Warfare in Ancient Egypt: Chariots, Archers, and Infantry

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Egyptian pharaohs began their reign by war to expand the territory and gain booty. Warfare in ancient Egypt was not a tool to protect the country; it was a value that brought respect and support for the king. They learned about war from their destinations and tried to make every war more fruitful. Read on to learn about their strategies and beliefs.

Carved stone frieze showing Ancient Egyptians in a battle at Ramesseum, west banks of the Nile at Luxor, Egypt.
Warfare was one of the most important things in ancient Egypt, so Egypt was one of the first countries to have a standing army. (Image: BasPhoto/Shutterstock)

A vital activity of any king was warfare in ancient Egypt. An army had to march wherever they could, fight, get whatever they can, and come back with booty. In the XVIIIth Dynasty, a standing army became an important part of the war, along with chariots and archers. Egyptians were lucky to be able to afford a standing army. The Nile’s abundance was the first reason why Egypt could have a standing army. They could grow more food than they needed and feed an army.

Tuthmosis III

The photograph shows ancient Egyptian relief.
The writings on the walls of temples show a lot about warfare in ancient Egypt, including the shape of the shields. (Image: Nagib/Shutterstock)

Tuthmosis III was the greatest military king of Egypt. He started ruling after his aunt and stepmother, Queen Hatshepsut. He had to wait a long time before he could rule, and some suspect that Hatshepsut was keeping him away from the throne. She called herself a King, built some of the greatest obelisks Egypt had ever seen and ruled for several years.

Hatshepsut had a daughter who died at an early age. However, Tuthmosis III married her before she died, and her purely royal blood made him the fully righteous king of Egypt. Still, he had to wait until Hatshepsut died. What was he doing all the time that Hatshepsut was the king? A reasonable theory is that Tuthmosis III was sent for military training when Hatshepsut was ruling.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Chariots in Egyptian Army

The equipment that the army needed began from spears and evolved as Egyptians raided more and more countries. They discovered an important thing from the Hyksos, with whom they had numerous wars: the horse-drawn chariot. They were very light structures and were drawn by two horses to make them as maneuverable as possible. Horses were not initially elements of an Egyptian army. Thus, they never cared if the horses’ colors matched or not.

The chariots were made of three different kinds of wood. One kind needed to be flexible enough to bend and make wheels. Next, they needed a strong but slightly flexible kind for the axles. The chariots were, like everything else, handmade. They broke a lot due to the uneven ground and their light structure. Thus, an army needed many carpenters to fix the chariots when they broke. The chariots were expensive, high-maintenance vehicles, but very important.

The Egyptians used the chariots mainly for archers. An archer would stand on the chariot as it speeded through the field toward the enemy to shoot the arrows. He was not the one who controlled the chariot, a driver did that. So, each chariot carried two people.

Naturally, it was a difficult task to hit the target with the arrow as the horses were pulling the chariot on bumpy fields. There were no shock absorbers, but they needed to help the archer gain a bit of stability. Thus, they used strips of woven leather to make the platform. The leather platform could not absorb the shocks really, but it could make the archer feel them a bit more smoothly.

The charioteer also tried to control the chariot and give the archer the best shooting positions. The charioteers were the elite and not the largest body of the army.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought.

The Infantry in Egyptian Army

The infantry was the largest body of an army. Since they were walking forces, they set the pace of the whole army. The infantry could cover about 15 miles a day. Every infantryman had a round-topped shield. On the temple walls, soldiers with round-topped shields were the good Egyptian soldiers, and the rest were enemies.

The photo shows the sword of the pharaoh of ancient Egypt, isolated on white background.
The infantry usually fought with a spear, a sword, or both. They were the walking part of the army and the pacemakers. (Image: Kuki Ladron de Guevara/Shutterstock)

When the army camped, the infantrymen would stick the shields in the ground, forming like a picket fence all around their encampment. They used spears or swords for fighting and were usually illiterate. The archers had much more training but also marched with the infantry.

Warfare in ancient Egypt was a significant business, and Egyptians cared a lot for what they could get from other territories and bring back home.

Learn more about the rise of the Old Kingdom.

Common Questions about Warfare in Ancient Egypt

Q: What was the ancient Egyptian view of war?

Warfare in ancient Egypt was one of the most important values. They had no interest in peace, and a king that attacked more regions and brought back more booty was more respected and successful.

Q: How did the Hyksos influence ancient Egyptian warfare?

Ancient Egyptians learned how to use chariots in battles from the Hyksos.

Q: Why did the Egyptians attack neighboring regions?

Egyptians valued attacking others and gaining loot to bring back home. Thus, warfare in ancient Egypt was among the most important issues a king had to take care of.

Q: What were the Egyptian chariots made of?

Chariots were among the most important elements of warfare in ancient Egypt. They were made of wood and leather, and needed fixing all the time as they could easily break during a battle.

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