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The Battle of Kadesh: Egypt versus the Hittite Empire

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

A cloud of dust rose upon the horizon, filling the air. In the distance could be heard the thundering of hooves and clanking of chariots. All of a sudden the shouts of men could just be distinguished. Arrows began rising and falling upon the Egyptian infantry. The chariots thundered on and the lines collided with a massive crash.



The Battle of Kadesh is recognised as the oldest battle ever to be recorded in history, occurring in very early antiquity (1274BC) and it still surprises historians because of the number of recordings and documentation the battle attracted. Before the Battle of Kadesh, in the prelude to events, it is important to note that Egypt was considered a new militaristic kingdom. And it was only just beginning to take the path that led to its golden age.


It all began when Mitanni, a kingdom on the northern border of Egypt on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was invaded by the war-like kingdom of the Hittites. The kingdom of Mitanni had previously fought the Egyptians, but at the time a peace treaty existed between them. The Hittites quickly overran Mitanni and subjected its people to their rule. The Hittites continued to advance and invaded the north of Egypt.


This occurrence could not have unfolded at a worse time for Egypt, as their nation was then plagued by unfortunate leadership and political events. Finally, the rule of Egypt passed to Ramses I, however as troubles from the Hittites continued, the status quo of the Egyptians changed, and Seti I became Pharaoh. Seti launched an expedition and pushed the Hittites back, retaking the city of Kadesh in the process. Peace was restored and Seti I was succeeded by his son Ramses II.


Somewhere around the time of succession, the Hittites once again took control of Kadesh. Ramses II quickly proved himself capable and, firstly, defeated raids made by pirates of the Mediterranean Sea. After installing a new capital city of his own, he headed north towards the Hittites.


The Hittite commander at this time was Muwatalli. Ramses’ goal was to claim Kadesh, which sat between two forking branches of the Orontes River, and regain control of all the surrounding areas on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. The Hittites’ goal was to stop them from doing just that!


It is important to examine both the structure and contingents of the armies that were facing off. We must remember this was the bronze age, and unsurprisingly a large portion of the arms and armour used were made from this metal. One of the most notable contingents of any army in this era was horse-drawn chariots. The Hittite chariots were large and relatively bulky, carrying a crew of three. This particular design was extremely effective in a charge, easily punching through enemy lines. However, these chariots were not as manoeuvrable as those of the Egyptians.


The Egyptian design was far lighter, super mobile and not in the least unwieldy. The crew of these chariots typically consisted of a driver and an archer. Ramses had roughly 2000 of these chariots. Of course, chariots were only the elite side of the army, and the infantry contingent was still far greater. In Ramses’ army, he had approximately 16,000 infantry, while the Hittites brought to the battle 10,000 chariots, as well as roughly 15,000 infantry, which were never really used in the battle. The infantry from both sides were similarly equipped and armed.


Sometime in late May 1274BC, Ramses’ army marched north toward Kadesh. Criticised by many historians for doing so, Ramses split his army into four groups, named Amun, Ra, Ptah, and Set. As Ramses’ first group Amun crossed the Orontes river, they captured two locals. When interrogated, the locals stated that “The fallen one of Hattie is in the land of Khaleb, to the north of Tunip”.


This was very good news to the Egyptians, meaning that the Hittites were still considerably far away, and Kadesh was free for the taking. Unknown to Ramses, Muwatalli was actually right across the river. The ‘locals’ had been purposefully sent to trick the Egyptians into a false sense of security. It appears that Muwatalli was a cunning and resourceful commander indeed.


Completely unaware of the great peril which he was now in, Ramses set up a strong camp with the Amun division. His army was still separated and not in the least ready for battle. Ramses, wishing to consolidate his power in the region, sent out scouts to collect resources and found two men suspiciously lurking around the camp. The prisoners were brought to the Pharaoh, and after severe questioning, they finally let out the terrifying and shocking news. Muwatalli and his army were right across the river to the northeast of the city, shrouded by an enormous embankment on their side of the river.


Though in a state of anguish, Ramses appears to have held the situation well, and sent he out word to the other three divisions, to ‘buck up.’ He also sent messages north to an allied contingent to see if they would come to his aid. This force consisted of light infantry, called the Ne’arin. Officially, not part of Ramses’ army, these men still swore allegiance to Egypt.


Still some distance behind, the other three divisions hurried forward. Despite not fully knowing the gravity of the situation, Ra moved ahead at a quick pace. At this point, 500 Hittite chariots moved forward and stopped at the eastern fork of the Orontes River, which at the time was shallow enough for the chariots to cross.


Spotting the helpless marching column of Ra, the Hittite chariots charged. However, Muwatalli was himself unsure of the size and layout of the Egyptian army, and so did not send the main bulk of his troops and chariots. The Hittite chariots crossed the eastern branch of the Orontes and moved onto the plateau, upon which the city of Kadesh was situated, they then crossed the western branch of the river, before smashing into the Ra column on the opposite side.



The formation was splintered, and the weight of the charge dispersed the entire Egyptian division. Emboldened by this success, the chariots wheeled around and prepared to charge the Egyptian camp. The chariots thundered forward, and the ground shook as the Egyptian troops of Amun took up defensive positions.


At this point, the remaining chariots of Ra entered from the other side of the camp. The devastation was demoralising for the Egyptians, to say the least. The Egyptian line almost broke under the Hittite charge, but amongst the tents and bustle of the camp, the chariots lost their momentum, and instead, a brutal melee broke out. Getting distracted, the chariot crews in the rear began plundering and looting, thinking that the battle was coming to a close.


One must not be too hasty to criticise these crews, as even to an onlooker, things looked dim for the Egyptians. However, observing this, Ramses personally mustered all of his own chariots from the back of the camp and snuck out the side. These were all the vehicles of the Amun division in addition to the remaining Ra chariots. The remaining two divisions were still some distance away.