. Doubtless, they had even lost a few of their kind in the running battle that was even now continuing.

Now, it was Ramesses II who:

":...appeared in glory like his father Montu, he assumed the accoutrements of battle, and he girded himself with his corslet"

However, before engaging in the battle, he sought safety for his family members that traveled with him, but thereafter, in a fit of valor, Ramesses II's, together with his personal guard, attacked the charging Hittite forces and, with the superior maneuverability of their chariots, wheeled about in successive attacks on the slower forces of the Hittites.

We are told by Ramesses II that:

"I found the 2,500 chariots, in whose midst I was, sprawling before my horse. Not one of them found his hand to fight...and they were unable to shoot. They found not their hearts to seize their javelins."

The results were that the Egyptians began to pick off the overextended Hittite chariotry. Of course, the fact that the Hittite forces could be dealt with at this point by what was apparently only a fairly small force of Egyptians is another reason why historians believe that there were less then 2,500 chariots in the Hittite attack. However, Ramesses II tells us that he:

"caused them to plunge into the water (of the River Orontes), even as crocodiles plunge, fallen upon their faces. I killed among them according as I willed".

Ramesses II enters the fray of the battle

However, there may have also been a somewhat larger number of Egyptian forces who stood against the Hittite forces rather than running in the cowardly manner that the reliefs depict. It is difficult to imagine, having been warned of their dire circumstances by the Hittite scouts, that the Amun camp was not highly alert and that the five thousand troops of that division were not in a state of battle readiness. It is more than somewhat likely, given his vanity on such matters, that Ramesses II empathized his own heroism on the walls of his temples at the expense of his armed forces.

Irregardless, the Hittite forces began to lose their initial advantage. Overlooking the battle scene along with the nobles and high officials who had accompanied the Hittite army, Muwatallish monarch appears to have been shaken by the Egyptian recovery that he witnessed within the running battle at Ramesses II's camp. In order to save his dwindling forces, he ordered another thousand chariots to the attack. This force appears to have consisted of the high nobles who surrounded the king. However, several pieces of information should be closely examined at this point.

First, it is argued that this second force could not have been as great as one thousand chariots, for the logistics of quickly sending that large of force immediately into battle would have been difficult, if not impossible. However, the fact that the nobility within the Hittite forces were now sent into battle also suggests that the initial commitment of Hittite chariotry must have been substantial. Though perhaps not as many as 2,500 chariots, it seems to have left the Hittites with only the elite nobility in reserve.

Hittite chariot, heavier  then the Egyptian chariots and intended to carry a crew of three

Secondly, it has been suggested by highly authoritative sources that the initial chariot attack was actually unintentional. Some scholars believe that the Hittite chariots may have simply been scouting the Egyptian forces, but when they broke from the scrub trees and saw the Army of Re, they had little choice other than crashing through the Egyptian column. These analysts argue that, had the attack been intentional with a force as large as 2,500 chariots, they could have and should have completely decimated the Egyptian forces.

The lighter Egyptian chariot

However, the fact that Muwatallish was in fact observing the battle with forces ready to reinforce the initial chariot attack, seems to indicate that the battle was no accident, though many questions do remain on this matter. For example, during the entire event, no Hittite infantry seem to have ever been committed to the battle, which leaves us with an awkward gap in our understanding of the battle.

As the Hittite reinforcements entered the fray, the Egyptian forces must have themselves been exhausted from their initial encounter with the enemy forces. If they were aware of the second wave of Hittite chariotry as they charged the camp, the men surrounding Ramesses II must have surely felt doomed. However, Ramesses II seems to have been a lucky man throughout his long life, and now he was particularly fortuitous. As the Hittite forces approached the Egyptian camp, suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, the Ne'arin appeared, turning the impending disaster into a route of the Hittite forces.

The Ne'arin forces of Ramesses II's army arrive just in the nick of time

It is probable that the Hittites did not know about the Ne'arin. This term means "young men" and infers that they were perhaps a crack Canaanite unit who's loyalty to Ramesses II was beyond reproach. It has been suggested that, rather than an elite unit, this may have actually been the Army of Set, though the reliefs indicate otherwise. It was probably no accident that they showed up at this point, though the exact timing was certainly lucky. These forces had probably been ordered to join up with the main body of the Egyptian army on a specific day.

Nevertheless, the Hittite forces were sent scurrying back across the Orontes river and we are told that many nobles and men of importance within the Hittite confederation lay dead on the battle field, or were swept away by the river in their panicked retreat.

The next day, there may have been some additional fighting according to some accounts, but this may have also referenced the lashing that Ramesses II would give his troops for their cowardly actions. In the reliefs documenting the battle, Ramesses II states that:

"None of you was there...None rose to lend me his hand in my fight...None of you came later to tell the story of his heroic deeds in Egypt...The foreigners who saw me, praise my name to the end of all lands where I was not known...Since ancient times a man was honored for his fighting abilities, but I will not reward any of you, as you have abandoned me when I was alone fighting my enemies."

It has even been suggested that, even as Muwatallish overlooked the scene, Ramesses II may have dispatched a number of his troops to the netherworld.

More importantly, what happened next almost negates the resounding victory claimed by Ramesses II. He agreed to a truce with the Hittite King, who we are told pleaded with Ramesses II stating:

"Suteh are you, Baal himself, your anger burns like fire in the land of Hatti... our servant speaks to you and announces that you are the son of Re. He put all the lands into your had, united as one. The land of Kemi, the land of Hatti, are at your service. They are under your feet. Re, your exalted father, gave them to you so you would rule us. It is good that you should kill your servants?... Look at what you have done yesterday. You have slaughtered thousands of your servants....You will not leave any inheritance. Do not rob yourself of your property, powerful king. glorious in battle, give us breath in our nostrils."

Of course, this text obviously offers a view by the Egyptians. It may be that both parties to the truce realized that additional battles might have decimated both armies to the extent that they may ver well have become vulnerable to other powers within the region. Furthermore, Ramesses II was obviously facing a crises within the ranks, so we are told that:

"His Majesty turned back in peace to Egypt, together with his infantry and his chariotry being with him"

Ramesses II later signed a peace treaty with the Hittites which would forever place Kadesh out of Egyptian hands. From this, it is evident that no real victory took place, or at least not one that gave Ramesses II an obvious edge over his enemies. In fact, it would seem that the Hittites army even shadowed the Egyptian forces as they headed home.

A drawing of the reliefs at the Temple of Luxor depicting the Battle of Kadesh

A drawing of the reliefs at the Temple of Luxor depicting the Battle of Kadesh

A drawing of the reliefs at the Temple of Luxor depicting the Battle of Kadesh.

The bottom register shows Ramesses II single-handedly charging the enemey

Eventually, what Ramesses II failed to do to the Hittites would be accomplished instead by the Sea People, who would infiltrate the Hittite lands and eventually cause that empire to collapse. But for now, the Hittites were no longer Egypt's great enemy, for later, Ramesses II would take perhaps several of Hattusilis III's (successor to Muwatallish) daughters as his queens and there would be much correspondence between the two courts.

See also:

Leading up to the Battle of Kadesh

The Egyptian Account of the Battle of Kadesh

The Peace Treaty Document






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