Egyptian Chariot Warfare




The Egyptian chariot was a lightweight vehicle that carried two people, the driver (ketjen or kedjen) and the warrior (seneny). The driver could also act as defender, carrying the shield. Egyptian chariot warriors were archers first but also carried weapons for hand-to-hand combat: the khepesh, axe, and spear. The reliefs of the battle of Qadesh show the regional differences, in part dictated by terrain. The Hittites used a heavier type of chariot, apparently with solid sides, which carried three people. Its axle was placed at the middle of the body. This made it a slower-moving vehicle than the Egyptian chariot. The soldiers it carries are shown with the short stabbing spear, and the Hittites appear to have used their chariots for close combat, charging lines of enemy infantry.

The records of battles indicate very large numbers of chariots being deployed, but whether they were all used at one time remains unclear. Ramesses II claims that there were 2,500-3,000 Hittite chariots at the battle of Qadesh.

There has been some dispute over how chariots were deployed in battle. It was once suggested that chariots were driven to a point, and that then the warrior dismounted and fired. It is certain that the chariot actually functioned as a moving firing platform: numerous reliefs indicate that the archers fired while the chariot was being driven. The construction of the Egyptian chariot allowed a small turning circle, perhaps enabling the chariot to be driven in one charge, arrows loosed, and the chariot swiftly turned for a second return charge. Battle scenes such as those of Qadesh show the two chariot lines charging at each other. Even with chariots arranged in several lines, the numbers reported in some conflicts would have resulted in very long lines, which would have been feasible only on flat plains. As the biblical narrative makes clear, soft sand also hindered chariots because it “clogged their chariot wheels and made them lumber along heavily.”


Chariots are made of a frame of bent wood covered with leather. The heavier ceremonial chariots have gilded leather or wooden panels with colored glass and stone inlays. The chariots had a very wide wheel track to ensure stability on fast turns. The chariot in the Florence Museum has a narrower wheel track than the Tutankhamun examples. The car was approximately hip-high and fully open at the rear, which made it easy to jump into quickly. The car was wide enough to hold two people standing side by side: one from Tutankhamun’s tomb was 1.02 meters wide by 0.44 meter deep. The axle was made of ash and in one example measures 2.3 meters in length. In all surviving chariots, the axle is placed at the rear, although in some artistic representations the axle and wheel have been moved forward, making them central to the body. The flooring is a leather thong mesh. The pole, usually of elm, was heat-bent and about 2.89 meters long. The wheels had felloes of ash, spokes of evergreen oak, and spoke lashings of birch bark. The earlier chariots had wheels with four spokes; later chariots had sixspoke wheels. Thutmose IV is depicted in a chariot with six-spoke wheels in battle with Asiatics, who are using chariots with four-spoke wheels. In the scenes of Ramesses III’s battles, the Libyans drive chariots with both four- and six-spoke wheels. Chariot wheels, felloes, and spokes were made from heat-treated wood. To make a spoke, single pieces of wood were bent at 90 degrees (for 4-spoke) or 60 degrees (sixspoke) and glued back to back. Wet rawhide was bound around them at the nave and then lashed with birch bark for waterproofing. Tires were of leather. Egyptian chariots were lightweight, one modern replica weighing 34 kilograms.

Acquisition of chariots.

Chariotry is first mentioned in the second stela of Kamose as belonging to the Hyksos. The earliest depiction of a chariot appears to be in the tomb of Renni at el Kab (Nekheb) of the time of Amenhotep I. Chariots then begin to appear more frequently in both texts and scenes. The accounts of battles, such as the texts of Ahmose son of Ebana, show that chariots were still rather rare in Egypt in the early 18th Dynasty and those captured were presented to the pharaoh. The capture of numerous horses and chariots in the campaigns of Thutmose III suggests that the Egyptians were still trying to increase their numbers. A fragment of a tomb painting from the tomb of Nebamun (reign of Thutmose IV) shows a chariot drawn by mules or hinnies (the offspring of a she-ass by a stallion).

The Amarna Letters also document the import of chariots as part of the royal gift exchange system. The surviving letters of the archive reveal a total of 31 chariots, each with its pair of horses, which were sent to Egypt as greeting gifts from Babylon and Mitanni. In addition there were several very special chariots, such as the royal chariot outfitted for Assur-uballit of Assyria, which he sent as a greeting gift with its two white horses. Some chariots were sent fully outfitted; others are specified as not outfitted. The lavishness of some of the royal chariot equipment is revealed by the detailed description among the gifts sent by Tushratta of Mitanni to Amenhotep III at the time of his marriage to the Mitannian princess, Tadu-Heba. The chariot was gilded using 320 shekels of gold. The equipment included one whip overlaid with five shekels of gold, with khulalu-stone mounts.

The letter details other items clearly related to horse trappings, some in leather with lapis lazuli, and gold amounting to 26 shekels, and 4 shekels of silver. There were also necklaces for the horses using 88 stones per string and 44 shekels of gold; a set of bridles with ivory blinkers, and ornaments of gold amounting to 60 shekels; a set of reins overlaid with silver and ornaments of gold totaling 60 shekels; one set of snaffles of silver, 50 shekels in weight; one pair of gloves trimmed with red wool; one leather halter with attachments of khulalu-stone inlaid with lapis lazuli and a centerpiece of khilibastone mounted on lapis lazuli, and with lapis and gold ornaments from the straps. The detail of the amounts of precious metal and stone used was not only a safeguard against theft, but also an important economic feature: corresponding amounts were expected in return. Elsewhere in the letters are references to a leather cuirass set for horses, with rings of bronze, and two helmets of bronze for horses.


It was once assumed that because the spoke lashings of birch bark had been applied while green, the wheels and chariots had been made in countries where the materials were available locally, probably in Armenia, somewhere between the Caspian Sea and Trebizond. However, it is now known that birch bark can be transported and used. Although chariots initially had to be imported and reserves built up through captures, scenes of chariot manufacture make it certain that the surviving examples, and probably the majority of chariots in use, were actually manufactured in Egypt. A scene showing the presentation of “gifts” to Hatshepsut in tomb 73 at Thebes shows chariots, along with a wide range of other products of royal workshops. Scenes in the mid-18th Dynasty tombs of Hepu, Puyemre, Qenamun at Thebes show the manufacture of chariots and wheels in the state (i. e., temple and palace) workshops. A late-18th Dynasty relief in the tomb of Ipuia at Saqqara shows a six-spoke wheel being made in a royal or temple workshop, where other artisans are producing statuary, a stela, and stone vessels. The surviving caption above one of the chariots in Theban tomb 72 reads “a great chariot (wereryt) of shendyt-wood of Kush, decorated with gold.” This presumably means that the chariot was made in the royal workshops from wood from Kush, showing an early adaptation to non-Asiatic supplies. A fragmentary wheel from the tomb of Amenhotep III uses tamarisk wood, an Egyptian native, with imported elm. Amenhotep II brought wood for chariots from Mitanni. It seems, however, that much of Mitanni was unwooded and the materials were being imported from even farther north. The chariot comprised a number of elements that were easily damaged or broken, axle, pole, and spokes, and there is evidence for the transport of extra chariot poles and other elements to allow for repairs in camp. The economic tablets from Pylos in Greece record 200 pairs of wheels and wood for 100 axles, suggesting that considerable numbers of spare parts might be retained. A papyrus document of the Ramesside period (pAnastasi I: British Museum EA 10247) notes the visit of an Egyptian charioteer in Canaan to a chariot repair shop in Joppa.