translation kadesh treaty

Stories of translations: the peace treaty of Kadesh

The world’s oldest peace treaty is one of the oldest known translations: a beautiful symbol…

The world’s oldest peace treaty is also one of the oldest known translations: it’s a nice symbol and it’s also the subject of today’s article.

The context: the emergence of the Hittites

Throughout the second millennium BC, the power of the Hittites in Asia Minor and the Levant expanded continuously. So much so that in the sixteenth century, this people of Anatolia surpassed Babylon and became a serious competitor for Egypt in the region. However, neither Tutankhamun nor Akhenaten were worried. Horemheb and Seti I responded to Hittites incursions in the Egyptian territories of what is nowadays Syria but without being able to provide a definitive solution to the problem. It’s Ramses II who had to take this in charge: in 1247 he led 20,000 men into battle. His goal: take the city of Kadesh and annihilate the power of the Hittite army.

A battle won by both sides

But Ramses’s anxiety played him a bad trick: overconfident, he led his division with such speed that he outdistanced the three other army corps that accompanied him. Deceived by some false Bedouins positioned in its path by the Hittite Emperor Muwatalli, Ramses fell into a trap and had to fight alone against the Hittite army. The Ptah division eventually came to the Paraoh’s rescue, got him out of this bad situation and enabled him to push the Hittite army towards the Orontes River. The marketing of power being what it is (even in the thirteenth century BC), both Ramses and Muwatalli made a victory out of this battle: Muwatalli successfully defended Kadesh and Ramses defeated the Hittites troops. But neither one nor the other was really able to achieve their goal: i.e. for Ramses to regain Kadesh and for Muwatalli to defeat the Egyptian army.

It therefore ended up in a draw, or a good peace treaty

What was the wisest thing to do in case of a draw? Sign a peace treaty.  The Treaty of Kadesh signed between Ramses and Hattusili, successor to Muwatalli, is therefore the oldest known peace treaty. It was structured in an almost completely symmetrical way, with both parties mutually committing themselves “to establish good peace and good fellowship between them.” The different articles of the Treaty stated that there would be no hostility between the two nations, that political refugees and criminals would be repatriated and also that assistance would be provided in case of rebellion or external threat.

A translation that’s more than three thousand years old

In addition to being the first known peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh is also one of the first known translations : there is a Hittite  version engraved in Akkadian (the language of diplomacy at the time) on a terra cotta tablet, and an Egyptian version engraved in hieroglyphics on a stela at the Temple of  Karnak. But the translation agency assigned for the job didn’t do literal translations. The preamble, for example, is rather vague in its Hittite version (« From all eternity God does not allow hostilities between Egypt and Hatti »), while the Egyptian version was written more precisely and directly and makes clear reference to a war.

This thirty-three-century-old translation is therefore not a medical translation or a financial translation but a diplomatic translation: the translator as a craftsman of international peace, a nice apostolate…

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This article has been written by Mathieu

Mathieu was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After studying Literature and Linguistic Research, he moved to Argentina where he is currently a translator and a web editor.