The Battle of Kadesh, a Clash of Titans (1274 BCE) – Part I


Many believe Ramses II (1303-1213 BCE) is the most celebrated, powerful, and greatest pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. It is not hard to see why. The battle of Kadesh would immortalize Ramses II in our history books.

A Patient Warrior

Ramses was born in a very successful and well trained military family. His grandfather, Ramses I and his great-grandfather, Seti, had both been commanders in the field. Ramses first taste of action began as a teenager when he accompanied his father Seti I on a military campaign against Libya.

Pharaoh Ramesses II. Statue in the Torino Museum.

Pharaoh Ramesses II. Statue in the Torino Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ramses II took the throne in 1279 BCE, and just two years into his reign a sea people known as the Sherden started attacking Egyptian cargo ships. Ramses, understanding that it was useless to go after them in the open sea with his own ships, decided to lay out a trap by placing lucrative items along strategic areas along the coast. By enticing them, he hoped to lure them in before striking. When they took the bait, Ramses forces struck and decisively defeated the enemy. This battle shows Ramses used patience and stealth as his strategic and tactical weapons—both of which he would demonstrate at the battle of Kadesh.

Kadesh was a city located in the northern Levant (Syria) near or on the Orontes River. The Battle of Kadesh is regarded as the earliest battle recorded in great detail. The battle of Kadesh pitted two great empires against each other: Egypt, led by Ramses II, and the Hittite Empire, led by Muwatalli II. The reason for this soon-to-be confrontation was due to Thutmose III’s victory over Megiddo in 1457 BCE which also included the taking of Kadesh. This gave Egypt a sphere of influence that stretched far into northern Levant and Mesopotamia, giving the Egyptians access to the lucrative trade routes.

Politicking and New Kings

A century later, the Hittite King Suppiluliuma (1344-1322) continued the honor the agreement with Egypt as to where the line was drawn. But when the king of Kadesh by the name of Shuttarna (Shutatarra) decided to attack him, Suppiluliuma had no choice but to retaliate. The result was a Hittite victory. The king and the leading citizens were sent into captivity. It is interesting that the Egyptians showed little interest. Suppiluliuma placed the defeated king’s son, Aitakkama on the throne of Kadesh. Aitakkama swore his allegiance to Suppiluliuma and became a Hittite vassal.

Statue attributed as Suppiluliuma.

Statue attributed as Suppiluliuma. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

King Aitakkama probably saw the Hittites as a much greater ally, since the Egyptians did not come to the aid of his father. Aitakkama took advantage of this situation (as Egypt appeared to be weak), by making alliances with the regional kings, particularly the King Aziru of the Amurru. He did so in order to expand his own territory. It would be naive to think the Egyptians brushed it off. Rather, they felt troubled, as it threatened their trade and security.

In his teens, Pharaoh Tutankhamen saw to it to restore Egyptian supremacy in the Levant by attacking Kadesh. Once Tutankhamen had taken Kadesh, Mursili wrote to his father Suppiluliuma, “Egyptian troops and chariots came to the land of Kinza, which my father had conquered, and attacked the land of Kinza (Kadesh)”. The Hittites were facing much pressure not from just Egypt, but also from the Mittani as well, not to mention that Assyria was becoming a much stronger entity in the region. Suppiluliuma sent troops to retake Kadesh and they reported back, “they went to attack Amka (the land where Kadesh is located) and brought civilian captives, cattle and sheep back to my father.”

The Pharaoh Tutankhamen destroying his enemies

‘The Pharaoh Tutankhamen destroying his enemies’ (Public Domain)

This military intelligence report does not sound like a victory. Moreover, no victory or defeat is mentioned, which leaves one wondering. What could be said is that even though the Egyptians did retake Kadesh— at what price? In other words, even though they now controlled Kadesh how much did they really control, not only territorially but more important politically throughout the regions? Just because they controlled a crucial city did not mean they had a firm grip to ward off any contenders or catch the ears of potential allies.

The Death of Tutankhamen Spells Disaster for Empires

While the division between Egypt and the Hittites remained, the Hittite King Suppiluliuma defeated the Hurrians, and he turned to besiege Carchemish. However, as if the gods favored the Hittites, Pharoah Tutankhamen died. The boy king was now dead and his wife/half-sister Ankhesenamen (Ankhesenamun) was still alive.

Statue of an unknown Amarna-era princess. New Kingdom, Amarna period, 18th dynasty, circa 1345 BC

Statue of an unknown Amarna-era princess. New Kingdom, Amarna period, 18th dynasty, circa 1345 BC (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Mursili II he states, “When the people of Egypt heard of the attack on Amka, they were afraid. And since their lord Nibhururiya (Tutankhamen) had just died, the Queen of Egypt who was the king’s wife sent a messenger to my father.”

Queen Ankhesenamen’s message to Suppiluliuma stated, “My husband had died, and I have no sons, he will become my husband. I do not wish to choose a subject of mine and make him my husband…I am afraid.” Suppiluliuma was beside himself after reading such a letter: “Nothing like this has happened to me in my entire life!” This is rather strange for both parties.

On the one hand, you have Egypt that views outsiders as inferior and on the other hand, you have Suppiluliuma whose family is about to inherit the Egyptian Empire. This was hard to believe. It is understandable that Suppiluliuma was cautious—who wouldn’t be? Therefore, he decided to question the envoys who brought the letters. In doing so, he lost the keys to the Egyptian Empire, because he took far too long with the investigation. He did send a son by the name of Zannanza. However, Zannanza died en route to Egypt. Some say he was murdered. With the death of Zannanza went the unification of empires. With no deal established the tensions continued throughout the Levant.

From the time that the possible unification of empires fell through until Ramses II took the throne, Egypt did have a phase where Pharaohs Ramesses I and Seti I campaigned in Levant with success by recapturing long-lost land of the Amurru –  and to do that one must control the city of Kadesh. However, much of this was lost again during this time, perhaps under the reign of Seti I. How much was ultimately lost remains unknown. What is known is that Egypt’s sphere of influence had backtracked enough to cause an alarm during Ramses II reign.

Calm before the Storm

In year four of Ramses II’s reign, he led men up the coast of the Levant where his troops were active in Byblos and Beirut. His forces never encountered the Hittites during this expedition. Afterwards, he had a stela created to commemorate the campaign in the region.

Stela of ramose. Ramesses II smites his enemies (limestone, deir el-Medineh) Representative image.

Stela of ramose. Ramesses II smites his enemies (limestone, deir el-Medineh) Representative image. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, Muwatalli II, king of the Hittite Empire, did not like this. Muwatalli did not see this as an act of “saber rattling” but an act of war. Even though Ramses did not break any treaties, the fact that he was willing to make his presence known so close to the Hittite sphere of influence was a cause for alarm. There is no doubt that some of the regional mini-kingdoms walked the fence between inaction and swearing allegiance to the stronger empire. Muwatalli felt that Ramses was seeking to reestablish Egyptian authority throughout the region.

It was possible—but it’s a stretch – that perhaps when Muwatalli was informed on the size of the Egyptian force, he may have felt that the Egyptians were weak and ripe for attack. In other words, if Ramses was seeking to intimidate the Hittites with the small number of troops accompanying him, maybe he was weak.  In the end, it may have been all of the above, but the likely reason is that Ramses made his presence known. Therefore, Muwatalli mustered his massive army during the winter.

Muwatalli made it known that war was on and that Kadesh would be the battle location. Remember, whoever controlled the city would have an easier time conquering the Amurru region, as mentioned. The following year, Ramses began to assemble his forces throughout March and April at the city of Pi Ramasses.

A Capable Hittite Military with their Influential Leader

The army Muwatalli led was rather large for a traditional Hittite force, which was roughly between 17,000-20,000 men. This indicates that Muwatalli was a fine politician in that he was able to convince so many of his vassals to contribute to the war effort, along with making treaties of mutual assistance with the city-states of Syria.

Depiction of Muwatalli II on a relief at Sirkeli Höyük, Turkey. (Public Domain)

When it came to the Hittite army organization, they relied on a decimal system, like most. They utilized chariots that received support from the infantry, and the archers supported the infantry; All of which shared the same organizational structure with squads of ten, companies of ten squads, and battalions of ten companies. Infantry deployed for battle in companies 10 men wide and 10 men deep, with battalions standing with 100-man fronts, 10 men deep.

Hittite chariot, from an Egyptian relief.

Hittite chariot, from an Egyptian relief. (Public Domain)

When it came to the dominant aspect of the Hittite army it was its massive phalanx formation of spearmen, who were supported by archers and light infantry. Besides using horses to pull the chariots, they did use them to deliver messages during the imperial period. As for the light infantry, they also were armed with bows and were known as “troops of Sutu.” They were used for quick maneuvering. In other words, speed was essential to hit and run, ambush and reconnaissance.

Unlike the Egyptians, which shall be discussed shortly, the Hittite infantry was much more flexible when it came to arms and equipment and tactical deployment. Understand that the Hittite warrior traversed and fought on Anatolian terrain that was rough, mountainous, and wooded. The commanders of these men understood what was and what was not needed when it came to weapons and armor due to the terrain and the enemy they were about to engage. If something changed among the enemy ranks, the commanders were able to reequip what men he thought would not only benefit from but also be most effective with weapons when confronting the enemy in question.

Map of Syria in the second millennium BC, showing the location of Kadesh (Qadesh)

Map of Syria in the second millennium BC, showing the location of Kadesh (Qadesh). (Public Domain)

As noted, the size of the army Muwatalli led to Kadesh is suggested to have numbered roughly between 17,000-20,000 soldiers. However, some propose that Muwatalli led a much large force, numbering as great as 50,000. While this is possible, it is unlikely. Hittite chariots required three men to a chariot. If the Hittites had between 2,500-3,700 chariots at Kadesh then the number of men required to operate those chariots was 9,000-11,000 along with 5,000-7,400 horses.

Battle chariot, Carchemish, 9th century BC; Late Hittite style with Assyrian influence.

Battle chariot, Carchemish, 9th century BC; Late Hittite style with Assyrian influence. (CC BY 2.0)

If the numbers are correct, then Muwatalli had something between 9-11k foot soldiers. It seems difficult to believe, but understand that the Hittite chariots, unlike the Egyptian chariots, were not built for speed and maneuverability. Rather, they served as a battlefield taxi for mobile infantry, like a modern day armored personnel carrier. They had four spokes instead of six like the Egyptians. In addition, the axle was placed in the middle of the chariot in order to compensate for the weight of men which drastically reduced its speed.

This impressive force would be matched against he who is regarded as the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire; Ramesses II and his professional fighting force.

Top Image: Relief, Ramses II among the Gods – Abydos 1275 BC (CC BY 2.0)

By Cam Rea


Amanda H. Podany, Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East

Brian Todd Carey, Warfare in the Ancient World

Carolyn R. Higginbotham, Egyptianization and Elite Emulation in Ramesside Palestine

John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa, Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt’s Late Eighteenth Dynasty

Manuel Robbins, Collapse of the Bronze Age

Richard A. Gabriel , The Great Armies of Antiquity

Thomas Harrison, The Great Empires of the Ancient World

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