The final and decisive Egyptian battle in Asia, a turning point equal to that of Megiddo under Thutmose III, took place in year five of Ramesses II at the city of Kadesh in central Syria. Yet this was the second northern campaign of Ramesses II because a preparatory advance had occurred one year earlier. A stela of the king, set up at the Nahr el Kelb on the southern coast of Lebanon, probably bears witness to Ramesses’ first preparations for the major war. We can presume that the Pharaoh followed the earlier practice of his father (and Thutmose III) in first assuring control over the coast before marching inland. Noteworthy is the presence of Sherden “mercenaries” within the Egyptian army at Kadesh [Qadesh] in the king’s fifth regnal year. They are referred to in the main inscriptions that recount this war as well as in the reliefs. The latter differentiate these warriors from the Egyptians by means of their round shields, long swords that are wide close to the haft, and their cap-like helmets surmounted by two prongs and a small sphere. Because the Egyptians had fought some of these sea pirates at the mouths of the Nile earlier than the fourth year of Ramesses, it seems reasonable that not a few had now become a staple ingredient within the Egyptian military. Their absence in the battle reliefs of Seti supports this contention.
Ramesses II ordered an account of the Battle of Kadesh to be inscribed and drawn on the walls of various temples. Abydos, probably the earliest, reveals only the lowermost portions of the war owing to the fragmentary condition of the temple. At Karnak two versions are still extant while at Luxor three may be found, although one of them presents only the two main narrative accounts. The king’s mortuary temple to the west of Thebes, the Ramesseum, has two versions as well, and Abu Simbel in Nubia presents a more condensed version.
The importance of the detailed account, the so-called “Poem,” and its shorter companion, the “Bulletin” is balanced, if not dwarfed, by the pictorial record. Indeed, the latter may be said to provide the fullest visual information concerning the Egyptian military in Dynasty XIX. As noted earlier, all campaigns were divided into various portions. By and large some of these episodes are present in all of the temples. On the other hand, Ramesses wished to highlight four main events in this campaign: the camp and the war council, the battle itself, the spoils and captives, and the second presentation at home to the gods.
Note once more the war council. In the narrative of the Megiddo battle this was a prominent portion of the account, and the same may be said for the opening section of Kamose’s war record. But the reason for Ramesses’ interest lies in the fact that, after the king settled down in his camp to the west of the city of Kadesh, he received news that the Hittites were close by and not far away in Aleppo as he had originally thought. After the spies of the Hittites were beaten and forced to tell the truth, the attack of the numerous enemy chariots occurred. The pictorial representations cover these two interlocked events as well as the arrival of the Pharaoh’s fifth division, the Na`arn. The latter traversed southern Syria by foot, undoubtedly leaving the ports of the Lebanon in order to meet up with the king and his four main divisions, all of which had advanced northward through the Beqa Valley. If this elite division left Tripoli, to take a case in point, then approximately 121 km would have been traversed before they met up with Ramesses. Hence, it would have taken them more than 9 1/2 days to reach their destination, providing that there were no delays. Although this is not a long duration, the coordination of the Na`arn with the king’s other four divisions is remarkable, and one is left with the feeling that Ramesses earlier had been in communication with these additional troops, probably by messenger, in order to effect the juncture of the Na`arn with his army. If these men had arrived earlier they would have been isolated. If they came later, then the entire composite army would been prepared as a large unit at least one day after Ramesses’ arrival at Kadesh. The coincidence is too great to allow for chance.
The second episode draws together the attempt of the king to hasten his other divisions that had followed the first where he was at the front. The all-mighty king is carved in superhuman size charging on his chariot against the foe and, of course, shooting his arrows. Since this portion is highly detailed, I shall leave it for a more detailed analysis below. The remaining two episodes are more straightforward but present interesting details of their own.
Globally, Ramesses II intended to retake the city of Kadesh which had switched sides after the withdrawal of the large Egyptian army under Seti I. His strategy was a simple one: march to the city and take it. From the background to the eventual combat it is clear that Ramesses with his four divisions did not intend to meet the Hittites. The “Poem” begins the narration at the departure from Sile, and then continues with the arrival at a royal fortress in the “Valley of Cedar.” There was no opposition in Palestine; combat was expected only in Syria. He is then described as crossing the ford of the Orontes, which was south of the city and at a point where the river coursed in a westward direction, perpendicular to the march of the king.
Earlier, Ramesses had received false information from two Shasu at the town of Shabtuna (modern Ribla), who stated that his Hittite opponent, Muwatallis, with his army, was in Aleppo, north of Tunip. In other words, the king felt that he could reach Kadesh unopposed and settle for a battle or a siege. A series of background points can now be made. The first is the simplest, and one that I have referred to on more than one occasion. The war was known to all and sundry. Both the local princes in Palestine and Syria as well as the leaders of the two great states of Hatti and Egypt could not hide their feelings, their war preparations, indeed their war aims. The journey of Ramesses, though not rapid by today’s standards, nonetheless covered the same number of miles per day as, for example, Thutmose III did when approaching Megiddo. The march was thus ca. 12.5 miles/day and no lengthy delays occurred. If we allow about 10 days from Sile to Gaza, and then about 12 days to get to Megiddo, we can place him in central Palestine about three weeks after his departure from Egypt. He left Egypt approximately at the close of March to early April, following the practice of his Dynasty XVIII predecessors. On day nine of the third month of the harvest season he was at Shabtuna south of Kadesh, and about one month had passed. (The departure from Sile is dated exactly one month before the arrival at Shabtuna.) At this point he received the false news that the Hittites were not around the city of Kadesh. The Egyptians were approximately 14 km from Kadesh. Ramesses then advanced, and it would have taken at most half of a day for the first division to set up camp opposite the city.
More details help to elucidate the final stages of the march to Kadesh. In the morning the king awoke and prepared his troops for the march. Sometime after that the army reached Shabtuna. This would have taken time. Ramesses’s extended army was composed of four divisions, all marching separately and behind one another; the advance would have been slow. The temporary halt at Shabtuna did not last long. Moreover, the king discussed with his commanders the oral evidence of two Shasu “deserters” who falsely reported that the Hittites were not at Kadesh but away in the north. Again, we can assume the passing of time, at least one hour, but probably more. One line of the “Poem” (P 60) states that a distance of 1 Egyptian iter separated that ford south of Shabtuna from the position of Ramesses when the second division (Pre) was crossing the Orontes. The distance from the ford to the camp, or even to Kadesh, was at most 16.5 km. To march it would have taken 3/5 of a day. We cannot but assume that the time when Ramesses settled peacefully in his camp must have been in the afternoon. One final point needs to be brought into the discussion; namely, the length of the Egyptian iter. There were two: a larger one of about 10.5 km and a smaller, of approximately 2.65 km. It is evident that the former was employed here.
We can perhaps better understand why the Egyptian monarch failed to take cognizance of the Hittites. According to the Poem the latter were “concealed and ready to the northeast” of Kadesh. The first division of the Egyptians was at the northwest of the city, settled beside a local brook that was so necessary for the animals and men. They had pitched the tents, and from the scenes of relaxation the army had already settled down for the day. However, as one relief caption indicates, they were not completely finished with the preliminary tasks of pitching the camp (R 11).
But no attack by Ramesses was planned on day nine. The city of Kadesh was not directly approached. Indeed, the king settled down on the west, across the Orontes, and arranged his camp for the arrival of the following divisions. We must assume that either he expected a military encounter with the enemy forces stationed within Kadesh on at least the following day or that he intended a siege of the citadel. The second alternative is a secure and economical way to victory, provided that time is not of the essence. Such a blockage prevents additional men from supporting the enemy, and eventually the lack of food and water becomes a major problem for the defenders. Yet in this case there is no evidence that Ramesses immediately proceeded to invest Kadesh. Indeed, he was somewhat removed from that citadel. The topography of the region indicates that west of the city and around the Orontes there was a relatively level plain, one suitable for chariot warfare. The Egyptian camp and the advancing three other divisions were well placed to suit their purposes. If this analysis is accepted, then we may very well wonder if once more the possibility of a “pre-arranged” battle was understood. That is to say, soon after dawn on the following day, the clash of the Egyptians and the foes within Kadesh was expected, provided that no surrender took place.
The Hittites, as all now know, were hidden. The less detailed but highly useful account of the “Bulletin” twice says “behind” Kadesh whereas the “Poem” is more specific, locating Muwatallis, the Hittite monarch, and his army at the “northeast of the town of Kadesh.” This report also uses the word “behind” but adds that the enemy’s chariots charged from the “south side of Kadesh” and broke into the second division of Pre that was still marching north to meet Ramesses. Either the Pharaoh had not used advance chariotry or scouts of his own to size up the strategic situation at Kadesh, and this appears the correct solution, or the Hittite king arrived after any Egyptian scouts had left. Considering the location of the enemy, the depictions of their camp, and the prepared state of Kadesh, the second alternative must be rejected. But the crucial question remains: how could Ramesses have not seen or heard the enemy?
Armies such as Muwatallis’ had horses, and we know that his chariots and troops were prepared. Do not horses neigh and create dust clouds by their moving hooves? How can one hide them? Was the grass very high? Or was the enemy simply too far away for traces of their presence to be noted? Evidently, the Egyptian king had not sent a reconnaissance party across the river to the east. This may have been due to the fact that his first division was just on the point of settling down, and that the sun had begun to dip faster in the mid afternoon. Nonetheless, Ramesses thought that the coast was clear because the two Shasu had deceived him concerning his opponent’s whereabouts. Was the hour of the day a factor? We have calculated, albeit in a tentative way, that before Ramesses reached his desired spot a considerable amount of time had passed. Sunset occurred around 6 p. m. local time, and we would doubt if evening twilight had already occurred at the point when the Hittite chariots were sent directly across the Orontes. The Poem helps us further when it states that Muwatallis and his soldiers were hidden “behind” Kadesh. The mound and the city itself therefore provided the necessary cover.
A few additional remarks concerning this deception can be offered, not in order to excuse the mistake of the Egyptian monarch, but rather to indicate how armies that are at close quarters are unable to perceive each other. It may be possible to surprise small forces but with large ones it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. The Baron de Jomini observed “As armies at the present day  seldom camp in tents when on a march, prearranged surprises are rare and difficult, because in order to plan one it becomes necessary to have an accurate knowledge of the enemy’s camp.” Surprisingly, this sentence fits neatly with the tactics of Muwatallis. He allowed Ramesses to settle down, or at least to begin pitch the tents, before he moved his forces across the river. In addition, he waited for the second division of Ramesses to advance sufficiently so that he could smash it and hence isolate the first division at the camp.
Muwatallis must have known about the Na`arn, the fifth division, when he sent his chariots ahead. As stated before, these armies had reasonable knowledge of the strategic goals of their enemy. In the case of the Hittites, their basic situation was better than the Egyptians. They already held the area and had sufficient reconnaissance to enable them to understand the enemy’s advance. If so, they should have known of the incoming fifth division. Muwatallis was also able to send two Shasu south to meet up with the main Egyptian force. He realized that his plans had succeeded. Otherwise, Ramesses would not have acted the way he did.
The numbers of chariots said to have been employed by Muwatallis belie the truth. Once more we meet nice rounded integers: 2,500 in the first wave, the one that reached the Egyptian camp, and another 1,000 later on. We could add the 19,000 and an additional 18,000 teher warriors said by the Egyptian account to have remained with their leader. But let us return to the force of chariots. As the Hittites followed a system of three men to a chariot in this battle, 7,500 men are implied. Following the data, we arrive at an area of 27,941 m2; in a square the sides would be 167 m or about 548 feet, 10 percent of a mile.
These calculations have avoided any other soldiers in the Hittite army. Even though the Hittite chariots were somewhat different from the Egyptians’, their length (including the horse) was about the same. The only other problem is that with three men in the vehicle the width would have been greater. Hence, we ought to increase our result by a few meters although we cannot assume that the chariots were set up neatly in a square. The type of fighting as well as the width of a chariot arm would have depended upon the area in which they could maneuver. We cannot assume that the chariots attacked en mass with no depth. For the original 2,500 the space would not have allowed it.
If a camp for a Roman legion totaled 6,000 men, then the area would be approximately 60 acres. For a mere 7,500 men we have 75 acres or .12 miles2. Muwatallis certainly did not require such a large area because the city of Kadesh could have supplied him with provisions. The Hittite monarch had already camped there before Ramesses arrived, and his tactical situation was excellent. But given the figures of the enemy troops in the text, especially those of the 37,000 teher warriors, it would have been remarkable if the Hittite king could have not been observed from a distance. We must discount all of the numbers in Ramesses’ account of the battle of Kadesh.
Yet this does not mean that the battle cannot be analyzed. In particular, we have to ask ourselves: what was the original intention of Muwatallis when he sent his chariots across the Orontes? The lack of footsoldiers is the key. He did not intend to fight for a long time. The infantry were kept behind. Hence, the purpose of the attack was to run through division number two, that of Pre, and to get to the camp of his foe as soon as possible. Muwatallis also knew that the Pharaoh was just settling down. He did not delay, for that would mean that the Egyptians could assemble with double the number of troops. Considering his action, we may suppose that he felt, with about 75 percent of the enemy army still marching north, the odds were certainly in his favor. Nonetheless, he did not commit himself to full force: additional chariots were left behind.