Ramses and the Battle of Kadesh

This excerpt from the Battle of Kadesh was taken from the book Ramses the Great: An Exhibition in the City of Dallas, published by The Dallas Museum of Natural History Association, Dallas, Texas, 1989, pages 41-43.

Rumors of trouble in the Levant in Year 4 forced Ramses II to put aside his concentration upon the ongoing massive construction projects and focus his attention on less peaceful concern, The relative stability of Egypt’s vassal states along the eastern Mediterranean coast and her control of other vital trade routes of the Ancient Near East had been weakened since late in Dynasty XVIII by the growing strength of the Hittite empire in Anatolia (modern Turkey). As Prince· Regent, Ramses II had accompanied his father on a campaign to the Levant to re·establish control of the coastal area and mastery over the city of Kadesh, an important crossroad in northern Amurru, an area that included Syria and Lebanon. Kadesh, straddling the northern tip of Lebanon ‘s mountain ranges and controlling passage south into the Bekaa Valley and east from there through the Eleutheros Valley to the sea, had again fallen under Hittite control Ramses II was determined to recapture the prize.

Ramses the Great Confronting His Enemies

In April of Year 5, Ramses the Great left Egypt with an army of about 20,000 men, one of the largest military forces the Near East had ever seen. Four divisions of about 5,000 men each made the long march north along the coast of Canaan, then inland to the Bekaa Valley Meanwhile, Pharaoh ‘s advance guard, a small force of the king’s elite, moved forward along a different route Each division included infantry and chariotry; each traveled under the divine protection and standard of one of Egypt’s main gods and under the command of Ramses II or one of his sons. The entire force, with its chariots, herald trumpeters, supply wagons and camp followers must have stretched for miles. This army, traveling an estimated two miles per hour, might have covered 15 miles on a good day.

Within a month the Egyptian forces reached the Orontes River, less than ten miles from Kadesh A pair of captured spies lied, asserting that the enemy forces were still some 120 miles to the north near Aleppo. Therefore, Ramses II ‘s Amun division, followed closely by the Ra Division, crossed the Orontes and continued toward Kadesh, establishing camp just west of the city Then Egyptian scouts seized two more spies who, after a hearty flogging, begged for mercy and revealed that the Hittite army was actually only minutes away on the other side of Kadesh! Upon hearing this dreadful news, Ramses II immediately dispatched mounted messengers to summon his troops, half of which had yet to ford the Orontes Moments later, the Hittites attacked.

Under the Hittite banner, King Muwatallis had amassed an army even larger than Egy pt’s. Hired mercenaries and pirates from a vast area had joined native Hittites to make up two groups of fighting men about 18,000 and 19,000 strong. In addition, there were 2,500 chariots The Hittite chariotry now smashed into the division of Ra which was behind that of Amun. In frenzied flight from charging chariots, the soldiers of Ra burst into Ramses II’s encamped Amun Division, which also scattered in panic.

Finding himself abandoned by all but his personal guard and his shield-bearer, Ramses II prayed to the god Amun: “I call upon thee, my father Amun, for I am in the midst of a multitude of foes.” And Amun gave him strength. Virtually alone, Ramses II charged the enemy in his chariot.”All about him was the heat of fire ,” according to one inscription “He was mighty, his heart stout.”

Fortunately, just at that moment, Ramses II’s elite advance guard, which had been traveling a separate route to Kadesh, appeared and entered the battle. Attacked now from two flanks, the Hittites hastily retreated. King Muwatallis sent auxiliaries, but to no avail A third Egyptian force, the div ision of Ptah, had arrived and joined the melee. When Ramses II set up camp that night on the battlefield, even the cowardly warriors from Amun and Ra came drifting back The next day Ramses led them in a fresh onslaught. The battle ended in a stalemate.

For the Hittites, it had been a near disaster. With the bulk of his chariotry captured, a brother killed and many of his chief officers wounded, King Muwatallis begged for peace.

It must have been a joyous moment in camp, as the Egyptian forces surveyed their booty of chariots, horses, armor, bows, arrows, swords, daggers, shields and prisoners. To calculate enemy casualties, Egyptian soldiers lopped off the hands of the dead Hittite soldiers, tossing them in a pile as scribes recorded their numbers.

Ramses II led his troops home in triumph and proclaimed to the four corners of the earth how his heroism in the face of adversity had saved the day. The story of the Battle of Kadesh is related in prose, poetry and illustration on temples he built throughout the land. It can be seen today at Abydos, Karnak, twice at the Ramesseum (his funerary temple near the Valley of the Kings) and three times at Luxor. In Nubia it may be seen at Abu Simbel and it once existed at Derr as well. Each time Ramses II told the story, it became a bit more elaborate, but in every case he neglected to point out that, despite his valor, the battle had changed nothing. The Hittites, after all, retained possession of Kadesh.

For a full 15 years following the Battle of Kadesh, skirmishes and constantly shifting alliances continued to plague the Egyptian empire at its border. Those years saw Ramses II back on the battlefield in Canaan, Lebanon and Syria, as petty kingdoms resisted Egyptian supremacy and neglected to send tribute.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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