Pharaoh Tutankhamun riding a chariot

Superweapon of the Ancient World: A History of Chariots - Part I

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The chariot is often associated with the ancient Egyptian civilization. It became a prominent weapon of war during the New Kingdom. In fact, it is often considered a superweapon of the ancient world.

Some have speculated that the chariot was introduced by the invading Hyksos (although there is no factual evidence to support this claim). The history of the chariot, however, stretches back more than a millennium prior to its introduction into ancient Egypt. Additionally, one has to travel to the west of Egypt’s borders to discover its ancient origins.

In 1927/8, the British archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating the Royal Cemetery of Ur in modern day Iraq, when he discovered an artifact known today as the Royal Standard of Ur (dated to the third millennium BC). Portrayed on one side of this artifact is the Mesopotamian war machine, which included four-wheeled, cart-like structures being pulled by four donkeys. The artist even demonstrates the use of this weapon by depicting it in different states of motion. Thus, the donkeys, first shown walking, begin to trot, and then break into a gallop. To clarify that this was a weapon of war, the artist adds a trampled enemy or two under it for good measure. This is one of the earliest known depictions of the chariot, though it is far different from the ones used by the Egyptians. Apart from the fact there were four instead of two wheels, another big difference was that the wheels of these Mesopotamian chariots were solid rather than spoked. In a way, these may be regarded as ‘proto-chariots’.

E Lawrence with Leonard Woolley, the archaeological director, with a Hittite slab on the excavation site at Carchemish near Aleppo before the First World War. An archer riding a chariot can be seen on the slab.

E Lawrence with Leonard Woolley, the archaeological director, with a Hittite slab on the excavation site at Carchemish near Aleppo before the First World War. An archer riding a chariot can be seen on the slab.  Wikimedia Commons

Standard of Ur, 26th century BC. Bottom panel depicts chariots in action.

Standard of Ur, 26th century BC. Bottom panel depicts chariots in action. Public Domain

It has been commonly assumed that the wheel was further improved in the Near East, and contributed to the development of the chariot into the type we are more familiar with today. Representations of chariots, for instance, can be found on Anatolian seal impressions from the second millennium BC. Unlike their Mesopotamian predecessors, these chariots have wheels with four spokes. Archaeological investigation, however, has suggested that this stage of chariot development occurred at an earlier time in the Eurasian steppes. The excavation of kurgans (elite graves covered by earth mounds) of the Sintasha-Petrovka culture have yielded objects believed to be chariots. While the chariots themselves have decayed into dust, the lower part of their wheels left an imprint of their shape and design into slots cut for them in the dirt floor of the burial chamber. Some parts of the chariot structure were also preserved in this way. It has also been pointed out that they might not have been used in military campaigns, but in ritual races to settle disputes or win prizes, which was an Aryan practice.

Cybele drawn in her chariot by lions towards a votive sacrifice (right). Above are the Sun God and heavenly objects. Plaque from Ai Khanoum, Bactria (Afghanistan), 2nd century BCE.

Cybele drawn in her chariot by lions towards a votive sacrifice (right). Above are the Sun God and heavenly objects. Plaque from Ai Khanoum, Bactria (Afghanistan), 2nd century BCE. Public Domain

Indeed, the chariot was more than just an effective killing machine. During the ninth century BC for instance, chariots were being used as shock troops by the Assyrians. By the following centuries, however, the chariot’s role on the battlefield was superseded by more efficient cavalry units. Nevertheless, chariots were still retained by the Assyrians. Instead of using them on military campaigns, chariots were used as prestige or ceremonial vehicles.

Scene from Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) campaign against the Elamite city Hamaru, shows an Assyrian chariot with charioteer and archer protected from enemy attack by shield bearers. Assyrian relief from Nineveh. Alabaster relief, made about 650 BC.

Scene from Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) campaign against the Elamite city Hamaru, shows an Assyrian chariot with charioteer and archer protected from enemy attack by shield bearers. Assyrian relief from Nineveh. Alabaster relief, made about 650 BC. Wikimedia Commons

For example, a relief decorating a room in the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh shows the king in his ceremonial chariot (topped with a parasol) presiding over the deportation of the conquered Elamites. Another relief from the palace shows that chariots were also used by the Assyrians during their lion hunts. It was not only the Assyrians who viewed chariots as luxury goods. About half a millennium before the reign of Ashurbanipal, Egyptian tombs at Amarna contain reliefs depict the pharaoh Akhenaten (who was not known as a warrior king) and his wife, Nefertiti, riding on chariots.

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