Kadesh was a city in what is today the country of Syria, an important center of trade in the ancient world, and site of the famous battle between Pharaoh Rameses II (The Great) of Egypt and King Muwatalli II of the Hittite Empire, usually dated to 1274 or 1273 BCE (though Durant, and others, assign a date of 1288 BCE). The Battle of Kadesh is the most thoroughly documented military engagement of ancient times in the Middle East with both antagonists claiming a decisive victory. For centuries the account given by Rameses II in his 'Poem’ and 'Bulletin’ (the two Egyptian sources we have for the battle) of a great Egyptian victory at Kadesh was taken as literal truth. Today, however, most historians regard these sources as more propaganda than an honest account of the events and the Battle of Kadesh is believed to have ended in a draw.
The Hittites had long been making incursions into Egypt and had caused considerable trouble for the Pharaoh Tutmoses III. Ramesses II resolved to take lasting measures against the Hittites and drive them from his borders. A central advantage to be achieved in this campaign was the capture of the city of Kadesh, a great center of commerce at the time, which was held by the Hittites. Ramesses marched from Egypt at the head of over 20,000 men divided into four divisions. He led the Amun division himself with the Re, Ptah, and Set divisions following.
In his haste to engage the enemy, Ramesses drove his division so quickly that he soon outdistanced the rest of his army. He made a further mistake in believing the reports of two captured bedouins who told him that the Hittite king feared the might of the young Pharaoh and had withdrawn from the area. In reality, the Hittite army was close at hand and, once Ramesses again began his march, he was ambushed. Two captured Hittite spies then revealed the truth of Ramesses' situation and the Pharaoh understood he had no choice but to fight his way out of the trap he had allowed himself to walk into.
The confusion of the battle is attested to in Ramesses accounts, the `Poem of Pentaur' and the `Bulletin' in which he relates how the Amun division was overrun by the Hittites and the lines were broken, the division separated. The Hittite cavalry was cutting down the Egyptian infantry and survivors were scrambling for the supposed safety of the Egyptian camp. Recognizing his situation, Ramesses called upon his protector god, Amun, and "brought calm and purpose to his small units and began to slice his way through the enemy in order to reach his southern forces. With only his household troops, with a few officers and followers, and with the rabble of the defeated units standing by, he mounted his chariot and discovered the extent of the forces against him. He then charged the eastern wing of the assembled foe with such ferocity that they gave way, allowing the Egyptians to escape the net which Muwatalli had cast for them" (Bunson, 131). Ramesses had turned the tide of battle just as the Ptah division arrived on the field.
The Ptah division, with Ramesses
leading them, then drove the Hittite
forces toward the Orontes River where
many of them drowned. At this point in
the battle, the Egyptian forces were
caught between the Hittites at the river
and the reserve forces Muwatalli still
had at his disposal in the fortified
city of Kadesh. Why the Hittite king did
not make use of his advantage is unknown
but, for whatever reason, Muwatalli
refused to deploy his forces and
"watched the cream of his command fall
before Ramesses, including his own
brother" (Bunson, 131). With the
Hittites drowning in the river and being
slaughtered on the banks, Ramesses
turned his forces about and, making full
use of his advantage in the light
Egyptian chariot, drove the Hittites
from the field. Ramesses then claimed a
great victory for Egypt in that he had
defeated his enemy in battle. Muwatalli,
however, also claimed victory in that he
had not lost Kadesh.
The significance of the battle, aside from being the victory Rameses II seemed most proud of (his great temple at Abu Simbel tells the story of the battle to this day across its walls) is that it eventually led to the first peace treaty in the history of the world signed between the Hittite and Egyptian Empires in 1258 BCE.
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