The Battle of Kadesh is one of those awfully told events in history. Despite being the first well documented battle in history, the popular tradition has created a great myth: that Kadesh was also the first surprise attack in history.
Before entering into the true story of Kadesh, it must be clarified that despite what is said in many books, Kadesh has never been identified and that its situation on the brink of the current al-Mukadiyah river tributary in Syria is debatable.
What do we know about the Battle of Kadesh?
Thanks to King Ramesses II’s adoration for aristocratical literature, we should not talk about proper megalomania or propaganda, but a courtier genre instead.
Many inscriptions have arrived to date, the majority based on the Bulletin or the Poem of Pentaur. These allow us to perfectly recreate the exact strategy of Egyptian troops.
More recently, royal Hittites letters and treaties have been found that allow us to understand the Egyptian army and its enemy. The letters show that Ramesses and Muwatalli arranged a pitched battle in the plains of the walled city of Kadesh, fighting for the control of the region of Amurru.
This battle was during the 13th century BC, the peak period of Egyptian and Hittite expansion in the Near East.
Traditional history often writes that Ramesses was deceived by two spies and believed to have been the first to arrive in Kadesh. This is true. But, traditional sources would go further and claim that, while his army corps advanced to his camp, Hittite King Muwatalli launched a surprise attack on the P’Re Corps, which deserted and scattered around the desert.
Later, the same Hittites chariots that had attacked P’Re Corps, aslo attacked the camp of Ramesses, fighting singlehandedly against more than 2500 chariots.
After a little manoeuvre, the next day, the battle resumed.
This story is the one that brings together most Egyptologists. Some authors such as Mark Healy, however, build a much more credible version of the facts.
So, let us begin with the real battle:
First of all, the Hittites chariots which attacked P’Re must be seen as an exploratory force, ordered to study the area surrounding Ramesses’ camp. After crossing al-Mukadiyah, they would have found a dune with raising sand. After crossing it, they would have found the P’Re Corps. The element of surprise would have affected, then, to the Hittites and not the Egyptians. The chariots, unable to start a withdrawal, would have pierced through the thick of P’Re. The Egyptian soldiers, terrified and without knowing what to do, fled, disbanded, or headed for Ramesses’ camp.
Why do we know it wasn’t a deliberate attack? For many reasons.
Firstly, Hittites chariots were used to chase troops, never to ram against them. In addition, the chariots ran to the Egyptian camp, instead of chasing the soldiers of P’Re. Most importantly, the Hittites and the Egyptians saw a surprise attack as a sacrilegious act, a turn of shame that directly offended the gods.
The second phase of the battle would be similar to the traditional history. Ramesses would arm himself and attack the Hittites chariots with his personal guard, desperately.
The chariots, which, of course, did not exceed 2500, withdrew to Kadesh, many dying in the waters of the Orontes. If they were 2500, they would have taken three days to cross the Orontes River. At that time, Muwatalli, offended by the thought that the Egyptians had begun a surprise attack, sent his resigned corps of nobles to attack Ramesses’s camp.
By sheer chance, a northern Egyptian reinforcement corps found Muwatalli’s battalion and annihilated it.
The day after the battle, the fight was not continued. The Poem of Pentaur reads ‘His rays [Re’s] burned the bodies of the rebels.’
The word ‘rebels’ does not refer to the Hittite enemies, but to the deserters of the Amon and P’Re Corps who Ramesses executed after making them believe that they would enter into battle again.
With the Egyptian and Hittites forces devastated, and with the inability to fight the true battle they had come to engage, Ramesses withdrew to the Egyptian delta. In its retreat, Muwatalli followed and humiliated him, and Ramesses had to witness the peoples of Amurru rebel against him one after another.
Although the Hittite Empire would fall just a century later, and Egypt would raise again for a last stand, Kadesh must be seen as the greatest Egyptian defeat of all.
Thank you for reading!