During the Second Intermediate Period 1700-1550 BC, the Hyksos introduced horses in ancient Egypt to ancient Egyptian culture. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of horses from Avaris, the Hyksos capital in the northeast region of the Nile Delta, and in Buhen, a settlement on the west bank of the Nile Delta.
These discoveries are the earliest evidence of horses in ancient Egypt. Historically, horses were used in battle as early as the 17th Dynasty and following the invasion of the Hyksos during the period known as the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt.
Further evidence in ancient Egyptian history indicates the Sudanese kingdom of Kush became known for its ability to raise and use horses for agriculture and in battle. Examples within ancient Egyptian literature show that Egyptian pharaohs were interested in horses for ceremonial and combat purposes, going so far as placing mummified horses in tombs on the west banks of the Nile.
The horse was not indigenous to ancient Egypt, and the precise date of the domestication of the horse in Egypt is unknown. Historical notations indicate that the horse first arrived in Egypt with the invasion of the Hyksos, who arrived in the Nile Delta from the Levant in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Hyksos aim was to dominate the region and sought grazing pasture for their cattle upon their arrival in approximately 1600 BC. A hundred years later, these newcomers had lived in the region for long enough and gained political power throughout the region.
During this time, the two culturally different people, the Hyksos and the ancient Egyptians, shared cultural practices and rituals. While the Egyptian rulers held control of Thebes, the Hyksos established their fortified capital in the Delta, dominating the ancient capital and city of Memphis and establishing ties with the kingdom of Kush. Due to their mastery of the horse and battle techniques using a chariot, the Hyksos were extremely difficult to remove from Egypt.
Ancient Egypt Horses
Horses were rarely employed for labor in Ancient Egypt but instead were viewed as a symbol of royal authority and heroic acts in times of upheaval. Rameses II’s two horses were referred to as “Victory in Thebes” and “Mut is pleased” on the Kadesh Inscription, a hieroglyphic depiction of the Battle of Kadesh.
The monarch gave these animals names that refer to ancient Egyptian gods indicates how important they were to the royal family. It also demonstrates how, even though horses were not associated with religion, they were respected by the ancient pharaohs enough to be associated with the gods.
Though likely an exaggeration, in a retelling of the life of pharaoh Rameses II, he informs his officers that his horses would be dining with him since they acted nobler than they did in battle. This demonstrates the degree of attention paid to these animals by ancient Egyptian royals. For many years, pharaohs were the only members of the Egyptian population that could afford to have and keep horses.
Similarly, Pharaoh Amenhotep II’s Sphinx Stela depicts an event where he is shooting at a target from his chariot atop a trained horse. Depictions of horses in ancient Egyptian art and storytelling suggest that they were a highly beloved animal and an essential component of royal life.
Acquiring and maintaining horses in ancient Egypt was a difficult task in an environment where horses were not meant to thrive. Horses were also seen as essential in ancient Egyptian combat since they were used to draw chariots in battle.
The skeleton remains of a horse dating from the Middle Kingdom have been unearthed in archaeological excavations. The horse skeleton discovered at Buhen may date from that period, about between 2055 and 1650 BC.
Numerous horse graves have been found in Tell El-Dab’a, the Hyksos capital of Avaris’s location. Unlike donkeys, which were utilized for agricultural labor, horses were primarily used as status symbols for hunting, fighting, and ceremonial processions. They were nearly seldom ridden but were almost always employed to pull chariots. However, in New Kingdom war scenes, troops are occasionally pictured mounted on them.
Ancient Egypt Chariots
Horses were only helpful in battle if they were able to fight on a level battlefield. Except for the flattest terrain, the lightweight, high-speed chariots used by the Hyksos proved highly hazardous.
A herd of charging horses could quickly become uncontrolled, risking the lives of anyone who would participate in chariot races or horseback riding in ancient Egypt for sport.
The Egyptians employed chariots that were light and swift. The ancient Egyptian chariot was comprised of two wheels and was drawn by two horses. Two men, a driver, and the warrior rode in the chariot. Additionally, there is evidence that the chariot was utilized as a mode of transportation for royalty and was a popular component in hunting.
The design of the ancient Egyptian chariot evolved from previous concepts of vehicles with disk or crossbar wheels. Initially, chariots were primarily used for transportation. Chariots were first used for military reasons following technical advancements to their structure. Around 1500 BC, the Egyptians created the yoke saddle for their chariot horses.
Chariots were effective because of their superior speed, mobility, and strength, which military infantry could not match at the time. They soon established themselves as a formidable new weapon across the ancient Egyptian world. The six chariots from Tutankhamun’s tomb are the best surviving examples of Egyptian chariots.
Due to their value in royal culture, in battle, and hunting purposes, breeding horses became a common practice in ancient Egypt. Horses were probably too valuable to risk in the early years of their arrival in Egypt; thus, they were utilized extremely cautiously until supply expanded.
Domestication of the Egyptian Horse
For the Egyptian aristocracy, the pharaoh’s horses quickly became a much-loved and respected animal. The horses initially imported to Egypt were smaller than those we are familiar with now, such as Arabian horses.
Horses in Egypt were not suited for labor during the prolonged droughts, and for this reason, horses would not replace oxen as agricultural labor animals for another two millennia. It was partly owing to the lack of equipment and tools needed primarily for domesticated horses to be introduced into agriculturally heavy labor.
The Egyptians also placed too much emphasis on the horse’s speed to put it to work right away, viewing the animal as better suited for sport and battle environments. Pharaohs were able to provide the stables and means to take care of horses, and thus it was more likely to see them for ceremonial purposes.
As the more maneuverable rider gained popularity in opposition to the chariot as a weapon of war, historical accounts detail the prowess of African horsemen. A group of riders known as the Berber peoples remained strongly linked with breeding horses and riding, and multiple recovered pieces of rock art have been attributed to Berber riders or their sight.
Depictions of Horses in Egyptian Art
Some of the most famous depictions of horses have been rediscovered in Saharan rock art. These examples often include descriptions of chariot teams. These unique paintings include one or more horses driving a chariot aiming at a target or galloping into a battle.
By the 11th century BC, Egyptian records show that Libyans, those who lived on the north African coast in modern Egypt and Libya, used chariots in warfare. Later historical sources reveal that the far western Sahara peoples used the Garamantes’ chariots well into the 1st century BC. By this time, the chariot horse had become a customary animal used in battle and for warfare.
There are several paintings and engravings showing humans riding horses throughout northern Africa. Riding may have existed from the dawn of the domestication of the Egyptian horse. Furthermore, Horses and riders are depicted in rock art in various locations throughout Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan.
Horses were brought into Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, around 1700-1550 BC. The first proof of the existence of horses in Egypt dates was from about 2000 BC, in the shape of a horse sculpture. Between the years 2000 and 1200, archaeological evidence suggests two distinct types of horses.
On the one hand, there is the so-called “Egyptian” horse, the horse brought to Africa by the Hyksos, and on the other, there is the indigenous small-sized horse found across the North and West. Egyptian horses, which were very certainly identical to those found in the Near East, were relatively tiny compared to modern horses and were documented in various colors such as brown, reddish, etc.
The history of horses in ancient Egypt tells the story of how the ancient Egyptians were able to adapt and make use of the introduction of a foreign animal within their country.
Though horses were not native to Egypt and were unable to assist with the labor needed to perform for agricultural cultivation, ancient Egyptian pharaohs kept horses as symbols of their wealth and power, going so far as to have mummified horses with them in their tombs.
Later, when traveling to conquer territories beyond Egypt, horses became vital in securing victories for the ancient pharaohs. Want to know more? Below is a summary of 5 things to know about Egyptian horses.
We’ve covered a lot of history about Horses in Ancient Egypt. Let’s review four important facts about the ancient history and use of horses in ancient Egypt:
- Horses were only attainable to the rich since they were so expensive to purchase and maintain.
- Horses were rarely ridden instead of being used to pull chariots or carts. The Egyptians utilized mules for transportation.
- Animals had a significant role in the ancient Egyptian faiths. While they did not worship the animals themselves, they would occasionally depict their different gods and goddesses with the heads of select animals of great power on their altars.
- Archaeological evidence of Arabian horses in the Middle East similar to current Arabians dates back 4,500 years and has been found in several locations, including Egypt.
Horses were used for many different reasons in ancient Egypt but most commonly in ceremonial sports and in battle. Would you ride a chariot pulled by ancient Egyptian horses?