Although the Egyptian empire did not completely crumble under the leadership of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs, the Amarna period beginning with the pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1335 BC) was nevertheless characterized by a combination of diplomacy and neglect towards its neighboring territories. As a consequence, Egypt’s influence in the more remote regions it owned declined. Seti I (ca. 1306-1290 BC), however, introduced a new style of foreign relations during his reign in the early Nineteenth Dynasty. For example, battles were fought to extend Egypt’s sphere of influence in Syria. Seti wanted the people in his territories to see the might of the pharaoh rather than simply telling them to behave through letters as some of his predecessors had done. Seti’s campaigns were designed to reassert Egypt’s control over her empire and to retake areas that Egypt had lost to her enemies.
Shortly after his second year as pharaoh, he accomplished something his more famous son, Ramesses II, could not. During the reign of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, the city of Kadesh was lost to the people of Hatti, known as the Hittites. Seti, seen at Karnak in his role as an archer, successfully defeated the enemy at Kadesh. The Hittites did not mount a good offense to the attack on Kadesh, most likely because a major part of the Hittite army at the time was involved in a border dispute with the Assyrians to the east. In fact, the king of the Hittites does not appear in the battle scenes which show Seti regaining Kadesh. Instead, an ultimately ineffective combination of Syrian and Hittite soldiers was sent to meet the pharaoh’s challenge. Nevertheless, the Hittites did try to put up a fight after their losses. The scene on the battle relief at Karnak is described as “the vile land of the Hittites, among whom His Majesty…made a great heap of corpses.” In battle Seti is “a mighty bull, with sharp horns, stout-hearted, who smashes the Asiatics and tramples the Hittites; who slays their chiefs as they lie prostrate in their blood; who enters into them like a blast of fire.” The next scene illustrates the return march to Egypt with prisoners from the campaign.
Kadesh remained under Egyptian control for a short time; however, it eventually reverted to the Hittites without any military challenge from Egypt. Seti had the same problem with Syria as his predecessors—Syria was too far away from Egypt for him to maintain consistent control over the area. As the Hittites regained control over much of Syria, the stage was set for a future confrontation between Seti’s son, Ramesses II and Hatti’s new king. In the meantime, the Hittites and the Egyptians entered into a period of cold war, mainly because of Seti’s pride. Egypt did not actually need Kadesh—it had no supplies or overland trade routes that were vital to the country’s survival–but the king viewed retaining Kadesh as a matter of honor. As a result, although he would later reopen trade with other former foes, Seti refused to trade with the Hittites.
Although it is somewhat understandable that historians have devoted much attention to the achievements of Seti’s extremely long-lived son Ramesses II, Seti I deserves more than a just few paragraphs in the history books.