The stage is set for a showdown between two giant armies – the Egyptians, with the greatest pharaoh of history, Ramses II, and the Hittites, with their impressive army and persuasive king, Muwatalli II. The bloody Battle of Kadesh would go down in history as the largest chariot battle ever fought!
The Egyptian Army and their Gods
The Egyptian army under Ramses II during the New Kingdom was a professional fighting force. The Egyptian army, like most, consisted of chariots, infantry, and archers. The Egyptians made sure that one man in ten was liable for military service. As for Egyptian units, they were named after their gods.
Each Egyptian division numbered 5,000 men subdivided into 250-man companies and 50-man platoons. The chariot, used by both the Egyptians and Hittites, was the tank of the ancient world and could not function properly upon the field of battle without infantry support. The Egyptian infantry provided the brunt of the main fighting body. The foot archers provided missile support. Chariots had a driver and an archer. Unlike a foot archer, the archer in the chariot was mobile and had a 360-degree platform to fire from, just like the Hittite chariots. A difference between the two armies was that the Egypt was much more suited for open warfare, unlike their Hittite counterparts.
Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh (relief at Abu Simbel) (Public Domain)
The size of the army Ramses led to Kadesh numbered 20,000, of which 16,000 were foot soldiers while the other 4,000 manned the chariots. There were two men to a chariot and the number of chariots the Egyptians brought to the battle was 2,000, requiring 4,000 horses, not to mention that additional horses and chariots were readily available. Unlike the Hittite chariots, which were built to taxi infantry around the battlefield, the Egyptian chariots were suited for speed and maneuverability. The Egyptians took the design of the Hyksos chariot and improved upon it by positioning the axle to the rear of the carrying platform, expanding the spokes in the wheel from four to six, and connecting the U-shaped joint to the yoke pole under the chariot was designed to slide left and right allowing the driver smooth rotation when on the move.
Hyksos chariot painting (Public Domain)
The Battle of Kadesh
After many days, Ramses led his army to Usermare-Meriamon, the city of cedar. From here, he proceeded northward and arrived at the highland of Kadesh. Ramses, like his father, crossed over the channel of the Orontes, with the first division of Amon named: “Victory-of-King-Usermare-Setepnere.”
When Ramses reached the city, he states in the battle of Kadesh account:
Behold, the wretched, vanquished chief of Kheta (Hittites) had come, having gathered together all countries from the ends of the sea to the land of Kheta, which came entire: the Naharin likewise, and Arvad, Mesa, Keshkesh, Kelekesh, Luka, Kezweden, Carchemish, Ekereth, Kode, the entire land of Nuges, Mesheneth, and Kadesh. He left not a country which was not brought together with their chiefs who were with him, every man bringing his chariotry, an exceeding great multitude, without its like. They covered the mountains and the valleys; they were like grasshoppers with their multitudes. He left not silver nor gold in his land but he plundered it of all its possessions and gave to every country, in order to bring them with him to battle. Behold, the wretched, vanquished chief of Kheta, together with numerous allied countries, were stationed in battle array, concealed on the northwest of the city of Kadesh.
Statue of Ramses II at Luxor Temple (CC BY-SA 2.0)
While Ramses was alone with his bodyguard, the division of Amon was marching behind him. The division of Ra crossed over the river-bed on the south side of the town of Shabtuna, at the distance of an iter (assuming that 1 iter = 5,000 royal cubits = 2618 meters or 1.6 miles) from the division of Amon; the division of Ptah was on the south of the city of Aranami; and the division of Sutekh was marching upon the road.
Egyptian relief dating to Ramesses II’s reign, depicting Kadesh garrisoned by Hittites and surrounded by the Orontes River. (Public Domain)
According to the account:
Ramses had formed the first rank of all the leaders of his army, while they were on the shore in the land of the Amor. Behold, the wretched vanquished chief of Kheta (Hittites) was stationed in the midst of the infantry which was with him, and he came not out to fight, for fear of his majesty. Then he made to go the people of the chariotry, an exceedingly numerous multitude like the sand, being three people to each span. Now, they had made their combinations thus: among every three youths was one man of the vanquished of Kheta, equipped with all the weapons of battle. Lo, they had stationed them in battle array, concealed on the northwest the city of Kadesh.
The Hittite forces rushed forth from the tree line on the southern side of Kadesh, and cut right through the division of Ra, exposing the Egyptian right flank. This caused many of the Egyptian infantry and chariotry to retreat in panic and slam right into the Amon division led by Ramses, which he had halted on the north of the city of Kadesh, on the western side of the Orontes. After the Hittite chariots had punched their way through the Ra division, they swung back towards the plains of Kadesh from which they headed northeast to attack Ramses’ encampment. Even though some Hittite units were able to penetrate the camp, many were knocked off their chariots and slain by Ramses’ bodyguard. While Ramses and his men put up a valiant effort, they had to abandon the camp/fort. The Hittite soldiers had a field day looting the camp.
While the Hittites were busy looting the camp, Ramses rushed to his chariot and quickly took off without his bodyguard. It is said that when he rushed in he defeated the thousands of chariots that surrounded him:
His majesty (Ramses) halted in the rout; then he charged into the foe, the vanquished of Kheta, being alone by himself and none other with him. When his majesty went to look behind him, he found 2,500 chariotry surrounding him, in his way out, being all the youth of the wretched Kheta, together with its numerous allied countries.
Egyptian driving chariot, Crossroads of Civilization exhibit (CC BY 2.0); Deriv
While this is obviously dismissed as legend and exaggeration, there may be some truth to this. Understand that Ramses’ men panicked and fled. After seeing him take on the Hittites, his troops regained their courage and the remaining chariot reserves in the camp rallied and pressed on the attack. The Egyptian chariots left the east gate before turning northwest and nailed the Hittite flank that was busy looting. Ramses’ attack on the heavy Hittite chariots dislodged and threw many of them into confusion, because not only did the remaining Egyptian charioteer units rejoin the battle, so did the infantry.
Model of chariots at the Battle of Kadesh. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Seeing Ramses and his forces pressing a counter-attack, Muwatalli took up his remaining forces, which were roughly 1,000 chariots. They forded the Orontes River north of Kadesh and swung south in an attempt to flank Ramses.
Illustration, The great Ramses II in the Battle of Khadesh (Public Domain)
However, Muwatalli had an unforeseen problem. As he was making his way towards Ramses’ forces, the reformed Egyptian forces (perhaps allied mercenary forces summoned by Ramses) and the third Egyptian division, the Sutekh, approaching from the south. If Muwatalli could not regain control of his men and the battle, he would soon face the hammer and anvil and it sure seemed that way, for Ramses decide to cease further pursuit of the fleeing Hittites and join up with the Sutekh division. Ramses had no worries about the fleeing Hittites, for they were between his forces and the river. Muwatalli saw that Ramses and his forces turned north towards his relief force. The Hittite relief force had no chance. They were cut down and destroyed. Muwatalli and his remaining forces fled the field of battle and headed south past Kadesh and crossed the Orontes. Of all the Egyptian divisions that fought, one arrived late to the battle and that was the Ptah division.
The Aftermath – Victory For All?
The casualties and losses at the battle of Kadesh remain unknown. As for the victor, Ramses states:
His majesty being powerful, his heart stout, none could stand before him. All his territory was ablaze with fire, and he burned every foreign country with his hot breath, his eyes savage when he saw them, and his might flared up like fore against them. He took no note of millions of foreigners, he regarded them as chaff. Then His majesty entered into the host of the Hatti enemies….and His Majesty killed the entire host of the Wretched Fallen One of Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries who had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry being fallen upon their faces, one upon another, and His Majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places, they sprawling before his horse and His Majesty being along, none other with him. (Kadesh)
It is understandable that Ramses saw Kadesh as a victory. But Muwatalli also saw Kadesh as a victory. The Hittite records state, “Muwatalli took the field against the king of Egypt and the country of Amurru and…defeated the king of Egypt and the country of Amurru.”
Western outer wall: showing Qadesh battle, Temple of Ramesses II, Abydos, Egypt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
So, who won the battle? The answer is no one. Kadesh was a stalemate. But if one wants to be technical, one could argue that Egypt had a moral victory only possible due to their new military technology in charioteering. However, while the battle was a draw, Muwatalli may have been the true victor even in defeat. Muwatalli was long-term victor due to his territorial acquisition at Egypt’s expense. The reason for this is that Muwatalli was able to confiscate more land south and extend his sphere of influence further. In doing so, the Hittite sphere of influence had left Egypt only in control of Canaan.
Overall, the battle of Kadesh from a military point of view was an Egyptian victory, as they displayed for future readers Egypt’s new military technology (a new type of chariot) but one can also find the personal bravery of Ramses II. If Ramses had a “Go to Hell Plan to Survive the Next Crises”, he used it that day at Kadesh. While Muwatalli and his force were defeated, he did win in the game of “go” by using the fewest number of pieces to acquire the most amount of territory at Egypt’s expense. However one looks at it, Kadesh provided the first detailed account of a battle in recorded history. Because of this, one can learn much from this battle and compare the tactics, strategies, logistics, and international relations.
The victory at Kadesh is left to the eye of the beholder.
Top Image: Ramses II at his chariot falls upon the Nubians (CC BY 2.0)
By Cam Rea
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Richard A. Gabriel , The Great Armies of Antiquity
Thomas Harrison, The Great Empires of the Ancient World