Battle of Kadesh: Ancient Egypt vs The Hittite Empire

In 1274 BCE, the Hittites fought against the Egyptians in one of the earliest pitched battles in recorded history, the Battle of Kadesh.

Sep 29, 2021By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
ramesses ii battle kadesh relief
Monumental Statue of Ramesses II, c. 1279-1189 BCE, via The British Museum; Battle Scene from the Great Kadesh Reliefs of Ramesses II, c. 1865-1935, via Digital Library of India

 

The lands of Canaan were critical to both the Hittite and the ancient Egyptian empires. As such, both sides campaigned extensively throughout the region in order to secure their control and influence.  Eventually, this competition led to the battle of Kadesh, which was fought near the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River just upstream of lake Homs. Today, Kadesh is not far from the Syro-Lebanese border. The Battle of Kadesh involved thousands of troops. It is the earliest recorded pitched battle for which details concerning tactics and troop formations are known allowing historians to reconstruct what happened. It is also believed that the Battle of Kadesh may have been one of the largest chariot battles ever fought in the Ancient Near East, with upwards of 5,000-6,000 chariots taking part.

 

What Caused the Battle of Kadesh?

egyptian gold pectoral amun and hittite goddess
Golden Pectoral of the god Amun, Egyptian Late New Kingdom, via The British Museum; Hittite seated goddess with a child, c. 14th-13th Century BCE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The battle of Kadesh was the result of competing Hittite and Egyptian interests in the region of Canaan. For the Egyptians, Canaan was crucial to the overall security and well-being of ancient Egypt. After a native Egyptian dynasty had expelled the Hyksos in 1550 BCE, the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom campaigned in Canaan more aggressively. They sought to reclaim their lost spheres of influence and create a buffer zone that would prevent invaders from reaching Egypt itself. By pushing their borders further out, Egypt came into conflict with other powerful kingdoms like the Mitanni and Old Assyrians. In response, the Egyptians sought to further expand their buffer zone until they came into direct contact with the Hittites.

 

hittite priest king deity
Hittite Priest-King or Deity, c. 1600 BCE, via The Cleveland Museum of Art

 

The Hittite kingdom relied on several trade routes running through Syria and Canaan for the economic security of their empire. Trade with Mesopotamia was crucial as this was a major market for Hittite goods. These trade routes allowed the Hittites to maintain contact with their allies and wage war against their enemies. Egyptian campaigns in the region, during which the Egyptians established new garrisons, strengthened existing ones and subdued the Amurru kingdom, a Hittite vassal, threatening the Hittite Empire’s stability. When the Hittite army marched south, its stated goal was to recapture Amurru.

 

Egyptian and Hittite Commanders

ostracon ramesses ii relief and hittite chief tile
Limestone Ostracon with Ramesses II relief and cartouche, c. 1279-1189 BCE, via the British Museum; Tile with a Hittite Chief, c. 1184-1153 BCE, via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

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Egyptian forces were commanded by Rameses II (c.1303-1213 BCE), the third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Rameses was a great builder, whose projects and monuments would dot the lands of ancient Egypt and Nubia. He was also an active campaigner. He led expeditions into Canaan, Syria, Nubia, and Libya along with a major naval expedition in which he crushed a pirate fleet that had been ravaging Egyptian shipping. Despite all of these campaigns, Rameses ruled Egypt for 66 years, making him one of the longest-reigning Pharaohs when he died at the age of 90.

 

The Hittite army was commanded by King Muwatalli II (c. 1310-1265 BCE). Though less well known, he was just as skillful a commander as Rameses II. Muwatalli faced numerous political, social, and military challenges during his reign. He was a skilled diplomat who successfully negotiated treaties with his neighbors, including one with Wilusa (Troy). He fought skirmishes with the Kaska people to the north and dealt with the rebellion of Piyama-Radu to the west. Perhaps in recognition of the coming confrontation with Egypt, Muwatalli also relocated the Hittite capital to the southern city of Tarhuntassa, which was closer to Syria. However, some view this as an attempt at religious reform.

 

Egyptian and Hittite Armies

egyptian hittite chariots great kadesh relief ramesses
Details of Hittite and Egyptian Chariots from the Great Kadesh Reliefs of Ramesses II, by James Henry Breasted, c. 1865-1935, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Both the Hittites and Egyptians gathered large armies in preparation of the coming battle. Each army numbered around 20,000-50,000 soldiers. The Egyptian army was divided into four divisions (Amun, Re, Seth, & Ptah) and seems to have included a significant body of Canaanite and Sherden mercenaries. Hittite forces also included a significant contingent of allied troops within their ranks. The Hittite army featured allied contingents from Kadesh, Aleppo, Ugarit, the Mitanni, Carchemish, Wilusa (Troy), and several other parts of northern and western Anatolia. The Egyptians recorded a list of 19 allied contingents in the Hittite army. With Rameses II and Muwatali II in overall command of their respective armies, there were also numerous other high-ranking officials, princes, and kings leading troops on the battlefield.

 

The most important contingents of the Egyptian and Hittite armies were of course the chariot corps. Bronze Age chariots were primarily mobile firing platforms for archers and javelin men, they did not go crashing through infantry formations like tanks. There were also some distinctions between Hittite and Egyptian chariots. Hittite chariots had their wheels placed in the middle of the chariot carriage. This allowed them to carry three men in battle, a charioteer, an archer, and a spearman or shield-bearer. By comparison Egyptian chariots were much lighter and had their wheels at the rear of the carriage which allowed them to carry a crew of two, a charioteer and an archer.

 

The March to Kadesh

hittite relief twelve gods and egyptian model boat
Relief depicting Twelve Gods of the Hittite Underworld, Hittite Sanctuary of Yazilikaya, photograph by Umut Özdemir, via UNESCO; Model of a military transport boat, c. 2010-1961 BCE, via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Muwatalli and the Hittites were the first to arrive in the vicinity of Kadesh, where they encamped behind the city so that they would be out of sight of the approaching Egyptians. The Hittites then dispatched numerous scouts and spies to keep them informed of the Egyptian army’s movements and spread misinformation. In this they were quite successful, as the Egyptians were misled into thinking that the Hittites were still at Aleppo, some 200 km away, and that they were too afraid of the Egyptians to move south. Believing that the Hittites were far off the Egyptians relaxed their guard and the Amun, Re, Seth, & Ptah divisions became spread out.

 

It was not until they had reached Kadesh, that Rameses and the Egyptians became aware of the Hittite presence. The Egyptians captured two scouts who revealed the location of the Hittite army after a brutal interrogation. Rameses was at this point setting camp with only the Amun division and his bodyguard troops present. The Egyptians held an emergency council in which Rameses berated his officers for being tricked and sent messengers to hurry along the Seth and Ptah divisions. While this meeting was taking place, the Hittite chariots rode around Kadesh and attacked the Re division which was approaching the Egyptian camp. Caught in the open, the Re division broke and fled. The battle of Kadesh was at this point shaping up to be a great Hittite victory.

 

Battle of Kadesh 1274 BCE: Ancient Egypt vs the Hittites

battle kadesh ramesseum
Battle Scene from the Great Kadesh Reliefs of Ramesses II, c. 1865-1935, via Digital Library of India

 

Many of the fleeing soldiers of the Re division, which had been scattered at the opening of the battle of Kadesh, headed towards the Egyptian camp. The Hittites stormed into the Egyptian camp and began looting as they believed the battle to be already over. At one point Rameses was cut off from his troops and had to fight his way to safety. Gathering his troops, Rameses led a series of counterattacks against the Hittites who were distracted by looting and were having difficulty navigating their chariots through the Egyptian camp. As such, the Hittites were driven back and forced to retreat with many of their chariots unable to outrun the lighter, faster, Egyptian chariots.

 

At this point Muwatalli, who still had most of his army in reserve, personally led another attack against the Egyptians. Once again, the Hittites were able to drive the Egyptians back to their camp. This time, the Egyptians were saved by the timely arrival of their Canaanite mercenaries and the Ptah division. The Egyptians, now reinforced, launched a series of six charges. Nearly surrounded, the Hittites fled; many of them abandoning their chariots to swim across the nearby Orontes River to safety. With the Hittites forced to retreat and the Egyptians practically exhausted after a long day of fighting, the battle of Kadesh came to a close.

 

Aftermath

egyptian granite ramesses ii bust lion gate hattusa
Head and Shoulders of a Colossus of Ramesses II, c.1279-1213 BCE, via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Lion Gate of Hattusa, 14th Century BCE, photograph by Francesco Bandarin, via UNESCO

 

The battle of Kadesh can perhaps best be described as a draw. Although Ramses and the Egyptians were able to drive Muwatalli’s Hittites from the battlefield, they were not able to capture Kadesh. Additionally, the Egyptian army had suffered such heavy casualties that it was forced to return to Egypt. The Hittites had also suffered heavy casualties but were able to remain in the field after the battle of Kadesh. Muwatalli was able to drive the Egyptians out of Syria and induce their vassals in Canaan to revolt. The conflict would rage for another 15 years, with the advantage seesawing back and forth between the Hittites and Egyptians with neither side able to decisively defeat the other. Eventually, in 1258 BCE the Egyptians and Hittites decided to settle their border conflict through a treaty which established their separate spheres of influence.

 

As a result, historians and archaeologists are sharply over the outcome of the battle of Kadesh. Rameses of course depicted the battle of Kadesh as a great victory on his temples back in Egypt. On the other hand, Muwatalli described the chastened Egyptians withdrawing back to Egypt in shame. Most modern scholars consider the battle of Kadesh to have either been a draw or perhaps a tactical victory for the Egyptians and a strategic victory for the Hittites. Others argue for an Egyptian victory and there are even a few who consider the ancient Egyptian sources to be propaganda designed to cover up an Egyptian defeat.

 

Legacy of the Battle of Kadesh

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Peace Treaty between Hattusilis and Ramesses II, Copper bas-relief replica by Said Calik 1970, United Nations Conference Building

 

For the ancient Egyptians and Hittites, the battle of Kadesh was less important than it has been for modern scholars. Part of what makes the battle of Kadesh so important is the fact that it was very well documented by both sides. Most of the sources report the battle from the Egyptian point of view and include accounts known as the Poem, the Bulletin, Papyrus Raifet, Papyrus Sallier III, and numerous wall reliefs and inscriptions. There is also a letter that Rameses II sent to the new Hittite king Hattusili III in response to the latter’s scoffing complaint about the Egyptian portrayal of the battle. All of this has allowed scholars to reconstruct the battle in great detail, making it the earliest pitched battle for which it is possible to do so.

 

Ultimately, the battle of Kadesh led to a peace treaty between the Hittites and Egyptians, which resolved their border conflict. This treaty was originally engraved on silver tablets so that each side received its own copy. Remarkably both the ancient Egyptian and Hittite versions of the treaty have been recovered by archaeologists. A clay copy was recovered from the Hittite capital of Hattusa and now resides in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and at the Berlin States Museum in Germany. The Egyptian version was inscribed on the walls of two temples in Thebes, the Ramesseum, and the Precinct of Amun-Re at the Temple of Karnak. This treaty is the oldest international agreement and the oldest peace treaty for which the exact details are known. It promises peace, security, cooperation, and mutual brotherhood between the two great powers. Today a copy of the treaty’s text is prominently displayed at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.



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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.