Battle of Kadesh: Ramesses II, Egyptians fight Hittites to draw

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Battle of Kadesh: Ramesses II, Egyptians fight Hittites to draw

Egyptian carving of battle of Kadesh, with broken Hittites seeking refuge across Orontes River
Note the grandiose depiction of Ramesses on the left side of the carving
From the walls of the Ramesseum, the memorial temple to Ramesses II, in Luxor, Egypt
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 12, 1274 BC

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

In the thirteenth century before the Christian Era, the two major superpowers of the Middle East were New Kingdom Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Each nation was eager to expand and dominate their neighbors. In the third decade of that century, the two empires collided on the plains of Syria. This conflict gave modern historians the first battle of ancient times with an extensive account of the armies, the tactics and the outcome. [Well, the last one is still the center of historical debate…]

Background to the Battle

About the year 1550 BC, Egypt expelled the first major invaders to disrupt their civilization, the Hyksos, a mysterious nomadic people from the Middle East. One of the major innovations that the Egyptians adopted from them was the war chariot, a mobile battle platform that transformed how the pharaohs waged war. By 1300 BC, the Egyptians had developed a light, two-man chariot that was the tank of its time period. With the assistance of this innovative machine, the Egyptians pushed their empire into modern-day eastern Libya, northern Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and western Syria. In expanding into Syria, however, they confronted the Hittite Empire.

Ancient eastern Mediterranean/the Levant, c. 1300 BC; Egyptian Empire in green, Hittite Empire in red; Image by D. Bachmann, courtesy of Wikipedia
Ancient eastern Mediterranean/the Levant, c. 1300 BC
Egyptian Empire in green, Hittite Empire in red
Image by D. Bachmann, courtesy of Wikipedia

The Hittites were a Mediterranean people that spoke an Indo-European language. Their origins are shrouded in mystery, originating either from the Balkans or the area of the Black or Caspian seas. Archaeological studies reveal evidence of their civilization as far back as the eighteenth century BC. From that time until 1300 BC, the Hittites conquered most of Asia Minor, western Mesopotamia, and northern Syria. They were one of the first people to discover the method for properly smelting iron, ushering in the Early Iron Age. [They apparently did *not* use iron for much more than luxury goods, due to the scarcity of iron ore.] The Hittites were strong enough to sack the city of Babylon in about 1531 BC, carrying off an idol of the chief Babylonian deity Marduk. It was only a matter of time before the Hittites encountered Egypt.

Between 1290 and 1279, Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I began expanding into Syria, conquering the city-states of Amurru and Kadesh, both of whom were vassals of the Hittites. In effect, this was a de facto declaration of war against the Hittites. After Seti's death, his son Ramesses II sought to continue his father's expansion. In the spring of 1274, Ramesses learned that Amurru and Kadesh had revolted and returned to the Hittite orbit. Gathering an army, he marched through Palestine into Syria, intent on re-acquiring the two areas for his empire. At the same time, a Hittite army was approaching from the north, equally intent on keeping their property.

Egyptian Army

Units of Egyptian, allied or vassal javelinmen would precede the main foot contingents. An Egyptian army also had several units of bow-armed men -- some Nubians and others Egyptians or Libyans – showering the enemy with a great volume of arrow prior to contact. The main infantry units of an Egyptian army would have several options. Spear-armed soldiers with wooden shields covered in oxhide, with an axe or sword as a sidearm, were the most likely make-up of a pharaonic army. Another likely inclusion was contingents of axe-armed soldiers, swinging their bronze axes two-handed with a shield slung on the back. In addition, the Egyptians employed some mercenaries, such as Sherden swordsmen. These warriors were likely from the Aegean Sea area, wore banded leather or metal armor, shields and horned helmets, using long bronze swords in battle. [Many historians believe the Sherden were the first wave of the "Sea Peoples" who attacked Egypt and eventually settled on the coast of Palestine as the Philistines.]

Egyptian war chariot, 13th century BC, artist unknown; Image courtesy of
Egyptian war chariot, 13th century BC, artist unknown; Image courtesy of

The adoption of the light two-horse chariot gave Egyptian armies a punch that they did not previously possess. These light chariots could travel at speeds up to 24 miles per hour, and were still very maneuverable. An Egyptian army could now field hundreds, even thousands, of these two-man battle platforms, used to soften up an enemy before the infantry came to blows. The chariots would also fight enemy charioteers, and would likely be used in the pursuit of a routing foe after the battle. Most of these units would deploy swift-footed "chariot runners," infantrymen trained to run alongside the chariots to provide some flank security, as well as skirmish with the enemy.

The main punch from the chariots was provided by the composite bow-armed archer. The composite bow was constructed of wood, animal horn and sinew, constructed in a precise manner. This allowed the weapon to shoot arrows up to 550 yards or more. Imagine these large numbers of chariots peppering an enemy with clouds of arrows prior to contact with spearmen, swordsmen, or axemen.

Hittite Army

The Hittite army was similar to the Egyptian New Kingdom force in most respects. It employed either Anatolian or Syrian bowmen or javelinmen as skirmishers. Units of spearmen and/or sickle swordsmen (again, probably bronze weapons) wearing some form of banded leather or metal armor were also utilized. The Hittite army had a small cadre of royal troops, while the balance of its armies was comprised of troops from the various vassal nations.

The biggest difference between the Egyptians and the Hittites was in the types of chariots each nation used. Some Hittite forces used Anatolian light, two-man chariots similar to the Egyptian models. These Hittite chariots held a driver and spearman, and primarily got up close and personal with enemy infantry. They also used a Syrian light chariot called a Maryannu, which also carried two men, but the fighter was armed with a bow and skirmished more at a distance.

Hittite heavy chariot, c. 13th century BC; Image courtesy of
Hittite heavy chariot, c. 13th century BC
Image courtesy of

In addition, the Hittites used a heavier, three-man chariot, not as maneuverable as the Egyptian or the Maryannu versions (see above photograph). Besides the driver, the passengers were either two spearmen or a spearman and a shield-bearer. The driver apparently wore no armor, while his passengers wore some lamellar or banded leather or metal protection. The horses would often have leather armor as well. The Hittites used their chariots in mass formation as a shock force to break the enemy's infantry lines, after which the chariots, joined by the infantry, would exploit the resulting confusion to rout the enemy force.

The Battle Dispositions

[The main sources for this battle were inscriptions on the walls of Ramesses' temples in Abydos, Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel, glorifying the battle at Kadesh as a great victory for Egypt. Examined more rationally, this is only half-true. Some inscriptions among the Hittites also give a different perspective.]

Ramesses mustered a force of about 20,000 men, divided into 4 division, each bearing a name of one of the Egyptian gods: Amun, Ra, Sutekh (or Set) and Ptah. Also mentioned is a force labeled "Ne'arin," which is thought to have been Canaanite infantry auxiliaries being used as garrison troops occupying the city of Amurru. The exact composition of each division is very conjectural, though it is thought that each Egyptian division had a force of 500 chariots, giving the Egyptians approximately 2000 chariots all together. Each division likely had spearmen, archers and other footmen. The Amun division was also accompanied by the Pharaoh's personal bodyguard, which probably included the Sherden mercenaries. Ramesses was about 25 years old at this time, full of self-confidence bordering on arrogance. [The ancient Greeks used the term hubris.]

The Hittite army was probably much larger than the Egyptian force, possibly on the order of 50,000 men or more. One area where the Hittites enjoyed a massive advantage was its chariotry. An estimated 3700 chariots were deployed by Muwatallis, the Hittite king and army commander. The balance of his army probably numbered around 40,000 infantry, most of them from vassal states in Anatolia and Syria. Muwatallis was likely in his 40's or early 50's, having ruled his empire for about 20 years, and was a seasoned campaigner. He probably thought he had the arrogant Ramesses just where he wanted him…

The city of Kadesh was located on the Orontes River, with the Forest of Robaui to its south and west. Just to the west of the city is the Beqaa Valley, a major travel route between Palestine and Syria, often used by invading armies throughout antiquity.

Prelude to The Battle

The Egyptian army was traveling through the Beqaa Valley, each division widely separated from the other (a major tactical error on Ramesses' part). About seven miles south of Kadesh, Egyptian scouts brought before the pharaoh two local nomads who had been captured for questioning. These men claimed to be loyal Egyptian vassals, and told Ramesses what he wanted to hear: the Hittite main army was over 120 miles to the north, because they were afraid to attack the mighty Ramesses. Unfortunately, Ramesses fell victim to this Hittite subterfuge; these men were giving the Egyptians "disinformation." The main enemy army was actually across the Orontes River using the city of Kadesh to screen its encampment.

In a hurry to besiege Kadesh, Ramesses pushed the Amun division and his bodyguard forward, arriving at a level plain west of the city in the early afternoon. The Egyptian force then made camp at this spot (apparently not noticing that it had been used for a campsite by the Hittites the day before). At about 2:30 in the afternoon, Egyptian scouts brought in two additional prisoners. After identifying themselves as Hittites, Ramesses ordered the two men to be beaten and questioned closely. As a result, the truth of Ramesses' position finally emerged. These most recent prisoners revealed that the main Hittite force was nearby, and was approaching rapidly. According to the Egyptian temple wall inscriptions, the Hittite prisoners said:

Lo, the king of Hatti [the Hittites] has already arrived, together with the many countries who are supporting him... They are armed with their infantry and their chariots. They have their weapons of war at the ready. They are more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach. Behold, they stand equipped and ready for battle behind the old city of Kadesh.

On hearing this new intelligence, Ramesses began berating his commanders for not putting out scouts to confirm the location of the Hittite host. In addition, he sent messengers to his other three divisions and his Nearin auxiliaries, urging them to come quickly to his aid. Ramesses even sent his vizier to personally bring the nearest Egyptian force, the Ra division, to the camp as quickly as possible. However, as the messengers rode off on their missions, the Hittite hammer-blow struck.

Battle of Kadesh, First Phase

Muwatallis sent the majority of his heavy chariots, some 2000 of them, across the Orontes and through the Robaui forest, where they struck the Ra division while it was still marching to the Egyptian camp. The suddenness of the enemy attack dispersed the Ra division, nearly annihilating it in a few minutes. Groups of the division scattered in several directions, but one large contingent headed for Ramesses' camp, closely pursued by the victorious Hittite chariots.

Battle of Kadesh, first phase; Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia
Battle of Kadesh, first phase
Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia

Battle of Kadesh, Second Phase

The Hittites burst upon the Egyptian camp, crashing through the perimeter of shields and into the tents. The soldiers of the Amun division were thrown into confusion, some fleeing in terror from the Hittite onslaught. Nonetheless, the momentum of the Hittite attack was waning, with the many obstacles of the large camp hindering the heavy chariots. As the Hittite force tried to regroup, individual Egyptians began forming groups of resistance, taking down the horses and men of the attacking chariots and putting up resistance to the Hittite attack.

Battle of Kadesh, second phase; Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia
Battle of Kadesh, second phase
Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia

Seeing his army being destroyed before his eyes, Ramesses took matters into his own hands. If we can believe his own grandiose propaganda, the pharaoh mounted his own chariot alone (??), grabbed his composite bow, and prayed to his gods for their help in overcoming his foe. "…No officer was with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army, no shield-bearer…" he claimed. More likely, he gathered about him his personal bodyguard, chariots of the Amun division and remnants of the Ra division and began to make assaults against the overextended Hittite forces. In addition, many of the Hittites believed they had already won the battle and were busily looting the Egyptian camp.

Battle of Kadesh, Final Phase

Battle of Kadesh, final phase; Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia
Battle of Kadesh, final phase
Image by Gianandre, courtesy of Wikipedia

Ramesses and his force apparently rode around the entire perimeter of his camp, launching attacks of opportunity. At some point, the Ne'arin contingent arrived on the battlefield, causing Hittite forces on the western side of the Egyptian camp to flee. Finally, Ramesses rallied his forces to make one final attack on the Hittites on the eastern side of the Egyptian camp, breaking the will of the enemy and sending them in a disordered retreat. Ramesses and his men pursued the Hittites to the banks of the Orontes, forcing them across the swift-flowing river.

However, as the Egyptians harassed the retreating first-strike Hittite force, another group of 1000 heavy chariots – sent by Muwatallis to help mop-up the Egyptians and containing many Hittite nobles – began crossing the Orontes. Apparently thinking that he had the battle won, the Hittite monarch stayed on the eastern side of the Orontes with his entire infantry force. As the Hittite chariots crossed the Orontes, Ramesses decided to change tactics. Instead of maintaining his distance, Ramesses decided to close with the enemy, a tactic that seemingly favored the Hittites.

Actually, Ramesses wanted to use the terrain as his ally. The Hittite heavy chariots had to cross the Orontes at a narrow ford and climb the riverbank to reach the plain where the Egyptians were located. The Hittite chariots were most effective at battle speed. Ramesses wanted to close with them before they could get up to speed. Also, by fighting them close to the river, he kept the Hittites from deploying into battle formation. By attacking the Hittites in this fashion, Ramesses' flanks were protected and allowed him to fight only a fraction of the Hittite force at one time.

Ramesses leading the counterattack at battle of Kadesh; Illustration by Giuseppe Rava, from Vae Victis magazine; Courtesy of
Ramesses leading the counterattack at battle of Kadesh
Illustration by Giuseppe Rava, from Vae Victis magazine
Courtesy of

The Hittites, realizing what Ramesses had up his sleeve, launched five separate attacks on the Egyptian force. Muwatallis continued throwing his chariots across the river, but Ramesses ordered his chariots forward to thwart them. Finally, at around 7:00 p.m., Ramesses personally led a final attack on the Hittite chariots. Thrown back a final time, the Hittites then noticed a new threat: the long-absent Division of Ptah was emerging from the Forest of Robaui, threatening the rear of the Hittite army. With sunset less than an hour away, the last remnants of the Hittites retreated, many abandoning their chariots and attempting to swim the Orontes,  the enemy "hurried as fast as crocodiles swimming" according to Ramesses' temple inscriptions. The battle of Kadesh was over, taking a total of three to four hours.


Casualties were not given and most historians have not ventured any concrete opinion. However, over 2000 of the Hittites' chariots were destroyed or captured, with most of their crews likely killed, drowned, or taken prisoner. The Egyptian Amun and Ra divisions likely suffered heavy casualties. Nonetheless, the Hittite army was still an effective force, with over 1000 chariots and nearly 40,000 infantry at the command of Muwatallis. Probably realizing his predicament, Ramesses gathered his forces, pulled back to Damascus and declared himself the victorious party. Within the year, however, Amurru revolted and returned to the Hittite orbit.

Footnote #1: About 16 years after the battle of Kadesh, Hittite and Egyptian officials met in Kadesh for a summit conference. A peace treaty was established, evidence of which exists to this day. A clay tablet in Akkadian cuneiform was excavated in Turkey. The original hangs in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, and a copy hangs on a wall at the United Nations headquarters in New York City; it is the earliest known international peace treaty. An Egyptian papyrus was also excavated, and the terms of the treaty were carved into the walls of a temple in Karnak.

Hittite version of peace treaty with Egypt, 1258 BC; On display at Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Istanbul, Turkey; Photograph by Giovanni Dall'Orto, courtesy of Wikipedia
Hittite version of peace treaty with Egypt, 1258 BC
On display at Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Istanbul, Turkey
Photograph by Giovanni Dall'Orto, courtesy of Wikipedia

Footnote #2: Ramesses continued to rule Egypt after Kadesh, his reign extending for 67 years. He died in 1213 BC, approximately 90 or 91 years old. He also had 200 wives and concubines, as well as 96 sons and 60 daughters. Probably for his military campaigns and many monumental building projects, he was named "Ramesses the Great." He was buried in the Valley of the Kings, and his mummy is now on display at the Cairo Egyptian Museum.

Mummy of Ramesses II in Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
Mummy of Ramesses II in Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

Footnote #3: In 1974, Egyptologists noticed that Ramesses' mummy was deteriorating rapidly. It was flown to Paris for diagnosis and examination. The mummy was issued an Egyptian passport – his occupation was listed as "King (deceased)" – and was met at Paris' Le Bourget airport with the full military honors befitting a foreign monarch. A fungal infection was discovered and treated. Also, it was discovered that Ramesses had several old battle wounds, suffered from arthritis and poor circulation in his later years, had a major tooth abscess, and was a redhead.

Yul Brynner as Ramesses in The Ten Commandments (1956); Photograph from
Yul Brynner as Ramesses in The Ten Commandments (1956)
Photograph from

Footnote #4: Ramesses has been traditionally recognized as the pharaoh of the biblical Exodus, but no hard archaeological evidence confirms this. He was portrayed by Yul Brynner in the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. ["So shall it be written; so shall it be done!"] In the 1998 animated film Prince of Egypt, Ramesses is voiced by Ralph Fiennes. More recently, in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ramesses is portrayed by Joel Edgerton. [Edgerton portrayed a young Owen Lars – Luke Skywalker's "Uncle Owen" – in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.]

Footnote #5: Mothax would never forgive me if I did not mention the following: English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley composed the poem "Ozymandias," published in 1818, with Ramesses the Great in mind.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

'The Younger Memnon' statute in the British Museum, London UK; This partial sculpture was the likely inspiration for Shelley's poem; Image courtesy of
"The Younger Memnon" statute in the British Museum, London UK
This partial sculpture was the likely inspiration for Shelley's poem
Image courtesy of

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.