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Brasidas - Spartan Commander
Battle of Kadesh
Battle of Plataea
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Roman Invasion of Anglesey
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Recommended Reading

The Hittites: And Their Contemporaries in Asia Minor

The Hittites
By Rob Wanner

The Battle of Kadesh is truly the mother of all battles, in every sense. Fought on the banks of the Orontes River in Syria, this is the earliest battle of which true military tactics are known. Pharoah Ramesses II led an army of 20,000 men in an attempt to maintain his crumbling empire. Muwatallish, the Hittite king, had set an ambush for the Egyptians, sending about 1,500 chariots, each holding three men.

Muwatallish had sent the force to test the strength of the armies of Egypt. The Egyptian Re Division was surprised by a small Hittite chariot force that had just forded the Orontes River. The chariot force chased after the scattered Re Division, straight into the Amun military camp. This Hittite force now had a chance to destroy Ramesses II himself. A distressed Re Division dashed into the Amun camp and created confusion among their fellow soldiers. The Hittites followed closely behind and surrounded the camp. They closed the circle inward, dispelling the unprepared soldiers from the tents. Ramesses II watched his plans to control his Kadesh fall apart around him as his enemies closed in. How did it come down to this?

Few single battles in the history have determined who was the most powerful empire in the known world; the Battle of Kadesh was one. In the period from 2000 B.C. to 1200 B.C. the indisputable most powerful civilizations in the known world were the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians. Secondary players in the same region were Amurru, a kingdom of united lands in coastal and central Syria; Canaan, the coastal land south of the Orontes River; the Hurrians of Mitanni in the east; and Babylonia. Whichever empire could gain favorable relations with them or could control them would have a major advantage over the others. As rapid expansion of all three civilizations came to a head, there emerged border disputes. All eyes eventually turned to the narrow strip of land that connected Asia, Europe, and Africa, where civilizations incorporated the rich networks of trade and, influence.

The Hittites of Asia Minor had gone through a period of weakness as a small empire, losing the very important area of northern Syria to the Hurrians. When the Hittites became more powerful under an aggressive king, the Hurrians ran to Egypt for an alliance. Suddenly, upon coming to the throne in 1380 B.C., the Hittite king Subbiluliumas sent his forces into Syria (Macqueen 46). The king of Egypt was unwilling to commit military to defend northern Syria. Now Ugarit at the northern end of the Syrian coast was the farthest- reaching influence Egypt had, protected by Mount Cassius. However, it was not long before Subbiluliumas convinced the prince of Ugarit to desert his Egyptian allies not with arms, but with words (Hitti 155). After a campaign of several battles, the Hittites succeeded in pushing the Egyptian influence south past the city of Kadesh. This time Egypt was less concerned with holding its land-holdings that Tuthmosis III had gained, and more concerned with religious reform. The tribes of Canaan were next to fall away, as they declared their own freedom from the Egyptian Empire. After the death of the young Tut-ankh-amon, the Egyptian prince's widow sent messengers to Subbiluliumas asking for one of the Hittite king's sons for marriage (Die Agyptisch-Hethitische Korrepspondenz ). It appears that Subbiluliumas sent one of his sons out to Egypt, only for him to meet assassination, probably by men of Ay who would be the next pharaoh.

By the end of Dynasty XVIII, Egypt was experiencing bitter internal disputes which were reflected by the aggressive nature of the kings later during Dynasty XIX. From the time of the pharaoh Akhenaten, small city-states under Egypt had been attacking each other, each claiming loyalty to the Pharaoh and accusing neighbors of disloyalty. Egyptian representatives were maintained in these crumbling city-states that were the powerful legacy of the military strategist Tuthmosis III. Commander-and-chief of the army of Egypt Horemheb seized the throne and began reorganizing the pieces of an empire that was falling apart under his predecessors that were preoccupied with religious reformation. In his tomb at Saqqara, there is a scene that shows the king of Egypt honoring him as he leads long lines of shackled Asiatics. However, when Horemheb took the throne, he himself wrote, that if Egyptian armies were sent to "widen the frontiers of Egypt, it met with no success at all" (Smith 341). This is testimony to the preoccupation of heroism with a small interest in actual facts, as will be important in deciphering the Egyptian side of the Battle of Kadesh. There is also a scene in which Horemheb converses with a group of foreign chiefs and issues instructions to Egyptian officials, probably from foreign city-states begging for protection from Egypt. The scenes in Horemheb's tomb are not very well preserved, but they depict many animated ethnic types, reflecting the interest in the extent of the Egyptian empire, and also ethnic movements from the Near East.

Ramesses I, once a vizier to Horemheb, completed the transition into the Nineteenth Dynasty, also called the Ramesside Period, and ruled as an elderly man for six years. He held the military title of Chief of Archers, passed down to his son Sety I. Upon coming to power, Sety I adopted an aggressive campaign to recover Egypt's dominance in the northernmost areas. He successfully drove out desert tribes in Palestine, securing the area under Egyptian influence as a prelude to his final act. Sety I knew that the key to regaining control of Amurru in Syria was in an area called the Eleutheros Valley. This area north of the Lebanon range was a vitally important line of communication between northeast Syria and the entire Mediterranean coast. When Egypt utilized this area, which nominally sided with them prior to the Hittite invasion, Egyptian armies could move easily from the coast inland without having to march through rough terrain. It also allowed more possibility to expand westward. This area was indeed a strategic gold mine, and within this gold mine was the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River. Sety I first fought the Hittites directly in Kadesh. A depiction of Sety I attacking Kadesh is on the exterior of Hypostyle Hall in Karnak. Sety I approaches the heavy fortification in a chariot, while small Hittites are hit by a barrage of arrows. On a basalt stella found in Tell Nebi Mandu, near Kadesh, Sety I stands before a row of four deities dressed in Syrian garb. The craftsmanship of the stella is poor, as if it was made immediately after the capture of Kadesh, as a dedication before he hastily departed (Brand 120). Kadesh and Amurru both returned to the Hittite fold shortly after Sety's invasion. Although he showed much ambition to regaining control of Syria, he failed in his commitment. The apparently hasty departure of the Egyptian armies from Amurru and Kadesh were an invitation for the Hittites. Sety I finally agreed that Egypt would not expand influence into Kadesh and Amurru; the Hittites agreed that Egypt could keep Canaan and the city of Upi (Shaw 52). The story of the border disputes between the two empires could have ended there, if not for Sety's successor. Sety I ruled for ten years before giving his throne up to his son, one of the most famous pharaohs in the history of Egypt.

Ramesses II ruled for sixty-seven years, and proved to be the most industrious builder and most ambitious pharaoh that ever ruled Egypt. Great new constructions were raised in Memphis, Thebes, Hermopolis, and Nubia. Many complexes from the days of religious reformer Akhenaten were reconstructed in the name of Ramesses II (Aldred 190). Because most complexes were temples, Ramesses II had his name superimposed over the names on the cartouches of former kings. He also found many unfinished statues of Amenhotep III in the temple of Luxor and had them completed in his image (Aldred 191). One large temple is found in Abu Simbel on the eastern bank of the Nile. It is recognized for its four large seated king statues on its facade, over sixty-five feet high. The sunken reliefs of the interior of the temple are topographical details of the Battle of Kadesh, which present half of the whole story of the battle. Ramesses may have introduced some coarse and hasty work, thought to be the effect of the Pharaoh's ambitions outrunning his resources. Could this fault have manifested in his dreams of conquest as well?

The Hittite king Muwatallish came into power in 1308 B.C. He was more concerned with simply defending the lands of the Hittite Empire than expanding his borders. He administered a quick western campaign to settle down the trouble on the western side of the empire (Macqueen 48). This assured loyalty of the neighboring vassal states, and warranted that they would serve under the Hittites in the inevitable clash against the Egyptian armies. In the greatest time of need, all Hittite forces could concentrate on the southern end of the empire as Egypt began to advance.

Ramesses began to take initiative in the fourth year of his reign. He moved north through the mountains and attacked Amurru, destroying the agreement that his father had made. He re-established the Egyptian influence there rather easily by forcing Prince Benteshina to sign a vassal treaty. When it became appartent that Ramesses II was set on war, Muwatallish arranged a massive army, calling in men from some sixteen provinces of the Hittite Empire. These include men from: Nahrin, Arzawa, Keshkesh, Masa, Pidasa, Arwen, Karkisha, Luka, Kizzuwanda, Carchemish, Ugarit, Kedy, the entire land of Nukhashshe, Mushanet, Kadesh, and Dardany (Poem, 40 - 53). And yes, the "Drdny" mentioned in the Poem are probably the same Dardanians mentioned in Homer's Iliad, the sons of Dardanus, who Aeneas commands (Iliad Book 20).

In year four of his reign, (c. 1275 B.C.) Ramesses II led an expedition into Asia to achieve what his father had failed to do. He divided the powerful Egyptian army up into four forces: the Amun Division, which Ramesses II himself led, the Re Division, the Ptah Division, and the Sutekh Division. It is thought that the Ptah or Sutekh Division was ordered to mobilize Egypt's local and foreign allies and then join them at Kadesh. Included among the Egyptian armies were Nubians, Libyans, and Canaanites (Shaw 28). Both these regiments remained followed at a distance away from the Amun and Re Corps. Ramesses II probably did not know the position of the Hittite army, but he knew that taking control of Kadesh would be the best chance to stage an invasion into the northern territories taken by the Hittites.

The armies of these two empires were both powerful and massive. Ramesses II stood in command of all Egyptian forces, and beneath him were two chief deputy corp commanders. Under them were the generals who commanded divisions, each consisting of 5,000 men. This would have placed the Egyptian force at Kadesh at 20,000 (Shaw 27). The Egyptian army consisted of volunteers who were highly motivated to fight. Each charioteer paid for his own chariot and weapons, and so the chariotry consisted of the richest members of society. Poorer citizens served as foot soldiers, if not to simply participate in battles, then to gain social rewards which were offered to all those who served. Egyptian soldiers earned more prestige than priests and scholars. Archaeological evidence shows that the primary Egyptian weapons were the composite bows and khopesh swords. Ramesses II, like his father before him, was an excellent archer, and is shown with his bow in a chariot in almost all depictions of him in battle. Egyptian soldiers used the composite bows because they were so easy to carry and very accurate in the right hands, for up to three-hundred yards. The khopesh sword was slashing weapon wielded only by skilled warriors for use in close combat, and from which the Greeks probably derived their kopis that are so prominently depicted on 5th century Greek pottery (Oakeshott 49). A relief from the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos illustrates these soldiers along with charioteers.

Knowledge of the Hittite army of this period is greatly indebted to Egyptian reliefs. The driving force behind the Hittite army was the heavy chariot force. Consisting of a wooden frame covered with leather mounted on a wide axle with wooden six-spoked wheels, the Hittite chariot structure was similar to those of the Egyptians (Macqeen 59). The procedure for an Hittite assualt involved putting the massive chariot force at the front of the attack force, then sending the infantry in to clean up what was left of the scattered enemies. During the time of Sety I, reliefs depict Hittite chariots with two men, one wielding a bow, the other a figure-eight shaped shield, presumably driving. Between the time of Sety I and Ramesses II a third man was added to the chariot (Beal 148). In the Abydos temple of Ramesses II, there are reliefs of these Hittite chariots heading into battle. In the relief, the third warrior has a large lance, seven to eight feet long. All three soldiers have a helmet that leaves the front of the scalp bare. Hittite chariot personnel also are shown wearing a garment reaching down to their elbows and ankles. This has been presumed to be scale armor (Beal 150). The skirt is either wrapped or has a large slit for mobility. Iron weapons also gave the Hittites a great advantage over the bronze weapons of Egypt, having developed the iron-smelting technique. Unfortunately, not many iron weapons have been recovered, due to the inefficiency of their technique. Though the Hittites had a large infantry, their use was secondary to the first offense of chariots, with great destructive potential. At the time of Kadesh, Muwatallish was said to possess a force of 2,500 heavy chariots for this battle, and two divisions of 18,000 and 19,000 men.

Thus the storm begins.

There are three main sources from which the Battle of Kadesh can be reconstructed. Egyptian reliefs from temples of Ramesses II, especially from the Ramessium, illustrate many aspects of the battle from Egypt's point of view. There are few Hittite records that provide accurate information, but they are not as extensive as the Egyptian records. Finally, there is an epic inscription (referred to as a the "Poem," though it contains neither meter nor rhyme scheme), written by an unknown talented Egyptian scribe, that recorded most of the events that took place in the Battle of Kadesh. The author of the Poem greatly exaggerates the power of Ramesses, and the position of Egypt when the battle is over.

Ramesses II led the four divisions up through Gaza, Canaan, Galilee, and up to the township of Kumidi, the administrative center for their allies from Upi (Kitchen 52). They then marched up through the woods of Labwi to reach the ford across the Orontes River near Shabtuna. Here, on the heights above the city of Kadesh, the Amun and Re corps made camp. The inhabitants of the city of Kadesh had cut a channel from the river to a stream south of town, which had turned the town into a virtual island. It was quite possible that Ramesses did not know the whereabouts of Muwatallish's force, as is claimed in the Egyptian sources. However, Ramesses did choose an excellent defensive position, possibly anticipating that there would be a conflict very soon. That night, Egyptian soldiers captured two Shoshu tribesmen lurking close to the camp. They told Ramesses that they were deserters of the Hittite army, and that a frightened Muwatallish had retreated to the north near Aleppo. Ramesses, flattered and deceived, proceeded to divide his forces. He immediately took the Amun Corps, constituting only one quarter of his army, across the Orontes River ahead of the main body to capture the city before Muwatallish's forces could arrive to stop them. The Re Corps followed at a significant distance, thought to be about a mile and a half, while the Sutekh and Ptah Corps remained on the southern bank of the Orontes (Ceram 173). This took a significant amount of time, and the Amun Division only made it to the western side of Kadesh by nightfall.

On the west face of a pylon in the Ramesseum in Thebes, many reliefs depict the battle. First, there is a representation of the Egyptian Amun camp on the Orontes River. Unmanned chariots are lined up, soldiers tend to the horses, and archers string their bows. The entire Hittite army was camped across the river. The deserters were actually spies. Muwatallish was now mobilizing forces near the thick vegetation around Kadesh. When scouts returned with Hittite prisoner, they revealed the position of the entire Hittite force, right across the river. That night, aware of the impending danger that he was now in, Ramesses dispatched soldiers to bring the Ptah and Re Corps to his aid.

The next morning, Muwatallish did not waste any time and sent a chariot force across the river on the eastern side of Kadesh. The Re Division had just crossed the river and was hastening toward the Amun camp to aid the Pharaoh. Muwatallish probably anticipated this meeting, but not its great success. The Re Division was ambushed, and panicked. "They attacked the army of Re in its center while it was marching unsuspecting and not ready for battle," the poem goes (Poem 120-130). As the remaining warriors and chariots of the broken Egyptian force scurried to the encampment of the Amun Corps, the Hittite chariotry took advantage of the situation and followed them. Now, as the remnants of the panicked Re Corps created confusion in the camp, Muwatallish sent another 1,000 chariots to reinforce the pursuers, who then put into use the tactic of swift encirclement. Hittites surrounded the encampment on all sides, then closed in.

The actual number of this Hittie chariotry force is debated. The Poem and other Egyptian accounts cite that the initial attack consisted of 2,500 chariots. If that were so, the battle might have been over immediately; but instead the Re Division was simply broken up. Also, it is said that Muwatallish dispatched 1,000 more chariots at a later point in the battle. This leads one to believe that the actual force may have consisted of 1,500 or less. Whatever the numbers, this unit of Hittite chariotry, consisting of men from Arzawa, Masa, and Pidasa, now had a significant tactical advantage. Not only did they use panic-stricken people as living weapons, just as Germany did in small villages in World War II, but they also cut off the commander and two divisions from the rest of the armies. While the Ptah Division was marching north, unaware of the disaster, the Hittites were in a position to destroy each division of the Egyptian army one by one. An Egyptian relief shows this attack on the Amun camp. Fallen horses and injured or dead Egyptian soldiers adorn the relief. Pharaoh's tent is in the center as Hittites, depicted in long kilts and helmets, are going through and killing the ranks on one side of the camp. ". . . whereas there was no high officer with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army, no shield-bearer, my infantry and my chariotry scampering away before them, and not one of them stood firm to fight with them" (Poem 85 – 90). The Egyptian army under Ramesses II was surely about to be annihilated, but luck takes a part in any battle.

The Hittite soldiers fought without pay to fulfill a feudal obligation or to get rich from the spoils of war (Macqueen 59). The only payment they received was whatever they were able to plunder in battle, and sometimes this was a great incentive to fight. It seems that Hittite soldiers in the assault were lured to riches inside the tents and on the dead, and initiative was lost. In their greedy rampage, they missed a chance to capture or kill Ramesses II, his family, and the highest-ranking nobles of Egypt. They could have also destroyed all the unmanned chariots and other equipment in the camp to prevent a counter-attack.

Remaining Egyptian soldiers, now more scattered and unorganized than before, were able to detain the looters until reinforcements could arrive. Suddenly, reinforcements came from the east in the form of a single regiment. The Egyptians were now able to overcome the surprised Hittite plunderers (Ceram 176). "Ramesses the Great" owes his life to them. There is dispute on exactly who these saviors were, because there is only one mention of them made in Egyptian records. Some people believe this force to have originated in Amurru, which Ramesses had previously conquered and fostered support (Kitchen 60). Others believe them to be Canaanites or even the Set Division, which should have been far to the south at this point. The poet that recorded the battle attributed the king's counter-attack to divine intervention. Gathering whatever chariots and men he could, Ramesses and his bodyguards charged through the Hittite force. The poet describes Ramesses as he "drove rapidly forward, thrusting into the enemy army of the Hatti; he was all alone and no man was with him" (Poem 150). The Report, a shorter account of the battle included on reliefs, goes on to describe a very exciting work of fiction:

Then he mounted upon "Victory in Thebes," his horse,
and he started forth quickly alone by himself,
His Majesty being powerful, his heart stout,
and none could stand before him (Report 86 – 91).

He drives them into the river where they drown in the swift currents. The intense action and heroism involved here has only a loose basis on reality. It is plausible to assume that Ramesses had actually hit his first tactical move. He attacked the Hittite front along the river where it was the weakest, penetrating the encirclement and securing his back. Many scholars recognize this as a counter-attack, but it was actually an escape. The reliefs on the Ramessium show Ramesses alone in his chariot firing arrows at the Hittites. Soldiers and horses lay dead at the feet of the larger-than-life pharaoh.

What is still mystery is what Muwatallish was thinking when he did not send his large infantry to support his ruined chariot force. If he had not failed to do this, the Hittites might have won the greatest victory of the ancient world by destroying three quarters of the powerful Egyptian army. Instead of supporting his fleeing chariot force, he held back his infantry. As night fell, Muwatallish decided to cut his losses and retreated his forces back into Kadesh from the Egyptian battlefield. Today's fighting was over, and no great victory was accomplished, but rather a stalemate.

More fantasy follows in the Egyptian sources, that imply that Ramesses was the decisive victor at the Battle. Muwatallish apparently lays the capital of the Hittite Empire at his feet (Poem 295 - 300). Even if Ramesses had defeated the Hittites, why would they give up their entire empire after one border dispute? Furthermore, Muwattalish's forces had not run out of steam yet; this will be discussed later.

Ramesses looked to his own armies in rage, considering their "weakness" an act of treason. Muwatallish watched as he supposedly killed his own men on the bank of the Orontes. Ramesses now knew that his goal of conquest was not going to be achieved. Ramesses received a message from the prince of Hatti as he began to retreat (Poem 300 - 330). According to the poet, Ramesses the Great, the commander endowed with godly power, having just slaughtered the Hittite army now sought diplomacy with those whom he just defeated.

Hattusilis III, supreme commander of the army camp and chariot forces of the Hittites and Muwatallish's brother, is thought to have conspired against his brother at the battle with the ruler of Amurru, under Egyptian control at the time (Ceram 187). After the battle, however, the Amurru king Benteshina, turned his allegiance to the Hittites. Perhaps dealings with Hattusilis had influenced this decision. This is also further proof that the Hittites were victorious in this battle; it is not logical that an ally of the victorious empire would change sides to the beaten.

The Hittites allowed Ramesses and his army to retreat honorably while Kadesh remained in the Hittite sphere of influence. As Ramesses led his army away, Muwatallish moved south instead of back north. He overwhelmed formerly Egyptian Kumidi, then down into Damascus, eventually to occupy all of the province of Upi. He then turned back northward, leaving his brother Hattusilis in charge of the new areas (Kitchen 63). Either Ramesses was powerless to stop these incursions or he had agreed to their delivery. Either way, for it to have come to this meant that Ramesses was not a decisive victor at the Battle of Kadesh.

Though Muwatallish had halted Egyptian expansion and defined a peaceful border of the Hittite Empire, this battle had serious consequences for the Hittites. While Hittites had been concentrating on Egyptian affairs, they were hardly prepared when Assyria defeated Mitanni to the east making it an Assyrian vassal state. No longer had the Hittites a buffer against Assyrian aggression. Muwatallish died about one year after the Battle of Kadesh. His son, Urkhi-Teshub, succeeded him. After taking one too many territories away from his uncle, supreme commander Hattusilis III declared war on the young king. They competed for power as western lands took advantage of internal disputes and declared independence from Hittite control (Macqueen 49). For his seven year rule, Urkhi-Teshub was more interested in keeping his position than keeping his empire, as the Assyrians pressed against the Euphrates. Perhaps Urkhi-Teshub was so set against his uncle coming to the throne because of his uncle's alleged treason in the Battle of Kadesh.

Ramesses was having many problems of his own. Part of the reason for his hasty retreat after Kadesh was probably the sore condition of his own territories. All of Canaan flared into a revolt shortly after the battle, seeing that the mighty Egyptian Empire could be beaten, that the strong armies of Egypt were not infallible as they had feared (Redford 185). Soon the Egyptian Empire could barely lay claim to anything beyond the Sinai Peninsula; although in year eight of his reign, three years after Kadesh, Ramesses did lead an army into the northern coastal area at Tripolis (Schmidt 174). A few years after that he made a treaty with Muwattalish, which is cited in a later document. It was basically a statement of non-aggression, so that the Muwatallish could concentrate on Assyria and Ramesses could concentrate on his own empire (Schmidt 115).

Hattusilis III finally took over the throne and exiled the son of Muwatallish, who was very unpopular at the time. When Hattusilis evaluated the condition of his empire and that of Assyria, he became increasingly friendly with Egypt. In the twenty-first year of Ramesses' reign, ca. 1259, Hattusilis and Ramesses created a diplomatic treaty, the first document of its kind. Hattusilis sealed this deal by marrying his daughter to Ramesses. It contained four important conditions:

1) The continuation of the treaty concluded between Ramesses and Muwatallish, concerning non-aggression.
2) Mutual assistance in the form of military aid.
3) Security in the problem of Hattusilis' succession
4) Mutual extradition of fugitives.

This pact, reflected in the reliefs of Abu Simbel, gave the people of the Near East the great accomplishment of nearly seventy years of peace. The remaining annals of Hattusilis describe necessary military action in the west. The exiled Urkhi-Teshub supposedly influenced Babylonia in a way as to strain their relations with the Hittites, then proceeded to incite the Assyrians to lay assault to the Hittite capital. After this happened, Hattusilis moved his exiled nephew to an island, probably Cyprus (Gurney 37). Slowly, the Hittite Empire was declining and weakening. The greatest threat the Mediterranean had ever seen came in the form of massive expedition of the Sea Peoples, from whom no one, Greek, Egyptian, or Hittite, was safe. The Hittite Empire was destroyed by the Sea People in 1200 B.C. (Hitti 156). The capital of the Hittite Empire was sacked and burned.

Ramesses continued to have monuments built for himself, draining Egypt of wealth and resources. The throne went to Merenptah in 1212 B.C. upon the death of Ramesses II. Because of incessant invasions by the Sea People and the great military effort it took to ward them off, Egypt's Mediterranean trade days were over. Egypt was slowly shrinking, losing more holdings, and by the middle of the eleventh century, Egypt had shrunk to the territorial core along the Nile River. It never again assumed its great imperial role in the world. The sun had set on the first great nations of the world, one period of ancient glory had passed, the net result of the first battle that shaped the political boundaries of the known world.


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Written by Rob Wanner
Copyright © 2005 Rob Wanner
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