The first written peace treaty

Parvez Mahmood tells the story of how two ancient powers, fighting bitterly over territory, managed to find peace and reconciliation

The first written peace treaty
The land called the Levant, encompassing modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, has been rife with warfare, bloodshed, migrations, bombings and untold miseries for its people. But it doesn’t have to be so, provided that the lessons of history are taken as a guide. In the year 1274 BC, three-and-a-quarter centuries ago, the Egyptian empire located along the River Nile and the Hittite empire spread over present day Turkey went to a prolonged war over control of the Levant. But eventually they negotiated and signed a peace treaty. It was a remarkable diplomatic triumph that assured peace and cooperation between the two nations until the Hittite empire disintegrated a century later. We will recount the story of this remarkable treaty.

In 1822, the French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion decoded the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic system of writing. One of the texts translated by researchers was 30 lines of writing at the Temple of Karnak on the wall extending south of the Great Hypostyle Hall in present-day Luxor on the right bank of river Nile. The text depicted in prose and verse a treaty between Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt and Hittite King Hattusili III. The last ten lines of the same text were also discovered at Ramesseum on the west bank of the river opposite Luxor.

The fighting between Egypt and Hatti ended in a stalemate

The writings tell of a long bloody war between the two states before the draft of the treaty was brought from Hattusa the capital of Hittite state, on a silver tablet, and was presented to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

It was an interesting story told by the Egyptian ruins – but unsubstantiated by sources from the other side, i.e. the Hittites, whose existence was only known through Egyptian and Biblical texts. Hittite ruins had, as yet, not been established.

In 1906-08, Hugo Winckler, a German archaeologist and professor of oriental languages at the University of Berlin, in conjunction with Ottomon-Greek Theodore Makridi, the then director of Istanbul Archaeological Museum, excavated a site in central Turkey and found ruins that turned out to be the remains of Hattusa. They had hit a vein of an archaeological gold mine – collecting 10,000 clay tablets written in the language that was the lingua-franca of the region in the 13th century BC. The professor could read the language. Among these tablets, he found three that prescribed a peace treaty between Egypt and the Hittites. The professor called it the most significant achievement of his life. Two of these tablets are displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum while the third is on display at the Berlin State Museum in Germany.
This Hittite text found in Turkey is the exact translation of the text found in Egypt, confirming the occurrence of the long war and the conclusion of the peace treaty

This text found in Turkey is the exact translation of the text found in Egypt, confirming the occurrence of the long war and the conclusion of the peace treaty. This is the oldest written peace treaty discovered to date. Considering that the two empires used two entirely different languages and yet the texts are identical, it testifies to the proficiency of the translators.

As has been noted above, the treaty was the sequel to a long drawn out war between the two superpowers of the time. In the 13th century BC, the region that we now call Middle East or, more specifically the eastern Mediterranean, was home to four powerful empires. They included the Assyrians in the present day Iraq, the Egyptians along the river Nile, the Hittites in present-day Turkey and the Mycenaeans around the Aegean Sea. In addition, there are numerous references in the written records of the era to the powerful and savage ‘Sea People’ who were attacking and ravaging the coastal cities and towns around the Mediterranean.

Replica of the treaty at the United Nations

As history testifies, the relationship between superpowers ultimately becomes competitive and belligerent due to conflicting territorial and economic interests. Egypt and Hatti were no exceptions. Both wanted to expand into the Levant. The tussle between the two for control of the area had continued for decades. Before the two came into physical contact with a common border, there was an independent buffer state across south-east Turkey and north-east Syria that separated the two powers. When the expansionist Hittite empire took over the buffer state, it came face-to-face with the Egyptian zone of influence with their border placed somewhere north of Tripoli (now in Lebanon) and going east through the town of Kadesh on the River Ontoroe south of Homs. As the Hittite empire had aspirations to expand further south, it resulted in armed conflicts with the Egyptian empire.

Ramses II is also known as Ramses the Great due to his long rule and achievements. He was born in 1303 BC and assumed the throne in 1279 at the age of 24. He ruled for 66 years and died at the age of 90. Because the Egyptians meticulously recorded the events of their Pharaohs’ reigns on clay tablets and temple walls, the history of the monarch is well preserved.

Three-man Hittite chariots

In the 5th year of his reign in 1274 BC, Ramses launched an attack against Hittite forces in Syria to capture the city of Kadesh. In preparation for this campaign, he displayed remarkable industrial prowess. His armament factories produced 1,000 weapons a week, about 250 chariots in two weeks, and 1,000 shields in a week and a half. Egypt finally launched the attack with 20,000 troops comprising four divisions and 2,000 chariots. Opposing him was the Hittite army, led by their king Muwatalli II, of somewhere from 25 to 40,000 men and 2,500 to 3,500 chariots. The Egyptian army camped on the western bank of the river Orontoes whereas the Hittite army was stationed on its eastern bank, north of Kadesh.

With this large number of chariots on both sides, the battle of Kadesh is also known as the largest ever battle involving chariots. The Egyptians used two-man chariots that were smaller in size and hence more agile and manoeuvrable, whereas the Hittites deployed larger three-man chariots that were slower but packed more power. Both types were powered by two horses each.

The Levant (modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) became the focus of rivalry and war between Egypt and Hatti

Having watched the chariot race umpteenth times between Charleston Heston and Stephen Boyd in the 1959 movie Ben Hur, I hope that one day a new William Wyler would be able to recreate a cinematic version of the chariot clash fought in the battle of Kadesh!

After much bloodshed, heavy causalities and loss of life on both sides, the Hittite army retreated but the Egyptians too, unable to capture Kadesh, retreated. The battle is now categorised as a draw. Posterity has learnt about the battle from Egyptian engravings which claim a great victory for Ramses but military historians’ analysis of the battle and subsequent events prove that neither side won a decisive victory.

The text of the treaty, as found in Turkey

The heavy losses on both sides dampened the fighting spirits of both the warring empires. In addition, the Hittites were now threatened by the Assyrians, who would eventually annihilate them a century later in 1178 BC. The Egyptians, too, were facing a menacing onslaught by the Sea People on their coastal area. This forced both the empires to talk about peace. Negotiations and skirmishes between the two would continue for another 15 years. The peace treaty was finally formalised in 1259 BC when Hattusili III was the Hittite king.

It is a symmetrical treaty that treats both sides equally and requires them to undertake mutual obligations. The treaty contains more than 20 principles and obligations for both sides.

It proclaims that that both sides would in future forever remain at peace and would not commit acts of aggression against each other, binding the children and grandchildren of the parties to the adherence of the treaty. It states: “There shall be no hostilities between them, forever. The great chief of Kheta (Hittites) shall not pass over into the land of Egypt, forever, to take anything there from, forever. The great ruler of Egypt shall not pass over into the land of Hatti, to take anything there from, forever.

Each side committed to come to the other’s aid if threatened by outsiders: “And if another enemy come [against] the land of Hatti ... the great king of Egypt shall send his troops and his chariots and shall slay his enemy and he shall restore confidence to the land of Hatti.” Reciprocally, it states that in case of an attack on Egypt by third party, the country of Hatti would send its infantry and chariots in aid of the former.

The text of the same treaty in Egypt

Mindful of the hostility created by high-ranking rebellious asylum seekers of a hostile empire, the treaty stipulates as obligation number 11 that, “if any great man shall flee from the land of Hatti to Egypt (and vice versa), then the great ruler of Egypt shall not receive them, (but) cause them to be brought to the great chief of Hatti. They shall not be settled.

The treaty, however, forbade punishment of the persons thus returned.

In conclusion the gods of two nations and the natural elements are invoked to preserve the treaty and punish the violator. It states with an oath before “a thousand gods, male gods and female gods” of the lands of Egypt and Hatti, witnessed by “the mountains and rivers of the lands of Egypt; the sky; the earth; the great sea; the winds; the clouds.” If the treaty was ever violated, the oath-breaker would be cursed by the gods who “shall destroy his house, his land and his servants.” Conversely, he who maintained his vows would be rewarded by the gods, who “will cause him to be healthy and to live.”

Interestingly the treaty is now referred to as the “Treaty of Kadesh”, as a postlude to the eponymous battle, yet its actual text doesn’t mention the word Kadesh. Also Ramses never met Muwatalli or Hattusilli III. The treaty was finalised through diplomats. As the capital cities of two empires were separated by 2,000 kilometres and it involved multiple arduous journeys, the lengthy negotiations testify to the tenacity of the diplomats and earnestness of the two emperors. As a reward, they enjoyed a mutual peace for 80 long years.

In 1970, a bronze replica of the Hittite tablets bearing the text of the treaty was presented by Turkey to the UN, where it now hangs prominently on one of walls as a reminder of the principle aim of the organisation.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: