The Battle of Qadesh, the uncertain victory of Ramses II

Over the centuries, the Battle of Qadesh , fought in 1278 B.C. C., has been taken as one of the greatest military feats of Ramses II , although recent archaeological and epigraphic studies now give us a very different version from the official one, given by the pharaoh himself in his “Pentaur Poem”.

Considered the oldest of the great battles of which there is knowledge, the conflict between the sovereign of Egypt Ramses II and the king of the Hittites  Muwattali took place on the banks of the Orontes river, in the vicinity of Qadesh, a city from which it takes name.

At a time of delicate balance between the Near and Middle East, the Hittites expanded their borders by gaining control of Qadesh (Syria), which had previously been under Egyptian sovereignty. When Ramses II was crowned pharaoh at the age of 25, he had already been briefed by his father on the inevitable outcome of a war with the Hittites, then in possession of the lands that crossed the trade routes. Without free trade routes, Egypt could see its wealth and its future in jeopardy.

Muwattali managed to form a coalition between states and provinces, and gather an army of approximately 36,000 men and about 2,500 battle tanks. On his part, Ramses II had 20,000 men grouped into four divisions, each one dedicated to an Egyptian god (Amun, Ra, Ptah and Sutekh), as well as his personal guard and numerous chariots. On the way to the Orontes River valley he added to his troops an elite corps of Asiatic soldiers, known as the Nearin .

When Ramses was near the city of Qadesh, he managed to capture and interrogate two Ahasu Bedouins, who told him that Muwattali and his army were 200 kilometers to the north, in Aleppo. They also told him that the Hittite king was intimidated by the advance of Pharaoh. This information was false although it was taken as true, and was part of Muwattali’s strategy, who was waiting east of Qadesh waiting for the moment to attack the Egyptian army.

Ramesses crossed the Orontes and advanced to the west of Qadesh along with one of his divisions (Amun), while the other three had lagged behind. He decided to set up a camp to wait for his other divisions and regroup the army, and then launch the attack on the city. As luck would have it, Ramesses captured two Hittite soldiers, who revealed Muwattali’s true intentions, but the pharaoh did not have time to assemble his divisions in time.

When the Hittites attacked, crossing the Orontes, they took the Ra division by surprise and finished it off, scattering and pursuing the few remaining survivors. Then it was the turn of the Ammon division, which, due to the surprise arrival at the camp of the Hittite chariots, was unable to react in time. Meanwhile, and although the situation was desperate, Ramesses II tried to rally as many soldiers as possible to counterattack, but the battlefield was in complete chaos, and the Hittites were more focused on looting the booty than on continuing to attack, which gave some time to Ramses.

According to Pharaoh’s own account, his counterattack was unstoppable, and charging with his chariot easily knocked down the Hittite ranks, although this version seems quite distant from reality. Perhaps we should attribute the pharaoh’s survival and success to the fact that the enemies were busy looting, and the space of the field did not leave much room for maneuver for the 2,500 Hittite chariots.

At this point in the battle the Nearin arrived, attacking the enemy in close formation and causing them to disperse and flee to the south. Once regrouped they sent a second attack with their chariots, but it too failed in its attempt. The Hittites fled across the river, in which many unfortunates drowned, while the Ptah division finished off the last bit of fighting.

As to whether there was a subsequent confrontation with the Hittites before Ramses’ return to Egypt , historians disagree, but the Pentaur Epic tells us that there was. Muwattali surrendered his troops and offered peace, an offer that Ramses accepted, due to the serious difficulties that continuing the campaign would entail based on recent losses. This peace was never signed by a written agreement, but was simply a cessation of hostilities agreed between the two.

Ramses cannot be judged harshly for presenting a conflict that can be considered a forced draw as a great victory, it is true that he won but he was not impartial in his description of the events, but his position as pharaoh and perhaps his youth they led him to it.

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