THE BATTLE OF KADESH

The November lecture was presented by Dr. Anthony Spalinger, of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, currently a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr. Spalinger  opened his lecture by noting that the Battle of Kadesh is a history that revolves around the city by that name which is located in mid/southern Syria. Control of Kadesh was key to control of the Levant in ancient times. The Battle of Kadesh, which was recorded on the walls of five different temples by Ramses II, was, in fact, a strategic defeat for the Egyptians.

One section of the record of the Battle of Kadesh was referred to by the Egyptians themselves as “literature” - i.e. a poem, and gives us a picture of the ancient‘s perception of the battle. It also gives us a window into how the ancient Egyptians thought of their own past.

Dr. Spalinger‘s particular interest is in the poem, rather than the pictorial representations of the Battle of Kadesh. He did, however, show his audience several pictorial versions of the battle, in which the ramparts of the city are shown beside the Orantes River.

The Battle of Kadesh occurred in the 5th Regnal year of King Ramses II. Neither Ramses nor his army ever entered the city. The battle resolved the question of control of the region, but not the antagonism between Egypt and the Hittite empire.

Soon after the “strategic withdrawal” of the Egyptian army from Kadesh, renditions of the events of the battle and the Egyptian camp appeared. At Abu Simbel, the Egyptian army‘s camp is clearly depicted on the wall inside the large temple, and is juxtaposed to an inscription referred to as the “poem”. This same inscription and pictorial record were also carved at Abydos, Karnak, Luxor and in the king's mortuary temple, the Ramesseum between Ramses II’s 5th and 10th regnal years.

The scenes are often traditional. Typical of that tradition, there are 4-5 main events of the battle displayed following a tried and true pattern as if templates or matrices were being used.

The Battle of Kadesh has all of these traditional scenes included in the most minute detail.

The organization of the pictorial depictions is formal and traditional. This is not so, however, on the literary side. Before the inscriptions were placed on the walls, there were papyri, already drawn up and approved by the king. The king defined the record as he wanted it to be related, and we see that these depictions became something akin to “religious” documents. Those that are known can be dated to the 9th regnal year of the king.

The “poem” would have circulated in the Nile Valley apart from the pictorial representation. It would have circulated among those who wanted to hear and read about the king and his successes. Thus the written and the pictorial depictions co-existed and the pictorial inscriptions even carry tags from the written version, which can be seen in the reliefs.

During the reign of Merneptah, Ramses II’s successor, a treasury scribe in the north, by the name of Pen-ta-wer-it, copied the entire poem of the Battle of Kadesh for himself, or perhaps for his superior.  He clearly was interested in it for its own sake as he also copied other papyri with the same theme ­ military events ­ in which the king defends himself against his enemies. The stress seems to be on the king’s heroic deeds when faced with chaos.  Pen-ta-wer-it changed the deity referred to in some of the papyri (e.g., Amun-Re) to his northern deities, even though he says he copied them without change. At the end of the papyrus, Pen-ta-wer-it has inscribed his own name as the copyist, and the name of his superior.

One major papyrus - Papyrus Sallier III - contains Pen-ta-wer-it’s copy of the Battle of Kadesh. It is in the collection of the British Museum in London, two pages of which can be seen on display there. The papyrus was originally made up of 13 pages. One page is in the Louvre, one page is lost and pages 3-13 are in the British Museum.

Papyrus and scribes had their own tradition. The small circle of scribes to which Pen-ta-wer-it belonged seems to have had an interest in deeds of kings - and was a circle in which literary texts circulated.  The papyrus itself seems to have been placed in a tomb - Pen-ta-wer-it’s or his superior’s, perhaps as a gift - as part of the grave goods, copies being put into a library or other repository such as the House of Life.  Dr. Spalinger noted that we don’t normally think of individuals keeping books and being buried with them (save purely religious books such as the Book of the Dead), but clearly this circle of scribes circulated these papyri, and they were valued enough to be placed among the owner‘s possessions in his tomb.

Papyrus Sallier III was probably acquired in the early 19th century AD about the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.  A man named Anastasi came to Egypt to sell food and provisions to the French army.  He became a friend of the Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali, and found that he could make money in other ways once the army was no longer a source of income; i.e., he could sell objects from Egypt to Europeans.  He sent agents to Memphis/Saqqara and Upper Egypt to collect objects to sell. They found large numbers of papyri, which he collected in Alexandria. One batch was sold to a Frenchman named Sallier between 1820 and 1823, which were known to have come from tombs at Saqqara, and were taken to France.  Jean Francois Champollion saw and translated them in about 1828. The British Museum bought the Anastasi collection for a large sum, and when Sallier died, his family sold his collections to the museum as well. In 1842 the British Museum published all of the Sallier and Anastasi papyri as a group.

Papyri are often “monuments” in book form. In the New Kingdom a standard “book” had 20 sheets of papyrus sold as a unit. The text was written from right to left. The scribe held his reed pen vertically while writing and the letters themselves were formed from left to right to avoid smudging the ink. Papyrus is usually tan in color.  Literary papyri were only written on the inside of the roll. Dr. Spalinger noted that we now know that it was much more arduous to write in hieratic than was previously thought.  It took weeks of work to copy a document such as the Battle of Kadesh.

Pen-ta-wer-it’s hieratic writing on P. Sallier III is totally clear and distinct. He used only black ink. As a rule 10-11 lines of text were inscribed on each page.  Dr. Spalinger has found, after looking at other papyri inscribed by Pen-ta-wer-it, that his script is very identifiable. He also noted that Pen-ta-wer-it did something rather strange. The sheets of papyrus in P. Sallier III average about 26 centimeters wide. Normally, papyrus makers sold books with a standard page size of 15 to 20 centimeters. Thus it is clear that Pen-ta-wer-it did not acquire the papyrus for his book of the Battle of Kadesh from a maker of ready-made papyrus rolls!   Dr. Spalinger suggested that he probably pieced together irregular sheets from his office!

Other texts copied by Pen-ta-wer-it include a text of Seqenenre-Tao, dealing with the military action against the Hyksos (known as The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre) and a copy of the Teachings of Amenemhat I, which tells of the rebels who assassinated the pharaoh. Knowing that these texts were among the collection of Pen-ta-wer-it helps us understand this group of men who had a special interest in military texts.

Dr. Spalinger noted that all the pictorial forms and representations of the Battle of Kadesh scenes are of the same type and follow a formula. We can easily determine who fought against who, where they fought, etc., but we receive no idea of the mental outlook of the Egyptians who lived at the time of the event. We can analyze the motives of the literary artist. Archives within the bureaucracy  preserved these literary records. Individuals seem very attached to their copies of these literary papyri.

He closed his lecture by saying that new strands of scholarship which are literature as history have emer-ged within the past decade. Such documents as Papy-rus Sallier III persisted throughout Egyptian history and military literature circulated in the land, but many are lost so only on the Battle of Kadesh can a scholar such as Dr. Spalinger truly focus. Transmission of the battle over time has come to us through the papyrus of Pen-ta-wer-it.

Dr. Spalinger urged all his listeners to stop by the papyrus collection in the British Museum and see P. Sallier III when next in London.

  • Nancy Corbin
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