Battle of Qadesh

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Battle of Qadesh


Ancient Descriptions. In the fifth year of his reign, circa 1274 b.c.e., Ramesses II fought the Hittite king Muwatallis at Qadesh, a city on the Orontes River in modern Syria. The ancient Egyptian description of the battle survived in eight different copies. These copies include long inscriptions at the Temples of Abydos, Karnak, Luxor, the Ramesseum, and Abu Simbel. The temple inscriptions also included elaborate relief with labels, depicting highlights of the battle. Three copies of the inscription on papyrus have also survived. This plentiful documentation is a unique situation in ancient Egyptian history. Yet, the interpretation of these documents is still debated.

Equipping the Army. Ancient descriptions of the battle started with the events of April 1274 in Memphis. The army first received weapons and other supplies for their march eastward. The narration continued with the journey across the Sinai Desert, through present-day Israel and into Syria. Another division of the army traveled by sea. One month after their departure from Memphis, the king, along with the Division of Amun, arrived within a one-day march of Qadesh and set up a camp. The next day the army traveled north through an area called the Wood of Labwi, where two Shosu tribesmen approached the Egyptians.

Deception. The Shosu offered their allegiance to the Egyptian king, claiming their willingness to betray their former pledge to the Hittite king. They also declared that the Hittite king had taken such fright at Ramesses II’s approach that he had remained in the district of Aleppo north of Tunip, nearly 120 miles to the north. Ramesses II proceeded toward Qadesh assuming that the town was undefended and could easily be conquered. The king gave little thought to the absence of the remaining three divisions of the Egyptian army named after the gods Re, Ptah, and Seth. They were a half-day’s march south of Qadesh, too far from Ramesses II if he needed help. The Shosu trick had worked.

Arrival at Qadesh. The town of Qadesh had strong natural defenses. The Orontes River, a tributary stream, and a canal that cut between the river and the stream protected it in a triangle of water. The king camped on the open plain nearby on the northwest side of the town. The Egyptians gave little thought to their own defense since they believed the Hittite king and his army were 120 miles away. As they set their camp, Egyptian reconnaissance scouts captured two Hittite spies. As the temple relief showed, a thorough beating led these two spies to admit the Shosu had deliberately misled Ramesses II. The Hittite king Muwatallis was actually only two miles away, behind the town.

Attack. Ramesses II must have been startled to receive this news. He immediately alerted the Division of Amun, which was with him, and sent a message to the nearest army division, the Division of Re. This division was at that moment crossing the river. Ramesses also sent a message to the royal family to leave the area. Certainly the royal family escaped, but the Division of Re was not so lucky.

Division of Re. The Hittites attacked the Division of Re, probably before they had received the king’s message. The Hittites had been watching the Egyptians’ movements from behind the woods at least since the two Shosu had been sent to trick Ramesses II. The Hittites now appeared on chariots just as the Division of Re was crossing the river. Several Hittite princes took the lead, cutting the Division of Re in two groups. According to the official account, the Division of Amun, which was with the king, panicked. Only Ramesses II remained coolheaded.

King’s Bravery. Ramesses II strapped on his armor and jumped into his chariot. Accompanied only by his shield-bearer, Ramesses II charged the Hittite forces all alone six times. Though he could not have slaughtered all of the Hittites himself, he must have created some confusion among them.

Nearin. Just at this moment, a group of Egyptian soldiers called Nearin appeared west of the battlefield. These troops were not mentioned earlier in the inscription. Perhaps they were the Egyptian troops who had come by sea. Their name meant “young men.” They now arrived in formation and joined the attack from the west. The Hittites, who surely had thought they would win the battle up until this point, now found themselves caught between the Nearin on their west and Ramesses II on their east. The Hittites wisely retreated to the south, covered by their reserve formations. In the Egyptian account they had to swim the river and some soldiers accompanying the Hittite prince nearly drowned.

Counting the Dead. Finally, Ramesses II was left on the west side of the river and the Division of Ptah appeared under the leadership of the vizier. These soldiers helped take prisoners who were left on the Egyptian-held west side of the river. They computed the number of enemy dead by the traditional method of cutting one hand from each corpse. They also collected military material that the Hittites had abandoned when they escaped across the river.

King’s Anger. Ramesses II then addressed the regrouped Divisions of Amun and Re. The text emphasized the king’s anger at these two divisions because they had fallen into disarray in the heat of battle. Ramesses II accused them of deserting him at his greatest moment of need. He told them that he was left with only his horses and his shield-bearer, Menna, to help him fight against millions of hostile soldiers. This speech is quite consistent with Egyptian ideology that only the king’s efforts in battle are effective. However, the speech surprises modern readers because the king implied that he would have preferred some human help.

Egyptian Attack. At sunset of the same day, the final Egyptian unit, the Division of Seth, arrived in Qadesh. The whole Egyptian army was now assembled and camped for the night. The next day the Egyptians attacked. The Hittites had lost substantial chariots on the first day, but their infantry was still intact. The Egyptians, on the other hand, had preserved their chariots. Yet, the Egyptians were probably outnumbered two to one. The two armies fought to a stalemate.


Before engaging the Hittites in battle in 1274 B.C.E., Ramesses II received military intelligence first from the Shosu, then from captured Hittite spies. According to an ancient inscription:

Ramesses II and the Shosu speak. Ramesses asked the Shosu where their chief was. The Shosu answered, “They are where the Ruler of the Hittites is, for the Hittite foe is in the land of Aleppo to the north of Tunip. He is too afraid of Pharaoh to come south since he heard that Pharaoh was coming north!” Dialogue of Ramesses II and the Hittite Spies, several hours later. “Then said His Majesty, What are you?’ They replied, ’We belong to the Ruler of the Hittites! He sent us out to see where Your Majesty was.’ Said His Majesty to them, Where is be, the Ruler of the Hittites? See, I heard it said that he was in the land of Aleppo, north of Tunip.’ They replied, ‘Behold, the Ruler of the Hittites has (already) come, together with the many foreign lands that he brought as allies. … See, they are poised armed and ready to fight behind Qld-Qadesh.’”

Source: Kenneth A. Kitchen, Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1982), pp. 55–56.

Offer of Peace. The Hittites followed their own traditions in such a case, and offered a treaty to establish the status quoante. They would permit Ramesses II to withdraw but would retain control of Qadesh. Ramesses II refused to agree with the Hittite terms, but he did withdraw from Qadesh. Thus, the Hittites were able to follow Ramesses southward and capture the Egyptian province of Upe in modern Syria and its capital city at Damascus.

Other Complications. Subsequent developments in the area prevented the Hittites from taking further advantage of this situation. The Assyrian king Adadnirari I moved to threaten Muwatallis on the east by taking the Hurrian state of Hanigal-bat. Muwatallis was effectively prevented from expanding either eastward or southward.

Significance. Thus, in the end neither the Egyptians nor the Hittites could benefit militarily from the Battle of Qadesh. Egypt never again advanced so far north. Yet, twenty-seven years later Ramesses II signed a treaty with the Hittites that set the border where it had always been.

Propaganda. The enormous amount of wall space devoted to this battle in Egyptian temples that Ramesses II decorated suggests that the real importance of the battle for the king was in propaganda. Even though the foregoing description of the battle is drawn from the Egyptian texts, Ramesses II must have considered his exploits a success and expected those who viewed and read the relief and texts to understand that he had triumphed at Qadesh.


Trevor Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites (Oxford: Clarendon Press / New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Adrian Gilbert, The Encyclopedia of Warfare from Earliest Times to the Present Day (Chicago & London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000).

Kenneth A. Kitchen, Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt (Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1982).