The Chariot in Ancient Egpyt- a military innovation

What image do you conjure up when thinking of ancient Egypt? King Tutankhamun’s Deathmask, a mummy or just the pyramids at Giza? I bet somewhere mixed among those images is probably that of a Pharoah astride his noble chariot riding into battle.  But how did the chariot come to be a pivotal piece of ancient Egyptian military equipment and the mode of transport for the elite? That is what I will be looking at this week the innovation that was brought to Egypt the chariot.

Where did the chariot come from?  

A chariot consisted of a light wooden semicircular,open-back framework, furnished with an axle and a pair of four-spooked or six-spooked wheels with a long pole attached to the axel which enabled the chariot to be drawn by a pair of horses[1]. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Schematic drawing of chariot A1 from the tomb of Tutankhamun Chasing Chariots: Proceedings of the first international chariot conference (Cairo 2012) page 72

It is generally thought by scholars that the Hyksos introduced the horse and Chariot to Egypt as there appears to be no firm evidence of either during the Middle Kingdom yet they are represented from the beginning of the 18th Dynasty New Kingdom[2]. The word Hyksos comes from the Greek version of an Egyptian title, Heka Khasut, meaning “rulers of foreign lands/hill countries”[3]. This group is often misunderstood as if you only read Egyptian sources you would see them often referred to as ‘vile’. However, we know the Hyksos comprised a small group of West Asian individuals who ruled Northern Egypt, especially the Delta, during the Second Intermediate Period[4].  Although the chariot seems to have been the product of natural technological evolution. In the Middle East, the plains of Mesospotatiomia and Anatolia are thought to be where the precursor of the chariot was created The Sumerian Standard of Ur depicts the early form of this military vehicle drawn by mules[5] (Figure 2). During the excavations of the Royal Tombs of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley between 1922 and 1934 several tombs of fighters and kings were buried with their four-wheeled wagon/chariot like vehicles. Later development in Mesoptampia saw the two-wheeled vehicles with a solitary occupant. However, if we strip back these advancements it is likely that the first true chariots were developed on the Eurasian Steppes with burials between the Russian and Kazahstakn producing chariots[6]. Although it should be said that the origins of the chariot are still very much up for debate.

Figure 2: “The Standard of Ur”, decorated on four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen the four-wheeled wagons thought to be early chariots. British Museum 121201 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1928-1010-3

Military Innovation  

By 1435 BC Ancient Egyptians were making chariots, and by the end of the century chariots with four-spoked wheels and light, the design was in use throughout the Levant and had been introduced to Minoan Crete and the southern European mainland[7]. Early depictions of chariots dating to the reign of Ahmos so open-sided chariots however later depictions dating to the reigns of Tuthmosis II and Amenhotep II show chariots with closed sides. Meaning that early depictions show a simpler lighter vehicle than the later ones with the latter mainly dating to the 19th and 20th Dynasties with a more substantial body[8].  Both the Asiatic and Egyptian chariots of this time were virtually identical, adding credit to their northeastern origin, measuring 1 meter wide and the length cab ½ meter[9]. In general, the chariots were contrasted using birch and elm, neither of which is native to Egypt but does grow in Nother Palestine leading to a conclusion that the Egyptians search this region once they gained control of it for the precious resource[10]. The importance of the chariot from a military standpoint should not be underestimated. The main innovation that the chariot gave was mobility, enabling the enemy to be pelted with arrows from different directions. The ancient Egyptians in broad strokes were late to introduce calvary based warfare. But once introduced they seized the opportunity as the chariot made their archers with composite bows much more effective. The chariot sped up the transportation of these men to the battlefield insofar as the use of the composite bow made the archers more effective than previously[11]. The archers also required protection as it was impossible to shoot arrows and hold a shield at the same time and so two men in a chariot was necessary. Therefore this pair would have to work in tandem. The chariot gave mobility both for the archers to the melee battle and the shieldbearer protection. Furthermore, the quivers could be set against the side of the chariot, generally, on the right, allowing the two men to work as a unit[12].    

The chariot from the tomb of Tutankhamen at the Discovery Center in Times Square.
Figure 4 : One of the chariots found in the Tomb of King Tutankhamun https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/arts/design/03chariot.html

The remains of 11 chariots have survived found at Thebes across various sites. Of that eleven six of these virtually enacted come from the burial of King Tutankamun(Figure 4) 4. Alongside these full chariots, a large number of chariot fragments sometimes made of copper alloy and ivory have been found outside of Thebes. Of note would be the Ramesside city of Pirammesses and the area referred to by excavators as the ‘headquarters of the royal charioteers’.

Figure 5: Ramesses II rides into battle on his chariot bow drawn trampling his foes. Temple fo Luxor https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Kadesh

 Off the battlefield

But the chariot was also used off the battlefield away from elite soilers as during the New Kingdom it also became regarded as an essential part of royal regalia. This is the image that comes to my mind when you say chariots. During this period it was common to see the king charging into a mess of enemies of his chariot on the external walls of temples (Figure 5 ). This became a symbol of the “containment of the unrule’ in the same vein as the smiting of foreigners scenes that kings were often shown in[13]. Both of these images further the pharaoh as the keeper of the law of ‘maat’ or order as these images show him quashing chaos (Figure 6).   

Figure 6: Another image of the king riding into battle defeating the forces of chaos this time from a box in the Tomb of King Tutankhamun. https://archive.archaeology.org/1003/etc/tut.html

The crafting of chariots can be seen in a number of New Kingdom tombs showing craftsmen from a variety of disciplines including carpenters, joiners and leather workers in tandem producing chariots(Figure 7). All of the six tombs show the crafting of a chariot date between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmoses IV and show these activities as taking place in workshops of the Temp of Amun at Karnak[14]. Furthermore, a papyrus dating to the Ramesside papyrus, now held in the British Museum Papurya Anastasi I, give us insights into the upkeep of chariots and the description of an Egyptian charioteer’s visits to a repair shop in the Levantine coastal city of Joppa[15].  

Figure 7: Crafting scenes from Theban Tombs of – A) Tomb of Puiemre (TT 39), B) Tomb of Hepu (TT 66), https://books.openedition.org/efa/6407

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 72

[2] Shaw, I., 2014. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 202

[3]https://www.arce.org/resource/hyksos#:~:text=As%20a%20word%2C%20Hyksos%20is,during%20the%20Second%20Intermediate%20Period.

[4]https://www.arce.org/resource/hyksos#:~:text=As%20a%20word%2C%20Hyksos%20is,during%20the%20Second%20Intermediate%20Period.

[5] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/chariots.htm

[6] http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/chariots.htm

[7] https://www.britannica.com/technology/chariot

[8] Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Page 13

[9] Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Page 13

[10] Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Page 13

[11] Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Page 17

[12] Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Page 18

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 72

[14] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 72

[15] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 72

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