Chariots in Ancient Egypt

The chariot is perhaps more properly considered as a means of transportation. It was the vehicle of choice of the elite and royalty in ancient Egypt, while the common people had to make do with carts towed by oxen or the humble donkey. Chariots were also used by the pharaoh to indulge in a spot of hunting. In ancient Egyptian art the image of the pharaoh riding into battle on his chariot was a very popular device for proving to everyone that the pharaoh was the brave military leader of his people.

Tutankhamun on his chariot, detail from a chest found in his tomb copywright 2005 Daniel Speck

It is generally considered that the Hyksos introduced the chariot to Egypt. The names commonly ascribed to the component parts of the chariot were Semitic and common design motifs were Syrian in origin. If the story of the exodus is to be taken at face value and the ancient Egyptians rode chariots when pursuing the fleeing Israelites (which is admittedly rather doubtful), then it would seem that the exodus occurred after the Hyksos incursion.

18th Dynasty chariot copyright Khruner

The discovery of horse remains dated to the Thirteenth Dynasty (during the second intermediate period) may suggest that horses were introduced into ancient Egypt, at least in some limited sense, before the Hyksos occupation. A stela depicts Army Commander Khonsuemwaset, son of Dudimose (an obscure Thirteenth Dynasty King) seated with his wife on a chair with a pair of gloves depicted underneath him, which may indicate that he was a charioteer. However, the text of the autobiography of Ahmose son of Ibana (which describes the war between Ahmose I and the Hyksos) implies that the ancient Egyptians used marines rather than chariots when attacking Avaris and may not have integrated the chariot into their army until the Hyksos had been expelled.

Seti I on his chariot, from Karnak copyright The Egypt Archive

By the New Kindgom the chariot was very much a part of ancient Egyptian society and pharaohs such as Thuthmosis II had over a thousand charioteers in his army. The Egyptian chariot was lighter and faster than the standard form used in the ancient world and was perfectly adapted to carry the feared Egyptian archers into battle.

A chariot team was generally composed of the driver holding a whip and the reigns, the archer (who often carried spears to use when his arrows were spent) and a number of chariot runners who flanked the chariot. However, when hunting (a favourite pastime of the elite Egyptian) the pharaoh would often man the chariot on his own.

Copyright J Hill 2010