Ancient History & Civilisation



ON A CRISP MAY MORNING IN 1274, SHORTLY AFTER DAWN, RAMESSES II broke camp and rode out at the head of his army. Behind him, in the chill morning air, slowly but surely, the massive expeditionary force of more than twenty thousand men inched its way along the dusty track, from the ridgetop vantage point where it had spent the night, down into the valley below. After a month on the march—from the Egyptian border to Gaza, through the hill country of Canaan to Megiddo, and thence along the Litani and Beqa valleys—the army’s ultimate destination lay just half a day ahead.

The great town of Kadesh had been a decisive player in the power politics of the Near East for centuries. Situated in the fertile valley of the river Orontes, it commanded one of the few routes that crossed the coastal range to link inland Syria with the Mediterranean coast. It was thus of vital strategic importance for control of the wider region. (Twenty-five centuries later, the Crusaders recognized the same strategic imperative, building the greatest of their castles, Krak des Chevaliers, just a few miles away.)

Back in the days of Thutmose III, the prince of Kadesh had been the leader of the rebels vanquished at Megiddo. In more recent times, Kadesh had successfully played the Egyptians and the Hittites off against each other, switching allegiance from one side to the other. The town’s canny rulers had also taken impressive steps to defend themselves. While they might have been quite happy to act as agents provocateurs in the looming confrontation between the two great powers, they had no wish to see their homes reduced to rubble in the process. Nestled in a fork of the Orontes and one of its tributaries, Kadesh was naturally protected on three sides by water. By cutting a channel to the south of the town, linking the two rivers, the citizens had turned their town, already heavily fortified, into a virtual island, impregnable against attack. Nonetheless, Ramesses had determined to capture Kadesh once and for all, to restore Egypt’s imperial reputation in Syria. After a decade of low-level hostilities, the Egyptian and Hittite forces had settled upon Kadesh as the location for a great set-piece battle that would finally decide permanent supremacy over the important territory of Amurru, which had switched sides so frequently during the previous decades. So it was with a combination of resolution and anticipation that the pharaoh’s army now marched.

The massive force assembled by Ramesses, representing perhaps three-quarters of Egypt’s total military strength, was formed of four divisions, each commanded by a senior royal officer. The king himself was in charge of the lead division, named for the god Amun. Behind him followed the divisions of Ra, Ptah, and Seth. Once on the march, the line of troops stretched for more than a mile, weapons glinting in the sunlight—an awesome sight indeed. As the eldest son and successor of the warrior king Seti I, Ramesses had learned at his father’s side the art of military leadership, and he knew that the sight of him triumphantly arrayed in his golden chariot would both inspire his own troops and strike fear into the heart of the enemy. Indeed, initial reports from the field suggested that the Hittites had taken fright. As the division of Amun marched through dense woods on the south bank of the Orontes, Egyptian scouts intercepted two bedouin tribesmen. Their interrogation yielded astonishing and welcome news: the Hittite army, overawed by Ramesses’s resolve and his fearsome war machine, was keeping its distance and was currently 120 miles away in the land of Aleppo. Fearing deliberate misinformation, the Egyptians cross-questioned the nomads, but they stuck to their story. Everything seemed to be going Ramesses’s way. Buoyed by this unexpected turn of events, the army pressed on toward Kadesh.

Once out of the woods, the division of Amun forded the Orontes near the village of Shabtuna (modern Ribla) and after another three hours’ marching reached their campsite opposite Kadesh. The site was well chosen, with a nearby brook affording welcome refreshment for men and horses alike. While the animals quenched their thirst, the soldiers began to pitch camp. Chariots were parked, tents erected, and shields set up to form a defensive laager. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Hazy in the distance, the fortresslike Kadesh dominated the southeastern horizon.

As soon as Ramesses and his forward division reached the campsite, the intelligence corps dispatched scouts into the surrounding countryside, following established practice, to reconnoiter the land and provide information about enemy movements. Almost immediately, they stumbled upon two Hittite spies engaged in similar activities. It was a stroke of extraordinary luck, the first of several strokes that spring afternoon. The enemy agents were subjected not to a mild interrogation but to fierce beatings. What they revealed under torture was a bombshell. Far from being 120 miles away and chary of battle, the Hittite king Muwatalli II and his forces were at that very moment camped behind Kadesh, the town mound concealing their presence from the Egyptians. Moreover, the Hittite commanders had decided to launch a preemptive strike against the Egyptian army and were preparing to attack at any moment.

Having spilled their terrible news, the spies were dragged before an astonished Ramesses, who erupted in fury. He slammed his senior officers for their incompetence and, taking personal charge of events, ordered urgent emergency measures. The royal princes traveling with the king were sent immediately out of danger, fleeing westward, away from the oncoming storm. The vizier was dispatched southward at full speed, to hurry the advance of the division of Ptah, which was only now preparing to ford the Orontes. The message from Ramesses was desperate: “His Majesty is all alone!”1

Minutes later, the attack came. A huge detachment of twenty-five hundred Hittite chariots, their warriors fearsome in ankle-length mail coats, swept across the river and struck the division of Ra as it was marching northward toward the Egyptian camp. Unlike the Egyptian battle chariots, which were essentially mobile firing platforms, the Hittite chariots were sturdy war machines. Each carried not two but three crew—a driver and two soldiers—armed with stabbing spears for close-range combat. Used en masse, in an organized charge, the Hittite chariotry was devastatingly effective at demolishing ranks of enemy infantry, as the division of Ra now discovered, to its great cost.

With their dead and dying comrades littering the ground, the surviving Egyptian soldiers panicked and fled headlong toward their camp, the Hittites in hot pursuit. Within moments, the enemy was at the gate. Chariots charged through the unfinished wall of shields to attack the Egyptian generals in their tented headquarters. It was pandemonium. With no time to think, Ramesses acted instinctively, leaping onto his chariot and swinging into action against the Hittite foe. The king was surrounded by his elite bodyguard of Aegean mercenaries, fierce fighting men from the coasts and islands on the western fringes of the Hittite Empire, men whose bravery and resilience had impressed the great powers of the Near East in recent decades. They, not the Nubians of old, were now the hired hands of choice for an Egyptian army. With them at his side, Ramesses darted between his attackers and showed his mastery of the bow and arrow, holding the fort (quite literally) amid chaos and confusion. It would take a miracle to withstand the Hittite onslaught for very long. But then, as if in answer to Ramesses’s desperate prayers, help arrived in the nick of time.

It was not a miracle but the result of the Egyptians’ tactical genius. While the main Egyptian army had marched overland to Kadesh, a reserve force of elite warriors had been sent by sea, up the Phoenician coast. Its instructions were to land at the Syrian port of Sumur and cut inland via the Eleutherus (modern Nahr el-Kebir) Valley to link up with Ramesses at Kadesh on the day of his arrival. They had done exactly as instructed. As the elite charioteers appeared in a cloud of dust on the horizon, the pharaoh knew help was at hand. Their resolve stiffened by the sudden reinforcements, the Egyptians forced the Hittites to withdraw and made to press home their advantage. Muwatalli, observing the reversal of fortune from a safe distance, sent a second wave of his chariots into the fray. These too were repulsed, and an Egyptian countercharge succeeded in pushing the enemy back toward the Orontes. After falling into the river, many Hittite charioteers were drowned or swept away. Others barely managed to scramble to safety on the opposite bank. The prince of Aleppo, one of Muwatalli’s chief lieutenants, was hauled by his men from the bloody waters, barely alive. The Hittites’ surprise attack had rebounded on them. In a matter of minutes, a certain victory had turned into an ignominious retreat.

As dusk approached, the Egyptian division of Ptah finally arrived on the scene, in time to round up the surviving Hittite soldiers, make a tally of the enemy dead, and collect the booty abandoned on the battlefield. Egyptian survivors of the carnage limped to their camp, followed, just before nightfall, by the fourth and final army division of Seth. On both sides, it was time to take stock and count the cost. For the Egyptians, dreadful losses on the battlefield had been matched by an equally devastating loss of reputation: their very survival had been in peril, and only the king’s personal charisma, combined with the timely arrival of the reserve force, had prevented the army’s total annihilation. For the Hittites, the scene was equally bleak. King Muwatalli had lost two of his own brothers in the fighting, together with his secretary, the chief of his bodyguard, four leading charioteers, and numerous officers. With neither side victorious, the Battle of Kadesh was not over yet.

At daybreak, after a fitful night tending the wounded and repairing mangled chariots, the two armies met once more, this time for the planned encounter on the plain in front of Kadesh. Yet the previous day’s fighting had fatally weakened both sides. The Egyptians had sustained heavy losses and could not overcome the might of the Hittite infantry. (It had sat out the initial assault, and was thus rested and resolute.) The Hittites, having lost a sizeable proportion of their chariotry, could not inflict a decisive defeat on the Egyptians. After several hours of bloody battle, with no breakthrough in sight, Ramesses withdrew his forces from the field. He realized he would never succeed in his strategic objective of capturing Kadesh, let alone in defeating the Hittites. Muwatalli, too, realized he could not orchestrate a decisive victory. He sued for peace and sent an envoy to the Egyptian camp with terms for a cease-fire. Ramesses had little option but to accept them. Twenty-four hours after arriving at Kadesh, the Egyptians gathered up their matériel and marched homeward. After two months away, Ramesses’s once mighty army arrived back in the green fields of the Nile delta in late June, exhausted and despondent.

Yet the king himself seems to have drawn strength from the bruising encounter, not least his own role in saving the day for Egypt. He had snatched, if not victory, then at least survival from the jaws of defeat, and felt ever more certain of his destiny. In keeping with his supremely self-assured—not to say megalomaniac—character, Ramesses now proceeded to turn the whole Kadesh episode to his advantage. In a carefully orchestrated barrage of propaganda—comprising both art and literature—the king broadcast his version of events throughout Egypt. He had the country’s finest writers compose a factual prose account of the battle alongside an epic poem, both designed to celebrate the king’s “great victory” over the Hittites. The texts were inscribed on temple walls and were, no doubt, recited triumphantly and frequently at court. To complement these literary paeans, Ramesses commissioned his artists to devise a stock set of pictorial scenes to capture the main moments of the battle. Chief among these tableaux, of course, was the oversize figure of the valorous monarch, all alone in the Egyptian camp, fending off the enemy single-handedly. So pleased was the king with the result that he had the same series of images carved on the façades of at least five major temples. Poems and pictures—both allowed Ramesses to contrast the incompetence and vacillation of his senior military officers with his own foresight and ability to be coolheaded under fire. For a king whose birthright could have been threatened by an army insider, this must have been the sweetest revenge.

For modern scholars, the images and words furnish an extraordinary amount of detail, and make the Battle of Kadesh the best-known military encounter in the ancient world. For Ramesses’s contemporaries, however, the accounts announced a return to the vainglorious and bombastic kingship of old. After the heresy of Akhenaten, the ephemeral reigns of his immediate successors, and the military junta of Horemheb and the early Ramessides, a resplendent and triumphalist monarchy was back with a vengeance—even if the truth had to suffer in the process.


WHILE STALEMATE AT KADESH HAD SINGULARLY FAILED TO ADVANCE Ramesses II’s strategic aims, the standoff and cessation of hostilites did at least allow him to reap a peace dividend. Resources that might have been expended on foreign military adventures could instead be invested in projects at home.

In the first two decades of his reign (1279–1259), Ramesses commissioned major new temple buildings throughout his realm, from the Lebanese port of Kebny to Gebel Barkal, in distant Sudan. The king seems to have had a particular preoccupation with Egyptian-controlled Nubia, ordering the construction of new shrines at seven different sites. In Egypt proper, architects and masons made impressive additions to the great national temples at Iunu and Herakleopolis, Abdju and Thebes. Today, more standing monuments bear the names of Ramesses II than of any other pharaoh. By a combination of construction and appropriation (taking pains to have his cartouche incised so deeply into the stone that it could never be removed), Ramesses ensured that his name would live forever. He seems to have been driven by a deep desire to surpass all his predecessors, and by a resolute sense of his own uniqueness. One of the king’s favorite myths about himself told how the Seven Hathors (the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the Fates) had watched over his infant cradle and devised an extraordinary destiny for him while he was still a babe in arms. Whether this reveals a thoroughgoing monomania or a pathological inferiority complex is open to debate. What is certain is that Ramesses’s building projects were characterized more by sheer size and brute strength than by any more refined aesthetic. Only in the exquisite decoration of the Theban tomb prepared for his beloved wife Nefertari did Ramesses allow his craftsmen to give free rein to their artistic sensibilities.

To supply so many simultaneous building projects with the necessary quantities of stone was beyond even Egypt’s prodigious quarrying capacity. So Ramesses resorted to the age-old expedient of demolishing his forebears’ monuments and requisitioning their stone for his own purposes. The chief victims of this wholesale plunder were the temples built by Akhenaten at Thebes and Akhetaten. The small, regular stone blocks that had enabled the heretic king to build his monuments so rapidly now contributed to the monuments’ equally swift demise. Blocks by the thousand were taken from the Aten temples to facilitate the erection of new shrines to the old gods. Ramesses was thus able to kill two birds with one stone: cleansing the land of Akhenaten’s heresy and promoting himself as the champion of Egypt’s traditional deities.

Since the reign of Amenhotep III ninety years earlier, the greatest stage for the ceremonies of divine kingship had been Luxor Temple, with its gigantic colonnade hall and beautiful open-air courtyard providing a spectacular backdrop to the mysteries of the annual Opet Festival . The temptation to make it yet grander proved irresistible to Ramesses. He added an entire new court and colossal gateway to the temple, decorated with massive scenes of his “triumph” at the Battle of Kadesh. Never shy of improving the monuments of his predecessors, he did not hesitate to change the main axis of Luxor Temple in order to line it up better with Ipetsut and provide a more coherent processional route. Finally, to adorn the new façade of Luxor, Ramesses had installed what would become his trademark—a pair of colossal seated statues of himself, in this case complemented by a pair of towering obelisks. Spectacle, it seems, was all.

Nowhere is Ramesses’s taste for the theatrical and self-reverential better demonstrated than in the Temple of Ramesses-beloved-of-Amun (modern Abu Simbel) in lower Nubia. The sheer rock face of a sacred mountain, towering over the Nile just north of the second cataract, was the chosen setting for the king’s most remarkable and vainglorious project. The smaller of two temples was officially dedicated to the mother goddess and royal protectress Hathor. Inside, on the back wall of the sanctuary, the Hathor cow is shown emerging from the primeval papyrus swamp, protecting the king in her embrace. Outside, all pretense of piety is dropped, and the decoration concentrates on the king’s great wife Nefertari and her doting husband. On either side of the doorway, a standing statue of the queen is flanked by two colossi of Ramesses, thirty feet high. The larger temple develops this theme further, statues and reliefs of Ramesses dominating the interior and exterior. The façade is formed by four vast seated statues of the king, each measuring nearly seventy feet high. On the pedestal, the king’s name is shown above rows of foreign captives, emphasizing his mastery of all peoples. Inside the temple, scenes depict Ramesses killing the enemies of Egypt and presenting them to the gods—who naturally include his deified self. Indeed, Ramesses’s apotheosis is the dominant theme at Abu Simbel. In desolate, conquered Nubia, where the gods were not watching, the king could give his megalomania free rein.

The true scale of the king’s self-aggrandizement is revealed in the innermost parts of Abu Simbel. Beyond the pillared hall—each pillar adorned with a colossal standing statue of Ramesses in the guise of Osiris—and the ubiqitous depictions of the Battle of Kadesh lies the holy of holies, deep inside the mountain. This intimate space is dominated by the statues of Egypt’s four chief gods, carved from the living rock. Permanently in the shadows, to one side, sits Ptah, chthonic creator god of Memphis. Next to him are Amun, creator god of Thebes; Ra-Horakhty, the solar deity who combined Ra and Horus; and the deified Ramesses. In his mind and in his monuments, the king was the equal of Egypt’s most ancient and revered deities. Moreover, on two days a year, February 21 and November 21—one of them presumably Ramesses II’s birthday—the first rays of the rising sun penetrated the entrance of the temple and illuminated the statues in the sanctuary, bringing them to life. It must have been a stunning spectacle. Few autocrats in human history have conceived a more dramatic expression of their personality cult.

Statues of Ramesses II fronting his temple at Abu Simbel  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

After Ipetsut, Luxor, and Abu Simbel, Ramesses’s greatest project was his own mortuary temple on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes. The most ambitious monument of its kind since the reign of Amenhotep III, “Ramesses United with Thebes” (known today as the Ramesseum) covered an area of more than eleven and a half acres. Quite unashamedly, every inch of the temple was given over to texts, reliefs, and statuary celebrating the king. Beyond the first great gateway, decorated with scenes of the Battle of Kadesh, the first courtyard was dominated by a series of huge pillars along the north side, each of which had a gigantic statue of Ramesses in front of it. Facing them, on the south side, was a portico and balcony, where the king could appear to his loyal followers on high days and holidays. Beyond a second gateway, bearing yet more battle reliefs, lay a second court, likewise adorned with colossal statues of Ramesses. Dwarfing even these, a vast granite colossus once stood next to the second gateway, until an earthquake felled it in antiquity. Its shattered remains, carved deeply with the king’s throne name, Usermaatra (corrupted to Ozymandias in Greek), inspired the most famous critique of absolute power in the English language.

The Ramesseum, perhaps more than any other monument, summed up its owner’s unrivaled status not just in spiritual but also in temporal matters. Surrounding the temple on all sides, vast storerooms and granaries provided storage for a significant part of Egypt’s wealth. It would have taken 350 boatloads (a quarter of a million sacks) of grain to fill the granaries completely, enough to support the inhabitants of a medium-size city (such as Thebes) for a year. In effect, the Ramesseum acted as Upper Egypt’s reserve bank. Both practically and symbolically, the nation’s wealth was under royal control. With such vast resources at his disposal, Ramesses could afford to indulge his obsession with monumentality, from the vast colossi of Abu Simbel to the majestic courts of Thebes. Well might he have uttered the immortal words of Shelley’s poem:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”


NOT CONTENT WITH ERECTING TEMPLES AND USURPING MONUMENTS throughout the length and breadth of Egypt, Ramesses II created an architectural wonder on an even greater scale, one that is now entirely lost from sight. His father, Seti I, had built a small summer palace near the old Hyksos capital of Hutwaret, where the Ramesside royal family had its origins. The young Ramesses must have spent time there, preparing for battle, and as king he set about transforming it into something altogether grander. In two decades of nonstop construction, a vast series of mansions, halls, offices, and barracks grew up around the royal palace, until Ramesses had created an entirely new city, a dynastic capital equal in splendor to Memphis or Thebes. With customary chutzpah, he named it Per-Ramesses, “the house of Ramesses.”

A desirable residence it certainly was, with vast living quarters and administrative districts full of palaces, temples, and public buildings. The surrounding countryside was some of the most productive in Egypt, supplying fruit, vegetables, and wine, and providing pasture for great herds of cattle. Scribes wrote wondrously of canals filled with fish, marshlands teeming with waterfowl, fields abundant with green pasture, and granaries overflowing with barley and wheat. The royal quarter, covering four square miles, was located in a natural stronghold on the banks of the Nile, protected by canals and sand promontories. Court poets penned eulogies on the splendor of Ramesses’s palaces, describing pillared halls and decoration of unparalleled richness. Walls, floors, columns, and doorways—all were encrusted with polychrome tile work, depicting rivers and gardens, heraldic motifs, and foreign captives. The steps leading to the throne dais were adorned with prostrate images of the king’s enemies, so that he might tread them underfoot each time he ascended or descended.

If the royal residence was dazzling, the elite quarter in the suburbs was scarcely less so. The area favored by Per-Ramesses’s wealthiest citizens resembled a Venetian idyll, with canals, large villas, and water gardens. The center of the city was dominated by a vast temple dedicated to the divine trinity, Amun–Ra-Horakhty–Atum. Fronted by four colossal statues of the king, it rivaled Ipetsut in size and splendor. The four cardinal points of the city were placed under the symbolic protection of other major deities. In the south was the temple of Seth, lord of Hutwaret, dating back to Hyksos times. In the north, a shrine was built to honor the ancient cobra goddess of the delta, Wadjet. In the west, a temple celebrated Amun of Thebes. Finally, in the east, pointing the way to Egypt’s empire in the Near East, a sanctuary was dedicated to Astarte—not an Egyptian deity at all but the Syrian goddess of love and war, appropriated into the Egyptian pantheon and given the special role of protecting the horse team that drew the royal chariot.

Even by the standards of New Kingdom Egypt, Per-Ramesses was a cosmopolitan city. As well as a temple to an Asiatic deity, there were overseas legations and entire quarters for foreign mercenaries. The markets and wharfs played host to merchants from throughout the eastern Mediterranean. With its geographic proximity to Palestine, Per-Ramesses must have been a magnet for immigrants seeking a better life, and it is against such a background that the Bible story of the Exodus came to be written. Exodus 1:11 tells how “Pharaoh” put the enslaved Hebrews to work on two great store-cities, Pithom and Raamses. “Pithom,” or Per-Atum, has been identified as modern Tell el-Maskhuta, in the eastern delta, only a day’s journey from Per-Ramesses, while “Raamses” can be none other than the new dynastic capital itself. It is highly likely that Semitic-speaking laborers were employed in the construction of the city, but they were more likely migrant workers rather than slaves (although the working conditions may have made the distinction somewhat academic). As for any exodus of Hebrews, in the reign of Ramesses II or later, the ancient Egyptian sources are silent. The story may therefore have been a conflation of several unrelated historical events. On the other hand, as we have seen, Ramesses was not one to let the truth stand in the way of his news agenda.

While the court scribes and poets lauded Per-Ramesses as a great royal residence, filled with exuberance and joy, there was also a more menacing side to this most ambitious of royal projects. One of the largest buildings was a vast bronze-smelting factory whose hundreds of workers spent their days making armaments. State-of-the-art high-temperature furnaces were heated by blast pipes worked by bellows. As the molten metal came out, sweating laborers poured it into molds for shields and swords. In dirty, hot, and dangerous conditions, the pharaoh’s people made the weapons for the pharaoh’s army. Another large area of the city was given over to stables, exercise grounds, and repair works for the king’s chariot corps. The royal stud farm provided accommodation for at least 460 horses together with their trainers and grooms. The animals were exercised in a wide, pillared court, while nearby workshops produced and repaired the tack.

In short, Per-Ramesses was less pleasure dome and more military-industrial complex. The city’s very foundation had been prompted by an upsurge in military activity in the Near East. It was from here that Ramesses set out for Kadesh, to here that he returned, bloodied but unbowed. For all its pleasures and palaces, Per-Ramesses, with its polyglot population, must have been a constant reminder of the king’s unfinished business in Syria-Palestine. Despite having the largest chariot corps in the entire region, Ramesses remained unable to neutralize the Hittite threat. Yet as he sat in his riverside palace, smarting with frustration, the king could have little imagined that events hundreds of miles away were about to deal him the luckiest of hands.


THE INDECISIVE BATTLE OF KADESH HAD BEEN FOLLOWED BY A DECADE of cold war, with the Hittites and the Egyptians facing off against each other, neither able to achieve hegemony. But the two old rivals were no longer the only powers in the region. Beyond the Euphrates, the kingdom of Assyria was in the ascendant. Barely a year after Kadesh, and emboldened by the Hittites’ failure to prevail, an Assyrian army attacked the crucial Hittite ally of Hanigalbat (the remnants of the old Mittanian Kingdom) and made it their vassal. It was a warning shot neither the Hittites nor, for that matter, the Egyptians could afford to ignore. Ramesses launched a series of low-level campaigns in the Near East, determined to shore up Egyptian control over its imperial provinces, to crush opportunistic rebellions that had broken out in the aftermath of Kadesh, and to show the Assyrians that Egypt was still a force to be reckoned with.

Having overcome dissidents in the hills of Galilee, and having recaptured the important port of Akko, Ramesses could not restrain his bravado and advanced into the erstwhile Egyptian territory of Amurru, now back within the Hittite fold. First one and then another city-state fell to the pharaoh’s army, until Ramesses occupied the middle Orontes Valley, effectively bisecting the Hittites’ southernmost province. It looked as if this rash maneuver might provoke another all-out war, but the sudden death of the Hittite king Muwatalli plunged Egypt’s enemy into a succession crisis, with major repercussions.

Muwatalli had left the throne to his young son, Prince Urhi-Teshup, who duly acceeded as king. But the new monarch’s uncle, Hattusili, had other ideas. Before long, two rival courts had developed and the ruling elite was riven by divided loyalties. After much bitter infighting, Hattusili prevailed and Urhi-Teshup fled to Egypt, seeking sanctuary at the court of Ramesses II. The pharaoh, who had been watching all these developments from a safe distance, could hardly believe his luck. In his protracted struggle for supremacy with the Hittites, fate had now delivered him, quite unexpectedly, the ultimate bargaining chip. No sooner had Urhi-Teshup fled to Egypt than Hattusili demanded his immediate extradition. Ramesses refused and put his troops in Syria on high alert, in case the Hittites attacked. But his diplomatic antennae suggested such a course of events was unlikely, for a new ruler had just come to power in Assyria with imperialist ambitions of his own. Ramesses calculated, correctly, that the Hittites would be too preoccupied with this threat to their eastern flank to reopen hostilities with Egypt. When the Assyrians invaded Hanigalbat for a second time and liquidated it as a separate territory, the Hittites suddenly found themselves in greater danger than ever before. Only the river Euphrates separated their kingdom from the belligerent and expansionist Assyria. It was time to put national security before national pride.

An alliance with Assyria was unthinkable, so Hattusili put out discreet feelers in Egypt’s direction, to explore the possibilities of peace with Ramesses. After a year of fraught negotiations accompanied by much shuttle diplomacy, the details of a treaty were hammered out. So, in early December 1259, a decade and a half after the Battle of Kadesh, a high-level delegation set out from the Hittite capital of Hattusa, high on the Anatolian plateau, bound for Per-Ramesses. Alongside the Hittite envoys traveled a representative from Carchemish, the Hittites’ forward base on the banks of the Euphrates; it was a clear indication that cordial relations with Egypt now lay at the heart of Hittite foreign and security policy. After a month traveling the dusty roads of the Near East, the envoys finally arrived in the great delta city and were ushered into the royal audience chamber. Bowing low before Ramesses, the chief Hittite representative presented a great silver tablet, engraved in wedge-shaped cuneiform writing. It was a gift from Hattusili himself, a copy of the comprehensive treaty that from now on would bind the Egyptians and the Hittites in mutual support and friendship. Never to be outdone, Ramesses had the Egyptian version of the treaty engraved on the walls of Ipetsut, to stand as a perpetual record of his diplomatic skill.

And a remarkable document it was, in either language. After declaring a formal end to hostilities between the two kingdoms, the text celebrated the establishment of friendly relations:

Behold, Hattusili, the ruler of the Hittites, binds himself by treaty to Usermaatra, chosen-one-of-Ra, the great ruler of Egypt, beginning today, so that perfect peace and brotherhood may be created between us forever—he being in brotherhood and peace with me, and I being in brotherhood and peace with him, forever.2

The elements of this new relationship were farsighted and wide-ranging: a mutual nonaggression pact, a defensive alliance, an extradition agreement (together with the promise of humane treatment for those extradited), an amnesty for refugees, and, last but by no means least, a clause to safeguard the royal succession and the rights of the monarchy in both kingdoms. With the deposed Urhi-Teshup still on the loose in Egypt, this final measure was a precondition for Hattusili, for it guaranteed his claim to the Hittite kingship and the rights of his heirs. It also played to Ramesses’s dynastic concerns, reflected in his radical decision to promote his (many) sons to high office, the first time for a thousand years that such a policy had been adopted. For Hittites and Egyptians alike, honor was thus served, and both sides could claim victory. Egypt reluctantly gave up all hope of winning back Amurru, but kept its other Asiatic province, Upe, and confirmed its trading rights in the Lebanese and Syrian ports, as far north as Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra). With the signing of the treaty, the Near East regained a peace not seen since the heady days of the Egypt-Mittani alliance during the reign of Amenhotep III.

From implacable enemies to the best of friends, Hattusili and Ramesses celebrated the transformation in their relationship with an exchange of congratulatory correspondence. Their wives, too, joined in the love fest, Ramesses’s chief consort, Nefertari, sending expensive jewelry and clothes to her “sister” in Hattusa. The only sour note was the continued presence of Urhi-Teshup in Egypt, but Hattusili could not afford to let this spoil the otherwise friendly relations. Indeed, things were going so well between the two rulers that negotiations were opened regarding the possibility of a diplomatic marriage. For Hattusili and his equally forceful wife Pudukhepa, the marriage of their daughter to the great king of Egypt would serve to strengthen the links between the two royal houses and bolster their own position. Ramesses, by contrast, secure on his throne, was principally interested in the enormous dowry that would accompany the Hittite princess. With a beloved Egyptian wife of his own, he showed little personal interest in the bride-to-be. For him it was a transaction, not a marriage.

Whatever misgivings she may have had, the Hittite princess had no choice in the matter, and, in the late autumn of 1246, she set out from the fortified citadel of the Hittite kings. Accompanying her were a great retinue of officials and a vast baggage train of gold, silver, bronze, slaves, horses, cattle, and goats. The procession wound its way slowly through the passes of the Taurus Mountains down into the coastal lowlands of southern Anatolia, then over the Amanus range to the plain of Aleppo, and thence southward, following the valley of the river Orontes, past Kadesh, to the border of Egyptian-held territory. At the frontier, Queen Pudukhepa bade farewell to her daughter for the last time. A messenger was dispatched to Per-Ramesses to tell the waiting pharaoh, “They have traversed sheer mountains and treacherous passes to reach Your Majesty’s border.”3 Ramesses immediately dispatched members of his army and officials to meet the cavalcade and escort it through Canaan. The last stop before Egypt itself was a specially built royal palace astride the Sinai coastal road, in which the princess and her attendants could rest and recuperate after their long journey. The brightly colored paintings of flowers and garlands, ornamented with gold leaf, offered a taste of things to come. In February 1245, three months after leaving Hattusa, the procession entered the dazzling city of Per-Ramesses amid scenes of jubilation. After taking delivery of the dowry, Ramesses conferred on his new bride a suitably grandiloquent Egyptian name—Maathorneferura, “she sees [in] Horus [that is, the king] the beauty of Ra”—and then promptly packed her off to one of his harem palaces. Job done.

A few years later, the princess’s brother, Crown Prince Hishmi-Sharruma, paid a formal visit to Egypt, spending the winter months in the relatively balmy climate of the eastern delta, a welcome relief from the windswept wastes of his homeland. For a man accustomed to the austere buildings of Hattusa, the gaudy decoration of Per-Ramesses must have made a lasting impression. Indeed, when he eventually became king, Hishmi-Sharruma adorned the sanctuaries of his realm with monumental religious art on a scale far greater than any of his predecessors. Even a Hittite, it seems, could fall under Egypt’s unique spell. The crown prince’s visit may have been intended to pave the way for an even higher-level encounter, a full-scale summit between Hattusili and Ramesses. A flurry of correspondence between the two capitals certainly discussed the practicalities of such a meeting, and the pharaoh expressed the hope that he and his Hittite counterpart would “see each other face-to-face.” The bond of friendship between the two lands was stronger than ever, and would last until the very end of the Hittite Kingdom.


THROUGHOUT HIS LONG SIXTY-SEVEN-YEAR REIGN (1279–1213), Ramesses II gave a high priority to securing Egypt’s imperial possessions in the Near East and neutralizing the Hittite threat. At the same time, his security apparatus was alert to another growing danger, not from the north but from the west. The seminomadic tribes of the Libyan desert and their settled kinsmen along the coast had been a persistant irritant since the earliest days of the First Dynasty. A punitive raid or two had always been sufficient to keep them in check and prevent large-scale infiltration of the western delta. But things had changed. Almost nothing is known about the history and archaeology of Libya before the arrival of the Phoenicians in the eighth century B.C., but from references in Egyptian sources it is clear that an advanced civilization had developed by Ramesside times, at least along the North African coast. Imported artifacts point to close trade links across the Mediterranean with the Mycenaeans, who some two centuries earlier had displaced the Minoans as the main Aegean power. The ships that docked at Libyan coastal harbors brought with them great wealth, boosting the local economy and providing the chiefs with unprecedented resources. From long service as mercenaries in the Egyptian army, the Libyans had also learned a thing or two about modern warfare, acquiring the chariot and gaining considerable skill with the bow and arrow. By late in the reign of Ramesses II, the Libyan tribal rulers had gathered both the financial means and the technology to confront Egypt on equal terms. For the pharaoh, it was a deeply unwelcome prospect.

Ramesses’s instinctive response was to fortify the entire Libyan frontier. His defensive system comprised a series of massive fortresses, built at roughly fifty-mile intervals the length of the western delta border. Each fort was within a day’s chariot ride of its neighbor, and only a couple of days’ ride from Per-Ramesses. Not only did the forts guard the coastal approaches to the delta, but they also enclosed all the major wells in the area, thus denying fresh water to any hostile force. One of the larger forts was even provided with its own temple, to inspire the garrison to feats of courage. In a typically Ramesside gesture, the temple was dedicated to the cult of the deified king.

The pharaoh’s western wall did its job for a time, and the Libyans failed to break through the line while Ramesses was on the throne. But in the aftermath of his death and the unexpected succession of his thirteenth son, Merenptah (the twelve older sons having predeceased their octogenarian father), the impatient tribal rulers saw their chance. In 1209, the fifth year of the new king’s reign,

one came to say to His Majesty … that the vile chief of the Libyan enemies, Mery, son of Dedy, has descended …4

And the vile enemy had done his homework. Utilizing a wide range of strategic alliances, he had contrived a simultaneous revolt in Nubia, to distract Egypt’s southern garrisons, and had augmented his own Libyan army with a large detachment of mercenaries from the Aegean and beyond, “northerners who came from all lands.” These Sea Peoples—pirates and raiders in search of plunder and conquest—brought with them an entirely new type of warfare, based upon heavy infantry deploying close combat weapons, small round shields, and body armor. Massed ranks of such well-armed opponents rendered ineffective the chariotry upon which Egypt and the other great powers of the Near East had depended for their military supremacy. Like the Libyans, some of the Sea Peoples had previously served in the Egyptian army—Aegean mercenaries had made up Ramesses II’s bodyguard at the Battle of Kadesh—and so knew their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Mery’s battle strategy was based on the simple expedient of divide and rule. If he could attack Egypt on several fronts simultaneously, causing confusion and disrupting lines of communication, he and his forces might hope to prevail. So, after sending a small raiding party along the coast to keep the border garrisons busy, he and the main assault force set off toward Egypt via the oases of the Western Desert: Siwa, Bahariya, and Farafra. The last oasis commanded a network of desert routes that joined the Nile Valley at different points, so by basing his army here, Mery kept the Egyptians guessing about his ultimate intentions. When he was ready, and sure that the Nubian attack was proceeding as planned, the Libyan chief marched on Egypt in a pincer movement, to prevent a unified counterattack. He led the main force from Farafra, back to Bahariya, and thence to the Fayum, entering the Nile Valley near the pyramids of Dahshur. From there, they headed due north, to the fringes of the western delta. A second detachment left the main army at Bahariya to cross the Nile in Middle Egypt and infiltrate the eastern delta, distracting the Egyptian garrisons at Per-Ramesses and Memphis.

Just a month after receiving the first news of the Libyan invasion, the pharaoh Merenptah arrived with his army near the town of Perirer to engage the foe. It was midsummer, 1208. Just as Ramesses had fought his toughest battle in the fifth year of his reign, so now his son and successor faced the same challenge. This time, however, the Egyptians were leaving nothing to chance. If the Libyans and Sea Peoples understood the Egyptians’ tactics, the reverse was also true. Merenptah knew that his archers and chariots could not overcome the massed ranks of the enemy infantry in a head-on fight. Instead, he cleverly drew the opposing forces toward the Egyptian lines while archers positioned on either flank directed volley after volley of raking fire against the advancing soldiers. After six hours of carnage, the Libyan coalition was finished. Then came the Egyptian chariot charge, turning defeat into rout and pursuing the fleeing enemy until all were either dead or captured. The booty was considerable: thousands of metal vessels, livestock, and advanced weaponry. To press home his victory and send a powerful message to other would-be attackers, Merenptah ordered a grim piece of psychological warfare. The defeated Libyans who had survived the battle soon wished they had perished at Perirer, for they were herded together and impaled alive on stakes. By the end of the day, flyblown corpses, their entrails sticky and putrid in the summer heat, lined the main desert route south of Memphis—in full view of any retreating Libyans and of the local populace.

It was a grim warning, but even so barbarous a display could not keep Egypt safe for long. Merenptah knew the Libyans would attack again (as they surely did, just three years later). He knew, too, that their co-conspirators, the Sea Peoples, might arrive at any time, and from almost any direction. So he pursued his own grand strategy, reinforcing Ugarit, sending grain to the Hittites to bolster the northern defenses, and even integrating Hittite infantry into the Egyptian army. (The soldiers were supplied with their own distinctive weaponry from the bronze furnaces of Per-Ramesses.) The old enmities of Kadesh were but a distant memory. In the unsettling new world of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt needed all the friends it could muster.

The commemorative inscription commissioned by Merenptah to celebrate his second victory over the Libyans, three years after Perirer, is famous today not for the details of the battle, nor for the other elements of his defensive strategy, but for a single, fleeting reference in the penultimate line. After defeating the western invaders, the Egyptian army marched straight across the delta and into Palestine, recapturing the key towns of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam. To complete the job and impose security over this key buffer zone, Merenptah’s forces proceeded to massacre a previously unknown rebel tribe in the hill country of Canaan. The tribe called itself Israel. It is the only reference to Israel in any ancient Egyptian inscription, and it reflects the rise of well-armed bands that, despite being unable to defeat the Egyptians in a pitched battle, could nonetheless pose a serious threat to stability. Israel should have been a headline, not a footnote.

The whole of the Near East was in flux. The old certainties were crumbling, new peoples and polities were in the ascendant, new forms of warfare were tipping the balance of power. Despite its glorious military history and its dynasty of warrior pharaohs, Egypt faced a deeply uncertain future.

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