1285 BC

This carving from the second pylon of the Ramesseum Temple in Luxor was ordered by Pharaoh Ramses II after his victory at Kadesh in 1285 BCE. The scene shows enemy Hittites from the army of Muwatalli II crushed beneath the wheels of Egyptian war chariots. The battle was in the balance until the arrival of Ramses’s mercenary allies, the Ne’arin.

Kadesh (or Qadesh) is the earliest recorded battle for which there is definite information about both the forces involved and the operational sequence of events. It was long assumed to have been a major Egyptian victory because that is how the young pharaoh, Ramses II, portrayed it on his return from Syria to his Nile capital. He left both a ‘poem’ and a ‘bulletin’ (to accompany the relief carving of the battle), which were for years the only sources. Archaeological evidence has now come to light at Boghazköy in Turkey, which sheds light on the campaign from the point of view of Ramses’s Hittite enemy, Muwatalli II, and suggests that there was no clear winner at Kadesh. What seems certain is that Ramses might well have lost the battle entirely had it not been for the timely arrival of a division of mercenary allies. About this the sources seem as reliable as can be expected.

The battle came as part of an Egyptian campaign in the thirteenth century BCE to recapture territory and influence in Syria, which was dominated by an amalgam of small communities owing allegiance to the Hittite kings. In the fourth year of his reign, Ramses set out from Egypt with an army reckoned at 20,000, divided into four divisions named after Egyptian deities – Amun, Re, Set and Ptah – and perhaps 2,000 chariots. Egyptian chariots were light two-man vehicles, allowing one man to fire his bow or use his spear while the other controlled the reins. Critical for the battle, as it turned out, was the addition of a body of mercenaries, probably from Canaan, described as the Ne’arin or nrrn.

Ramses led his force north through present-day Israel and Syria to recapture the cities of Amurru and Kadesh. His first division, Amun, reached the town of Shabtuna on the approach to the fortified city of Kadesh. It was here that Muwatalli positioned two nomad spies, intending that they should be caught. The spies told Ramses that the Hittite army was 200 kilometres (120 miles) away near the city of Aleppo. Relieved, Ramses established a camp for his lead division, Amun. The other divisions were still some distance behind, dangerously spaced apart. When Egyptian scouts brought in two Hittite prisoners, they were tortured into confirming the previous intelligence, but instead revealed the dismaying truth: Muwatalli was only a few kilometres away, hiding behind the town of Kadesh with a large force.

The Hittite army was composed of infantry and chariots. According to modern estimates, there were perhaps 20,000 foot soldiers and 3,000 chariots; Hittite chariots each carried three men, making them slower and less manoeuvrable than those of the Egyptians, but nevertheless they were the ancient version of a heavy tank attack when massed together. The Hittite king exploited the element of surprise perfectly. As the second division, Re, approached the Egyptian camp on the exposed banks of the River Orontes, the first wave of Hittite chariots forded the water and overwhelmed the exposed division in front of them. The survivors fled to the Amun camp, pursued by the enemy chariots. Amid the panic of retreating soldiers and looting Hittites, Ramses gathered his personal bodyguard and any soldiers still fighting and charged at the chariot force, driving them back, probably to the shelter of Kadesh. Muwatalli then released another 1,000 chariots to attack the Pharaoh, and it was during this second confrontation that the Ne’arin arrived after a march from the coast and fell on the Hittite flank.

According to the existing accounts, it was now the Hittites’ turn to panic and flee. They abandoned their chariots and tried to cross the Orontes ‘as fast as crocodiles swimming’, according to the Egyptian version of the battle. The nimbler Egyptian chariots, though less stable than the heavier Hittite vehicles, were ideal for the pursuit. What happened next is not known with certainty, but it seems clear from both the Egyptian and the Hittite texts that Ramses failed to capture Kadesh and subsequently withdrew his army back to Egypt. The Hittite king had used only the chariots, which had been repulsed, but the rest of his army was still intact. Most modern accounts describe the battle as a draw, since Ramses was denied his goal, but nevertheless inflicted a local defeat on Muwatalli. Without the timely arrival of the Ne’arin, the outcome might have been very different since the other Egyptian divisions were still on the road moving north towards Kadesh, too far away to offer any assistance.

No-one in Egypt would challenge Ramses’s version and the relief carving shows the victory for all time. But in truth, the Egyptian campaigns in the eastern Mediterranean were futile attempts to stem the encroachments of the Hittites and their allies. In 1258 BCE, the first surviving peace treaty was drawn up between the two empires demarcating their territorial spheres. The tablets are now in a museum in Istanbul, but there is a copy in the United Nations building as the first example of an agreement for peace in a region now plagued again by conflict. Kadesh was a first in every sense – the first recorded battle; the first evidence of the use of mass chariots; and, following Ramses’s fortunate escape, the clash that paved the way for the first brief recorded armistice in centuries of war.