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The Battle of Kadesh - Part One - Great Rivals

Why did the Hittite and Egyptian Empires go to war?

By 1274 BC, the Hittites and the Egyptians had co-existed for some four centuries. The Hittites ruled most of modern-day Turkey and controlled a halo of vassal kingdoms on the Turkish coasts and in the northern Levant. Far to the south, the Egyptians held sway, their crop fields fed by the yearly inundations of the Nile and protected by the vast tracts of desert either side of that great waterway. The Egyptians too controlled many vassal lands near their home territory.

The lay of the land: The Hittite and Egyptian Empires circa 1274 BC. Note the dash-edged box - the meeting point in the vassal lands, which the Egyptians called 'Retenu'.
The lay of the land: The Hittite and Egyptian Empires circa 1274 BC. Note the dash-edged box - the meeting point in the vassal lands, which the Egyptians called 'Retenu'.

​Relations between Egypt and the Hittites were not always peaceful, it must be said. But prior to 1274 BC, aggression between the two states had only ever been in the shape of posturing and political dispute, as well as proxy war - with the Hittites compelling some of their vassal kingdoms to attack or obstruct an Egyptian army or trade route and vice versa. Not once in all that time had the huge and mighty armies of Egypt's Pharaoh or the Hittite Labarna (high king) been mobilised to face one another in full, all-out war. But a sequence of tit-for-tat exchanges soon changed that...

The Build-up of Tensions

History teaches us that most empires grow until they meet some form of resistance that checks their expansion. Think of Xerxes' Achaemenid Persia, swelling and thriving inexorably until it met with the Greeks at the Hot Gates then Salamis. Or Attila's Hunnic juggernaut, invincible until his armies came up against the allied patchwork of the fading Western Roman Empire and its 'barbarian' allies. So it was with the realms of Egypt and the Hittites. Both gradually stretched out to claim more and more territory as their own. There was a particular desire on both sides to possess the lands of the modern Levant, known to the Egyptians as 'Retenu' (see the dash-lined box area in the map, above) - a land veined with ancient trade routes. No trade was more important than that of tin; tin was a scarce resource, and being essential in the production of bronze, a vital one for any state with martial ambitions. For the Hittite Labarna and Egypt's Pharaoh, controlling Retenu and denying it to their opponent was a must.

Central Retenu: a close-up, circa 1274 BC.
Central Retenu: a close-up, circa 1274 BC.

Here's a snapshot of the creeping territorial ambitions that brought the Hititte and Egyptian realms nose-to-nose in central Retenu:

  • 15th c BC:

    • Pharoah Tuthmosis III conquers southern Retenu (roughly modern Palestine) for Egypt then rides to the River Mala (Euphrates) and erects victory stele.

  • 14th c BC:

    • Hittite King Suppiluliuma I crushes the Mittani to take much of northern Retenu (roughly modern Syria), including Gargamis (Carchemish) and Kadesh. The latter of these spoils was most important, for Kadesh lay right at the heart of central Retenu, controlling much of the inland trade and military routes.

    • Attempts to defuse the growing tensions are made when the widowed Egyptian Queen Dakhamunzu suggests marriage to Suppiluliuma's son, Zannanza. But on his journey to Egypt to wed the enemy queen, Zannanza is killed in suspicious circumstances. Many suspect this was the Egyptian plan all along.

    • Enraged, Suppiluliuma orders his forces to raid Egyptian border settlements. His Hittite soldiers return with Egyptian prisoners of war in tow.... and a plague! This plague kills Suppiluliuma and ravages Hittite lands for 20 years.

    • Mursili II becomes the new Labarna of the Hittites. A tense lull in hostility is observed between the Hittites and Egyptians at first... until Tetti, a Hittite ambassador on a visit to Egypt, is imprisoned by Pharaoh Horemheb. Resentment broils once more. Threats fly back and forth.

  • 13th c BC

    • 1294 BC:

      • Pharaoh Seti I is bent on hurting the Hittites and seizing their holdings in northern Retenu for himself. He marches north, conquers the Hittite vassal lands of Kadesh and Amurru and destroys a Hittite vassal army, leading thousands off in captivity.

      • Hittite King Muwatalli II (Muwa) and his brother Prince Hattusili (Hattu) are powerless to retaliate - for the mighty Hittite Army is beset by troubles on the western edge of Hittite lands where Ahhiyawan (Greek) raiders are pillaging.

    • 1279 BC:

      • Ramesses II takes the Egyptian throne and sets about building up Egypt's already-huge armies, determined to complete his father Seti's unfinished conquest of the Hittites.

    • 1275/1274 BC (estimated):

      • Kadesh defects back to the Hittite fold.

      • Pharaoh Ramesses is enraged.

      • Despite gaining Kadesh once again, King Muwa is still angered by the continuing Egyptian 'occupation' of the equally vital Amurru. More, his Hittite armies are now free of plague and western troubles and he has carefully nurtured strong oaths of military support from his vassals.

      • Ramesses declares he will retake Kadesh, Muwa swears he will defend it.

      • After all these centuries, there is no other path left.

      • The stage is set for war!

Stay tuned for The Battle of Kadesh Part 2: The Road to War !

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