In part 1 of this blog, we followed the deterioration of relations between the Hittite and Egyptian Empires: a severe and irreparable collapse of diplomacy that led to their mutual declarations of war. In this second part, we will join the two great powers on their march across the ancient world towards the greatest showdown of the Bronze Age...
But first, it is important to understand why King Muwatalli (Muwa) and Pharaoh Ramesses chose Kadesh as the place where they would fight out their differences.
The River Orontes (Orauntis) rises in modern Lebanon and tumbles northwards through Syria, before finally crossing into southern Turkey and turning westwards to spill out into the Mediterranean Sea. Just north of the Lebanon-Syria border, the Orauntis is fed by a small tributary snaking in from the west. Nestled in the conflux of these waterways stands a mound known these days as as Tell Nebi Mend. The mound is large, high and dominant, giving an excellent and commanding view over the rivers and of the large expanse of flatland all around. This would have been an easy choice of site for a king or general looking to establish a stronghold, and scholars largely agree that the Bronze Age city of Kadesh once stood here.
Choosing to fight a great battle in the countryside of Kadesh made sense for a number of reasons:
The Race for Kadesh
Both sides knew that once the fair marching weather of spring 1274 BC arrived, it would be a contest of speed and shrewd planning to reach Kadesh first - for the Hittites to bolster the city and for Egypt to seize it before the Hittites arrived.
March of the Egyptians
Of the Egyptian march, we know most. Ramesses mustered his four great divisions - The Amun, the Ra, the Ptah and the Sutekh. Each of these forces numbered anything up to 10,000 men. Each was effectively a self-contained army, with their own archer companies, an infantry and chariot core, pack mules and supply wagons, medical staff, priests and scouts.
These four divisions set off from Pi-Ramesses, Pharaoh's capital on the Iteru (Nile) Delta. Ramesses himself led his elite Amun Army, and was followed by the Ra, the Ptah and the Sutekh as they marched along the ‘Way of Horus’ – the Egyptian military road of conquest. They came to the great fortress of Tjaru, stopping to take supplies from the armoury there, before continuing on into southern Retenu. Delays would have been hard to avoid: hold-ups with supply trains, bandits, sandstorms. There are even attestations of Egyptian soldiers falling ill with fever after drinking directly from the cold streams there, or perishing of shock after wading in - and any such delays on this campaign would have been worrying for Ramesses given the challenge of reaching Kadesh before the Hittites. But on they went, past Migdol fortress and up the Gublan (Lebanese) coast, before bending inland at the Dog River (the modern Nahr al-Kalb, where 3,000 year-old inscriptions in the rock made by Ramesses’ soldiers still exist!).
This took them into a highland region, and along the high Valley of Cedars. The River Orauntis cuts across the northern end of this valley in a deep gorge, and the Egyptians halted here to make camp for the night. From the gorge-side, Ramesses would have been able to look across the river and see the low, pan-flat countryside of Kadesh on the far side.
His goal was in sight... but had he made it here first?
March of the Hittites
We know very little about the Hittite journey to Kadesh, but we understand that they were led by King Muwa and his brother, Prince Hattusili (Hattu) - who also served as a high general and Gal Mesedi (Hittite chief of state security).
We can surmise that they would have first mustered their four core divisions (four because they seem to have had a system of four generals), each maybe five thousand strong. We know they also called upon the many vassal kings to support them. The Trojans, the Arzawans, the Dardanians, the Masans, the Seha Riverlanders, The Karkisa, the Lukka... the list goes on.
Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted as plausible that they marched to Kadesh with 40,000 infantry and 2,500 chariots (specialist vehicles, each crewed by three men) in tow, giving a possible grand total of 47,500 soldiers. To the onlookers of the time it must have seemed like the entire world was marching to war.
The Hittite Army would have set off along the upper of their two heartland highways. This would have led them eastwards across the centre of modern Turkey, then southwards past one speculative location of the city of Zantiya (historically known as Lawazantiya) of whom Ishtar was the patron deity, then on through the White Mountains (the modern Anti-Taurus range in southeastern Turkey), gathering up more vassal armies along the way. They would have emerged from the mountains to meet yet more allies at the northern edges of Retenu, including the small but stout Hittite armies of their two Viceroyalties of Halpa (modern Aleppo) and Gargamis. Finally, they would have speared southwards towards Kadeshi lands.
Who Won the Race?
While Ramesses was encamped at the gorge-side and within sight of the countryside of Kadesh, two Shoshu Bedouin tribesmen arrived from the wilderness and came to him. They explained that the Hititte army was still far away in the north, near Halpa (modern Aleppo).
It was better news than Pharaoh could have hoped for. The city of Kadesh was within a day's striking distance. He could seize the city well before the Hitittes even reached these parts. But his thoughts must have been tinged with caution, for in his haste to reach Kadesh first, he had arrived here at the gorge camp with just his principal army, the Amun. Meanwhile, the Ra, Ptah and Sutekh were strewn out many miles in his wake. Some scholars debate that this was not rashness but prudence - leaving such a gap between armies would mean recources such as springs and pasture lands would have a chance to partially recuperate after one army had passed through, in time for the next to come by. Regardless, Ramesses' dilemma was the same: surge forth with the Amun Army and seize Kadesh, or waste precious hours, days even, waiting on the other three armies?
Ramesses opted to set forth at dawn the next day, before his other armies had caught up. He crossed the Orauntis at the Ribleh ford and led the Amun Army past the flat tongue of land between the Orauntis and its tributary, coming round on the tributary's western side and skirting that waterway until the Kadesh mound rose into view in the northeast. Just northwest of Kadesh, he halted and ordered his Amun soldiers to make camp. The sun was still crawling over the horizon as his troops set about making a siege camp, demarcating a huge area with a low rampart of soldiers' shields dug into the earth. Meanwhile, Ramesses set about planning how he might take the city, and he must have done so with a growing sense of triumph - for he had met not a jot of resistance...
It was here that Ramesses' day turned distinctly sour. His guards spotted two strange-looking soldiers hidden in nearby bushes, watching the Egyptian camp works. Captured and brought before Pharaoh, Ramesses realised they were Hittites. Forward scouts, he guessed, then ordered their interrogation. It must have been 'persuasive', because they soon revealed to him the news that surely turned his soul to ice...
The Great Hittite Army was not in Halpa... the enemy was already here, hiding behind the eastern side of Kadesh's huge mound!
Pentaur, Pharaoh's 'Poet Laureate' described the captured Hittites' confession as follows:
"Lo, the king of Hatti has already arrived, together with the many countries who are supporting him . . . They are armed with their infantry and their chariots. They have their weapons of war at the ready. They are more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach."
So who won the race to Kadesh? The Hittites, without question. And they were here in full, while Ramesses had just one-quarter of his forces with him.
What happened next? Sharpen your swords and stay tuned for The Battle of Kadesh Part 3: Clash of Empires (coming soon) - where we delve right into the Fray!
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.
Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne - a story of bloody and world-shaking revenge.