The Battle of Kadesh took place in 1274 BCE near the modern Syrian border with Lebanon, between Ramesses II of Egypt and Muwatalli II of the Hittite Empire. It is thought to have been the largest chariot battle ever fought, and is one of the best documented battles of the Bronze Age.
Most of the names we know from Egypt, including the name of the country itself, come from the Greek. Ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet, the Black Land, but the Greeks named it Aigyptos. Similarly, they gave their own names to the king (Pharaoh), to the names of cities like Waset (Thebes) and Ankh-Tawy (Memphis), and many of the names of the gods; for instance, Ausar became Osiris, Aset became Isis, and Heru became Horus. I had to make a decision whether to use the real names as the ancient Kemetu (Egyptians) knew them, or to use the more familiar Greek names. Some people may disagree with my choice, but it just felt wrong to put Greek words in ancient Egyptian mouths.
Year 3 of Menmaatre Seti
The Syrian sun was hot, beating down on the marching soldiers as they sweated on the road to Kadesh. They grumbled as they tramped northward, though they were careful not to let their officers hear them, for the king was leading them to victory and any dissension in the ranks might be treated harshly. Ahead of the infantry companies, the king and his son rode in splendid chariots, squadrons of these war vehicles spread out around them, raising clouds of acrid dust that hung in the still air before descending like a choking cloud on the men in the army corps following behind.
Amun corps led, as was their right as the king's own, and Re followed close behind. Set brought up the rear, their officers disgruntled that they had charge of the baggage train while the other two corps would garner whatever glory was to be shared. Not that there was likely to be much glory or plunder on this expedition as the battles had already been fought, and the local tribes beaten into submission. The city of Kadesh had fallen to the king's might, and he had regrouped his men and marched on the city once more, this time to take formal possession of it and the territory it controlled.
The Hatti Empire claimed Syria for its own, but at present they lacked the strength to take and hold it, so sat in their forts and cities to the north, watching as the king of Kemet stretched out his hands to take the prize. King Muwatalli held court in his capital city of Hattusa where he could simultaneously receive word on the advancing Kemetu army and the troublesome Assyrians to the east. He planned to rid himself of Kemetu influence in Syria but could not, as yet, see how this might be accomplished. Messengers who had brought the evil news of the fall of the city of Kadesh to Muwatalli had died in agony, a fate that surprised nobody but the messengers. Muwatalli went on to order the slaughter of more men, until the streets of Hattusa ran red with blood. Despite his rage at the loss of the city, Muwatalli was canny enough not to kill anyone who really mattered, and if one or two servants of his nobles went down into death, a small gift of gold was sufficient to turn away any ill-feeling. Muwatalli vowed he would have his revenge on the Kemetu king, but for now Kadesh was no longer his.
When the king of Kemet came into sight of Kadesh, he drew rein and stood in his chariot surveying the damage his short sharp war had wrought. The city was partly in ruins, the shattered timber and mud houses still smouldering and a section of the walls tumbled, but the survivors of the siege were hard at work under the direction of army engineers, rebuilding and refortifying. People were present, picking at the ruins of their homes, trying to save something from the wreckage that war had brought them. They were mostly old people and children, many of the men having been killed and the women in hiding, fearing fresh assaults by the victorious troops.
The man, wearing the blue leather war crown, smiled at the youth beside him wearing the simple nemes headdress, and gestured toward the smoke that rose into the still air.
"Kadesh is mine, my son. The Hatti ruled it for too long...since the days of the Heretic... but no more. It has returned to Kemet."
"By your strong right arm, Son of Re."
Father and son entered the city then, and took over the Governor's Palace, which was still in good repair. For several days they took their leisure while the army engineers healed the city. The enemy dead were dragged outside the walls and buried in pits, while the Kemetu fallen received basic attention before being shipped back to the Land of the Gods for proper burial. When all was in order, the army corps assembled and marched around the city walls and then through the streets, lifting up their voices in praise of the king of Kemet.
"Menmaatre Seti, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of Re, Life, Health, Prosperity!"
On thrones raised on a dais outside the Governor's Palace, father and son received the adulation of the soldiers, and the more muted praise of the people of Kadesh.
"How does this make you feel, my son?" Menmaatre asked.
"Like a god." Usermaatre looked around at the people of the city, at the marching soldiers, at the men gathered around them, all offering up praise and worship. "This is what it means to be a king?"
"This is what it means to be a king of Kemet," his father answered.
"Forgive my presumption, father," Ramesses said. "You are king, but I long for the day when I can command armies."
Menmaatre frowned. "You will command the armies of Kemet when I am dead."
"Long may that day be delayed, father," Ramesses replied. "I did not mean to imply I desired such a thing."
"You are forgiven, my son." Menmaatre shrugged. "It is with the gods, but my heart feels weak within my body, and you may lead sooner than you think."
"Let that not happen, father." If they had not been in full view, Ramesses would have embraced his father.
"It may not happen. The gods raised our family up to rule over the Two Lands, but they granted my father Menpehtyre only two years on the throne before throwing me the challenge of rulership. I was not..." Menmaatre paused and waved the courtiers back out of earshot before continuing. "I was not prepared. I thought my father had many years still in him in which I could learn the craft of being a king, but it was not to be. I was thrust upon the throne unprepared, and I would not see that happen to you. You will learn the craft of war beside me, so that when the time comes, you are prepared."
"I can think of no greater gift than to be alongside you, father. It is honour indeed for one so young..."
"Not so young, Ramesses. You are fifteen years and ready."
"I am truly honoured, father, and will try to live up to the faith you display..."
"Do more than that, Ramesses. Learn from me and go on to become a great king. This..." Menmaatre gestured at the city. "...is but the first step. It has been many years since Kadesh belonged to Kemet, and in the years to come our army, led by a fighting king, will conquer the Hatti and extend our rule over all their lands."
"You are the fighting king of Kemet, father. You will lead us to victory."
"That is my intention, but if for some reason the gods do not grant me that glory, I look to you to grind our enemies beneath your heel."
Ramesses laughed. "You are not leaving me any worthy opponents now that you have conquered Hatti."
"What? You think because I have captured Kadesh that I have conquered Hatti? Kadesh is merely the key." Seti looked around and beckoned to a scribe, taking writing implements from his basket. Waving the scribe away again, the king quickly sketched some marks on the paper. "Here is Kemet in the south and Hatti in the north. Mittani is in the east, but forget that for the moment. Kadesh is here... and Amurru just to the north. Amurru is a vassal of Hatti and protects the border for them, but along here..." Seti drew a line from just north of Kadesh to the coast. "...is the Valley of Easy Passage (Eleutheros), a direct and straightforward route between our bases on the Middle Sea and northern Syria. Amurru and Kadesh are vital if we are to wrest northern Syria back from the Hatti."
"So you will now carry the war to the Amurru, father, and from there to northern Syria?"
Menmaatre Seti sat back and watched the passing troops for several minutes. "It is not that easy," he said at length. "We are over-extended and lack the resources to seize control of Amurru and Syria. To take Kadesh is enough for now, and even so it is likely we must abandon it." He shrugged. "It may even be that I must trade Kadesh to the king of Hatti in return for other concessions. It doesn't really matter as I have proven how easily I can take this city. Muwatalli will tremble in Hattusa when he hears of the might of my army."
Ramesses looked disappointed. "It seems a pity to lose Kadesh so soon after regaining it. Could we not send for more troops and carry the war to Amurru?"
"It is late in the season, Ramesses. By the time we enlisted, trained, and marched another corps up here, we'd be forced to overwinter, and I'd rather do that in the warm lands of Kemet. There will always be next year... or the year after. I have demonstrated I can do it, and that is enough for now."
"I would willingly lead your army up here again, father. Give me the word and I will deliver your enemies to your feet."
Seti smiled and touched his son on the shoulder. "Together, we will smite Hatti. When the time comes, we will take Kadesh once more, regain Amurru, and add northern Syria to our realm."
"I shall take Kadesh for you," Ramesses declared.
Year 2 of Usermaatre Ramesses
The trading ship Ulgash was heavily laden and thrashed its way slowly southward just off the coast. If the northerly winds had been blowing it would have raised its sail and made better time, but the wind had backed to the west and any attempt to use its large square sail would have driven it onto the rocks. Captain Akkad-li fretted as he stood by the steering oar, alternating between exhorting his rowers to greater efforts and scanning the seaward vistas. The shores were unfriendly without even a basic harbour, and for this Akkad-li was grateful, for pirates were not unknown in those waters. Another two days to reach the relative safety of the Kemetu river if all went well...a day if the wind became favourable.
The steersman tapped Akkad-li on the shoulder and pointed out to sea. Two small smudges on the horizon marred the faintly curved line between sea and sky. The smudges grew in size, becoming squares of red and brown sails.
"Sherden pirates," Akkad-li groaned. He turned toward his already straining oarsmen. "Pull, you sons of whores, or we're all lost," he bellowed.
The sails of the Sherden pirates inexorably drew closer, the ships using the westerly winds to bear down on their prey. Oarsmen lost heart as they saw their doom approaching, and the stroke faltered, the Ulgash wallowing as they lost way. One of the merchants on board approached Akkad-li, nervously fingering the hilt of a short sword tucked in the sash of his robes.
"Do we fight?" he asked.
"Are you mad?" Akkad-li countered. "We would be slaughtered." He shook his head wearily. "We must trust to their mercy."
"Mercy? From pirates?" asked another merchant.
"These are Sherden pirates," Akkad-li explained. "They are more pragmatic than others of the Sea Peoples. They will rob us of everything we have and then let us go, knowing that they can capture us again in the future, with a fresh cargo."
And that is what happened. The Sherden pirates rapidly overhauled the wallowing merchant ship and forced its surrender. They boarded the cargo ships and disarmed everybody, herding them to the stern while they examined the cargo. Pirates started transferring the cargo across to their own ships, while their captain spoke to Akkad-li.
"You were unlucky," the pirate captain said. "Another day...half a day even...and you might have looked for the protection of Kemetu ships."
Akkad-li shrugged. "Such is life. When asked, whom shall I say robbed us?"
"Robbed? I prefer to regard our action as relieving you of the necessity of unloading and selling your cargo in Kemet. Instead, we have bought it from you."
"Ah, I must have missed that part," Akkad-li said. "What great sum did you pay us?"
"I gave you your lives," the pirate captain said. A few of the pirates within earshot laughed at their captain's witticism. "Surely you value your lives above any cargo?"
"You make a good point, Captain...?"
"Mutbaal. And you are?"
"Well, Captain Akkad-li, now I must leave you to continue your voyage..."
"Sail," cried out a pirate from his position atop the mast of one of their ships.
"What direction?" Mutbaal demanded.
"Southwest...two sails...no, three...more."
Mutbaal ordered his men back aboard his own vessels and had them man the oars, the ships slowly turning and threshing their way slowly away from the Ulgash and out to sea. The other sails were in plain sight from the deck now, and could be seen to be white.
"Kemetu," Mutbaal snarled. "And we have the wind against us."
"We could run for it," one of the other pirates said.
"They're fornicating Kemetu naval vessels. We'll never outrun them. We have a choice; boys--surrender and be executed, or fight and die."
It was not in the Sherden nature to surrender, so they fought, two pirate ships against five naval ships, the smallest of which was nearly twice as large. There was only one possible outcome, and after a short but fierce fight, the majority of Mutbaal's crew lay dead and he, along with a score of others similarly wounded, knelt in front of their captors, their arms bound.
"I should just kill you," the Kemetu commander said. "You are foul pirates and deserving of death."
Mutbaal wished his arms were free so he could gesture his defiance, but had to be satisfied with a yawn and a grin.
"Do as you wish, Kemetu. I will not beg for my life."
"Then will you beg for the lives of your men?"
"They are all free men and able to speak for themselves."
The commander surveyed the bound men before him. "What say you? Beg and I might spare you."
"Your mother is a diseased donkey," one of the men replied. "We are Mutbaal's men and where he goes, we go. Do your worst, Kemetu."
"You are Sherden?"
"We are," Mutbaal said. "What of it?"
The commander thought for a few minutes and then ordered his men secure the pirates beneath decks.
"I am going to take you back to Kemet. Your Sherden brethren have wrought much harm in Ta Mehu, and I think the king might like to say a few words to you before he decides your fate."
The voyage back to the shores of Kemet took only a day and a half, and a further half day to pierce the sluggish freshwater stream of the Great River, before docking at the newly built City of Ramesses. When Mutbaal was brought on deck with bronze chains binding him, he stopped and stared at the great palace, the huge stables and barracks, and at the city starting to spread out around them.
"This is Per-Ramesses?" he asked. "I believed it to be a mere frontier fort."
"Soon it will be the capital city of Kemet, with resident army corps to protect the northern borders from scum like you," the commander replied.
"What's your name, commander? So I might tell everyone who captured me."
"You'll have no opportunity to talk. I imagine the king will have you executed immediately."
Mutbaal shrugged. "No doubt, but I'd still like to know your name."
"I am Commander Kamose."
"Born of the Bull, eh? I'd have thought you more suited to land battles."
"You surprise me, pirate. I thought you all a savage lot; people who did not understand the nuances of a civilised tongue."
"One picks up a few words here and there," Mutbaal said. "When one raids a country, one likes to understand what the natives say of you."
"I can imagine what they said of you."
Mutbaal grinned. "I have a Kemetu wife back home, and two sons off her. I captured her on a raid some five years past. She helped my understanding of all things Kemetu."
Kamose scowled. "I wondered why you could speak our tongue."
"My name is Mutbaal, if you are interested. It means, simply, Man of Baal."
"I've heard that name."
"I shared it with a king of Kanaan who lived not so long ago. Give me time and I will make the name more famous than he ever could."
"You won't have the time, Man of Baal. You'll probably be dead in a day or two."
"Ah well...all men die. Perhaps I can inspire others by the manner of my death."
"You have courage, at least. I had not thought to look for that in a pirate."
Conversation ceased then, as the rest of the prisoners were brought up on deck, and they were all herded off the ship and marched to a prison adjoining the barracks. They were all housed together in a large cell that was reasonably clean, if only because it was of relatively recent construction. Mutbaal made the rounds of all his men, checking on their wounds and speaking words of encouragement.
"We're going to die, aren't we?" asked one of his men.
Mutbaal considered lying to keep their spirits up, but decided his men deserved the truth. "Very likely, but we've lived with death all our lives, haven't we? What counts is not how long we live, but how we meet death. Let's show them the Sherden are not to be taken lightly."
His men cheered his words, but Mutbaal turned away with tears in his eyes. He prayed to Baal that he, and his men, would be able to meet death bravely when it came.
The next day, the Kemetu king sent for the pirates and they were all led shackled into the great audience hall in the palace, where Ramesses sat in splendour on his throne. Courtiers, nobles and senior army officers lined the walls, staring as the captives were brought in, and several made disparaging remarks about the facial hair and uncouth appearance of the Sherden. Mutbaal heard and understood them, and though his men probably had not got the sense of the words, he struck back, speaking Kemetu in a deep clear voice.
"Pay no attention to these foreigners, for as every Sherden knows, a man without a beard is a woman."
Murmurs of astonishment and then anger broke out, quickly quelled by the officers of Tjaty Paser who called for silence. Guards took hold of Mutbaal and his men and forced them to their knees in front of the throne.
"Usermaatre Ramesses, Son of Re, Lord of the Two Lands, Ruler of Bee and Sedge, Life, Health, Prosperity!"
The assembled court echoed the last three words, and after the echoes had died away between the tall pillars of the hall, Paser spoke again.
"Son of Re, these are the Sherden pirates who have ravaged so many traders bringing trade goods to Kemet. Our illustrious naval commander, Kamose, braved great dangers, fighting against huge odds, before slaughtering several hundred pirates and capturing this handful, together with their leader, so that you may see them and pass just sentence upon these killers."
"Son of Re," Mutbaal called out, "you are being lied to..."
A guard stepped up and hit him over the head with a staff, knocking him sprawling. Another drew a sword and gripped Mutbaal by his long hair, drawing his head back.
"Wait," Ramesses ordered. "Raise him up. I would hear this pirate who speaks our language."
There was a delay of a few minutes while Mutbaal was revived and given water to drink. Then, with blood still matting his hair, and crusting on one cheek, he faced the king again.
"Son of Re, hear me. What you have been told is a lie."
"You are not a pirate?"
"Well, yes, I am, and yes, I have preyed on merchant vessels. In fact we took a nice little ship just before Kamose and his sailor boys showed up."
"Then how are these lies?"
"We were outnumbered by your navy, Great King, not the other way round. And as for several hundred pirates, well... I've never commanded even as many as a hundred...half that, perhaps. Your sailors killed perhaps thirty and captured twenty others, and I dare say if you ask the right people, they'll tell you Kamose lost as many men."
"So Commander Kamose exaggerated a bit. You are still a killer, though?"
"I cannot deny that, Son of Re. My people gave me two ships and ordered me to seize merchant vessels. I try not to kill unnecessarily, but sometimes people imagine they can drive me off." Mutbaal grinned and shook his head, wincing as the motion sent stabs of pain through his head. "I swore an oath to my Baal that I would perform my tasks to the best of my ability, and I have kept my word."
Ramesses conferred with Paser in a low voice for a few minutes, before turning back to the pirates. "My Tjaty tells me that there is some doubt about my commander's report..."
"Don't be too hard on him. He's only trying to look good in your eyes."
"Silence!" Paser yelled. "You do not interrupt the king, on pain of death."
"My apologies, Son of Re. I meant no disrespect."
"As I was saying," Ramesses went on, "there is some doubt about the official account of the battle. If it was as you say, you fought well."
"We are well-trained, Son of Re. I could not ask for better men under my command."
"So, Captain Mutbaal, what are we to do with you?"
"You could reward us richly and send us home, Great King."
Ramesses stared for several moments and then laughed. "Why should I reward you when you have done nothing for me?"
"Then command me, Son of Re. I will serve you and you will richly reward me."
Once more, Ramesses stared at the pirate chief. "I believe you mean that."
Mutbaal shrugged. "I am a mercenary. I sell my skills to whoever will pay me. If you pay me more than I could get as a pirate, I will serve you faithfully."
A murmur of outrage swelled among the listeners to this conversation, silenced in a moment when the king raised his hand. Ramesses beckoned to Tjaty Paser again.
"Can this man be trusted? Should he be trusted?"
"As to whether you should, Son of Re, he is a worthy enemy and could be a valuable addition to your forces. Can you trust him? Perhaps; if you can bind him in a way that means something to him."
"Mutbaal of the Sherden," Ramesses said. "Do you fear the gods?"
"I am named Man of Baal, and I hold Baal above all other gods. That is not to say I hold other gods in lesser regard, particularly when I am in their lands...so, yes, I fear the gods."
"Among the Sherden, is an oath taken in the name of Baal binding?"
Mutbaal nodded. "It would be a foolish man who foreswore his god." He smiled. "I think we might come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, Great King."
Ramesses nodded. "I think we might. Mutbaal, will you serve me? Will you swear on your Baal that you will obey me, use your sword on my behalf and remain faithful to me?"
"And in return?"
"First, I will spare your life. Further, I will honour you and your service, rewarding you in ways that will make your former life of piracy seem like scratching in the dirt like a peasant."
Mutbaal considered the king's words. "I will swear on my Baal that I will keep faith with you, Son of Re."
"And your men?"
Mutbaal turned his back on the king, earning hisses of dismay from the onlookers, though the pirate ignored everything except his men. He spoke in the Sherden tongue and listened to their responses, speaking again, before turning back to Ramesses.
"My men will enter service under my command, Son of Re, and we do hereby swear by the Baal we all hold sacred, that we will fight for you faithfully, obeying you in all things."
"Then strike the chains from the arms of these men," Ramesses told Paser. "Have them housed and fed as honoured members of my army."
"Under whose immediate command, Son of Re?"
"Under Amun, for Amun corps is where I fight. These men fight for me personally."
Paser made an expression as if he had tasted something bitter, but bowed before his king. "Let it be as you command, Son of Re."