|Relief of Rameses II at Kadesh|
In c. 1274 B.C.E., Rameses II, Pharaoh of Egypt engaged in battle with the Hittite King Muwatallis II at the city of Kadesh in modern day Syria. The resulting battle can only be described as a serious defeat for the Egyptian forces. But in an example of propaganda and the use of the big lie Rameses managed to largely successfully portray his defeat has a victory and to throw such dust into people’s critical faculties that still to this day people think of the battle has a tie or a draw at worst.1
What it was, was a serious, indeed disastrous defeat.
Rameses accomplished this by means of an incessant propaganda campaign that concentrated on his personal valour, largely to the exclusion of all else. And also by use of what can only be called the big lie. Perhaps Rameses realized that if you repeat a lie often enough people will start to believe it and in this case it worked to a large extent.
In the years before the battle of Kadesh much of northern Syria had fallen under Hittite control and away from Egyptian including the strategically important city of Kadesh, which had only very recently fallen under Egyptian control. Rameses was marching north to reclaim the city and to expel the Hittites from Syria.
The following is an excerpt from one of the Egyptian accounts of the battle of Kadesh. (located in Syria, north of Lebanon) The dating problem is because we are not sure of certain "fixes" from which the events are back and forward dated. The second date mentioned is the most commonly accepted today, although it could be about 25 years off. The early date is almost certainly incorrect. This inscription is one of many that Rameses II, 3rd King of the 19th Dynasty, had inscribed all over temples in Egypt. Rameses who built on a colossal scale, including Abu Simbel and the huge Hypostyle hall at Karnak, was Egypt's greatest builder. He was also a propagandist of un-mitigated gall. His accounts of the battle of Kadesh are designed to obscure the fact that Rameses walked into a trap set by the Hittite King Muwatallis II. (Centered in modern day Turkey), Rameses managed to avoid being killed or captured but his army was decimated and he was forced to retreat. Muwatallis II outsmarts Rameses in a clever display of deception and strategy. Rameses would claim in his account that he defeated Muwatallis II the next day and that he forced Muwatallis II to accept peace. This is false. War continued for some time afterwards and was eventually settled by a peace treaty. Kadesh remained in Hittite hands. Right after the battle much of Egypt's Asian empire revolted against Rameses. Which if anything is quite convincing about who really won.2
The following excerpt is the beginning of the account of the battle and quite un-intentionally reveals Rameses' incompetence.
Beginning of the victory of King Usermare-Setepnere Ramses II, who is given life, forever, which he achieved in the land of Kheta and Naharin, in the land of Arvad, in Pedes, in the Derden, in the land of Mesa, in the land of Kelekesh, Carchemish, Kode, the land of Kadesh, in the land of Ekereth, and Mesheneth.
Behold, his majesty prepared his infantry and his chariotry, the Sherden of the captivity of his majesty from the victories of his word - they gave the plan of battle. His majesty proceeded northward, his infantry and his chariotry being with him. He began the goodly way to march.
Year 5, the second month of the third season tenth month, on the ninth day, his majesty passed the fortress of Tharu, like Montu when he goes forth. Every country trembled before him, fear was in their hearts; all the rebels came bowing down for fear of the fame of his majesty, when his army came upon the narrow road, being like one who is upon the highway. Now, after many days after this, behold, his majesty was in Usermare-Meriamon, the city of cedar. His majesty proceeded northward, and he then arrived at the highland of Kadesh. Then his majesty marched before, like his father, Montu lord of Thebes, and crossed over the channel of the Orontes, there being with him the first division of Amon named: "Victory-of-King-Usermare-Setepnere."
When his majesty reached the city, behold, the wretched, vanquished chief of Kheta had come, having gathered together all countries from the ends of the sea to the land of Kheta, which came entire: the Naharin likewise, and Arvad, Mesa, Keshkesh, Kelekesh, Luka, Kezweden, Carchemish, Ekereth, Kode, the entire land of Nuges, Mesheneth, and Kadesh. He left not a country which was not brought together with their chiefs who were with him, every man bringing his chariotry, an exceeding great multitude, without its like. They covered the mountains and the valleys; they were like grasshoppers with their multitudes. He left not silver nor gold in his land but he plundered it of all its possessions and gave to every country, in order to bring them with him to battle.
Behold, the wretched, vanquished chief of Kheta, together with numerous allied countries, were stationed in battle array, concealed on the northwest of the city of Kadesh, while his majesty was alone by himself, with his bodyguard, and the division of Amon was marching behind him. The division of Re crossed over the river-bed on the south side of the town of Shabtuna, at the distance of an iter from the division of Amon; the division of Ptah was on the south of the city of Aranami; and the division of Sutekh was marching upon the road. His majesty had formed the first rank of all the leaders of his army, while they were on the shore in the land of the Amor.
Behold, the wretched vanquished chief of Kheta was stationed in the midst of the infantry which was with him, and he came not out to fight, for fear of his majesty. Then he made to go the people of the chariotry, an exceedingly numerous multitude like the sand, being three people to each span. Now, they had made their combinations thus: among every three youths was one man of the vanquished of Kheta, equipped with all the weapons of battle. Lo, they had stationed them in battle array, concealed on the northwest the city of Kadesh. They came forth from the southern side of Kadesh, and they cut through the division of Re in its middle, while they were marching without knowing and without being drawn up for battle. The infantry and chariotry of his majesty retreated before them.
Now, his majesty had halted on the north of the city of Kadesh, on the western side of the Orontes. Then came one to tell it to his majesty His majesty shone like his father Montu, when he took the adornments of war; as he seized his coat of mail, he was like Baal in his hour. The great span which bore his majesty called: "Victory-in-Tebes," from the great stables of Ramses II, was in the midst of the leaders. His majesty halted in the rout; then he charged into the foe, the vanquished of Kheta, being alone by himself and none other with him. When his majesty went to look behind him, he found 2,500 chariotry surrounding him, in his way out, being all the youth of the wretched Kheta, together with its numerous allied countries: from Arvad, from Mesa, from Pedes, from Keshkesh, from Erwenet, from Kezweden, from Aleppo, Eketeri, Kadesh, and Luka, being three men to a span, acting in unison.
Year 5, third month of the third season, day 9; under the majesty of Horus: Mighty Bull, Beloved of Truth; King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Usermare-Setepnere; Son of Re; Ramses-Meriamon, given life forever. Lo, his majesty was in Zahi on his second victorious campaign. The goodly watch in life, prosperity and health, in the tent of his majesty, was on the highland south of Kadesh. When his majesty appeared like the rising of Re, he assumed the adornments of his father, Montu. When the king proceeded northward, and his majesty had arrived at the locality south of the town of Shabtuna, there came two Shasu, to speak to his majesty as follows: "Our brethren, who belong to the greatest of the families with the vanquished chief of Kheta, have made us come to his majesty, to say: 'We will be subjects of Pharaoh and we will flee from the vanquished chief of Kheta; for the vanquished chief of Kheta sits in the land of Aleppo, on the north of Tunip. He fears because of Pharaoh to come southward.'" Now, these Shasu spake these words, which they spake to his majesty, falsely, for the vanquished chief of Kheta made them come to spy where his majesty was, in order to cause the army of his majesty not to draw up for fighting him, to battle with the vanquished chief of Kheta. Lo, the vanquished chief of Kheta came with every chief of every country, their infantry and their chariotry, which he had brought with him by force, and stood, equipped, drawn up in line of battle behind Kadesh the Deceitful, while his majesty knew it not. Then his majesty proceeded northward and arrived on the northwest of Kadesh; and the army of his majesty made camp there. Then, as his majesty sat upon a throne of gold, there arrived a scout who was in the following of his majesty, and he brought two scouts of the vanquished chief of Kheta. They were conducted into the presence, and his majesty said to them: "What are ye?" They said: "As for us, the vanquished chief of the Kheta has caused that we should come to spy out where his majesty is." Said his majesty to them: "He! Where is he, the vanquished chief of Kheta? Behold, I have heard, saying: 'He is in the land of Aleppo,'" Said they: "See, the vanquished chief of Kheta is stationed, together with many countries, which he has brought with him by force, being every country which is in the districts of the land of Kheta, the land of Naharin, and all Kode. They are equipped with infantry and chariotry, bearing their weapons; more numerous are they than the sand of the shore. See, they are standing, drawn up for battle, behind Kadesh the Deceitful."
Then his majesty had the princes called into the presence, and had them hear every word which the two scouts of the vanquished chief of Kheta, who were in the presence, had spoken. Said his majesty to them: "See ye the manner wherewith the chiefs of the peasantry and the officials under whom is the land of Pharaoh have stood, daily, saying to the Pharaoh: 'The vanquished chief of Kheta is in the land of Aleppo; he has fled before his majesty, since hearing that, behold, he came.' So spake they to his majesty daily. But see, I have held a hearing in this very hour, with the two scouts of the vanquished chief of Kheta, to the effect that the vanquished chief of Kheta is coming, together with the numerous countries that are with him, being people and horses, like the multitudes of the sand. They are stationed behind Kadesh the Deceitful. But the governors of the countries and the officials under whose authority is the land of Pharaoh were not able to tell it to us." Said the princes who were in the presence of his majesty: "It is a great fault, which the governors of the countries and the officials of Pharaoh have committed in not informing that the vanquished chief of Kheta was near the king; and in that they told his report to his majesty daily." Then the vizier was ordered to hasten the army of his majesty, while they were marching on the south of Shabtuna, in order to bring them to the place where his majesty was.
Lo, while his majesty sat talking with the princes, the vanquished chief of Kheta came, and the numerous countries, which were with him. They crossed over the channel on the south of Kadesh, and charged into the army of his majesty while they were marching, and not expecting it. Then the infantry and chariotry of his majesty retreated before them, northward to the place where his majesty was. Lo, the foes of the vanquished chief of Kheta surrounded the bodyguard of his majesty, who were by his side. When his majesty saw them, he was enraged against them, like his father, Montu, lord of Thebes. He seized the adornments of battle, and arrayed himself in his coat of mail. He was like Baal in his hour. Then he betook himself to his horses, and led quickly on, being alone by himself. He charged into the foes of the vanquished chief of Kheta, and the numerous countries which were with him. His majesty was like Sutekh, the great in strength, smiting and slaying among them; his majesty hurled them headlong, one upon another into the water of the Orontes. "I charged all countries, while I was alone, my infantry and my chariotry having forsaken me. Not one among them stood to turn about. I swear, as Re loves me, as my father, Atum, favors me, that, as for every matter which his majesty has stated, I did it in truth, in the presence of my infantry and my chariotry.”3
Thus what happened is that Rameses II marched on Kadesh without proper intelligence with his army divisions out of supporting range from each other. This exposed the Egyptians to defeat in detail. Further the Hittite king Muwatallis II had carefully concealed his forces from the Egyptians using the Orontes river and the walls of Kadesh to conceal his army.
Thus Rameses II marching too far ahead of most of his army and outside of supporting distance. Camped near Kadesh with the division of Amun. There he planned to wait for the rest of his army; the divisions of Ra, Ptah and Seth. Who were stretched out over a long marching distance quite unable to support each other.
Rameses found out through interrogating two spies that the entire Hittite army was across the Orontes river behind Kadesh, and he was with just one lone division of the Egyptian army, totally exposed!
Muwatallis wanted to defeat Rameses comprehensibly so instead of throwing his army at Rameses lone division of Amun he decided to wait just a bit for the division of Ra. It appears Muwatallis’ spies had told him that the division of Ptah was many hours behind and that of Seth much further and that he could destroy the two leading Egyptian divisions piecemeal.
Rameses found out he was in a trap too late. For shortly after he got out of the spies the news that he was pardon a modern expression “fucked”, the Hittite plan switched into action. Muwatallis sent his chariots against the division of Ra that was marching up and now just a bit south of Kadesh. It appears that Rameses had not had time, or failed to warn them that the Hittites were nearby and the caught in the open in marching not battle order the division was cut to pieces and dispersed.
The Hittites, although some of them probably pursued the routed Egyptians to the south apparently pursued remnants north of the division of Ra. The panic of the routed division of Ra communicated itself to the division of Amun and in short order most of it was dispersed or dead.
All Rameses had left was his body guard and apparently a large section of the Egyptian chariots. Total victory was in the grasp of the Hittite king. Killing or better yet capturing Rameses was virtually certain it seems and yet it appears that Muwatallis blew it. Muwatallis had set up a trap and Rameses through thoughtlessness had walked into it. Now with total victory within his grasp Muwatallis let it slip away. How and why?
The why is probably in the end unanswerable but there are few pointers. Firstly it appears that most of the Hittite forces that dispersed the two Egyptian divisions were either off pursuing the remnants or fell into looting the camp. No doubt the booty was rich. It is also probable that Muwatallis did not send his infantry in because he didn’t feel they were a match for the Egyptian chariots. This left only part of the Hittite chariot force in combat condition. Now it appears that the Hittite king had a large number of infantry ready for combat near Kadesh and Rameses realized, or someone else realized that if they came into combat Rameses was totally lost. Fighting his way out was not much of an option because the Hittites would pursue with likely fatal results for the Egyptians. The best option was to hold out until the other divisions arrived of Ptah and Seth and further reinforcements were expected to arrive from Phoenicia. And given that much of the Hittite forces were off in pursuit or looting what parts were still in combat mode could be and should be kept busy until the reinforcements arrived. Thus Rameses attacked the remaining Hittite Chariot forces that weren’t off in pursuit or looting near the Orontes river.
This attack served wonderfully to fix the attention of the Hittites and Muwatallis, who sent much of the chariot forces he had to reinforce the sections attacked by Rameses. In the Egyptian account supposedly Rameses’ forces drove back the Hittite chariots into the Orontes river. More likely the struggle was inconclusive. Eventually Egyptian units from Phoenicia, called Nearin showed up and apparently got rid of the Hittite pillagers of the Egyptian camp and also parts of the routed division of Amun began to return. And in the south the division of Ptah was now within striking distance.
Muwatallis then apparently withdrew his forces across the Orontes river. Supposedly the Egyptians fought another battle the next day and either won or fought a drawn battle. In point of fact it appears that no such battle happened and instead a truce was arranged, and Rameses withdrew. Possibly Muwatallis agreed to this because his chariot forces had suffered heavy losses. They seem to be the only section of the Hittite army that was heavily engaged.
That this is no Egyptian victory is amply conferred by the fact that at most a few days after the battle the Egyptians withdrew and Kadesh was left in Hittite hands and was not even besieged by the Egyptians. Instead the Egyptian army withdrew. In fact we have a Hittite account of the battle and it claims victory. That account given what the Egyptian account tells us, once the over the top celebration of Rameses’ courage is put aside, is utterly believable.4 Why? Well as one author has said:
So much for the Egyptian version of events. The Hittite records, recovered from Bogazkoy, tell of a very different battle ending with a humiliated Rameses forced to retreat from Kadesh in ignominious defeat. The known facts do tend to support the Hittite version. Rameses’ departure, without a signed treaty, allowed the Hittites to reinforce their hold on Kadesh and regain control of Amurru, deposing the unfortunate Benteshina who was marched off to Hatti to explain himself. The Hittites then pushed further south through the Bekka Valley to secure the Egyptian territory of Upi which was placed under the command of the king’s brother Hattusilis. Soon Egypt’s sphere of influence was once again restricted to Canaan.
The battle of Kadesh did not see the end of Rameses’ eastern campaigns. On the contrary the Kadesh debacle, and the subsequent unchallenged loss of Upi, seems to have inspired several local rulers to try their luck against the demoralized Egyptians. Canaanite ‘tribute’ was suddenly remarkably slow in arriving in Egypt, while increased bedouin activity disturbed the peace of the Egyptian vassals. Rameses was forced to embark on a series of campaigns in order to reassert his authority, attempting to make good some of his losses by military action in Canaan, Syria and Amurru.5
Basically Rameses account tried to turn a near catastrophic defeat into a victory by talking endlessly about his personal prowess. Thus turning defeat into a personal triumph. What actually happened is however reasonably clear and it is defeat.
The Hittite king had completely thwarted the Egyptian campaign and had come within a whisker of a completely unprecedented crushing victory. This was due to Muwatallis cleverness and Rameses quite inexcusable carelessness. As it was, with two of the Egyptian divisions, out of four, badly cut up Egyptian losses were almost certainly much greater than Hittite losses. Although it is possible that Hittite chariot losses were significant and thus perfectly possible that Muwatallis would agree to a truce allowing for the Egyptians to withdraw.
No doubt Rameses boasted of his personal triumph from the beginning and made claims to victory. In Egypt Rameses could get away with it, however in Syria and Palestine it was another story. In short order after the battle much of Egyptian Syria and Palestine was outside of Egyptian control and Rameses would have to fight several campaigns to regain control and then he spent years fighting the Hittites in Syria with inconclusive results and the Egyptians never regained Kadesh..
So it appears that people in Syria and Palestine interpreted the battle, correctly, as a defeat and reacted accordingly. Rameses was able to use the resources of the Egyptian state to proclaim himself the victor, but his own account, to say nothing of foreign records show otherwise. Rameses quite simply was defeated, and badly defeated at that. The only difference was that total disaster was avoided due to sheer luck and Muwatallis’ mistake in holding back part of his army so that Rameses was not utterly crushed and thereby escaped death or capture.6
What we see here is the operation of the big lie. If you say something long and loudly enough people will believe you. This was Rameses' method and since that time we have seen numerous examples of this propaganda style. In order to work however the big lie must be rooted in actual events. This is what makes Rameses Kadesh inscriptions so fascinating because they illustrate how the big lie does not require out and out fabrication.
You would have thought that in order to cover up such a disaster Rameses and his propagandists would have resorted to complete fabrication and would have invented a battle out of whole cloth. Well they didn’t do that. Instead they based their big lie on spin and distortion. Why? Well perhaps because far too many people knew the actual story and to devise a complete fabrication would simply not work. A lie based on truth is singularly more effective for it is much harder to show that it is a lie. Also what this indicates that sometimes even the most shameless propagandist tries to have some fidelity to truth.
So instead we get an account filled with praises, outrageous praises, of Rameses. So the account includes much that is frankly, if you’re paying attention, distinctly negative about Rameses handling of the battle. As such since it is so negative it is almost certainly true. After all if Rameses let it more or less stand in his propagandist account it has to be true. The propagandists that Rameses employed sought to hide such decidedly negative stuff by spin, by talking endlessly about the king’s heroic efforts and personal bravery. The equivalent of shouting “look here, look here!” And by spinning the event that way a lost battle becomes a personal triumph.7
It is not just the fact that the Hittites claimed victory that gives the lie to Rameses’ claims it is the context. Rameses failed to get back Kadesh or even besiege it and further retreated after the battle. And not long after that lost much of Egyptian controlled Syria and Palestine. Looks like defeat to me.
Rameses fought the Hittites for years afterword and in the end had to leave northern Syria, including Kadesh to them.
And during all this the propaganda mills started to roll and defeat was turned into victory and many, many centuries later scholars deciphering the inscriptions would take Rameses’ claims of victory seriously.
Sometimes the big lie works, but all it takes is a bit of reading between the lines to know the truth and in this case the truth is a reckless Rameses walking into a trap who only escaped by the skin of his teeth. And in the process Rameses was badly defeated.
Meanwhile this lie continues to have some effect.
1. See for example Battle of Kadesh, Wikipedia Here, Cotterell, Arthur, Chariot, Pimlico, London, 2004, pp. 68-70, Drews, Robert, The End of the Bronze Age, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1993, pp. 131-134, Healy, Mark, The Warrior Pharaoh, Osprey, Oxford, 1993.
2. See Tyldesley, Joyce, Rameses, Penguin Books, London, 2000, pp. 67-74, Breasted, James Henry, A History of Egypt, Bantam Books, New York, 1905, pp. 356-370, Gurney, O. R., The Hittites, Penguin Books,, London, 1952, pp. 35-36, 110, Drews, pp. 121-122, 131-134, Healy, pp. 44-83.
3. James Henry Brested, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), v. III, pp. 136-147.
4. For accounts of the battle see Footnote 2, and Breasted, 1906, pp. 125-135, and for ancient Egyptian accounts see pp. 136-147, 151-157. See also Gardiner, Alan, The Kadesh Inscriptions of Rameses II, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1960.
5. Tyldesley, pp. 73-75.
6. Footnote 4.
7. See Tyldesley, pp. 67-74, see p. 73 for the Hittite claim to victory. See also Gurney, p. 35-36, 110. For the Palestinian revolt after Kadesh and Rameses' reconquest see Breasted, 1906, pp. 157-161.