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Ancient Egyptian chariots:
Fighting from chariot and horseback

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Ramses II at Kadesh
Ramses II
Reconstructed image

The chariot


horse and chariot     Chariots seem to have originated in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE. The highly mobile two-wheeled war chariot carrying a driver and an archer armed with a short compound bow revolutionized military tactics after 1700 BCE. This expensive weapon spread throughout the Middle East and is thought to have reached Egypt with the Hyksos who took over Lower Egypt, though there is no factual evidence to support this view. It spread into Asia Minor, Greece and was known in Northern Europe by 1500 BCE. With the advent of cavalry riding on horseback it lost most of its military importance by 1000 BCE.
    The Egyptian chariot betrayed its Asiatic origin in a number of ways, by the names of its parts which were Semitic and by its decorations which often took the form of date palm branches or animals opposing each other, both Syrian motifs.


Picture of chariot from Menna's tomb, Excerpt from a b/w photograph of a wall painting; Source: Manchester Metropolitain University website     The Egyptians improved the design of the chariot by making it lighter, changing the position of the chariot's axle so that the driver would stand closer to it and covering parts of the axle with metal in order to reduce the friction between it and the wooden wheelhub. Some wooden parts were strengthened by covering them with metal sleeves. These changes lightened the load on the horses and greatly improved their performance.
    Saddle-pads were placed on the horses' backs and the yoke was attached to them. Improved chariot (Metropolitain Museum of Art) Leather girths around the horses' chests and bellies prevented them from slipping. A single shaft attached to the yoke pulled the chariots.
    The chariot was built of pieces of wood which had been bent into the required shape by heating them (immersing them in boiling hot water for several hours is not recorded but may well have been used), bending them and then letting them dry. Various kinds of wood were used, some of which had to be imported: elm, ash for the axles and sycamore for the footboard.

Chariotbuilders from the tomb of Aba, Thebes
On the left two wheelwrights are forming rims, bending two lengths of wood inserted between two upright poles stuck in the ground. Working in such a way, the strain on the uprights is minimal. At the centre a seated worker is shaping a piece of wood with an adze. On his right two hoops, probably part of the framework, and what looks like the the chassis with the axle. At the far right one of two wheelwrights putting together a wheel.
N. De G. Davies, The Rock Tombs of Deir el Gebrawi, London 1902, pl.XXV

    The spokes of the wheels were made by bending six pieces of wood into a V-shape. These were glued together in such a way that every spoke was composed of two halves of two V-shaped pieces, forming a hexagonal star. The tips of the V's were fastened to the hub by wet cattle intestines, which hardened when they dried.
    The tires were made of sections of wood, tied to the wheel with leather or raw-hide lashings which passed through slots in the tire sections. The thongs did not come into contact with the ground, making the chariot more reliable by reducing the wear and tear. [3]
    When a chariot was not in use the constant pressure of its own weight tended to deform the wheels. When the vehicle was stationary for any extended period of time, they were therefore removed - as was done in the tomb of Tutankhamen - or the chariot could be turned over.
    German carpenters who reconstructed such a chariot needed about six hundred man-hours to complete it [1].


After a picture from 'Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers' by Amelia B. Edwards: Chariots fighting in closed ranks     The lack of springs made the chariots unsuited for use in rocky terrain, where they could easily overturn or break, and even at the best of times shooting arrows let alone taking proper aim from a speeding chariot must have been a difficult task. Chariots fought therefore in closed ranks overwhelming the enemy by the quantity of missiles rather than by their accuracy. If the chariot was about to overturn, the crew would try to jump off the open back before it happened, then, if the chariot was broken, catch the horses and ride on them to safety. What chariots were certainly very much suited for was the pursuit of fleeing enemy on an open plain, when spears could be used for stabbing them in the back.

    The Egyptians knew two types of chariots, the war-chariot which had six-spoked wheels while the carriage chariots had only four spokes. The six spoked wheels could be made lighter and were better supported than the heavier four spoked wheels, making the whole chariot more reliable.

    Serving in the charioteer corps did not come cheap. The recruit was allotted a team of horses from the royal stables and five attendants, whom he had to equip. The chariot itself cost him, according to a possible prejudiced scribe, three deben of silver for the shaft and five for the body, a small fortune, which only noblemen could afford. Captured enemy chariots were an important part of the booty, above all chariots of wealthy princes. Thus, at Megiddo all the chariots of the united Canaanite rulers fell into the hands of Thutmose III:
Then their horses were captured, and their chariots of gold and silver became an easy [prey]. Their ranks were lying stretched out on their backs like fish in the bight of a net, while his majesty's valiant army counted their possessions.Captured was the tent of that wretched [foe], which was worked [with silver]. -------. Then the entire army jubilated and gave praise to Amun [for the victory] he had given to his son on [that day. They lauded] his majesty and extolled his victory. Then they presented the plunder they had taken: hands, living prisoners, horses, chariots of gold and silver and of [painted work (?)]
[List of the booty which his majesty's army brought from the town of] Megiddo. Living prisoners: 340. Hands: 83. Horses: 2,041. Foals: 191. Stallions: 6. Colts: ----. One chariot of that foe worked in gold, with a [pole (?)] of gold. One fine chariot of the prince of [Megiddo], worked in gold. [Chariots of the allied princes: 30]. Chariots of his wretched army: 892. Total: 924.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, pp.32f.
    The tribute defeated enemies had to pay sometimes included chariots, which had the advantage (to the Egyptians) of being both expensive and of diminishing their fighting capabilities:
..... 5 chariots wrought with gold (with) [poles (?)] of gold; 5 chariots, wrought with electrum, with poles of ag.t; total 10......
Annals of Thutmose III: Second Campaign, Tribute from Retenu
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 447

    Chariots were impressive machines, bestowing upon the charioteers great prestige. If in the Old Kingdom pharaohs had often been carried in litters, this means of ostentation was abandoned in the New Kingdom in favour of the state chariot.
The Good God, Golden [Horus], Shining in the chariot, like the rising of the sun [6]; great in strength, strong in might, mighty hearted like him who dwells in Thebes (Mont); smiting Naharin with his mighty sword.
Tablet of victory of Amenhotep III
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 854

    Egyptian war chariots were manned by a driver holding a whip and the reigns and a fighter, generally wielding a bow or, after spending all his arrows, a short spear of which he had a few. When hunting, the pharaohs would sometimes dispense with the driver and enjoy chasing after their prey on their own.

Fighting from chariot and horseback

    Chariots were expensive, clumsy and prone to breakdowns. Yet their use continued for centuries, and they were not replaced by horseback riders until the first millennium BCE [5]. The reasons for this were manyfold. Bronze Age cavalry was mostly deployed as a highly mobile archery force against lightly armed and scantily protected infantry.
  • Saddles and above all stirrups being unknown, a riding archer would have found it difficult to control his horse without using his hands. Chariots, on the other hand, provided a relatively stable platform for a partially protected archer unencumbered by the need to steer.
  • During the Bronze Age archers were using relatively long bows, and even after the invention of the composite bow the length of the bow was not significantly reduced. Such a bow was difficult to handle while on horseback.
  • A right handed rider using a longbow can only shoot towards the left. Charioteers have no such restrictions, the archer can turn anyway he likes. The Hittites augmented the fire power of their cavalry by manning their chariots with two archers.
  • A chariot could carry more ammunition than could a rider.
On the other hand
  • Chariots were much more dependent on the terrain. They were most effective on flat, dry plains, without boulders, debris, or wet topsoil impeding their advance or even causing their breakdown. Horses were more manoeuverable, could pass through smaller gaps and jump obstacles.
  • Carriages offered a bigger target than a single horse and rider. If just one of the horses drawing the chariot was badly hurt, the vehicle had to be stopped, the hurt animal released and the carriage returned to base.
  • Cavalries on the move are not quiet, but compared with chariotry they can move with relatively little noise, enabling surprise attacks. This advantage may have been of small importance in ancient times as battles were often arranged between the two warring parties.
  • The expensive chariotry was abandoned, after short recurved bows and standardized arrows had come into use, the control that the riders had over their horses had improved, and their tactical deployment had become better organized. [4].


    The vehicles were lightly built, the roads bad and the natives not necessarily friendly. Many mishaps might befall a traveller, even in a relatively civilized region like Canaan. The writer of the Satirical Letter, most probably a literary composition rather than a real letter, wanted to ascertain that the scribe he was corresponding with would know how to solve the problems he might encounter on the road:
...Thy reins have been cut in the darkness. Thy horse is gone and is speeding(??) over the slippery ground. The road stretches before it. It smashes thy cart and makes thy ////////////; thy weapons fall to the ground, and are buried(?) in the sand...
    If one was lucky one would break down near a town which had knowledgable craftsmen with the tools and the materials necessary for making the repairs:
Thou makest thy way into the armoury; workshops surround thee; smiths and leather-workers are all about thee. They do all that thou wishest. They attend to thy chariot, so that it may cease from lying idle. Thy pole is newly shaped(?), its ////// are adjusted. They give leather covering(?) to thy collar-piece(?) //////. They supply thy yoke. They adjust(?) thy ////// (worked) with the chisel(?) to(?) the ///////// They give a ///////// (of metal) to thy whip; they fasten [to] it lashes.
More likely one would, according to Murphy's Law which is as old as mankind, have one's brush with death in the most inhospitable place and would have to make do relying on one's own meagre talents only:
The ravine is on one side of thee, the mountain rises(?) on the other. On thou goest jolting(?), thy chariot on its side. Thou fearest to crush(?) thy horse. If it be thrown towards the abyss(?), thy collar-piece(?) is left bare(?), thy girth(?) falls. Thou unfastenest the horse so as to repair the collar-piece(?) at the top of the defile. Thou art not expert in the way of binding it together; thou knowest not how to tie(?) it.

[1] The website of "GEO Magazin" describing this reconstruction, "Streitwagen: Die Superwaffe der Pharaonen" (, has unfortunately been discontinued.
[5] The Kushite conqueror of Egypt, Piye (716-711 BCE), still had chariots at least for his personal use:
His majesty sailed northward to the city of the Hare nome; his majesty came forth from the cabin of the ship, the horses were yoked up, the chariot was mounted, the terror of his majesty reached to the end of the Asiatics, every heart was heavy with the fear of him.
The Piankhi Stela
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 840
So did Ahmose II (569-526 BCE) in his fight against Wahibre:
His majesty mustered his infantry and his cavalry /// /// ///. His majesty mounted upon his chariot; he took arrows and bow in hand, [he arrived (?)] at [/// (?)], he reached Andropolis, the army jubilating and rejoicing on the road.
The Elephantine Stela
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 1004
Concerning the word cavalry Breasted remarks: The word is uncertain, xf nfr is impossible. I translate from the determinative. The Greeks must have had horsemen by this time.
[6] While among the Egyptians Re kept his ancient relationship with the bark, among the Greeks Helios, the sun god, drove a chariot through the sky.

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-[3] Chariot making
-[4] Horseback Riding and Chariots
-Amelia B. Edwards: Pharaohs, Fellahs and Explorers
-Tomb of Menna: Wall 5 (Manchester Metropolitan University website)
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