Over three millennia before Hitler’s “lightning warfare,” chariot-borne Aryan warriors overran the ancient world.
The chariots of Mursilis I, grandson of the Hittite Empire’s founder, were nearing the end of their raid that had started nearly 1,000 miles away in central Anatolia. They had moved so fast, they outsped the news of their coming. The chariot-borne Hittites burst through the open gates of unsuspecting Babylon, sacked the greatest city in the world, and ended the ancient Mesopotamian dynasty founded by Hammurabi. It was an “Aryan blitzkrieg” – in 1595 B.C.
The innovative creation of the light two-wheeled chariot changed the world of the second millennia B.C. as much as the automobile revolutionized the 20th century. Although the horse-drawn chariot had existed previously, this new technologically advanced model was a marvel of construction that far outstripped anything before it. Combined with the more sophisticated training of the horse and the introduction of the powerful recurve bow, the new chariot was a lethal war machine that overran foot-soldier armies of the ancient world from Greece to India – much as Adolf Hitler’s German panzers employing blitzkrieg would do over 3,500 years later.
This ancient blitzkrieg arrived with its creators, an Indo-European people, whom it is more accurate to refer to by the far more ancient name “Aryan” – a term preserved in the name “Iran,” which the Persians have long called “Home of the Aryans.” These Aryan people had settled in what is today’s Transcaucasus, the wooded and rich lands of modern Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and northeastern Turkey. The region’s variety of trees provided wood with the special qualities needed to create the new lightweight, highly mobile chariot.
The Aryans appeared first as mercenaries hired by established kingdoms, where they were made important vassals and awarded estates that supported the great expense of chariots, horses and retainers. Aryan names may be among those of the Hyksos conquerors of a weakened Egypt beginning after 1700 B.C. The Hyksos were Semitic Amorites from Canaan, and even if there were no Aryans among them, they had fully absorbed the Aryan chariot technology. As time passed, however, evidence of an Aryan presence in Canaan and Syria became overwhelming, as indicated by the Aryan names of the rulers of the most important cities in these areas. The names invariably evoke the horse, chariot and war.
The early Aryans formed a symbiotic relationship with the Hurrians who inhabited eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. In the power vacuum left by the fall of Babylon, an Aryan warrior elite propelled the Hurrians into a powerful empire known as Mitanni around 1500 B.C. that would last several hundred years. Throughout the ancient Middle East, the Aryans comprised only a small ruling elite that eventually was absorbed by the masses they ruled. Yet even when the Aryan language was no longer spoken, Aryan influence on warfare continued, as evidenced in a preserved ancient handbook on the conditioning of chariot horses written by Kikkuli, “master trainer of the land of the Mitanni.” Found in the Hittite archives in Hittite and Akkadian translations from Hurrian, the book retains the technical Indo-European terms of the Aryan language.
Ironically, the only areas where the Aryans left a lasting linguistic and ethnic mark were those at the geographical extremes of Aryan expansion, Greece and India, where they apparently settled in large numbers. Around 1600 B. C., an estimated 100,000 Proto-Greek speakers crossed the Aegean Sea to overwhelm the small kingdoms of mainland Greece and found the civilization reflected in Homer’s works and the Greek Bronze Age. There, the Aryans’ sky gods eventually displaced the natives’ mother goddesses.
One of the few archaeological finds that can be dated to a specific event in Aryan history was the discovery of a collection of lapis lazuli cylinder seals in the ruins of the Greek Bronze Palace in Thebes – items considered appropriate royal gifts from one great king to another. The seals were from Babylon, and none were dated later than the Hittite sack of the city. Clearly, the seals were loot, carefully preserved in the Hittite treasury until they were sent as a gift to the powerful ruler of Thebes.
A century or so later, another large Aryan group arrived in India’s Indus River valley to begin a long conquest of the native Dravidian population. The event was immortalized in the Rig Vedas sacred texts. These epics mentioned the same Aryan sky gods worshipped in Mitanni as well as specific personal names. They also described the master horse trainer as a man of high prestige, using the same term given to Kikkuli of Mitanni. The conquerors throughout the Middle East and India were identified by the same name: the Marya, meaning the young warriors. In the Middle East these warriors were known by the Hurrian plural, Maryannu. The genetic evidence of the Aryan conquest of India is telling in the Hindu caste system. The higher, more light-skinned castes show the occurrence of European Y-chromosome DNA, while the mitochondrial DNA is native Dravidian. Apparently, Aryan conquerors arrived without their women and took native females as wives, cementing their control by imposing a caste system based on Aryan blood.
Four great kingdoms were recognized as the major powers at the height of the Bronze Age in the Middle East: Hatti (Hittites), Egypt, Mitanni, and Ahhiyawa (Achaea) in Greece. Mitanni and Achaea were both Aryan founded, and Hatti was heavily Aryan influenced; but all four kingdoms relied on Aryan chariot warfare as their means of gaining and holding power. The Egyptian 18th dynasty in Thebes under Pharaoh Ahmose I mastered chariot warfare so well that by circa 1535 B.C. it expelled the Hyksos – whose chariots had conquered Egypt two centuries earlier. As these four empires competed in the ensuing centuries, battles involving thousands of Aryan-style chariots were recorded.
The chariot’s supremacy in ancient warfare eventually faded with the collapse of the civilization of the Late Bronze Age and the arrival of the Iron Age. Yet massed charging chariots flying behind a rain of arrows were once a marvel of early military technology – and a terror to those in their path.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.