How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History

Patrick Lynch - November 3, 2017

The Battle of Kadesh (believed to have been fought in 1274 BC) was one of the first battles in history where the tactics and formations of both sides were known. We get this information from the legendary Kadesh inscriptions, and it is believed to be the largest chariot battle of all time, even though chariots were used in warfare for another millennium.

Although we have plenty of detail from Kadesh, historians can’t agree on whether the Egyptians won, the Hittites won, or if it was a stalemate. The most likely outcome was a tactical win for the Egyptians even if there was no strategic advantage gained.

Background

The New Kingdom of Egypt was formed in around 1550 BC after the Egyptians managed to expel the foreign Hyksos rulers. This era was to last for almost 500 years and was arguably the most prosperous period in Egyptian history. Although the Eighteenth Dynasty had some famous rulers, Egypt started to lose territory in northern Syria. The first rulers of the Nineteenth Dynasty, Ramses I and Seti I, attempted to restore Egypt’s empire to the great days of the Thutmosis pharaohs.

While Seti captured Kadesh, it lapsed back into Hittite control as that kingdom continued the incursions into Egyptian territory that had begun back in the 15th century BC. Ramses II, son of Seti, became pharaoh in 1279 BC and vowed to regain Kadesh.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Great Pillared Hall at Ramses II Temple Abu Simnel. Ancient Origins

His main goal was to permanently drive the Hittites away from Egyptian borders and believed the capture of Kadesh would help him achieve his ambition. Kadesh was known as a great center of commerce at the time and if Egypt could reclaim it, the empire would benefit from increased trade and would also increase its borders.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Ramses II statue in British Museum. Wikipedia Commons

The main reason why the Battle of Kadesh is such a momentous conflict is that it was the largest chariot battle of all time and became part of the legend of Ramses II. Egypt had expanded its territory significantly during the New Kingdom and was arguably at its greatest extent during the reign of Thutmose III. Much of its success was based on the skill of its charioteers.

When used correctly, the chariot was a phenomenal weapon at the time. It was used to transport an army’s elite warriors, fire weaponry on the move, charge enemy positions, and polish off the remnants of a fleeing army. Egyptian chariots were fast, versatile and easy to maneuver. They were normally pulled by two horses and had one driver. In some cases, one or two soldiers with bows and up to 100 arrows would also be on board.

Soldiers may also have been armed with javelins and curved swords, so they were effective at a distance or close range. At Kadesh, the Egyptians faced a formidable enemy. While Ramses had approximately 2,000 chariots at his disposal, the Hittites had anywhere from 2,500 to 3,700. Overall, there were probably over 5,000 chariots on the battlefield and anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000 soldiers.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Battle of Kadesh. Articles of Interest by Michael Devillier blogger

Close to Defeat

In many ways, the reputation of Ramses II as a great military leader is based upon his apparent success at Kadesh. Certainly, he deserves credit for at the very least turning the tide of the battle from near-certain defeat to a stalemate at worst. In 1275 BC, Ramses prepared his army for battle against the Hittites but was determined not to move until he received favorable omens.

He apparently received these omens in 1274 BC because he brought his army to the plains of Kadesh; it is possible that he agreed upon the site of the battle with his enemy, Muwatalli II, the leader of the Hittites. Ramses brought his 20,000 man army and 2,000 chariots and marched in four different divisions but made some serious errors that almost cost him dearly. First, he believed a pair of Shasu nomads who met the pharaoh’s army around 11km from Kadesh. They told him that the Hittite army was around 200km away; Muwatalli was apparently afraid of the Egyptians and had withdrawn.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Statue of Ramses II at Luxor Temple in Egypt. Osiris Tours

As it transpired, these nomads had been hired by the Hittites to spread false information. At this point, Ramses had driven his Amun division way ahead of his army. He realized how much trouble he was in when he captured two Hittite scouts. Under torture, they revealed that the Hittites were close by with an enormous force. Muwatalli had an army of up to 40,000 men with 3,000 chariots. The outnumbered Ramses was ambushed by the enemy and had his camp raided.

As parts of the Amun camp fell, Ramses was probably only surrounded by a small number of his personal guard and was in grave danger. It was here that the pharaoh showed his military skill as he bravely fought back to get out of the trap he had foolishly walked into. According to Egyptologist, Margaret Bunson, Ramses helped keep his panicked units calm and “began to slice his way through the enemy to reach his southern forces.”

Bunson wrote that Ramses somehow managed to launch an attack on the enemy eastern wing that was so ferocious that it fell apart and the pharaoh made his escape. Ramses was aided by a basic tactical error from the Hittites. They mistakenly believed that the Egyptians had been routed and were busily raiding the Amun camp when Ramses launched his counter-attack. Ramses effectively utilized his fast and mobile chariots as they were far quicker and more versatile than the heavy Hittite chariots.

Although the Egyptians had escaped annihilation, the Battle of Kadesh was far from over. Muwatalli could still call upon a huge reserve of chariots and infantry, and of course, he was still in command of the city of Kadesh. Ramses forced the Hittites to retreat close to the Orontes River, but Muwatalli reacted by ordering another massive attack, this time with 1,000 chariots. Once again, the Pharaoh was in dire straits, but he had bought enough time for his Ne’arin troops from Amurru and his Ptah Division to arrive on the battlefield.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Ramses II on charioyt at Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Dreams of the Great Earth Changes

A Fast & Furious Conclusion

Ramses took over the Ptah division and attacked the Hittites. After half a dozen charges, the Hittites were effectively pinned against the river, and a number of them drowned as they tried to flee. Even at this stage, the Egyptians could have been defeated because they were caught up between enemy forces at the river and the Hittite reserves stationed in Kadesh. For reasons historians are unable to explain, Muwatalli decided not to send out his reserves to try and hem the Egyptians in.

Perhaps he was concerned that it would represent a final throw of the dice and defeat would mean his death and the end of Hittite influence in the region? Instead, he watched as his men abandoned their chariots and were cut down; his brother died in the battle. Ramses launched one final assault and used his light and fast chariots to drive the enemy from the battlefield.

How a Pharaoh Became a Legend in the Biggest Chariot Battle in History
Remains of enormous Ramses II statue believed to be 30 foot high found at Marariya, Cairo. CNN.com

Success or Stalemate?

Some of the Hittites managed to swim across their river and make their way to Kadesh where they remained holed up behind the walls. Ramses did not have the manpower or inclination to launch a siege, so he retreated to Damascus and eventually back to Egypt. He claimed a victory because he had forced the enemy from the battlefield. In ancient times, the amount of plunder an army could muster was another sign of success. After Kadesh, the Egyptians captured 1,000 Hittite chariots which were probably coated in precious metals.

Meanwhile, the Hittites claimed victory because they managed to keep hold of Kadesh. This little fact didn’t stop Ramses from declaring the battle as a great personal achievement. In many ways, it was a success for Ramses because he had recovered from a disastrous early blunder which almost resulted in total defeat and his death. It was also a success because the Egyptians used their new lighter two-man chariots to great effect. These lightning-fast chariots were able to take down the larger three-man versions from behind.

The fighting between the Egyptians and Hittites lasted for another 16 years. Soon after Kadesh, Muwatalli went south and captured Upi, an Egyptian province. After handling revolts in Canaan, Ramses resumed his military campaign against the Hittites and captured the cities of Tunip and Dapur. However, he lost both cities within a year, and even another victory at Dapur was meaningless as he was unable to defeat the Hittites decisively.

It was becoming clear to both sides that the long and draining war was unlikely to come to a clear conclusion one way or the other. In the end, the two sides signed a peace treaty at Kadesh in 1258 BC, the first known treaty of its kind in history. The original treaty was engraved on a silver tablet, and a clay copy is currently on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Although Ramses didn’t ‘win’ the Battle of Kadesh, his supposed heroics became part of his legend, and he was to rule Egypt for an incredible 66 years. In the modern era, he is regarded as one of the greatest and most powerful pharaohs in Egyptian history.

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