The Hittites' fast war chariots threatened mighty Egypt

Rolling over enemies, the Hittite fleet looked unstoppable when they fought Egypt in the biggest chariot battle known to history.

By Luis Alberto Ruiz
Published 4 May 2020, 15:18 BST
The Lion Gate was one of the entrances to Hattusa, the Hittite capital city. Following its ...
The Lion Gate was one of the entrances to Hattusa, the Hittite capital city. Following its destruction
in the early 14th century B.C., Hattusa was rebuilt and fortified under King Suppiluliumas I.
Photograph by Aul Williams, Alamy, ACI

For an Egyptian noble, living in or just after the time of Ramses II, the truth must have seemed clear and simple. In a heroic push to regain their former imperial lands in Syria, their great pharaoh had waged war against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh in 1275 B.C., and had won a resounding victory.

Ramses was as much a master of public relations as he was of war, and historians now know that the Battle of Kadesh was not a definitive victory over the Hittites. It was almost certainly a draw. As masters of an empire that stretched through much of modern Turkey to parts of Syria, the Hittites were a worthy, formidable opponent. Based in their fortified capital of Hattusa (about 130 miles east of Ankara, Turkey, today), they rose to regional dominance in part because of their mastery of the chariot. Facing ranks of thousands of their chariots at Kadesh was certainly something for Ramses the Great to boast about.

The official Egyptian record of the “victory,” the Poem of Pentaur, was inscribed on Ramses’ temples, including Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. The poem recounts how the Hittite king Muwatallis II “had sent men and horses, multitudinous as the sands … The charioteers of His Majesty [Ramses] were discomfited before them, but His Majesty stood firm.”

The battle between the Hittites and the Egyptians is regarded by historians as the largest chariot battle in history. The extraordinary clash would maintain the Hittites as major regional players for years to come.

A relief from Abu Simbel tells the story of the Battle of Kadesh. Pharoah Ramses II can be seen firing arrows from his chariot (top left) surrounded by swarms of smaller attacking Hittite charioteers.

Photograph by Araldo de Luca

Fall and rise

Many scholars believe the ancestors of the Hittite people originally lived in central Asia before relocating to Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the third millennium B.C. The area was already inhabited by people known as Hattians and Hurrians who spoke different languages than the newcomers. The Hittite language belonged to the Indo-European family of languages, the group to which many of the world’s spoken languages belong.

By the 17th century B.C., the Hittites were emerging as a growing military power under King Labarnas I. His son, Labarnas II, enshrined the capital city at the already established site of Hattusa, changing his name to Hattusilis in honour of the new royal seat. While his father had strengthened the Hittite state, Hattusilis expanded out to the edge of the Mitanni empire, a Hurrian-speaking power to the east.

After Hattusilis’ territorial expansion came a contraction and civil wars. As the Hittite princes squabbled over succession, their enemies were able to conquer Hattusilis’ hard-won conquests.

An edict by the 16th-century B.C. king Telepinus standardized Hittite royal succession. The law also included an account of ancient Hittite kings, a valuable future source for historians studying Hittite culture. Despite Telepinus’s attempt to restore order and return strength to the Hittites, several weak leaders followed his reign during this period, which historians call the Hittite Old Kingdom. (Ancient pollen provides clues as to why the Hittite kingdom collapsed.)

A driver riding a two-horse chariot appears atop this Assyrian vessel made in the 19th century B.C. Archaeological Museum, Ankara, Turkey

Photograph by Dea, Album

In the 15th century B.C., Pharaoh Thutmose III had become Egypt’s great empire builder, extending Egyptian control further and further east into Syria. When the Mitanni entered into an alliance with the Egyptians in the early 14th century B.C., the beleaguered Hittite kings grew uneasy at this new relationship.

Beset on all sides, the Hittites could have fallen, but a strong ruler raised them up. Suppiluliumas I enjoyed a long reign (1380-1346 B.C.) and helped turn the Hittites into a new imperial force. Exploiting Mitanni weakness, Suppiluliumas conquered northern Syria and installed his sons as kings of Aleppo and Karkemish.

Opening with Suppiluliumas’s reign and continuing with his heirs, a three-way power struggle developed with Egypt and the rising power of Assyria to the east. In the decades that followed, the Hittites owed their military successes to their mastery of the war chariot.

Wheeled victories

The earliest chariots appeared in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C. They were very different from the familiar horse-drawn vehicles seen in ancient Greece and Rome. Early prototypes often had four solid wheels, and their main purpose was for use in parades and funerary rites. These vehicles were not pulled by horses, but by oxen and other draft animals, or equids such as donkeys or mules. The Standard of Ur, a casket from the Sumerian city of Ur dating to around 2600 B.C., features a chariot that looks like a solid-wheeled wagon pulled by either mules or donkeys.

A detail from the Standard of Ur casket depicts a driver of a Sumerian chariot with solid wooden wheels. This early form of the chariot would come to dominate Bronze Age warfare.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

The beginning of the second millennium B.C. was a period of rapid change for chariot building. In this period, the horse was first used as a draft animal, and wheels became increasingly spoked, and therefore much lighter. The advances in speed and mobility that resulted from these innovations led to the chariot becoming essential military equipment in the Bronze Age. (Constantinople's chariot races were all the rage in the Roman Empire.)

Two-wheeled models were acquired for military use by the leading powers of the day, including the Egyptians and the Hittites. In 1650 B.C., during the siege of a city called Urshu, the Hittite king Hattusilis mentions 30 Hittite chariots ranged against 80 chariots belonging to his Hurrian enemies. The Hittite fleet of chariots would grow exponentially in subsequent centuries, from tens to hundreds, and later, to thousands.

Anatolian techniques of bending and shaping wood helped the Hittites develop sophisticated two-wheeled models. The imperial-era Hittites left little illustrative evidence behind of such vehicles (although, following the collapse of the Hittite Empire, craftsmen in surviving Hittite enclaves did leave artworks that depict chariots). Other evidence tells historians that by the 17th century B.C., Hittite chariots had developed lighter wheels.

Unlike Egyptian two-man chariots, the Hittite model could carry three people: the driver, a warrior armed with lances or bow and arrows, and a shield bearer. The latter was tethered to the back section of the carriage, lending stability during tight maneuvers. (Watch archaeologists uncover an ancient mosaic of a chariot race.)

Chariot diplomacy

Advances in Hittite chariot design coincided with the rise of the Hittite Empire as a powerful player in the eastern Mediterranean. Able to mount rapid surprise attacks, chariots played a key role in King Suppiluliumas I’s conquests of Syria and the forging of Hittite regional supremacy in the 14th century B.C.

One sign that the Hittites had returned as major players in the region was a letter from an Egyptian queen to Suppiluliumas I. The pharaoh had recently died (scholars believe it was most likely Tutankhamun, but it could have been his father, Akhenaten). She asked him to send one of his sons in marriage. Unfortunately for Hittite-Egyptian relations, the son, when he arrived, was killed by an Egyptian faction who opposed the queen.

A king hunts from a chariot, as depicted on a golden plate from Ugarit, a Syrian kingdom with close ties to the Hittites. 15th or 14th Century B.C., Louvre Museum, Paris
Photograph by Dagli Orti, Aurimages

Hittites recorded this offence in one of the “plague prayers” inscribed during the rule of Suppiluliumas’s successor, Mursilis II. The words show the central role chariots played in both the war and regional diplomacy that followed:

My father sent infantry and chariot fighters and they attacked the border territory. And, moreover, he sent (more troops); and again, they attacked. [The] men of Egypt became afraid. They came, and they asked my father outright for his son for kingship. And when they led him away, they killed him. And my father became angry, and he went into Egyptian territory, and he attacked the infantry and chariot fighters of Egypt.

Suppiluliumas was killed by plague, as the existence of the plague poems indicates. His son Mursilis II took the throne, but his reign was overshadowed by pestilence. Although he had to put down constant challenges to his rule, he passed on a stable and expanding empire to his son, who would play a fateful role in Hittite history. The new king was Muwatallis II, who faced Ramses II at Kadesh in 1275 B.C.

Biggest battle

The site of the city of Kadesh lies near Homs in western Syria. In 1275 B.C. it was held by the Hittites. By taking it, Ramses would neutralise the Hittite threat to his northern sphere of interest, and claim the territories once captured by Thutmose III, and since lost.

The Egyptian sources for the battle recount how Ramses’ army had been misled into believing the Hittites were far away. On approaching the city, the Egyptians were surprised by the enemy who were concealed behind the town.

Some 3,000 Hittite chariots and 40,000 foot soldiers smashed into the smaller Egyptian force, which was scattered by the charge. The Egyptian record of the battle uses the imagery of massed chariots to highlight Ramses’ heroic solitude at this moment: “There is no one at my side . . . But I find that [the god] Amun’s grace is better far to me than ten thousand chariots.”

The bronze Hittite bridle clip, depicting a man and a horse, is from the 19th century B.C. Louvre, Paris.
Photograph by Dea, Album

Ramses rallied his forces and managed to fight the battle to a respectable draw, later claiming victory. Despite the boastful claims of his Abu Simbel reliefs, the Hittites continued to dominate Syria. In 1258 B.C., in another sign of Hittite regional strength, Ramses concluded a peace treaty with them. In 1245 B.C. he married a Hittite princess. (Their wedding was one of the biggest in Egyptian history.)

The Hittite Empire would decline in the 12th century B.C., but the precise cause is unknown. Some archaeologists believe the Sea Peoples, a loose confederation of maritime powers, were responsible. The Hittite Empire fell, although remnants of Hittite rule continued in enclaves such as Karkemish, known by historians as the neo-Hittite kingdoms. (The mysterious Sea Peoples were just some of the pirates who roamed the ancient Mediterranean.)

While Egyptologists had built up a complex picture of the millennial pharaonic culture, Hattusa was only excavated beginning in the early 20th century. The discoveries of Hittite texts have helped give historians an entirely different, more balanced perspective on the Battle of Kadesh.


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