Leading up to the Battle of Kadesh

Leading Up to the Battle of Kadesh
(The Battle of Kadesh, Part I)

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The Battle of Kadesh is one of the most well known military campaigns of history because it is the earliest battle that can be reliably reconstructed in detail from various records on both sides of the conflict. Fought between Ramesses II, one of Egypt's best known pharaohs, and the Hittites under Muwatallish (along with a number of allies), this battle over control of Syrian territory has received considerable attention by many analysts over the years.

However, in order to completely understand this historical event, it is necessary to examine the history that led up to this famous battle, for it was very literally hundreds of years in the making.

King Khasekhemwy of the 2nd Dynasty

From almost the beginning of recorded history, Egypt was active in the Levant region of southern Syria, particularly at the port of Byblos, where the earliest inspirational evidence of an Egyptian king was that of Khasekhemwy of Egypt's 2nd Dynasty. From that time onward, Egypt had some involvement in the region, if only in the realms of diplomacy and trade.

However, over an extended period of time, the great powers of the Ancient Near East sought to control Syria in order to exploit the economic resources and trade of the region. Syria was the cross roads of world commerce during Egypt's New Kingdom, where goods from the Aegean and beyond entered the Near East by way of ports such as Ugarit. The ships that docked in these ports dominated maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean. They carried a rich variety of goods, including copper, tin, chemicals, tools, glass ingots, ivory, faience, jewelry, luxury goods, timber, textiles foodstuff together with other products that were then distributed throughout the Near East and beyond over a network of extensive trade routes. In turn, these same land routes were used by traders who brought raw material such as precious metals, tin, copper, lapis lazuli and other merchandise from as far away as Iran and Afghanistan to sell in the Syrian markets.

Senusret III of Egypt's 12th Dynasty

Hence, it is easy to understand Egypt's involvement in the region. However, though Senusret III (12th Dynasty), seems to have fought one campaign in southern Syria culminating in the capture of the City of Shechem, the early Egyptian's appear to have been, for the most part, rather indifferent regarding this important region. But beginning with Senusret III, who operating out of the new northern capital named Itjtawy established by Amenemhat I in the area of Lisht, the scene was set for a more vigorous foreign policy. Regular envoys began to be sent to such Syrian city-states as Ugarit and Byblos, and there was both an increase in foreign trade and in the fortification of Egypt's northeastern frontier. Overall however, the Egyptian policy in the Levant during the Egypt's Middle Kingdom was relatively naive, ultimately resulting in the Second Intermediate Period.

By the 18th Dynasty, Egyptian rulers were adapting a more mature approach to international relations and as early as the reign of Ahmose, who founded the New Kingdom, they began laying down the foundations of an Asiatic empire by campaigning in southern Syria. At the same time, there was an increase in the use of diplomacy resulting in a framework of alliances and treaties.

The ancient Near East had an early, strong tradition by which power blocks were built and maintained. There were basically two types of treaties as early as the second millennium BC, distinguished by the Akkadian terms, riksu (a parity treaty) and ade (essentially an oath of loyalty or vassal treaty). While Egypt would become deeply involved in the southern Syria, the use of Akkadian and Babylonian dialects as the primary language of these treaties and related correspondence, however, suggests that Egypt was simply absorbed into an existing network of international diplomacy, the origins of which probably lay in Mesopotamia.

Tuthmosis III

During Egypt's New Kingdom, Syrian control was synonymous with "world" power among the predatory empires that sought to use the region's wealth for their own benefit. Hence, over a period of several hundred hears, Egypt, and their primary enemies in the region, Mitanni and Hatti, among other empires, applied considerable effort, including bloody warfare, to control this vitally strategic region. While the motivation of the various "great powers" of the region are clear, more specifically, we can examine more specifically the events that ultimately culminated in Egypt's last and best known Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites.

By the time of Tuthmosis III of Egypt's 18th Dynasty, Egypt controlled a considerable region in Southern Syria. However, one of the principal conflicts leading up to this peace with Mitanni was the Battle of Megiddo, where Tuthmosis III squashed a revolt by city-states led by the prince of Kadesh, though backed by Mitanni, Egypt's principal rival in the Levant. However, this was only the first of seventeen campaigns that Tuthmosis III would eventually undertake. Tuthmosis III, sometimes known as the Napoleon of Egypt, backed up his military achievements in the region with a network of garrisons and numerous vassal treaties. Taking a long view of the regions strategic importance, he returned from his campaigns with 36 sons of Lavant chiefs, holding them hostage but also indoctrinating them with Egyptian traditions. They were later returned to their homelands as puppet rulers. This eventually resulted a long term perception by Egypt that southern Syria was a permanent Egyptian territory.

During the reign of Tuthmosis IV (1425-1417 BC), Egypt signed a peace treaty that ended hostilities for really the first time since the aggressive military campaigns of Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III and his successor, Amenhotep II, who greatly expanded Egypt's territories in Syria.

It was the early revival of the Hittite kingdom that forced Mitanni to make peace with Egypt in order to avert a war on two fronts, though the treaty also served Egypt, which had witnessed a progressive loss of ground to Mitanni in Syria after Tuthmosis III. Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep II's successor concluded the peace treaty when he married the daughter of the Mitanni king, Artatama. The essence of this peace treaty was that it specifically set the border between the two empires in central Syria. Among other territories, it gave to Egypt Amurru, the Eleutheros valley and Kadesh. In return, the Egyptians gave up their claims to land that had, during the reigns of Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III, been held by Egypt.

After the peace treaty was established, both Egypt and Mitanni seem to have prospered and indeed, this period established the wealth of Egypt's New Kingdom, as tribute flowed in from the Canaanite possessions. For some three decades, goods flowed unimpeded along the grade routes as the region enjoyed relative tranquillity.

Egypt depended on the Eleutheros valley, which crossed the territory known as Amurru, in order to access their Syrian holdings along the Orontes River. This same route was earlier used by the Egyptian armies as they marched on the Mitanni possessions in northern Syria prior to the peace treaty. To the Egyptians, the Eleutheros valley was of essential strategic importance, but in order to maintain this route, the city state of Kadesh, which dominated the western end of the Valley and that laid astride the main Egyptian invasion route into northern Syria, also had to be under Egyptian control. Though the Egyptians had given up their claims in Northern Syria under the Tuthmosis IV's peace treaty, if ever their imperial aspirations in that region were revived, Kadesh would be needed. It was the importance of Kadesh and Amurru that would eventually lead to the ultimate conflict between Egypt and Hatti.

However, the trouble did not begin with the Hittites, but rather with the emergence of a nascent political entity in Amurru. The territory of Amurru had not been a legitimate kingdom when the peace treaty was signed, but under the strong leadership of Abdi-Ashirta, and later his son Aziru, the inhabitants of this region formed at least enough of a coherence that, by the end of the 14th century BC, they were able to form a kingdom stretching between the Mediterranean Sea and the Orontes valley.

Another view of the Levant

Being clever fellows, abdi-Ashirta and his son, while professing loyalty to their overlord Amenhotep III in Egypt, took advantage that pharaoh's relative indifference to Egypt's holdings in the region by expanding the new Amurru kingdom at the expense of a number of his neighbors. Even when these small states, who were vassals of Egypt, protested to the pharaoh, their complaints went unanswered by action. The matter became so serious in fact that Mitanni deemed it necessary to take military action in order to keep this nominally Egyptian vassal under control. Egypt did eventually send a military expedition to the area, and for a while, the problems created by Amurru were removed by the death of Abdi-Ashirta. However, the stage was set for wider, and more problematic troubles.

During the first half of the 14th century BC, the Hittites, under the powerful rule of their king, Suppiluliumas, began to seriously demolish the position of the Kingdom of Mitanni in northern Syria, resulting in the unraveling of the international status quo that had existed since the peace treaty of Tuthmosis IV. Suppiluliumas ascended the Hittite throne in approximately 1380 BC, and almost immediately began to assert a Hittite claim to Syria. At first, he attacked territories held by Mitanni, of course creating open hostilities between the two empires. He began by invading and conquering the small states of Aleppo, Alalakh, Nuhashshe and Tunip in northern Syria. When the Mitanni rulers attempted to reestablish their control in the region, the Hittite monarch used this as an excuse for a second Syrian war. Suppiluliumas declared these former Mitannian vassal states to be rebels. However, rather than attacking them, he crossed over the River Euphrates and marched directly south, campaigning against the Mitanni empire directly. In a rapid military action, he surprised the Mitanni army so badly that he was able to occupied and sacked the capital, Washukkanni.

Only then did he turn west, crossing over the Euphrates once again to enter Syria, where his true objectives lay. Now, there was little in the way of a Mitanni empire to stand in his way, so the Syrian states rapidly fell, one after the other, to the Hittites. Suppiluliumas lists them as Aleppo, Mukish, Niya, Arakhtu, Qatna and Nuhashshe. In the processes, Egypt let slip away the important Ugarit port (reportedly without battle) and the strategically essential Kadesh, and without even a fight.

These campaigns occurred during the reign of Amenhotep IV, better known to most as Akhenaten. Certainly this pharaoh must have been focused on his new religion revolving around the Aten (sun disk), and critics have used his inaction on this matter as evidences of his disinterest in Egypt's Asiatic empire. In reality though, Egypt's relationship with the Mitanni empire had cooled considerably in the previous few years, and so the ruler cared little about the events in northern Syria outside his holdings. Furthermore, the Hittite king had also made it clear beforehand that his campaign was directed against Mitanni and its Syrian dependencies only.

In fact, it was the Kadesh king himself, by unilaterally attempting to halt the Hittite advance southward under the belief that he was acting in the interests of his Egyptian overlord, which forced Suppiluliumas to capture the city. Most of the leaders of the city, including the king and his son, Aitakama, were carried off to Hattusas (Hattushash, modern Boghazkoy in Turkey), the Hittite capital. However, in order to demonstrate their claim of having no design on Egyptian territory, Aitakama was returned to Kadesh, where he renewed the city's status as an Egyptian vassal.

This seems though, to have been a ruse. Upon Aitakama return, other Egyptian vassal cities began to report attempts on his part to subvert them to the Hittite side. In fact, Aitakama even attacked Upe, an Egyptian vassal. Still, Egypt's only response to this situation was to charge Aziru, the ruler of Amurru, to protect the pharaoh's interests in the region. Of course, this only gave Aziru the opportunity to exploit the Egyptians once again, as his father had done, by expanding Amurru's borders at the expense of his neighboring vassal states. In fact, word finally reached Egypt that Aziru too was flirting with the Hitties, and had even entertained envoys sent by Suppiluliumas.

Finally, a demand was made for Aziru to present himself at the Egyptian court, while Kadesh was declared to be in revolt. Aziru reluctantly agreed to travel to the court of Akhenaten where his was forced to stay for several years. Military action was now clearly called for, and though there is little in the way of documentary evidence, most historians believe that Akhenaten did indeed send troops to attack Kadesh. However, this action apparently failed, though the recovery of Kadesh became the focus of Egyptian military efforts down until the time of Ramesses II of Egypt's 19th Dynasty.

However, regardless of how important Egypt's holdings in Syria might have appeared to earlier and later rulers, the Nilotic kingdom utterly failed to maintain any type of balance of power in the region. Suppiluliumas began to consolidate his position in the region by placing Aleppo, as well as Carchemish which had by now also fallen to the Hittites, under the rule of his sons. Thereafter, they set about establishing their own armies so that the loyalty of the Hittite vassal states in Syria could be closely controlled. Hence, there was considerably military presence in Syria, countered by almost no Egyptian counter forces. When the pharaoh though that Aziru's loyalties were firmly with the Egyptians, he was finally released, but with the balance of power in the region obviously on the side of the Hittites, he quickly revoked his vassal oath to Egypt for the protection of Suppiluliumas.

Now, Kadesh and Amurru, together with the Eleutheros valley were lost to the Egyptians, but while the Hittites may have come to view this as their permanent territory, the Egyptians never shared that view, and as the military men of the late 18th and early 19th Dynasty came to the throne, there was no doubt that they would seek to regain what was lost.

Unfortunately, any such ambition was muted in the face of reorganizing Egypt after the troubles of the Amarna period of Akhenaten's rule. However, after the death of Tutankhamun in 1352, military men seized the throne of Egypt and held it for the next thirty two years. An interesting side note to this was that, upon Tutankhamun's death, his wife sent a messenger to Suppiluliumas asking to marry one of his sons. Suspicious, as well he should have been, he first substantiated the origin of the request, before agreeing to send one of his sons to Egypt. What a windfall he must have felt this was, but we believe that it was probably Ay who discovered this treachery and had the son killed in route to Egypt. Ay then married Nefertiti to become one of Egypt's last pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty. Soon, Nefertiti disappeared from recorded history.

While the time was not yet ripe for a Syrian campaign, the empire did undergo a major shift in policy. Rule by proxy had clearly not worked for the Egyptians in vassal territory, so this policy was replaced by actual military occupation. Now, policy was often dictated by the military, and as early as the reign of general turned pharaoh, Horemheb, we see indications of a will to recover Egypt's lost territories and so regain the grandeur of the pre-Amarna period.

Probably in anticipation of renewed hostilities, Horemheb began to reestablish the old Hyksos capital at Avaris in the eastern delta, for this was an excellent locale from which to launch Syrian campaigns due to its proximity to routes leading to Canaan and Syria. Avaris became a forward operating base where Egyptian troops could rapidly be deployed to Syria. While Horemheb apparently never got around to launching such a campaign, his successor after the brief reign of Ramesses I, did just that.

Seti I of Egypt's 19th Dynasty

It is clear that Ramesses I's successor Seti I had, from the very beginning, intentions of retrieving Egypt's position in Syria. He sought to recapture Egypt's greatness, even taking as one of his titles, "Repeater of Births, signaling a new era. Before the close of his first year on the Egyptian throne, he led an army into Palestine to eradicate a coalition of hostile Canaanite princes and continued north into Lebanon. Significantly, and setting a trend for the future, Pharaoh lead his army for perhaps the first time since the reign of Tuthmosis IV. During the Armarna period, military action had mostly involved minor campaigns, mostly police actions, but now, the full army would be welded by the king, personally.

He, as his son and successor, Ramesses II, took the policy of Tuthmosis III as their own in Asia. By his second year, he led an army northward to begin his offensive against the Hittite empire and the first battles between the two great kingdoms.

Today we can still see the records made of Seti's Syrian campaigns in the west wing of his war monument at Karnak. Here, he had recorded:

"...the ascent that Pharaoh...made in order to destroy the land of Kadesh and the land of Amurru".

We believe that he made good on at least one of these claims by a victory stela recovered from Kadesh that bears his name and evidencing the capture of the city by his Egyptian army. However, many scholars believe he never succeeded at this time in taking Amurru. Yet, with Kadesh in hand, he was able to stage campaigns into northern Syria where he met and defeated at least one Hittite army (though probably composed of vassal forces). That, given the gravity of this situation, the principal Hittite forces did not immediately take action has led some scholars to believe that they were occupied elsewhere, perhaps in Assyria. Indeed, the Hittite empire was having problems with its eastern neighbors, and may have had to tolerate Seti I's triumphs for a while.

The Face of Ramesses  II of Egypt's 19th Dynasty

Yet, indications as evidenced by the annals of Mursilis seem to point to Kadesh's return to Hittite hands prior to Seti I's death in 1304 BC, but if this was the result of a treaty, as some suggest, it was not to the liking of his son and successor, Ramesses II.

The first three years of Ramesses II's reign seem to have been marked by peace, but in his fourth year, and for reasons largely unknown to us, Amurru suddenly decided to defect back to Egyptian control. The new king appears to have quickly led an army northward in order to formally receive an oath of submission by the Amurru king, Benteshina.

Not at all oblivious to Egypt's aspirations in northern Syria, the new Hittite king, Muwatallish. recognized that in order to protect his holdings in Syria, particularly the strategic states of Aleppo and Carchemish, he would have to secure Kadesh. To his advantage, unlike the days of his father, there was no immediate Assyrian threat to distract him, so in the winter of 1301 BC, he set about organizing an army to recover Amurru and protect Kadesh. The venue of the coming conflict was never in doubt by either party. They would meet beneath the walls of Kadesh in one of the great battles of history in order to settle by trial of arms the future of their respective empires in Syria.

See Also:

The Egyptian Account of the Battle of Kadesh

The Actual Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh Part II






Reference Number

Armies of the Pharaohs

Healy, Mark


Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 85532 939 5

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Warfare and Weapons

Shaw, Ian


Shire Publications LTD

ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2