Following the expulsion of the Hyksos during the reign of Ahmose I (1539-1514 BC), the use and exploits of the horse in Egypt had exploded during this period. Over the next one hundred years, the New Kingdom of Egypt realised that it had to evolve if it was to maintain its power.It could only do this with a permanent standing army, which led to the creation of the first professional armies in Egypt. By the time of the reign of Akhenaten in the 1350’s BC, the army was distinctly divided into two main groups: the infantry and chariotry.
The Egyptian were immensely proud of their standing armies, particular, its charioteer. They were used as shock troops as a highly effective unit against the enemy. Each chariot had two men standing on top of a lightweight chariot with rear mounted wheels. These chariots were quite fast and manoeuvrable which allowed its driver and archer to inflict maximum damage in an assault. (They were devastating to the foot soldier.) Often, an enemy was also routed while it was in retreat. Many historian, like Toby Wilkinson, point out that “Without the chariot, it is doubtful that Egypt would ever have succeeded in forging an empire.”
The chariot was seen as the ultimate status symbol for the Egyptian elite. Depicted in this Ramses II relief are two charioteers, one shielded by the other. The reins are tied to the waist of one of the charioteers to help free both hands.
War stories featuring the chariot are written and commemorated in numerous reliefs and other archeological finds. One of the most earliest recorded battles that featured the use of chariots is the Battle of Kadesh. It is arguably the largest chariot battle ever recorded, detailing major tactics and formation. Historians believe its depiction is somewhat accurate, apart from the political spin and propaganda served up by Ramessses II. In brief, Ramesses II crossed the Egyptian border to wage war against the Hittite near Kadesh. Misled by two spies that were captured, Ramesses believed he had time to set up a camp before the Hittite forces arrived. Unfortunately, the Hittite had concealed their position on the other side of Kadesh. The Egyptians were taken by surprise in an ambush. Ramesses forces panicked and fled leaving their camp, booty and abandoning their Pharaoh to his fate. Legend recalls how Ramesses mounted his chariot and single-handedly held off the Hittite. In truth, he barely escaped and was saved by reinforcements. In a counterattack the Egyptian charioteer regained the ascendancy, but not for long. Both sides sustained huge casualties forcing a stalemate or draw. However, Ramesses arrived back in Egypt and claimed that he had won a great victory. In reality, the Egyptians and Hittite negotiated the first detailed peace treaty in world history.
Looking back to the apogee of Ramesses II reign in the 1200’s BC, the Egyptian world was full of confidence and thirsty for further conquest. The war horse was the ultimate vehicle or fighting machine. However, by the end of Ramesses reign, like many great empires throughout history, a long drawn out decline had begun, for both the empire and the use of the chariot. The war-horse and its charioteer days were numbered. Beyond the horizon, a new people began to rise with new ideas and tactics that would change the course of history and how the war-horse was used. The evolution of chariot warfare to large numbers of mounted warriors or cavalry was accomplished by the Assyrians. By the 700’s BC, the Assyrians were the first people of the Near East to ride their horses with confidence.
Photo Credit: The header image of Tutatankhamun, riding his war chariot, is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. Copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft and licensed under the GNU Free Document License. Ramesses II image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image by Roderick Dailey.