The Chariot in Egyptian Warfare

The Chariot in Egyptian Warfare

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

A chariot removed and reassembled from the tomb of Tutankhamun

Actually, the chariot is difficult to classify as a piece of military equipment. It was certainly a mode of transportation, but at the same time, most analyst consider it a weapon. Clearly, in the hands of the Hittites, one of Egypt's chief opponents during the New Kingdom, their heavy machines were weapons used to crash into the troops of their enemies. However, the Egyptian chariots were not used in the same manner, and their use was more of a supporting role to the archers who manned them.


Chariots are the culmination of a natural technical evolution. In the Middle East, no sooner do we find evidence of utility wagons drawn by donkeys, mules, oxen and even goats, than we find these same primitive vehicles used in warfare. It was on the fertile plains of Mesopotamia and Anatolia that the precursor to the chariot was created. The famous Sumerian "Standard of Ur" depicts this earliest form of military wagon with four wheels drawn by four asses or ass/onager hybrids, together with a driver and a warrior armed with spears and axes riding into battle over the corpses of the slain. In fact, Sir Leonard Woodlley uncovered several burials among the Royal Tombs of Ur where warriors and the kings were buried not only with their carts and wagons, but also with the draft animals and the driver!

The Sumerian Standard of  Ur

A later development in Mesopotamia was a type of two-wheeled vehicle whose solitary occupant sat astride a central beam as if riding an animal. However, it is likely that the first true chariots were developed on the Eurasian steppes, as shown by the burials discovered along the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, although this is still the subject of scholarly debate.

A burial with warrior, horses and chariot... from China!

Radio-carbon dating of horse remains interred with chariots now indicates that this ancient grassland culture, called by archaeologists the Sintashta-Petrovka people, began using chariots around the beginning of the Middle Bronze period, two hundred years before the first evidence of Middle Eastern chariots. (Based on the style of the artifacts found at the burial sites, Russian researchers previous dated the Sintasta chariots to two centuries after the first evidence of chariot use in the Middle East. More accurate radio-carbon testing is required to settle this dispute.)

The chariot quickly became the transport of the elite, whether for war, religion or affairs of state, though the humble donkey remained an important and dignified mode of transport until the introduction of the horse. It was this development that gave the real impetus to the chariot, which now became an even greater weapon, combining high speed, strength, durability and mobility that could not be matched by infantry.

At about the same time the "cross-bar" form of construction gave way to the extremely light spoked-wheel. This gave the chariot even greater speed and maneuverability without compromising stability and strength.

This expensive weapon spread throughout the Middle East and is thought to have reached Egypt with the conquering Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period. It spread into Asia Minor, Greece and was known in Northern Europe by 1500 BC.

From the 18th Dynasty, the top chariot pulled by horses, while the lower chariot is pulled by mules.

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.

However, by the 15th century BC, Pharaoh Tutmoses III had over a thousand chariots at his disposal; by 1400 BC the Great King of the Mitanni had amassed several times that number. We can picture these huge numbers of vehicles charging across the plain straight towards the enemy; the psychological impact of such a charge would have been enormous on untrained and unsteady troops.

With the advent of horseback riding by 1000 BC it lost most of its military importance and from that time on, the chariot was mostly replaced by the use of mounted cavalry. Yet chariots continued to be used particularly for hunting, and sometimes for sport racing, long after the demise of its usefulness in war.


A typical Egyptian horse  drawn chariot

The Egyptian horse drawn chariot (wrrt or mrkbt) typically consisted of a light wooden semicircular framework with an open back surmounting an axle and two wheels of four or six spokes.

Some analysis of ancient chariots provide that the Egyptians greatly improved the design of this vehicle. However, while they certainly did make improvements to certain parts of the chariot, it is arguable whether the Egyptian chariot was better, or simply designed for a different purpose and terrain than others in the Middle East. For example, the Egyptian chariot had a metal covering for the axes, which reduced friction, and this was certainly an improvement. Also, some wooden parts were strengthened by covering them with metal sleeves.

However, the fact that the Egyptian chariots were lighter and faster than those of other major powers in the Middle East may not have been considered an absolute improvement in the chariot's design. It really all depended on the use that the chariot was put to, and the terrain where it would operate, and as we shall see, the smaller, lighter chariot of the Egyptians suited their specific needs, though they might not have filled the requirements of others.

Ramesses III in his chariot from the walls at Medinet Habu

The chariot was built of pieces of wood which had been bent into the required shape possibly by immersing them in boiling hot water for several hours, bending them and then letting them dry. Various kinds of wood were used: elm, ash for the axles and sycamore for the foot board.

The Egyptians knew two types of chariots. These consisted of the four wheeled chariot which, by the late 18th and early 19th dynasties, were mostly abandoned for the superior six spoke vehicles. The six spoked wheels could be made lighter and were better supported than the heavier four spoked wheels, making the whole chariot more reliable.

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.

Ramesses II with his chariot runner and pet lion

The tires were made of sections of wood, tied to the wheel with leather lashings which passed through slots in the tire sections. The thongs didn't come in contact with the ground, making the chariot more reliable by reducing the wear and tear.German carpenters who reconstructed such a chariot needed about six hundred hours to complete it.

Two horses were yoked to the chassis by saddle-pads that were placed on the horses' backs. Leather girths around the horses' chests and bellies prevented them from slipping. A single shaft attached to the yoke pulled the chariots.

Crew, Upkeep and Status

A model of the chariot of  Ramesses II

In Egypt, 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.However, in warfare, chariot runners would also usually accompany the vehicle into battle.

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. However, after the chariot was constructed, considerable work was needed in order to maintain the vehicle in good working order.

Ramesses II firing arrows from his chariot

Hence, the chariot was of paramount social and political significance since it heralded the appearance of the chariot corps which consisted of a new aristocratic warrior class modeled on the ubiquitous Asiatic military elite known to the Egyptians as the maryannu (young heroes). The depiction of the triumphant New Kingdom pharaoh as a charioteer shows that the chariot was quickly absorbed into the royal regalia, becoming a powerful symbol of domination. Interestingly, the royal chariot itself was treated as a heroic personality with gods overseeing each of its named parts.


Primary to the understanding of Egyptian chariots is the fact that the infantry remained the primary force within their military, while elsewhere, the army was built around the chariot forces. Hence, while the enemy's chariots were built to defeat the opposing infantry, the Egyptian chariots were designed to provide their own foot soldiers with a defense from the enemy's chariots.

Tutankhamun who probably never went to battle, nevertheless smiting the enemy from his chariot

The Young Tutankhamun in his Chariot

The real difference in the Egyptian chariots can be seen in their use as opposed to the implementation they were put to by Egypt's enemies.Perhaps this is most obvious when comparing the Egyptian chariot to those of the Hittites, an important New Kingdom opponent.

Compared to the Egyptian chariot, the Hittite (as well as other Mid Eastern) style chariot was considerably heavier, with a central axes. It usually carried a crew of three, consisting of a driver, shield bearer and an archer. In fact, under the proper conditions and circumstances, the Hittite chariot was probably superior to that of the Egyptians.

A typical, heavier Hattite Chariot

These heavy chariots were ideal for their primary purpose, which was to charge an enemy line using the weight of the machine itself to crash through and brake up the opposing infantry, causing chaos, much like what happened to the Army of Re at the Battle of Kadesh. These large vehicles presupposed the availability of open terrain in order to allow acceleration and momentum to build up during the charge and their general design created an inherent instability over rough terran.

On the other hand, such vehicles would have been totally inappropriate either for the primary tasks required of Egyptian chariots, which was to protect the infantry, or for the terrain of Egypt or Canaan. Deserts and uplands are not at all suitable for heavy chariots. Also, in order to protect the troops from an advancing charge, the Egyptian chariots needed to be able to accelerate rapidly which heavier chariots could not accomplish.

Ramesses II in battle, often depicted without a driver

Hence, the more easily maneuverable Egyptian chariots could charge the enemy chariots in a well spaced line abreast. The distance between each chariot was deliberate, in order to allow a rapid wheel and turn once the enemy line had been penetrated, and to prevent too close a passage through the line by the enemy. Archery was used at longer range, while close in weaponry consisted of spears and sometimes swords.

Part of the effectiveness of the chariots were the armed chariot runners, equipped with bows and spears. Following the charge, they would capture or dispatch enemy crewmen and where possible, rescue those of their own. Most importantly, they were to be prepared to receive opposing chariots as they penetrated the Egyptian line and deal with as many as possible before they could wheel and return. Since the Egyptian vehicles could turn much more quickly than the enemy chariots, those of the enemy were often caught between the chariot runners and Egypt's chariot forces.

Of course, chariots were also useful when the enemy was routed. They were the perfect tool to allow their crews to spear the fleeing opposition in the aftermath of a glorious victory.

Finally, it should be noted that the chariot was probably used, on the whole, much more for hunting and common transport that it was for war. It seems to have been ideally suited to hunting lions, where the noble owner most often drove himself while firing arrows at his pray.






Reference Number

Armies of the Pharaohs

Healy, Mark


Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 85532 939 5

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor


Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

ISBN 0-8109-3276-8

Egyptian Warfare and Weapons

Shaw, Ian


Shire Publications LTD

ISBN 0 7478 0142 8

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Warrior Pharaoh, The: Rameses II and the Battle of Qadesh

Healy, Mark


Osprey Publishing

ISBN 1 84176 039 0