In part 2 of this blog, we followed the march of the Hittites and the Egyptians as they converged upon the city of Kadesh. We left off with Pharaoh Ramesses and his Amun Army encamped northwest of the city, triumphant that they had reached it before their rivals... only to be struck dumb by the news that the Hittites were in fact here already, concealed behind the eastern side of the Kadesh mound.
Now we plunge into the depths of the oldest battle on record...
Ramesses' Reaction and the Fate of the Ra
Pharaoh Ramesses, alarmed and enraged that he had been tricked, sent one of his viziers off to the south to warn and hasten his other three armies. There was still time to gather his forces, he must have thought.
At this point in time - the last stages of dawn - the closest of his three trailing armies was the Ra. They were led by one of Ramesses’ sons, and had just crossed the Ribleh Ford (see map, below). As they marched north, they would have passed the Forest of Robawi on their right flank, still completely unaware that the Hittites were anywhere near this land...
... and then the veils of deception dropped.
From the woods, a horde of Hittite chariots - possibly as many as two or three thousand of them - exploded into view in a blaze of light, slicing through the last curls of dawn mist.
These carefully-crafted three-man vehicles led the charge, with swarms of allied chariots alongside - some even from Troy. Prince Hattusili (Hattu) is likely to have led this strike. It was a devastating attack: they hammered into the Ra flanks and obliterated that force, sending many fleeing back to the south. It was a fine and thorough triumph. More importantly, they had effectively cut Ramesses and his Amun Army off from three-quarters of his entire campaign force.
Or was it? It is still a matter of debate: when the Egyptians arrived at Kadesh, were they suddenly ambushed by the hidden Hittite forces as I have described above? Or was it more of a strategic surprise, i.e. did Ramesses reach Kadesh and see from a safe distance that the Hittites were already there, having arrived unexpectedly early?
As a writer of historical fiction, it would take a strong and compelling case for me to go with the latter theory, and in truth, the stronger and more compelling cases I have read support the former anyway. Some argue that if it was truly an ambush, it would have been a notable, almost anachronistic twist in the art of war; for it is thought that such trickery was not the norm for major conflicts of that era. On the other hand we are without detail of any other battles of the time, so one must challenge that assumption. We do know that the Hittites celebrated and studied deceptive tactics, such as the myth of Sargon’s surprise attack and capture of the city of Purushanda, so there are plausible grounds for the Kadesh ruse being a true and well-laid ‘ambush’.
If it indeed was a surprise attack, then the Hittites executed it brilliantly, and the Battle of Kadesh was well and truly underway.
The Destruction of the Amun Camp
After routing the Army of Ra, Prince Hattu then turned his chariot host northwards, swinging across the shallow Orauntis tributary and speeding towards Pharaoh's Amun camp.
Within the vast and as-yet incomplete camp, Ramesses would no doubt have heard a strange rumble in the south, then noticed the heat-warped horizon there shaking and sparkling… before the Hittite chariots exploded into view, coming straight for them. By all accounts, the Hittites ripped the Amun camp to shreds, surging over the half-finished earth & shield rampart and harrowing through the sea of tents and men within.
Pinned by this chariot assault from the southwest, and unable to retreat across the Orauntis thanks to King Muwa and his forty thousand strong Hittite infantry force guarding the far riverbanks, Pharaoh was trapped. The historian J.H. Breasted suggests the Hittite infantry ‘plugged’ the fording points of the Orauntis and denied Pharaoh any route of escape that way. Indeed, accounts tell of heavy fighting in the river shallows.
So, trapped between this infantry anvil and chariot hammer, Ramesses found himself on the cusp of a complete rout. Egyptian accounts claim the Hittites were stopped from claiming this full victory only because of their greed – with some of their chariot crews stopping so they could load up with Egyptian treasures. Looting was a common part of ancient warfare so it is not unlikely, but one would think that if the Hittite chariotry were on the cusp of a complete victory then they might – having marched across the world to get here – complete that rout first before stopping to pick up jewels and trinkets.
Whatever the Hittite chariots were doing, the Amun Army apparently rallied. The Egyptian chronicler Pentaur describes Pharaoh in the midst of it all, riding his chariot alone, reins lashed around his waist, bow in hand:
"The serpent that glowed on the front of his diadem ‘spat fire’ in the face of his enemies."
But spirited fightback or not, the Amun were looking doomed. Until the sound of horns rose in the west...
The Coming of the Ne'arin
From the western mountains, a huge Egyptian reinforcement army known as ‘The Ne’arin’ appeared and sped into the battle. The origins of the Ne’arin are foggy to say the least. Some speculate that they were the soldiers of the close-by land of Amurru. Others suggest they might have been Pharaoh’s rearmost army – the Sutekh – having secretly stolen up the coastal road ahead of the Ra and the Ptah to be nearer to Kadesh than the Hittites expected.
In Thunder at Kadesh, I have opted for a combination of these two theories – that the Ne’arin were a vassal horde of Amurrites, Gublans and Canaanites and that they arrived with the expedited Sutekh alongside them for good measure. These forces relieved the Amun soldiers and began to overwhelm and pulverise Prince Hattu's Hittite chariotry. More, from the south the Egyptian Ptah Army was now across the Ribleh Ford and speeding towards the fray. The balance of battle had well and truly swung in favour of Egypt.
The Hittite Counterattack and the Coming of Dusk
King Muwa, seeing the death-trap in which his brother Hattu and the Hittite chariotry were ensnared, led a reserve of chariots and elite soldiers into the fray, probably across a ford north of Kadesh (the 'Silver Ford' in my diagrams). These forces collided with the ongoing fray on the site of the already ruined Amun camp and the battle raged on throughout the day.
Egyptian records describe their Sherden mercenaries hacking the hands from Hittite casualties as some kind of ‘kill-tally’. Pharaoh’s war-lion, Foe-slayer, was there on campaign with him and no doubt played a part in the fray too.
The action ceased only when the light began to fade and both armies began to peel apart. After a full day of battle, nothing had been decided. The Hittites still held Kadesh and the eastern banks of the Orauntis, while the Egyptians dominated the western banks.
The Remains of the Day
So, in the blackness of night as both sides gathered up their dead and kept an anxious watch on their rivals across the Orauntis, another day of battle must have seemed certain. But then, most unexpectedly, some kind of talks took place either that night or early the next day... and it was all over. Never again in history did Egyptian and Hittite swords clash.
"Hold on," I hear you shout. ''You can't leave it there! What happened in the talks? Who 'won'?"
So Who Won the Battle of Kadesh?
Egyptian reliefs – carved into the walls of the temples at Karnak, Luxor and Abydos – describe the Hittite King falling to his knees and begging Pharaoh for mercy, presumably at these mysterious talks. Apparently, Pharaoh mercifully agreed to this, and the two armies went their separate ways. Following this account, it sounds like we have an Egyptian victory, doesn’t it?
Well, until fairly recently, historians thought so (while also acknowledging the partisan nature of Egyptian accounts). That seems only fair, given there were no other source materials to contend with this view.
However, in modern times, more than thirty thousand tablets have been discovered under the ruins of the Hittite capital, Hattusa, and some of these shed a rather different light on things. It seems that the Hittites clearly considered themselves to be the victors of Kadesh and of the talks. And an objective analysis does support this, for we now know that immediately after the battle, Pharaoh withdrew his armies from Kadesh, leaving it in Hittite hands, and also – tellingly – pulled his garrison out of nearby Amurru, ceding that vital neighbouring region to the Hittites after twenty years of occupation. The Hittites then claimed further lands ot the south in Pharaoh's wake. Ramesses and his armies headed back south to Egypt having won not a patch of land and having lost a great deal of it.
In any case, if the Hittites did truly ‘win’ the Battle of Kadesh it was in many ways a Kadmean victory, with great losses incurred: some seven allied kings and huge swathes of allied and Hittite men died over the course of that full day of combat.
The consequences of the victory were enormous, for the Hitittes and Egyptians remained at peace throughout the remainder of their time as contemporary powers, and even signed a formal defensive alliance some years later. But the history shows that this was a bad time for the Hittites to have weakened themselves so grievously. Indeed, dark ramifications lay ahead...
Thanks for Reading!
I hope you enjoyed this blog series. Any questions? Leave a comment below or get in touch - I'd be delighted to hear from you. Also check out my other blog post which looks at the Hittites' 3-man chariots, the 'secret weapon' that helped give them the edge at Kadesh.
And remember, the whole journey can be lived out in visceral detail in the Empires of Bronze series! Book 3 Thunder at Kadesh follows the build up to and execution of the battle you have just been reading about!
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne - a story of bloody and world-shaking revenge.