Ars Bellica

Battle of Kadesh

13th C. BC (1284)

At the battle of Kadesh (also Qadesh) Egyptians and Hittites face off in the first well documented battle in human history.


The Opponents


"Usemare Septenere Ramses II, King of one of the two Falcon, son of Ra, King of upper and lower Egypt": this is the complete title of the young King Ramses. At the fifth year of his reign led the egyptian army in a battle under the fortress of Kadesh (also Qadesh) against the hittites. Ramses is one of the most famous egyptian pharaohs: son of Sethi I, another great King soldier, had lived since he was a boy in military environments, by participating, probably in person together with his father in the campaign of Syria.

Maybe Ramses was present at the capture of Kadesh (Qadesh), in the last decades of the fourteenth century, and suffered the humiliation of his loss, for the Treaty, shortly before the death of his father. When Sethi was killed unexpectedly, around 1304 BC, Rameses was just a little bit more than a young man who wanted to match his father's military businesses and put their own brand on the reconquest of syrian lands that had cost so much blood to Egypt.

As King of the two kingdoms, Ramses was one of the most powerful rulers of his time and had the personality to undertake the conquest of Syria and close accounts with the hittites.


The opponent of Ramses at Kadesh, the enemy that sat on the throne of the "Great Sun" was the Hittite King Muwatalli. Muwatalli was the second of four children of Mursilis II, the King who had fought against Sethi I in his Syrian campaigns. The death of his older brother led the Hittite King Muwatalli to the throne about four years before the coronation of Ramses to Pharaoh, giving his people a strong and skillfull ruler, and a smart commander in war.

The reorganization of the anatolian state, and the shrewd alliances policy that Muwatalli conducted in syrian and Mesopotamian area, allowed him to field against the Egyptians the largest army ever assembled from the Hittite Empire. The determination of this King is welle described on a fragment of his dedication to his gods: " which my Majesty will campaign, and if you, my gods, will help me, and i will conquer the land of Amurru-whether you take by force of arms or by the force of peace-and if I'll get in my power the king of Amurru, then I will richly reward you, o my Gods ... ".


The battlefield

Anyone who, nowadays, follow the flow of the Orontes river in the wide valley that it describes between the reliefs of Lebanon and Anti-lebanon, in the North of the country, immediately after crossing the syrian border meets a typical middle eastern town, with its low buildings made of cement and bricks: that's the modern city of Kadesh (Qadesh). A few kilometers further north of Kadesh, and at few hundred meters from the right bank of the river, in the middle of a vast alluvial area now thickly cultivated, there is an artificial mound topped by the remains of what was once a medieval fortification Turk.

Continuing northward, along the banks of the Orontes river low, the soil starts to get swampy: these are the water meadows that announce the vast but shallow lake of Homs, the largest freshwater basin in the area. From any part of the hill, the ruins of the old Turkish fort remains in full view, and it is easy today to understand the role of sentry covered by Kadesh, guarding one of the ancient crossroads of trade and transit of human history.

On that hill, built by the work of men more than three thousand years ago, stood the fortress of Kadesh, that the Hittites called Kinza; in the surrounding plain, bounded by the swamps of lake Homs and crossed by the Orontes river and its tributary, approximately 3300 years ago were fought the great battle of Kadesh.

battle of Kadesh
Reliefs depicting the battle of Kadesh.

The battle of Kadesh, in fact, was just the latest act of a drama whose previous scenes were recited again several generations earlier. The framework of the great clash of powers throughout the 14th century BC, had seen conflict between the kingdom of the Pharaohs and the powers of Anatolia, Mitamni's reign before the Hittite one, all conflicts to gain the control of Syria. The reason for this dispute could be easily understand if we looking at a map of the Middle East: following the trend of what historians have called the fertile halfmoon, the Nile Valley through Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley.

The Syria was, and largely still is, a vital hub for those who want to impose its control on the region: great harvests and lot of essential materials such as copper, necessary for the bronze production, the syrian area was also the mainstay of essential communication between the different parts of what, at the end of the bronze age, was the civilized world. Its caravan routelinked the Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley with the Mediterranean and its small kingdoms, City-States, that were enriched thanks to the tribute imposed on commercial traffic, although they had not been able to avoid becoming tributaries now of one or other of the Great anatolian or egyptian neighbours.

Both the interests of the Pharaoh and the great hittite king (who, throughout the 14th century, had consolidated his power on the anatolian peninsula), converged towards the control of the syrian region. The battle of Kadesh, around 1300 BC, was the final act of a long series of wars between the two kingdoms, a bloody act only apparently decisive.


The Genesis

During the second millennium BC the Middle East had witnessed a long and sometimes violent confrontation between the great powers of the time. The objective of this engagement was the syrian region and the control of trade routes that passed through it. For most of the time, except maybe the religious crisis crossed with the Kingdom of Akenathon, the heretic Pharaoh, Egypt had always conducted a policy of interest towards Syria, interest that had led to a clash first with the anatolian Kingdom of Mitamni and later, from the mid-14th century, with his successor, the Hittite Empire.

The Egyptian interest for the region is attested since ancient times: traces of the trade with the region of Biblos, on the northern coast of Lebanon, can be found dating back to the first dynasty of Pharaohs, but is from of the country's liberation from the domination of the Hyskos, that the Egypt began a policy of active intervention in the valleys of Jordan and of the Orontes.

Probably, at least in an initial phase, egyptian purposes were clearly defensive in character: the creation of a number of vassal kingdoms, Canaan, Amurru and Syria, was considered useful tool against any other Semitic peoples penetration, such as the Hyskos, and guarantee of independence and security to the Nile Valley. This type of policy, which you could define, militarily minimalist, continued throughout the new Kingdom (c. 1565-1085 BC); at the small vassals kingdoms is granted, in exchange for alliance and tribute, the opportunity to continue its local politics up, even to conduct its own internal wars, as long as the Egyptian dominance over this region was not put into question .

But the raising of the Hittite power, much more unified, and therefore more dangerous than the old mitamnic kingdom, break the ancient balance of influences in the area. The loyalty of vassal King was put to the test by the anatolian influence and many of the local rulers, from the mid-14th century, began to change field, depending on the immediate and temporary interests of one of the two major contenders.

The military structure of the egyptian kingdom, was not strong enough to withstand a continued and organized presence in an area more than a thousand kilometers far from the Nile Valley. The reticence of the Pharaohs of the XVIII dynasty to keep the boundaries that were estabilished with the treaty signed a century before by Tuthmosis IV with the King of Mitamni, represents a withdrawn from the aggressiveness of the new Hittite Kings.

It was only with the advent of the Pharaohs of the 19TH dynasty, carry a more unitary State ideology, and therefore more aggressive, that Egypt was able to penetrate into Syria. Sethi campaigns were offensive and well-planned, with the clear goal to bring the power of the Pharaohs on the lost lands of Syria. The reborn egyptian aggression caused an Hittite reaction, that bring a massive commitment of economic and military resources from the anatolian Kingdom to its southern borders. The final act of two generations of conflict was fought by the Hittite King Muwatalli and the son of Sethi I, Ramses the great, at Kadesh.


The armies

The armies that fought at Kadesh, in many ways, were similars. They were both, as usual in the late bronze age, armies based on a core of fighters on chariots. Actually the hittite chariot was slightly different from the egyptian one: more robust, was capable of carrying two warriors, as well as the charioteer, while the egyptian chariot bore only two men, and tactically he was used more as a battering weapon.

On Board of the hittite chariots were used, as egyptians, the bow, but the main weapon of the anatolian fighters was a long spear that is supposed to be used both as a weapon for close combat, both as a throwing weapon. The egyptian chariot, innovation bring in the Nile Valley by the Hyskos invaders, was lighter than the hittite one, and the main weapon of the fighter was the bow.

We can say that, while the hittites were, in a way, an heavy cavalry, which can count on the impact as a resolution of the confrontation, the egyptians chariots were more a light cavalry, able to move nimbly across enemy formations, trying to disarrange and put them in the route through the repeated launching of arrows. On both sides the infantry had an auxiliary role; even if there were some Egyptian heavy infantry units able to intervene effectively in the clash, the decisive part of the battle was usually left to the collision between different departments of chariots.

Participants in the battle of Kadesh
Participants in the battle of Kadesh.

It is interesting to note some differences in the organization of the two armies. The hittite army was based on a permanent part, the Royal Guard, placed on chariots to which, in case of campaigns, added quotas on foot or on carts provided by the King and his vassals as in the future feudal system; this gave the to hittite army a certain heaviness of movement once in the field and, although we know quite little about the organisational structure of the army, it can be assumed that there were no subdivisions of command and tactical use in any permanent way.

The egyptian case was very different. From the countryside of Sethi I, the army had been reorganized according to a principle of half-permanence (some believe even for a professional army), which allowed a fine internal organization. The army of Ramses, at the battle of Kadesh, was structured on four permanent divisions, in addition to the Royal Guard, which took its name from Egyptian gods: Ra, Amon, Seth, Ptah. Each of these divisions was formed from the nucleus of all army divisions; so there were component of chariots, archers, a heavy and light infantry; in addition to this divisions were aggregated elements that today we could define: logistics, transport and genius.

This structure, which somehow anticipates three thousand years the napoleonic army, allowed the Egyptian army an high elasticity and efficiency during the campaigns, and allowed, once hired the battle, to perform maneuvers that were impossible for most of the armies at that time. Now, talking about numbers of warriors present at the battle of Kadesh, we can say that, according to sources, that always must be taken with caution, hittite forces fielded by Muwatalli II were 40,000 infantrymen and 3,700 chariots. Those of Ramses about 30,000 infantrymen and 2,500 chariots.


The battle of Kadesh

The campaign that culminate at the battle of Kadesh was started due to one of the frequent passage of one of the kings vassals of the two empires. The ruler of Amurru, located roughly on the North Central Coast of present-day Lebanon, had abandoned the alliance with Muwatalli to side with the egyptians of Ramses. Muwatalli immediately mobilized its forces, the vassals armies and the contingents of mercenaries, to punish the rebel king and reiterate the hittite supremacy in the area.

Informed that the Hittite army moved southwards, Ramses thought that was the right occasion to regain lost ground against the hittites in Syria and restore, once and for all, the Egyptian power on the North of Jordan. Once the army concentrated in present-day Palestine, considering that the Canaanite realm was a loyal vassal of the Pharaoh, Ramses was convinced, rightly, that the Hittite troops were still in the very North and the fortress of Kadesh, obligatory passage point for Syria, was not manned. Remembering the egyptians humiliation during the reign of his father, when without a fight were forced to leave Kadesh to the enemy, the temptation for Ramses to wash that shame was too strong, securing, in addition, a good basis for the continuation of operations.

Once sended messengers to mobilize the forces of Amurru along the coast, Ramses lead in march the four divisions of his army towards the plain of Kadesh. Once reached the plain in front of Kadesh, Ramses, with his guard and the Amon's division, camped in fornt of the fortress of Kadesh, on the other bank of the Orontes river, waiting for other army divisions who followed at a distance of half a day's march along the road in the Valley of that river. But the information in the hands of the egyptians were wrong, this will cost a lot to the Ramses's army.

battle of Kadesh
The battle

Smartly, Muwatalli, let believe Ramses that its army was still in the very North of Kadesh, but, hidden by the river and the Hill on which was placed Kadesh, the hittite forces were concentrated around the fortress of Kadesh. When the Ra's division, even in crisis for crossing the river, restart the march to reach the camp, a mass of hittite chariot crossed the river by sarprise, attacking the flank of the egyptians and putting them in route in a very shot time. Ramses had fallen into the trap: with the remaining two divisions still distant and the hittites chariots that blocked the way of the plain of Kadesh, the situation was dramatic for the egyptians.

The hittites launched their forces immediately against the camp of Ramses, defended only by the Royal Guard and the Amon's division, who had immediately deployed in defence of the Pharaoh, that, incredibly, risked death or worse the capture. The description of this phase of the battle of Kadesh has been handed down from the reliefs of the Ramesseum in Luxor. Even if we cosider this document as propagandistic monument erected to the glory of Ramses, it can give us useful information on the conduct of the facts in the battle of Kadesh. The chariots of the Amon's division, along with the Royal Guard one's, led by Ramses, counter-attacked a wing of hittite formation, while the infantry guard, choosen for guarding tha camp, could repel the hittites's assault.

Probably this was the decisive point at battle of Kadesh, where Muwatalli had the chance to get a decisive victory throughout the campaign: the hittite King remained throughout the day on the walls of Kadesh, a secure location where he was not able to understand the importance of the moment. Making him unable to read the course of battle, he continued to hold the bulk of the army, with the infantry, sheltered behind Kadesh. instead of reinforce the assault of chariots to overcome the small Egyptian resistance and get a decisive success.

But the moment passed quickly: the egyptian rearguard divisions were reaching the camp from the South, while at Northwest, the contingent of Amurru, informed on the intentions of Ramses, was entering in the plain of Kadesh. Rejected, the hittites again crossed the river, repairing safely behind the intact infantry. The two contenders had enough for that day; the day after, with both armies deployed and in views, Muwatalli II and Ramses realized that the moment to get an unequivocal victory had faded, and once again they entrust that a treaty was the final solution of the battle.

As for all the battles of antiquity, even for Kadesh is difficult to quantify the losses suffered by both sides, probably, each of the two armies could calculate between 5,000 and 10,000 men killed in the clash, but, in this case, these are just assumptions not yet supported by objectively reliable sources.


The consequences after Kadesh

The reliefs on the Ramesseum and the Ramesside poem, written on a papyrus, told us about the great Pharaoh's victory over the hittite enemy at Kadesh. But the peace treaty signed by the two empires few months after the battle and engraved on a clay tablet, shows us a very different truth. The Kingdom of Amurru returned into the orbit of hittite influence, while the fortress of Kadesh would never seen on their stands the insignia of the two kingdoms of the Nile. In the treaty the two kings agreed to restore the status quo ante, before the transition to egyptians by the amurriti.

treaty after the battle
Egyptian-hittite treaty after the battle of Kadesh.

If compared with the ambitions and objectives of Ramses, the results achieved with the treaty, after the battle of Kadesh, are really pitiful. At the egyptians remained the control over the land of Canaan and Palestine, but the syrian border remained closed to the mire of Pharaoh. Exhausted from two generations of war and worried by the growing assyrian power in the East, hittites and egyptians encode the existing situation, still leaving intact those which were the reasons for the dispute. To prevent the return of the conflict were, shortly thereafter, the invasion of "sea peoples", which blotted out from the map of the hittite empire and plunging the Egypt into a crisis from which it never recovered.


The chariot

At the beginning of the second Millennium b.c. the great civilized areas developed in the valleys of large rivers, as Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, were shaken by a series of attacks and invasions that, excepting Egypt, saved from its own geophysical conformation, forgave the pre-existing characters. Invading populations of Indo-European and Semitic ethnic group, that lived on the fringes of civilization until that era, soon managed to overthrow the ancient agricultural states that had settled on the banks of major rivers.

What these invaders people had in common: akkadians, who entered mesopotamia, the hyskos that installed their dynasty in Egypt and the aryans who occupied the Indus Valley? And what weapon allowed them such rapid success? The answer is very simple: it was pastors peoples who fought with a new and effective weapon, the chariot.

Horse breeding and selection of the best equine breeds, had always been the characteristic of peripheral areas where the presence of large spaces had favored, along with nomadic or semi-nomadic sheep farming, the development of a society whose connotations of aggressiveness and mobility were winning in itself compared to sedentary agricultural populations of fertile areas.

In the border areas between the centre and the outskirts of civilization, the nomadic shepherds, always in contract for trade with farmers, were able to import those technological elements for the development of lightweight chariot, pulled by a pair of horses; tool that proved crucial in monitoring and protecting the movement of herds but also a perfect war tool. When the chariot became complete, the steppe peoples, always very interested by rich river areas, found themselves holding two winning weapons: the habit of fighting and violence as a way of life, and the chariot, a weapon technically and tactically far superior to those neighbours.

For the egyptians of the old Kingdom, Sumer and the Indus Valley Vedic, with their way of fighting often ritualized, static and with low-intensity violence, there was no chance to resist the impact of mobile and ruthless invaders. From this whirlwind of violence, new civilization emerged, resulting from the fusion between various peoples and, militarily, united for an entire Millennium from the use of the chariot as a primary tool. The last war-chariots, persian ones, were wiped out by the Macedonian phalanx on the Isso and Arbela battles, but they were wrecks of a fight, and a time, that was gone forever.


The testimonies on Kadesh

By Pentaur's poem on the battle of Kadesh

"His Majesty prepared infantry and his chariots, listened to the prisoners taken in victories of his sword and they delivered the battle plan".

"His Majesty proceeded northward and his infantry and his chariots were behind him. He began a great march. In the fifth year, in the second month, in the third season, in the ninth day, his Majesty bypassed the fortresses of Tharu and Montu and went ahead "..

"Every country trembled before him, the fear was in their hearts, all rebels sagged with fear in front of the her Majesty's fame when his army found itself on a narrow road. And it was as travelling on a big way. "

"Now, many days after that, his Majesty was in Usermare-Meriamon, the city of the cedars".

"His Majesty proceeded northwards and came then to the plateau of Kadesh. Then his Majesty went ahead, as his brother Monthu (God of war) Lord of Thebes, and crossed the river Orontes and was with him before Amon's division called King Usermare Victory-Setepnere ".

"When his Majesty reached the city, seeing that the King of Kheta, the ignoble, the loser, had come, gathered together all countries from the ends up to the sea, the land of Kheta Naharin and Arvad, Mesa, Keshkesh, Kelekesh, Luka, Kezweden, Ekereth, Kode, Carchemish, the whole land of Mesheneth and Nuges, Kadesh".

"He did not leave any country that doesn't bring with it with his bosses, and each man carried his chariot and advancing a multitude. They covered the mountains and valleys, they were like locusts for multitude. He did not leave neither silver nor gold in their hands, but took all the possessions and led each country to battle ".

"The King of Kheta, the ignoble, the won, with numerous allied peoples was stationary in order of battle, concentrated Northwest of the city of Kadesh when his Majesty was only with his personal guard, and Amon's division marched behind him. The Ra's Division crossed the Orontes South of the town of Shabtuna, at a distance of a journey from the Amon's division, the Ptah's one was to the South of the city of Aramanir and the Sutech's division marched down the street".

"The King of Kheta, the ignoble, the won, was in the midst of the infantry who was with him and was not at the battle for fear of his Majesty. He let go the chariots, soldiers a multitude numerous as grains of sand, as there were three men for each span ".

"Then there were each three young a man of Kheta, the loser, equipped with all the weapons from the battlefield. ...".

"His Majesty shone as his brother Monthu when he took his war decorations: when he wore his chainmail was like Baal in his day".

"His Majesty stood still in retreat, then charged at the enemy, the King of Kheta; the loser was alone and no one was with him. When her Majesty came to see behind him he found 2,500 chariots surrounding him and all men of the defeated, with its countless allies of Arvad, Mesa, Pedes, Keshkesh, Erwenet, Kezweden, Aleppo, Eketeri, Kadesh and Luka, being close three men in a span".

"The fifth year, the third month of the third period, under the Majesty of Horus, the mighty Bull, loved by the truth, King of upper and lower Egypt Usermare-Setepnere son of Ra, Ramses Merianon, who had life forever".

"I attack all the people while I was alone, my infantry and my chariots had abandoned me. No one was around me. I swear, as Ra loves me, as my brother helps me Aton, as in everything that his Majesty said, I did, actually, in the presence of the infantry and chariots ".