[Ashraf’s Tales of Arabia] Syria, ‘3000 Years Ago’

The Hittite emperor standing helplessly on the other side of the Asi River, with a part of the Kadesh fortress.

You immediately fall in love with River Asi (Orontes) the moment you walk along either of its banks. After a brief introduction, you even think it is extending its hands to embrace you as it winds here and there, giving way to you for the plains it cultivated with love fields and rose gardens so that you may enjoy songs and branches. As far as you can see at the Syrian border along North Lebanon, you will stop to read some lines about the past, present and future on the surface of its water.

These borders are nowadays flamed with the burning bullets fired and mines planted by the Syrian authority forces to stop the fleeing Syrian towards a safer place. I was gazing at the streaming photos spread via news channels and feeling so sorry for that such place to suffer. But it reminded me with two things, the old wars and the first treaty for keeping peace. For such a story I started my journey in the summer of 2004. 

My journey began with reading the inscriptions and reliefs on the walls of the Egyptian temples which depict the epic of Kadesh. I travelled further to reach the town of Al-Qusair, to the north of Damascus, near the Syro-Lebanese border, where I stopped to read the lessons of history and enjoy the gifts of geography.

The peace and quiet around resembled the calm before the storm; but the storm had actually blown exactly 33 centuries ago, when Kadesh witnessed a fierce battle before it enjoyed real peace. Kings and Emperors At Queen Hatshepsut’s death, Egypt’s colonies in Syria had been devastated by battles of independence and separation from the parent kingdom, or joining or alliance with the kingdom of Mitanni, whose power extended from its centre located beyond the Euphrates to the Syrian coast on the Mediterranean. So as Thutmose III came to the throne, he conducted seventeen campaigns in Syria alone starting from 1457 BC expelling the Mitannians beyond the Euphrates and restoring the Egyptian empire in the Old World. Soon afterwards, the kings of Babylon, Assyria and Hatti (in Asia Minor) were keen to be friendly with the triumphant queen and establish diplomatic relations with the victorious pharaoh.

Thutmose III was a typical pharaoh, in terms of his love of imperialism and conquests; however, he was also the defender of justice, the provider of security and the patron of the people, But his son, who advocated monotheism and changed his name from Amenhotep III to Ikhnaton, contrary to his father, neglected foreign affairs policy, preferring domestic religious affairs.

Therefore, the Hittite emperors in the Great Kingdom of Hatti, an area in Turkey today, managed to recapture Syria and reach the key city of Kadesh, which was a stronghold of the Egyptian forces and Thutmose’s boast of having conquered it. Local rulers there were double-dealers. In their correspondence with the pharaoh they assured him that they kept their promise, meanwhile assisting the Hittites to capture all of Egypt’s Asiatic possessions from Byblos mountain to Ugarit and annex them to the new superpower in the ancient Near East: the Hittite Empire. A few years afterwards, the young king Tut-ankh-atun (Tut-ankh-amun later) ascended the throne, but he died suddenly after only nine years in power, and his powerful widow Ankh-es-in-amun decided not to marry a commoner and sent a message to the Hittite emperor Subilulyuma asking him to send one of his sons to Egypt to marry him and make him king. Surprised, the emperor didn’t act accordingly, and instead sent a spy to verify the strange proposal.

The proposal, as the spy found out, was real, and so the king was reassured and sent one of his sons. But Ay, who arranged king Tut’s funeral, had already been Egypt’s king and planned the assassination of the Hittite prince upon his arrival in the country. That crime was a fatal mistake which enraged the Hittite emperor and made him invade Egypt’s possessions in Syria. Evil and hatred flared up between the two kingdoms and rivalry over control over Syria grew, and that hostility continued for 75 years until the reign of Ramses II.

Ramses II had a magical touch; no sooner had he started digging for gold in the Nubian desert than he found it, and no sooner had his men felt thirsty than they found water in the barren desert. He was so successful in all his endeavours that historians described him as a near miracle worker: the one who appointed the right persons to top positions; crushed insurrection skillfully; found water for gold miners; built great temples; restored antiquities successfully. So when he thought up the idea of returning to Kadesh which Ikhnaton and his followers lost, he expected his magical touch to reach the Hittite empire and began recapturing lost locations one after the other. On the other hand, the Hittite emperor Mowatallis set out to regain control of Amoro, protect Kadesh and the area around it and deal a severe blow to the young ambitious pharaoh. He prayed to the good in Hatti for help, swearing to offer them generous gifts.

Kadesh, City of War & Peace

Fortress and Battle Thirty three centuries after that horrific scene I arrived at Kadesh which overlooks a high mound on a tongue of land between River Asi, which runs north crossing the eastern part of the city, and another tributary which flows from the Ist into  River Asi itself, north of the city. The city’s people in these ancient times had dug an artificial canal flowing into the River south of the city, making Kadesh a heavily fortified island. The city was also politically and strategically important because of its proximity to the Biqaa region and was thus a north-east crossing unless the armies preferred to cross the narrow, forbidding coast.

I sat at the eastern tributary, the same place where Ramses II, his entourage and accompanying Amun division were stationed. The young commander believed he could easily besiege Kadesh, especially as two men who alleged that they broke away from the Hittites told him that the Hittite emperor was in Aleppo to the north, i.e. 120 miles from the pharaoh’s camp. Falsely reassured, Ramses II sat on the golden throne in anticipation of victory. But an Egyptian reconnaissance patrol arrested two Hittite spies who confessed that his enemies were only two miles away. Hardly had the young king developed an emergency plan when Hittite military chariots approached him crossing the Kadesh plain.

Imagine the open scene space: chariots rolling like flood behind the infantry units of the advance Ra division fleeing from Hittite wheels and arrows scattered in the green plain like today’s female reapers.

Ramses II found himself alone amid a terrified, defeated army and called his shield carrier: stop where you are. I’ll attack them like a hawk’s beak. Everything changed only a few hours later as a forgotten group from the Amoro coast provided relief to him and violently attacked Hittite chariots and enemy combatants. The Hittite emperor was stunned at the scene of his fleeing chariots. When the Petah division joined Ramses II’s army, the Ra division called up their strength as Ill, and both sides went on counting their casualties. 

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