Around 1274 BC, the Hittite and Egyptian Empires clashed near the city of Kadesh - a battle of unprecedented scale and repercussion, and the first such major and direct showdown ever recorded.
This 3-part blog aims to explore the battle that took place at Kadesh over three thousand years ago, and we begin here with the first question: in an age of nobility, careful diplomacy and respect, why did it come to such a brutal conflict?
Why did the Hittite and Egyptian Empires go to war?
By 1274 BC, the Hittites and the Egyptians had co-existed for some four centuries. The Hittites ruled most of modern-day Turkey and controlled a halo of vassal kingdoms on the Turkish coasts and in the northern Levant. Far to the south, the Egyptians held sway, their crop fields fed by the yearly inundations of the Nile and protected by the vast tracts of desert either side of that great waterway. The Egyptians too controlled many vassal lands near their home territory.
Relations between Egypt and the Hittites were not always peaceful, it must be said. But prior to 1274 BC, aggression between the two states had only ever been in the shape of posturing and political dispute, as well as proxy war - with the Hittites compelling some of their vassal kingdoms to attack or obstruct an Egyptian army or trade route and vice versa. Not once in all that time had the huge and mighty armies of Egypt's Pharaoh or the Hittite Labarna (high king) been mobilised to face one another in full, all-out war. But a sequence of tit-for-tat exchanges soon changed that...
The Build-up of Tensions
History teaches us that most empires grow until they meet some form of resistance that checks their expansion. Think of Xerxes' Achaemenid Persia, swelling and thriving inexorably until it met with the Greeks at the Hot Gates then Salamis. Or Attila's Hunnic juggernaut, invincible until his armies came up against the allied patchwork of the fading Western Roman Empire and its 'barbarian' allies.
So it was with the realms of Egypt and the Hittites. Both gradually stretched out to claim more and more territory as their own. There was a particular desire on both sides to possess the lands of the modern Levant, known to the Egyptians as 'Retenu' (see the dash-lined box area in the map, above) - a land veined with ancient trade routes. No trade was more important than that of tin; tin was a scarce resource, and being essential in the production of bronze, a vital one for any state with martial ambitions. For the Hittite Labarna and Egypt's Pharaoh, controlling Retenu and denying it to their opponent was a must.
Here's a snapshot of the creeping territorial ambitions that brought the Hititte and Egyptian realms nose-to-nose in central Retenu:
Stay tuned for The Battle of Kadesh Part 2: The Road to War !
Hope you enjoyed the read. Any questions? Leave a comment below or get in touch - I'd be delighted to hear from you.
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
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