Kadesh (Tell Neby Mend) was a Hittite city on the Orontes River in what is now southern Syria. Within less than five years after the retreat of Ramesses II's forces from the field (in his fifth regnal year), official acounts of his battle with the Hittites began to appear in Egypt, circulated on papyrus and/or carved on the walls of the king's new temples. The most complete versions—found in temples at Abydos, Karnak, Luxor, Western Thebes (at Ramesses II's memorial temple, called the Ramesseum) and at Abu Simbel—consist of the literary record and the pictorial record.

The Literary Record.

A highly rhetorical account of the battle was misnamed “Poem” in the older publications in Egyptology. The beginning of the “Poem” described the forces arrayed against Egypt and the pharaoh's advance against the city of Kadesh. The greater part then dealt with the dramatic events of the battle's first day; highlights included the pharoah's appeal to his divine father Amun, his valor in action, and his victory against great odds, despite what was described as his army's craven conduct. The remainder reports on the next day's fighting, before describing the Hittite king's appeal for a truce and the pharaoh's triumphant departure from the field of battle. The entire text, a composition independent of other Kadesh materials (from which it was separated in the temples), was also preserved in three copies on papyrus—one (dated to Ramesses II's ninth regnal year) begins as Papyrus Raifé and continues on Papyrus Sallier III; and two others are on Papyrus Chester Beatty III, verso 1–3.

The Pictorial Record.

Found only on temple walls, the pictorial materials can be divided into two groups. The first is the so-called Bulletin, or Record, actually an extended commentary placed above the battle scenes. Like them, it focuses on the events of the first day, but it gives more detail about the antecedents of the battle than appears in the “Poem.” The second group of materials consists of the reliefs themselves, which depict the military action in relation to two main localities (the Egyptian camp and the city of Kadesh). In this context, a number of vignettes appear that illustrate the course of the battle. They include many descriptive labels that identify assorted participants and episodes in the fighting, such as the arrival of the relief force of young fighters (naʿarn), who appeared at the crucial moment, near the end of the first day.

Interpretation.

Despite the wealth of detail in the various accounts, the perspective they share with other such rhetorical materials from Egypt—replete with ideological bias and the selective reporting of events—makes them problematical to use in reconstructing a full and objective account of the battle. As a result, an extensive modern literature has grown, which reflects scholarly disagreements, not only about details of what happened but even on the so-called propagandist purposes for which Ramesses II circulated these materials. The most that can be said convincingly is that the publicity given in Egypt to the Battle of Kadesh presented the young pharoah as snatching a qualified victory out of the jaws of defeat—doubtless a useful thing—both in the battle's aftermath, when Egypt had still more land to recover from the Hittites' encroachment on its empire, and later, when enough pressure was kept on Hatti to allow a settlement to be reached—an outcome fulfilled, at least sufficiently, the aim that Ramesses had his courtiers articulate near the end of the “Poem” (in verse 329: “There is no blame in peace when you make it”).

See also KADESH; and RAMESSES II.

Bibliography

  • Gaballa, G. A. Narrative in Egyptian Art. Mainz, 1976. An analysis of the artistic composition of the Kadesh battle reliefs.
  • Gardiner, Alan. The Kadesh Inscriptions of Ramesses II. Oxford, 1960. A handy translation, with commentary, of the Egyptian texts that detail the battle.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. Ramesside Inscriptions, Historical and Biographical. Oxford, 1979. A user-friendly comparative edition of the various versions of the texts published in Kuentz's comprehensive edition; the author's translation and commentary appear in supplementary volumes.
  • Kuentz, Charles. La Battaille de Qadech. Mémoires de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 55. Cairo, 1928–1934. The fullest documentation of sources, this edition publishes copies of both the texts and the representations (mostly in photographs) of the battle on temple walls, but no translations.
  • Von der Way, Thomas. Die Textüberlieferung Ramses' II, zur Qadeš-Schlacht. Analyse und Struktur. Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 22. Hildesheim, 1984. An exhaustive discussion of the literary composition of the main Kadesh Battle narratives, with some debatable conclusions resting on its “structuralist” analysis of the texts.

William J. Murnane