It was one of antiquity’s most famous battles. Reprised in numerous Egyptian inscriptions, illustrated in monumental reliefs, commemorated in poetry and copied out on papyrus by schoolboys and scribes, the story of the Battle of Kadesh (Qadesh) has survived more than three millennia to give modern historians a detailed glimpse of military tactics in the ancient Near East. Drawing on the many extant versions of the story, scholars can trace the sequence of events from the initial call to arms all the way to the truce that concluded the confrontation.

The battle, which was fought just outside the city of Kadesh, on the banks of the Orontes River in southern Syria, pitted the Egyptian troops of Pharaoh Ramesses II against the forces allied with the Hittite king, Muwatallis. Spurred on by rumors of trouble along Egypt’s Syrian frontier, Ramesses assembled an army of 20,000 troops in 1275 B.C.E. This host he divided into four divisions, each of them roughly 5,000 men strong. With the pharaoh’s Amun division leading the way, the Egyptian troops marched north along Canaan’s Mediterranean coast, then turned inland and approached Kadesh by way of the Beq’a Valley. The sight of this massive military force must have been every bit as awe inspiring as the inscriptions carved into the walls of Ramesses’ temples boast:

His majesty journeyed northward, his infantry and his chariotry with him, having made a good start with the march in year five, second month of summer, day nine [of Ramesses’ reign]. His majesty passed the fortress of Sile, being mighty like Monthu [the Egyptian god of war] in his going forth, all foreign lands trembling before him, their chiefs bringing their gifts, and all rebels coming bowed down through fear of his majesty’s might. His majesty’s army travelled on the narrow paths as if on the roads of Egypt.a

Shortly before he reached Kadesh, Ramesses captured two Hittite spies, who told the pharaoh that Muwatallis’s army was positioned near Aleppo, some 120 miles north of Kadesh. In fact, as Ramesses soon learned from another pair of captives, the spies’ story was a ruse: Muwatallis was actually waiting in ambush close by—with nearly 40,000 troops. The Hittites struck before Ramesses could react to the new information. Breaking into the second of the four Egyptian divisions, the Hittite charioteers put the invaders to panicked flight. According to the Egyptian inscriptions, however, the pharaoh himself was undaunted, and he quickly joined the fray:

Then they [the Hittites] came forth from the south side of Qadesh and attacked [Egypt’s second division] in its middle, as they were marching unaware and not prepared to fight. Then the infantry and chariotry of his majesty weakened before them, while his majesty was stationed to the north of the town of Qadesh, on the west bank of the Orontes. They came to tell it to his majesty, and his majesty rose like his father Monthu. He seized his weapons of war; he girded his coat of mail; he was like Baal in his hour. The great horse that bore his majesty was “Victory-in-Thebes”…Then his majesty drove at a gallop and charged the forces of the foe…being alone by himself, none other with him.

Deserted by his men and encircled by the Hittite chariotry, Ramesses called upon the god Amun:

I call to you my father Amun,
I am among a host of strangers;
All countries are arrayed against me,
I am alone, there’s none with me!
My numerous troops have deserted me,
Not one of my chariotry looks for me;
I keep on shouting for them,
But none of them heeds my call.
I know Amun helps me more than
a million troops,
More than a hundred thousand
More than ten thousand brothers and sons…

Ramesses’ cry did not go unheeded—at least according to Egyptian accounts of the battle, which tell how the pharaoh, inspired by Amun, single-handedly scattered the enemy hosts, made them “plunge into the water as crocodiles plunge” and “slaughtered them at [his] will.” Stripped of hyperbole, the sequence of events is a bit more prosaic: With his forces in disarray, the pharaoh was narrowly rescued by a division of his elite guard, which had traveled to Kadesh by a route different from the one taken by the main army. Mounting an attack on the Hittite flank, these elite troops forced Muwatallis (who now faced a two-front battle) to retreat. After a second indecisive engagement the next day, Muwatallis and Ramesses agreed to a truce, and the Egyptians marched back home, where Ramesses commissioned numerous monumental reliefs to celebrate his victory. As Michael Homan points out, however, the reliefs exaggerate the pharaoh’s success. At best, he had rescued his army and fought Muwatallis to a draw. As for the city of Kadesh, he left it as he had found it—firmly under Hittite control.