The Battle of Kadesh: Fake News and Diplomacy in the New Kingdom
Long before the advent of social media were stories inscribed on temple walls meant to provide ego boosts to leaders and polarize public opinion. The infamous Battle of Kadesh during the reign of Ramesses II is a core example of this. In an attempt to re-establish control over the Hittite-held city of Kadesh and eradicate Hittite presence in Syria altogether, Pharaoh Ramesses II led the outnumbered Egyptian army against the Hittite forces, led by King Muwatalli II, in 1274 BCE. Ramesses’s accounts of the battle in the Poem of Pentaur and The Bulletin suggest a decisive victory over the Hittites and were believed to be factual for several centuries. Today, however, most historians view these accounts as elaborate propaganda rather than an accurate description of the battle and argue that there was no outright winner.
In his accounts, Ramesses claims to slay the entire Hittite army as well as their allies on his own. The notion that he single-handedly defeated the Hittites, without the assistance of his army was to convince the gods that he was the victor at Kadesh. These details were also included to communicate a strong image of himself to the Egyptian people.
As Ramesses embellished his own accomplishments, the Hittites were consequently vilified: clear propaganda was used to shape the perception of their foes by presenting the Hittite forces in a hostile manner. Ramesses labeled Hittite forces as "wretched" and "ignorant of God," implying that the Hittites lacked the divine guidance and protection that the Egyptians possessed. Along with portraying the Hittites as sordid, the account describes their forces as “more numerous than the sands of the shores,” and while it is factual that the Hittite forces were much larger than the Egyptian army, the account overemphasizes Ramesses’s strength and triumph when he supposedly defeats the multitude of Hittite warriors.
While Ramesses's narration claimed he was victorious against the Hittites, this was an altered reality as historians agree it was a draw at best. In addition to portraying himself as the archetypal powerful leader, the Pharaoh's purpose may have been to depict Egypt as the ideal state, one that can conquer all. Ramesses went to lengths to publicize his "victory" and preserve his legacy, from carving his accounts accompanied with pictorial reliefs into temple walls, to disseminating the Poem on papyrus, allowing the news to travel all about Egypt.
Fifteen years after the battle, both sides finally came to a truce, deciding to mend their ways with the first international peace treaty in history. The Treaty of Kadesh, signed in 1259 BCE by Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite King Hattusili III, is regarded as the symbolic foundation of diplomacy and a replica is on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
“Ramesses II War Scenes.” Www.memphis.edu, www.memphis.edu/hypostyle/tour_hall/ramesses_ii_scenes.php.
“GENERAL BATTLE PAGE.” Www.brown.edu, www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/fightingpharaohs10/10185.html.
Rattini, Kristin. “Who Was Ramses II?” Culture, National Geographic, 13 May 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/ramses-ii.