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Ancient worldz is a blog were I compare the worlds that ancient and medievil peoples inhabited and thrived in to the modern world. I also try to illustrate the stories with my drawings and painted miniatures.
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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Chariots of war

Chariots of War

Here is an essay I wrote a while back for school about bronze age war chariots.

The Bronze Age was the era of the chariot. Massive Empires were ruled by great kings clad in gold. The King’s might was demonstrated before foreign nations by an impressive show of force, technology, wealth and authority, by means of the chariot. Any respectable army of the time would have a considerable chariot wing. The New Kingdom era Egypt was at the height of her splendor, prosperity and territorial dominance. The Hittites were the contemporary super power of the age. These two great Empires would clash in several epic battles pitting the technology of the two peoples against one another. The robust and reliable Hittite war chariot would bring to the battlefield power and strength; the Egyptian chariot of war was speedy and maneuverable, able to be used to the utmost strategic advantage. Over time each machine has been called the superior weapon of war, this controversy has been enhanced by the ambiguity surrounding the outcome of the battle of Kadesh. The Egyptian chariot’s characteristics of speed, maneuverability, and durability as well as its ability to adapt made it superior machine of war.

Although in Egypt’s early days, all her armies’ essential and fundamental roles were filled by various types of infantry, Egyptian military thinking was turned on its head after the invasion of the Hyksos. The conquering Hyksos introduced the horse as well as the chariot to Egypt and after the Hyksos were expelled by Egypt’s Pharaohs, the military was able to adopt and adapt the chariot into their army. The consequence of Egypt’s triumph over the Hyksos was that the Pharaoh Ahmose, and his descendants, were able to forge a choice chariot corps.[i]

The Hyksos had been the mentors for the Egyptians in the arts of chariot construction and warfare. Afterwards, the Egyptians would obtain knowledge and techniques from the Canaanites, Mitanni, Syrians, and other Mesopotamian peoples. Ultimately the Egyptian chariot would evolve into its own distinctive and unique form, which would mirror its specialized battlefield role.

The centre of Anatolia in the Bronze Age was the foundation and hub of the Hittite Empire, it was known as Hatti to all the predominant peoples of the time. Throughout Hittite history there was a constant lust for expansion which brought them into conflict primarily with Mittani and thee Egyptians with the focus of this conflict remaining in Syria and the greater Levant. During this time the Hittites were known for their innovation in iron work and primarily for their proficiency and capability for constructing and handling chariots.

Egyptian chariots were of lightweight maneuverable and stable pieces if equipment. Put side by side with the other chariots of the day the Egyptian chariot gave the impression that it was somewhat fragile even rickety and unfit for the battlefield. The appearance of the Egyptian chariot is somewhat deceiving; while the heavy Hittite chariot was designed for the charge and concentrated close combat. The Egyptian chariot was designed of reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, counter attack, and the massive deployment of archers to strategic positions on the battleground and was manned by a lightly armored charioteer-shield bearer and another warrior armed with a composite bow, several short spears and a heavy side arm called a khopesh (sickle sword)[ii].

Unlike the Egyptian chariot’s apparent unbalanced and lightweight appearance, it was extremely stable. Both wheels were fastened together with the axle by a small lynch pin, in addition to this secured by a tough and flexible thong that passed all the way through to the lower end. Created from specifically chosen pieces of ash or tamarind wood, and painstakingly covered in birch-bark the entire axle was positioned as close to the rear as possible. Having a large, strong, and heavy axle so far back balanced the lightweight vehicle with the hoses and crew; this seriously improved the speed and maneuverability of the chariot. The Egyptian engineers also designed the chariot to have a very wide wheel track, produced to be much longer than the width of the cab, this gave the chariot enhanced permanence and steadiness while making sharp turns, moreover the wide wheel track provided maximum shock absorption over difficult terrain. The wide wheel track and axle suited the Egyptian battle chariot for almost any kind of situation and terrain the ancient Middle East to through its way[iii].

The Heavy Hittite chariot was not suited of the sandy deserts and uneven grounds which typified Egypt and Canaan. The Egyptian chariot was lightweight, strong and flexible making it perfect for unpredictable terrain. According to Rovetta et al. “…the wheels are flexible with respect to the body and offer a high degree of functionalism vis-à-vis bending and perturbations due to ground irregularities. The wheels are elastic because the rims and spokes are elastic thus offering a remarkable level of comfort during both slow and fast motion. The coupling between wheel and the axle is built with low friction durable bearings. When the outer surface of chariot axles and the internal surface of the bearings are in wood, animal grease, which reduces friction and increases running duration, has been used. Chariots with wooden axles and internal hub surfaces covered by metal are more durable with increased mechanical resistance.”[iv] The engineers who made them used this system of loose tolerances so that in the field they would be able to navigate over diverse terrain features without causing a without the danger of adverse effects such as loosing control and ejection as well as allowing archers to maintain aim in battle.

Hittite chariots are fundamentally known through the Kadesh reliefs (made by the Egyptians)[v]; which illustrate the axle passing underneath the center of a hefty well-built cab, giving it further stability. The box shaped cab’s axle was not situated in the rear as was the norm with Canaanite, Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian chariots. Furthermore the draught pole continues from the front to the rear of the cab making the structure tremendously well built and sturdy facilitating the chariot’s capacity to carry a crew of three. The crew consisted of an unarmed charioteer and a shield-bearer/spearman who were both armored in light textile armor and an un-shielded heavily armored warrior caring a long thrusting spear. They would have also had available side arms for such as axes and maces[vi].

The Hittite chariot was first and foremost designed for the charge, and close combat using the sheer weight of the vehicle to shatter through lines of peasant infantry. Coming in strong, their goal was to mutilate and overwhelm their victims in the initial collision, and then continue the attack at close quarters; taking full advantage of the initial shock as well as the elevation and weight benefit which the crew of three would benefit from in order to cause the hapless enemy to flee causing a gap in the line that the rest of the Hittite army could pour into resulting in victory.

During the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the great king of all the Hittites, Suppalliliumus, marched into the Levant to do battle with the Pharaoh. However, Akhenaten dropped dead, and the Egyptians sued for peace offering Akhenaten’s daughter in marriage to Suppalliliumus’s son as an incentive for peace. With this offer, the Hittites withdrew, however, the Egyptians broke the truce rather preemptively and killed Suppalliliumus’s son before he was able to claim his bride. Because of this treachery, war broke out and continued primarily though Egyptian and Hittite raids upon one another.

The ultimate result was the battle of Kadesh. The great Pharaoh Ramesses II was fixated on destroying the army of the Hittite King Muwatallish. Both armies relied on the chariot divisions as the main striking force, with masses of infantry fallowing in support. As Ramessess’ army marched into central Syria, where the Hittite force lay in wait behind the fortified city of Kadesh, where the Egyptian Army began to make camp along the banks of the river Orontes. The Hittite army dashed across the river and the chariot charge overran the Egyptian division setting camp. The Hittite chariots were able to charge across the plain, and with help from yet another chariot arm were able to devastate another Egyptian regiment. Despite this, Ramesses and his personal division of chariots were able to maneuver out of harms way and regroup and adapt to the situation allowing him to counterattack and route the Hittite chariots. Afterwards, a non aggression treaty was put into effect; a testimony that neither side emerged dominant. However, the Egyptian’s version of the battle is not completely backed by the Hittite accounts; this has led to countless disagreements over the battles results. According to Antonio Santosuosso “…to argue that Ramesses lost at Kadesh is probably going too far. At least initially, he must have remained master of the battlefield, which meant, according to most periods, that he was the winner”[vii] Nevertheless, the fact remains that solely on the Egyptian chariots ability to adapt and maneuver prevented their utter annihilation.
It is apparent that the strategies employed by the Egyptians, to counter the chariots of the other super powers, were well developed and quite sophisticated by the height of the New Kingdom. In particular they were deliberately constructed in a lightweight way so they could take full advantage of speed, flexibility and maneuverability using techniques that until recently were thought too advanced for the ancients. Rovetta et al. says that “These chariots appear to be the first mechanical systems involving the use of kinematics, dynamics and lubrication principles.”[viii] In short, these machines were advanced for their time. In contrast the Hittite chariot was designed for the flat lands of Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Taking full advantage of the unobstructed countryside, the chariot could use its weight to its maximum advantage, allowing momentum and acceleration to build up so that it could plow through the enemies’ lines causing it to break. As effective as this was, this specialized role did not allow it to have the versatility of the Egyptian chariot. The ability of the Egyptian chariot to adapt to the situation and the landscape allowed it to take full advantage of its own characteristics making it the superior machine of war. The Egyptian chariot’s characteristics of speed, maneuverability, durability, and most importantly its ability to adapt, made it the superior machine of war.
[i] Watkins, Trevor. Warfare In The Ancient World. Facts On File (1989): pp. 29

[ii] Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. Osprey Publishing (2006): pp. 14

[iii] Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. Osprey Publishing (2006): pp. 16

[iv] Alberto Rovetta, Iskander Nasry and Abeer Helmi. The chariots of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tut Ankh Amun in 1337 : kinematics and dynamics. Mechanism and Machine Theory, Vol. 35, Issue 11 (Nov., 2000), pp. 1014

[v] Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. Osprey Publishing (2006): pp. 19

[vi] Watkins, Trevor. Warfare In The Ancient World. Facts On File (1989): pp. 34

[vii] Santosuosso, Antonio. Kadesh Revisited: Reconstructing the Battle Between the Egyptians and the Hittites. The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 444

[viii] Alberto Rovetta, Iskander Nasry and Abeer Helmi. The chariots of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tut Ankh Amun in 1337 : kinematics and dynamics. Mechanism and Machine Theory, Vol. 35, Issue 11 (Nov., 2000), pp. 1030

Fields, Nic. Bronze Age War Chariots. Osprey Publishing (2006): pp. 1-22

Santosuosso, Antonio. Kadesh Revisited: Reconstructing the Battle Between the Egyptians and the Hittites. The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 423-444

Watkins, Trevor. Warfare In The Ancient World. Facts On File (1989): pp. 15-35

Alberto Rovetta, Iskander Nasry and Abeer Helmi. The chariots of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tut Ankh Amun in 1337 : kinematics and dynamics. Mechanism and Machine Theory, Vol. 35, Issue 11 (Nov., 2000), pp. 1013-1031

( all miniatures are 28mm foundry egyptians)

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