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.
The early periods of Egyptian history (Dynastic, Old and Middle Kingdoms) were characterized by peace, prosperity, and pyramids. The Mediterranean to the north, the desert to east and west, and the jungles and cataracts to the south provided Egypt with natural protection from the outside world. From the emergence of Egyptian civilization in 3100 B . C . E . to the end of the Middle Kingdom, around 1652, Egypt not only enjoyed (mostly) internal peace and stability but also suffered no invasions. This period of security from outside attack is almost unprecedented in human history; possibly only the Japa- nese, who were safe from the time of the first emperor Jimmu in 660 B . C . E . until World War II, can boast a greater such period. It is no wonder that Egyp- tians believed themselves to be blessed by their gods.
Unfortunately, in history, all good things must come to an end. In 1652, for the first time in 1,500 years, an invader attacked and conquered Egypt. According to an Egyptian chronicler, “For what cause I do not know a blast of the gods smote us unexpectedly from the east. Asiatic invaders marched against our land. Their race was called HYKSOS.”
The Hyksos (“Shepard-Kings”) were a Semetic-speaking people who came from Palestine to the northeast. Like most pastoralist peoples in history, they had no permanent homes, nor did they practice agriculture. Instead, almost everything they needed they took from their animals: milk, food, clothing, the tents they lived in, even the alcohol they drank. They were constantly on the move from one place to another, searching for land on which their animals could graze. Pastoralists had little in the way of art, nor were they literate. However, these peoples usually excelled at war and in military technology.
The Hyksos were no exception, possessing a number of military advan- tages over the seemingly more civilized Egyptians. The Hyksos brought with them the composite bow made of wood and horn layered together through lamination and bound with sinew that gave it a huge advantage in distance, power, and accuracy. They wore bronze body armor (the Egyptians had no armor at all), and they had developed a much lighter shield, which left them less encumbered than their Egyptian foes, whose shields weighed them down. Last, the Hyksos introduced into Egypt the most significant military weapon of the Bronze Age: the chariot. Chariots had been around for centu- ries, but it was not until the 1600s B . C . E . that they became important militarily due to numerous innovations and improvements. The new chariot was made of light wood, with a leather platform to carry two men. It was pulled by two horses wearing new harnesses that allowed them to pull heavier loads faster without the risk of choking. New spoked wheels, rather than the old solid wheels, were also vital to the chariot’s development; they were far lighter and sturdier. These chariots were therefore more durable and, weighing only about 60 pounds, could now travel much faster, about 10 miles per hour. One of the men in the chariot was the driver; the other man, who was tied to the chariot to keep his hands free, did the fighting. He was equipped with the composite bow, and the chariot carried a quiver with maybe as many as 80 arrows. Chariot armies had a huge advantage over infantry forces, using their superior speed and mobility to move quickly around the battlefield, fir- ing their arrows at stationary targets while moving fast enough to avoid the incoming missiles of their enemies. Foot soldiers still participated in battles, especially on lands unsuitable for chariots or in defending or besieging cities or camps. They also served as support troops for the chariot teams both in and out of battle. However, it was the chariots that decided the major battles of the period.
Typically, chariot armies would spread out in long lines across a suitably flat and wide battlefield. There was significant space between each chariot in front, in back, and on the flanks to provide plenty of room to maneuver. When the two armies engaged, chariot teams did not simply crash into each other, as horses avoid an actual, physical collision if at all possible. Instead, the chariot teams would move toward an enemy force and in many cases pass completely through the numerous gaps in the opposing line, or, if this avenue was not available, they might turn back or move along the front of an enemy formation. If one side did not break after the first charge, a second charge, this time from the opposite direction, might be necessary. At some point, when one army had suffered significant casualties and panic began to spread among its ranks, some chariot teams would lose heart and begin to retreat either in an orderly fashion or in headlong flight, seeking a secure ref- uge. The chariot force that remained together on the field could then claim the victory.
In 1652, the introduction of these new weapons hit Egypt like a thunder- bolt as the Hyksos conquered all of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta bordering the Mediterranean) and Upper Egypt (the region further south along the Nile) as far as Abydus. The Hyksos established their capital at Avaris (Tanis), in the Nile Delta. Their rule was known as the Second Intermediate Period, and their kings constituted Egypt’s Dynasties XV and XVI. At the same time, the Hyksos were establishing their rule in the north; the kingdom of Kush (Nubia), to the south, took advantage of Egyptian weakness and regained its independence. Kush also took control of much of the upper reaches of the Nile, ruling as far north as Elephantine and the First Cataract.
This period marked the nadir of Bronze Age Egypt. Only a small part of the Nile remained free, as Egyptians controlled only the first eight nomes (administrative districts) of Upper Egypt from Abydus to Elephantine, with a capital at Karnack (Thebes). This part of free Egypt was ruled by Dynasty XVII, established by Rahotep. Rahotep and his successors kept the traditions of the Old and Middle Kingdoms alive in education, in religion, and even in the building of pyramids. However, the wealth and power of Dynasty XVII pharaohs were greatly diminished; their pyramids were made of mud.
Egyptian humiliation would last for nearly a century, until the pharaoh Sekenre Ta’a II, “The Brave” (d. 1570), decided he could no longer endure the national humiliation of foreign occupation of north and south: “I should like to know why I, an Egyptian pharaoh, sit united with an Asiatic and a Nubian?”
He rebelled, breaking the uneasy peace that had existed in Egypt since the days of the conquest. The revolt began with an attack on the Hyksos and their king, Apophis I. Unfortunately, Sekenre Ta’a was killed in battle. His tomb and mummy have been found; his face, neck, and head were crushed by a Hyksos battle-axe. His cause was carried on by his two sons, first by Kamose (r. 1570–1567). He was inspired not only by patriotism but also by the personal desire to avenge his father. Kamose reorganized the Egyptian army; specifically, he adopted Hyksos technology: bronze body armor, the lightweight shield, the composite bow, and, most notably, the chariot. After this reorganization, Kamose was able to dramatically expand the territory held by the Egyptians north to the Nile Delta and south to Buhen.
In 1567, Kamose, like his father before him, was killed in battle, and the task of liberating Egypt fell to his younger brother, Ahmose I (r. 1567–1542). He was only 10 years old when he ascended the throne, so it was not until 1557 that he attacked. His first target was the Hyksos, and, using his brother’s new army, he recaptured Memphis (Egypt’s ancient capital), Avaris (the Hyksos capital), and, last, Sharuhen, the final city in Egypt still occupied by the Hyksos. The Hyksos were driven out, and their last king, Apophis III, was killed. After defeating the Hyksos, Ahmose moved south to attack Kush. He was successful there, as well, driving the Nubians from Buhen to the Third Cataract.
For both wars, we have a remarkable eyewitness account: a soldier from Ahmose’s army inscribed his battle experiences on his tomb. His name was also Ahmose, the son of Ibana (his mother) and Baba (his father). He wrote:
I was taken by boat, the Northern, because I was brave and I accompanied the pharaoh, life and health be upon him, into battle and fought bravely in the pharaoh’s presence. Avaris was sacked and I was rewarded with gold and four slaves, one man and three women. After his majesty had slain the Asiatics, he sailed south to destroy the Nubian bowmen. The Nubian king met his doom, the gods of Egypt took him, and the pharaoh carried him off into captivity. His majesty made a great slaughter amongst the Nubians and I came away with gold, four slaves, and three hands [the cutting off and taking of hands of enemies killed in battle was a sign of bravery in battle and proof of the enemies a soldier had killed]. Pharaoh returned to Karnak, his heart rejoicing in valor and victory. He had conquered both the Northerners and the Southerners.
By 1551, Ahmose had liberated Egypt after more than a century of foreign rule and national humiliation. Ahmose I was the first king of Dynasty XVIII (1551–1295), and his victories inaugurated the New Kingdom, which would mark the final, dazzling epoch of ancient Egyptian civilization.