One of the challenges with Ancient History is the primary sources. In ancient cultures, kings supposedly did no wrong (some cultures even thought their rulers were gods!). So…what if a king lost a battle in a far distant land, but escaped to rule another day? Would he really tell his subjects back home that he lost? Would he inscript a defeat on his memorial walls and columns? Would historians centuries later take this king at his word when he claimed a victory?
The Battle of Kadesh in 1285 B.C. illustrates some of these challenges in Ancient Military History. The battle is significant in the history of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Kingdom, and its story concludes with the first “recognized” peace treaty in World History.
This blog post delves into some of the most important things you should know about this battle: armies and leaders, the battle, the propaganda, and the historical conclusion.
Pharaoh Ramses II & The Egyptian Army
Ramses II had ancestors who had won great victories for Egypt; their war conquests adorned the engraved monuments around him, and Ramses determined to add to or surpass the military splendors in his nation’s history. Expanding the nation’s territory would be a good start…except the Hittites weren’t too keen on being conquered.
Ramses organized his army of approximately 20,000 into “divisions” which he named after Egyptian gods. He had chariots and infantry in his army; archery was his “long range” weaponry. The Egyptian war chariots were fast, light, and horse-drawn.
King Muwatallis & The Hittite Army
The Hittite Kingdom was in the northern part of the Middle East, encompassing the modern countries of Syria and Turkey. The Hittites had perfected war-chariots, but their vehicles differed from the Egyptian style. Their chariots were sturdier in design and built to protect the warriors; they used wild donkeys or horses bred for endurance rather than speed.
King Muwatallis and the Hittites opposed Ramses’s conquesting spirit by rallying about 23,000 infantry and charioteers. They gathered around the city of Kadesh, a wealthy and well-fortified city which would be a prime target in the Egyptian campaign.
The Battle of Kadesh
Fought during the year 1285 B.C., the Battle of Kadesh unfolded with a classic strategem – spies. Muwatallis send informers to the Egyptian army; the misinformation prompted Ramses to divide his army.
The battle was fought near the city, not in Kadesh itself. Muwatallis made a bold and wise decision, choosing to fight in the open, rather than cramping his army’s mobility in the city or risking a siege.
The Hittites swept in, attacking marching divisions and headed for the Egyptian camp. Ramses led a counter-attack. Muwatallis pushed more chariots and infantry into the fight, only to have them crushed by Ramses’s arriving divisions. Interestingly, the Hittite reserve army never engaged. The Hittites took refuge in Kadesh, but the battered Egyptian army couldn’t begin a seige.
Who won? That is a question for the centuries!
Propaganda (Sore Losers?)
Both Egyptian and Hittite engravings claim that their side won the battle. But…there usually aren’t two winners.
This is a classic example of both sides – both rulers – enhancing their own image to their people and ensure that history was written the way they wanted it written.
So, Ramses and Muwatallis both won the battle? Hmm…
Most historians conclude (after comparing various ancient sources) that the Egyptians won the battlefield fight, but the Hittites won the conflict. In other words, Ramses gets the tactical victory – Muwatallis gets the strategic victory. And technically, the battle itself is a draw (neither side wins decisively).
In the end, the Egyptians and the Hittites signed a peace treaty, establishing a border and diplomatic relations between the kingdoms. It’s significant because this is the first recorded, successful peace treaty in World History. (So maybe something good came out of the battle?) The treaty lasted until the collapse of the Hittite Kingdom around 1200 B.C.
With historians declaring the battle a draw, perhaps both kings were right in their engravings? Either way, they searched and fought for glory and remembrance, and the Battle of Kadesh stands out in World History for its tactical genius and the prelude to a peace treaty.