The war chariot was made possible by two inventions, the spoked wheel and the bit. Complete chariots have been found in Egyptian tombs. The frame was made of wood covered with leather. It had two wheels, each with four (later six) spokes, and an axle placed at the very rear of the body for stability on fast turns. Attached to the sides were one or two quivers, each containing thirty or forty arrows, a bow case, and sometimes a quiver for javelins.
In the late eighteenth century BC both the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the Babylonian Empire fell apart. Everywhere records failed, leaving the seventeenth and much of the sixteenth century a dark age. In the old centres of civilization alien conquerors took over, and new powers arose in the north. Amorite and Hurrian invaders, called by the Egyptians hyksos (‘foreign chieftains’), established themselves in the Nile Delta and in about 1650 BC proclaimed a new dynasty with its capital at Avaris – the first non-Egyptian dynasty in the history of Egypt. At about the same time a Hittite king called Hattusilis created a powerful state, controlling central Anatolia from his citadel at Hattusas. His successor Mursilis extended Hittite rule over northern Syria, and in 1595 BC performed the most spectacular military exploit in history to that date, when he led his army all the way to Mesopotamia, sacked the great city of Babylon and carried off the statue of its god Marduk, doubtless accompanied by much booty of a secular nature. As a result, the enfeebled dynasty of Hammurabi vanished and was soon replaced by barbarians known as Kassites from the Iranian hills. Like earlier barbarian invaders of Mesopotamia they were quickly Akkadianized; their king called himself ‘King of the Kassites’, but also ‘King of Sumer and Akkad’; and the dynasty lasted longer than any of the native dynasties of Sumer and Akkad, though next to nothing is known of its history. The Hurrian princes took advantage of the general disorder: in about 1550 BC a great Hurrian kingdom called Mitanni arose in northern Mesopotamia and soon contested the domination of Syria with the Hittites.
All these kingdoms relied upon a new military technology, the horsed chariot and the composite bow. Early evidence for chariot warfare links it to the Hittite kingdom. The hyksos princes introduced it to Egypt, and then it became common all over the Middle East. But it is unlikely that the Hittites invented it. There is a mysterious but definite connection between chariot warfare and people of Aryan heritage that is, speaking dialects ancestral to the Aryan or Indo-Iranic division of the Indo-European linguistic family. Today Aryan languages are spoken in Iran, much of Central Asia and most of the Indian subcontinent. The oldest literary evidence for an Aryan language is the collection of Sanskrit hymns called the Rig-Veda, composed in about 1500 BC. Most of the people of the kingdom of Mitanni spoke Hurrian, but the aristocracy, all chariot warriors, had Aryan names and worshipped the same gods – Indra, Varuna, Mithra – who appear in the Rig-Veda. Many cities in Syria and Palestine acquired dynasties with Aryan or Hurrian names at this time. Some scholars have thought that even the Kassites of Babylonia (whose original language is obscure, but could not have been Indo-European) paid homage to some Aryan gods. Everywhere the Aryan word maryannu (young warrior) was used for chariot fighters. There survives a Hittite treatise on the training of chariot horses, translated from Hurrian, which is studded with Aryan technical terms. In the fourteenth century, when this treatise was written, Aryan may no longer have been spoken in the Middle East, but it was still the international language of chariotry, as Italian is of music.
It is widely supposed that the ancestors of these Aryans had come from the north, and likewise the horse and the war chariot. The dissemination of the horse preceded the other two. The original range of the wild horse (Equus caballus) lay on the Eurasian steppe, where domesticated horses were being ridden as early as the fourth millennium BC. By 3000 BC there had developed a nomadic pastoral culture exploiting the deep steppe with riding horses and ox-drawn wheeled carts, stretching across the European steppe from the Dneister to the Ural River, and soon to spread across the steppes of Central Asia. Horse nomadism was never suitable for the arid steppes of the Middle East, but by the Middle Bronze Age Syrian and Mesopotamian princes were importing horses from the north and occasionally riding in horse-drawn chariots. These were prestige vehicles, with no military function.
The war chariot of the High Bronze Age was a much more specialized vehicle and could not have come from the European steppes, which lack the necessary woods. Many scholars think the likeliest place for its invention lies in the mountainous regions south of the Caucasus, where the high pastures were famous for horse-breeding in antiquity. Some think that we should also look there for the homeland of the Aryans. It seems certain that by around 1700 BC horsemen in that part of the world developed a chariot built of lightweight hardwoods, with two spoked wheels and a leather-mesh platform on which a rider could stand, the whole thing light enough (about 60 pounds) for one man to carry, and pulled by two fast horses. It was the first effective use of the horse as a draft animal, and the swiftest vehicle ever designed. It was surely invented for hunting, which always remained one of its main uses, but some enterprising highland chieftain soon experimented with using such chariots in war: that is, as a galloping archery platform, carrying two athletic young men, one an expert driver and the other an expert archer armed with a composite bow, firing a steady stream of arrows with a range of several hundred feet. The basic principle of the composite bow had been known in the Middle East for some centuries, but it was an expensive weapon requiring years to manufacture; like the rifle of the eighteenth century AD, it was probably used for hunting by kings and nobles, and in war by certain highly trained specialists. The weapon may not have been perfected, nor its full military potential realized, until it was mounted on a mobile platform. These inventions eventually spun off a third invention, the first real body armour: the archer, and sometimes the horses, were protected by leather tunics sewn with bronze or copper scales.
It has been suggested that chariot warfare was first tested early in the seventeenth century at Troy, which at that time was taken over by the conquerors who built the citadel known to archaeologists as Troy VI. Knowledge of the new art had spread far by about 1650 BC, when upstart regimes in Anatolia and Egypt used it in their rise to power. The long Hittite march to Babylon in 1595 BC demonstrated its full potential. Over the next century Aryan and Hurrian adventurers seized power in cities all around the Fertile Crescent.
These conquests were not mass migrations; rather, we should imagine quick takeovers by small military elites, resembling the Norman conquests of England and Sicily in the eleventh century AD. There was relatively little destruction; the transition from Middle to High Bronze Age was not marked by any general decline in material civilization, such as had accompanied the transition from Early to Middle Bronze Age. Like the medieval Norman knights, the chariot conquerors were soon absorbed culturally by the conquered. Only in two places did these conquests lead to lasting cultural and linguistic change. In the west, around 1600 BC, a band of Indo-European (but not Aryan) charioteers established themselves in Greece, and two centuries after that took over the more advanced Minoan civilization on Crete, adapting the linear Cretan script to write a language that was turning into Greek. In the east, a larger migration spread over the Iranian plateau and during the latter half of the second millennium overran northern India, taking over the remnants of the Indus River civilization, whose people became the lower castes of Hinduism; the oral poetry of the conquerors preserved faithfully an Aryan dialect that was turning into Sanskrit. But in the Middle East the upheavals were over by about 1550 BC, when the native Eighteenth Dynasty expelled the hyksos from Egypt. By that time the barbarians had been assimilated and a new pattern of interstate affairs had taken shape.