Battle of Kadesh Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Kadesh decided the areas of influence and the balance of power between the Hittites and Egyptians as they expanded into the regions of Syria and the Levant.

Summary of Event

Carved on the walls and pylons of massive temples along the River Nile are pictorial and hieroglyphic reports of a military engagement between the Egyptians and the Hittites in 1275 b.c.e. Egypt had been intermittently at war with the Hittites in Syria for two hundred years, since Thutmose III in the early fifteenth century had extended his sway northward beyond the site of modern Lebanon. Later, however, Hittite kings had invaded Syria as far south as Kadesh, where the best routes inland from the Mediterranean Sea entered the valley of the Orontes River, chief passageway to the north and east. Thutmose III had once devoted an eight-year siege to conquering Kadesh, which became the southern bastion of a widespread Hittite Empire. Muwatallis Ramses II

When Ramses II came to the throne in 1279, he desired to reassert Egyptian dominance in Syria. In the fourth year of his reign, he sent troops north along the coast beyond modern Beirut to secure harbors, and in his fifth year, he personally led a large force through Palestine. His army was divided into four divisions named after the gods, Ra, Ptah, Amen, and Set, each division numbering about five thousand men. At the heart of this pharaonic army were professional charioteers, experts at using bows and spears.

Aware of the approach of Ramses, the Hittite king Muwatallis mustered a host of approximately equal size, between sixteen thousand and twenty thousand men, collected from vassal units of the Hittite Empire, with at least half of his troops charioteers. Most Hittite chariots depicted in relief sculpture carried a driver along with two fighting men. With remarkable cunning Muwatallis concealed this large force from Egyptian scouts, and he sent several Bedouins to be captured by the Egyptians and to deceive Ramses about the location of the Hittites. Persuaded that the enemy was far to the north, Ramses allowed his army to straggle in its march with wide gaps between the divisions.

In this fanciful depiction of the Battle of Kadesh, Ramses II is shown battling the Hittites with lions.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Only when the advance division, Amen, led by the pharaoh himself, had crossed the Orontes River west of Kadesh did its members discover, through the interrogation of new Hittite prisoners, that Muwatallis’s main force was ominously near, just east of Kadesh. Alarmed, the pharaoh hastily sent back a messenger and a staff officer to hurry forward the Ra division, the next unit in line. At this juncture, however, Muwatallis, using the hill of Kadesh to screen his movement, launched his chariots in a surprise flank attack against the approaching Ra division. The Ra column was scattered in all directions.

Pursuing some Ra fugitives northwestward, Hittite chariots came upon the hill where Ramses with the Amen division was setting up camp; many of these Amen soldiers also broke and fled, leaving the pharaoh with only a small bodyguard of chariots, encircled by the enemy. It was a perilous moment for the young Ramses. Nearly half his army had been slain or scattered, and the remaining units were far to his rear.

When the situation seemed desperate, according to eulogistic records carved later in Egypt, Ramses in his two-horse chariot charged into the midst of more than two thousand Hittite chariots and drove back the enemy. Emphasizing his personal heroism as divine, the sculptural accounts are vague about some troops that arrived in time to rescue Ramses. Modern historians generally credit these fresh troops, perhaps of the Ptah division, with rallying the scattered Egyptian forces at a moment when Hittite charioteers were engaged in pillaging the Egyptian camp and chasing fugitives in several directions. The Hittites were driven back.

Muwatallis then brought into action another Hittite force of a thousand chariots and attempted six successive charges. However, these were driven off as additional Egyptian forces arrived on the scene, and the Hittites suffered heavy losses. The next day Muwatallis may have agreed to a truce once the entire Egyptian army had been assembled; the fresh division of Set had taken no part in the first day’s battle. It is also possible that Muwatallis had not used eight thousand foot soldiers stationed east of the river, perhaps because the swiftly changing strategy made less mobile infantry useless.

Significance

Even though Egyptian inscriptions claimed a triumph for Ramses, portraying the Kadesh plain as strewn with Hittite corpses, the pharaoh’s immediate retreat southward nevertheless evacuated the area as far as Damascus and left it in possession of the Hittites. More terse Hittite cuneiform inscriptions reveal that in their home cities the battle was reported as a crushing defeat for Egypt.

In following years, there were minor Egyptian campaigns into Palestine, but archaeologists have discovered both Egyptian and Hittite copies of a peace treaty drawn up fifteen years after the Battle of Kadesh between these two powers. The peace was sealed by a marriage of Ramses II to a Hittite princess, and experts believe that there were no subsequent battles between Egyptians and Hittites comparable to the conflict at Kadesh. The Battle of Kadesh fixed the balance of power between Egypt and the Hittites. Kadesh actually represented a truce between the two powers; it appears to have had a debilitating effect on the Hittites while it checked the rising glory of imperial Egypt. Both powers delineated their spheres of influence and became susceptible to the invading Sea Peoples shortly thereafter.

The pharaoh’s retreat from the area and his marriage with the Hittite house do not really suggest the overwhelming victory recorded on the Egyptian inscriptions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breasted, James Henry. The Battle of Kadesh: A Study in the Earliest Known Military Strategy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903. The first detailed study in English of the numerous Egyptian inscriptions describing the Battle of Kadesh, Breasted’s work remains a valuable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardiner, Alan H. The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II. Oxford, England: The University Press, for the Griffith Institute, 1960. A distinguished Egyptologist offers a full translation of the various hieroglyphic records concerning Kadesh and a reassessment of their interdependence, considerably differing from Breasted’s views. Remains a major work on the topic
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goedicke, Hans, ed. Perspective on the Battle of Kadesh. Baltimore: Halgo, 1985. A collection of essays examining the Battle of Kadesh from a variety of perspectives. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Healy, Mark. Qadesh 1300 b.c.: Clash of the Warrior Kings. Osprey Military Campaign Series 22. London: Osprey, 1993. An examination of the battle from a military perspective. Illustrations and maps.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Ramses II. Kadesh, Battle of (c. 1275 b.c.e.)

Categories: History Content