Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project
University of Memphis Photo
War Scenes of Ramesses II

Ramesses II is perhaps best known for the battle of Kadesh fought against the Hittite Empire over the city of Kadesh in Syria. Although a military failure, Kadesh was a propaganda victory for Ramesses, and he displayed this "victory" prominently on the walls of several temples throughout Egypt.

The Karnak Hypostyle Hall was intended as one of the venues for his Kadesh narrative of texts and war scenes, but before work was finished, pharaoh changed his mind and had scenes of his later wars in Syria and Palestine carved over top of the incomplete Kadesh scenes.

view of south exterior wall with war scenes of Ramesses II
View of the south wall of the Hypostyle Hall showing the war scenes of Ramesses II.

Ramesses II campaigned in Palestine and Syria for the next fifteen years after Kadesh and also commemorated these wars with panoramic war scenes on several temples including the Hypostyle Hall. Egyptologists have not been as interested in these later war scenes, so that the later part of Ramesses' career as a warrior is poorly understood.

plan of the war scenes of Ramesses II on the south wall

Plan of the war scenes of Ramesses II on the south exterior wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. The battle episodes are highlighted in red. Non-battle episodes, such as the return march after battle and presentation of prisoners to the god Amun are shown in blue as are the two huge triumph scenes on either side of the central doorway.

 Triumphal scene of Ramesses smiting enemy prisoners

A giant triumphal scene of Ramesses II slaying enemy prisoners. Embedded in the image are elements of the palimpsest version of the Battle of Kadesh. The heads of Egyptian officials are enmeshed in the king's torso while a line of Egyptian soldiers marches between the king's legs.

 

One reason for this scholarly neglect is that the scenes and text themselves are not as interesting as the unique Kadesh record.

Another problem with Ramesses II's battle scenes on the Karnak Hypostyle Hall is the erosion and random damage they have received over the centuries, making them hard to read.

Ramesses II attacking Syrian town
A giant figure of Ramesses II attacks two fortified towns in Syria. Here the king is on foot, but most war scenes show in his chariot. all the scenes have suffered from erosion and other damage, making them hard to understand.

In some places on the wall, these later war scenes were carved over the Battle of Kadesh inscriptions. The Kadesh reliefs were not completely erased however. Plaster was used to cover them. After 1300 years, the plaster is almost gone, leaving the two versions to be read-- with difficulty.

Ramesses II prisoners

Ramesses parading in his chariot escorting two files of Syrian and Hittite prisoners back to Egypt after the battle.

Soldier Palimpsestdrawing of palimpsest

(Left) photo of a palimpsest showing an Egyptian soldier slaying a Hittite prisoner from the Battle of Kadesh narrative. Superimposed over this image are the legs of the god Amun seated on a throne. Wavy lines behind his feet represent the Orontes river from the Battle of Kadesh. (Right) a drawing of the palimpsest.

This double set of inscriptions is called a palimpsest and is difficult to untangle. Damage to the reliefs makes this even more difficult. After weeks of tedious work, we were able to make some minor discoveries. The Kadesh palimpsest includes part of a text known as the "Bulletin." Although better preserved elsewhere in several copies, the Karnak version included some variant phrases not found elsewhere.

foreign place names with palimpsest of Battle of Kadesh
A list of towns and countries in Syria and Palestine. Each name is enclosed in an oval with the upper body of a bound Asiatic prisoner sprouting from it. The ovals are not royal cartouches but the hieroglyphic sign for fortress. These are carved over the Battle of Kadesh inscriptions.

Our study and recording of these later war scenes is also aimed at discovering some of the names of places Ramesses II fought against. Two lists of place names are given in giant triumph scenes on either side of the south gateway. Parts of these were copied from earlier lists, others are original. All of them are damaged however.

We also hope to recover the names of the towns shown in the battle scenes themselves. These are inscribed on the forts Ramesses attacks, but most are damaged and have never been read. Many of these inscriptions are several meters off the ground and have never been looked at closely.

By careful study of these reliefs, we hope to achieve a better understanding of Ramesses II's wars in Western Asia. We will publish the war scenes in facsimile drawings which are easier to read than photographs of these badly damaged scenes.

drawing of a foreign name ring with palimsest of soldiers heads
A sketch of one of the name rings with the palimpsest of the "Battle of Kadesh" narrative underneath. Unscrambling these two sets of inscriptions is a difficult task. Note the "spikes" on the oval representing crenellations or towers of a fortress.

Back to top.

1.Entrance Passage
2.Great Columns
3.Smaller Columns
4.The Second Pylon
5.Ramesses II War Scenes
6.North Gateway
7.Seti I War Scenes
8.Clerestory & Roof
9.The Third Pylon
10.Loose Blocks
11.Interior Wall Scenes
12.Constructing the Hypostyle Hall
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Last Updated: 1/14/14