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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
I know the name of the world’s first horse-whisperer: Kikkuli. He was from Mitanni, in what is present day Syria. And about 1345 B.C.E. the new Hittite King Suppiliuma found Kikkui training horses in the Beqaa Valley, and hired him to modernize his army. At the time, horses were very high tech.
See, in North America the horse went extinct with its ice age compatriots the Woolly Mammoth and the giant sloth, while in EurAsia the horse survived. And the only difference between the two environments was that in EurAsia humans invented the wheel.
A wheel can reduce the energy required to drag your belongings across the ground by a factor of twenty-five, if the ground is fairly flat and not too rocky, like the steppes north of the Caspian Sea. That makes an expensive horse a reasonable investment And a clue to the importance of the wheel for the horse is that its Proto-Indo-European root word, “kwel”, (to revolve) can be traced directly back at least 8,000 years to the grasslands right where the archeological evidence indicates the horse was first put before the cart. And the first great empire to perfect the use of the horse and cart in war was the bad boys of the Bronze Age, the Hittites.
Nobody knows where the Hittites originally came from. They invaded Anatolia (central Turkey) about 3,800 years ago. They brutally conquered the real Hittites, replaced their royal family, enslaved their population, adopted much of their culture and language and even co-opted their name. These guys were paranoid in the extreme.
They built their new capital of Hattusa away from any major roads, and three miles from the nearest navigable river, to make it as difficult as possible on an attacker. And they cultivated a reputation for violence and vengence, as when they sacked Babylon in 1660 B.C.E. in a sudden and brutal surprise attack. The key to their military power was their use of the chariot. And the Kings of Hattusa intended upon extending that advantage.
Kikkuli, the self-billed “master horse trainer” wrote one of the first training manuals in history, four cunnuform tablets detailing a 75 day training regimine for chariot horses. Now, a dedicated chariot horse is very expensive to maintain. They have to be endlessly trained, pampered and exercised to remain in a state of readiness. And like a modern battle tank, the bronze age chariot was fragile to travel long distances by iteslf. It had to be carried to the scene of battle. And for more than a three hundred years the competing powers of the the Middle East, Egypt and the Hitties, defined themselves by their fleets of chaiots, in much the same way that later generatiotions would use battleships.
The function of the chariot – fron the Gaulic word “carrus”, meaning a car - was to suddenly deliver the bow or spearman to within killing range of the enemy, and just as quickly withdraw him back to safety. The Hittite chariot, a “triga”, was pulled by two horses. The designers had lightened the wheels by reducing the spokes from eight to four. But they offset this weakening by moving the axel from the back to the center, stabalizing the fightiing platform. They made use of the weight savings by adding a third man to the “car”; driver, spear-or-bowman, and shield man. Kikkuli had given the Hitties a lead on developing the chariot’s powerplant. But, as any weapons’ designer can tell you, in the world of high tech, all advantages are transitory
The border between the two powers was a small city on the upper Orontes River in Syria, known as Kadesh (or Qadesh). The lands to the south were controlled by the Egyptians, ruled in 1274 B.C. by Ramsses II. He intended upon capturing Kadesh and moving the border further north. He was leading 37,000 infantry and almost 2,000 chariots. His army was divided into the Amun, Ra, Seth and Ptah divisions of about 10,000 infantry and 500 chariots each. And as he approached Kadesh, Ramses learned that the Hittites were still to the north. He decided to exploit this tardiness by leading his Amun division on an overnight forced march, across the Orontes River by dawn. Before noon Ramsses had established a siege camp just north of the city, isolating Kadash from the main Hittite army. Or so he thought.
As his men were fortifying the camp, his scouts brought in two Hittite soldiers. And after some enhanced interrogation, Ramsses learned that the entire Hittite army was lurking just over the next hill. He had been duped. The following Re division had just crossed the Orontes River, while the other half of his army was still on the south bank. Ramsses barely had time to consider the scope of his predicament, when the Hittites fell upon the Re division. They caught it still in marching column and shattered it in a single charge. Twenty per cent of Pharos’s army had been destroyed in the opening moments of the battle.
Then the Hittite chariots and infantry fell upon the Amun division’s camp. They smashed through the half built defenses. Slowly the Amun infantry were constrained and slaughtered, while the Amun chariots, surrounding Ramsses, were forced to pull back.
Meanwhile still more Hittite chariots and infantry had crossed the Orontes River and were pummeling the unprepared Seth division. It looked as if Ramsses’ over confidence had destroyed his entire army. Two things saved him. First there was his own courage. Surrounded by battered, confused and defeated men, Ramsses led his chariots on repeated counter charges against his own camp. And second, by accident or design, this played into the strengths of the Egyptian chariot, which was based on a different design than the Hittite one.
The Egyptian chariot was a “biga”, and carried just two men; the driver and the spear/ bowman. This made the lighter Egyptian chariots nimble and quick. And Ramsses used that speed and maneuverability to repeatedly throw his men at the exhausted and disorganized Hittite troops, while avoiding getting too close.
By late in the afternoon, after six charges, Ramsses had managed to cut down the Hittite strength, fight his way clear of the Hittite chariots, re-cross the Orontes River and rejoin what was left of his army.
It had been the biggest chariot battle in history, with 6,000 carts and some 36,000 trained horses wheeling back and forth across the plain before Kadesh.
When he got back to Egypt, Ramsses II wrote his own version of the battle on his temple walls. In this comic book version he humiliated the Hittites. But the treaty which ended the war (and this is the first international treaty we have copies of from both sides) shows that Kadesh remained part of the Hittite Empire. At best Ramsses had fought the Hittites to a draw. However,…
Hittite causalities were so high that just a century after the battle of Kadesh, in about 1160 B.C.E., the strain of maintaining order tore the empire asunder. A civil war broke out in the Hittite royal family. And in the middle of the night, the mysterious Hittite rulers stripped Hattusa of all its wealth, burned the palaces and temples to their very foundations, and then faded into the dark corners of history from which they had come. There is no record of where they went, or what they became.
It was not until 1906, when German archeologists first uncovered the city, and began reading the 30,000 soot stained cuneiform tablets which had been left behind in Hattusa. Among the tablets were Kikkuli’s book on the care and feeding of chariot horses, and the Hittite copy of the treaty of Kadesh, and the only independent report detailing the Trojan War. And it was through those tablets that the Hittite Empire was resurrected, along with missing details of the history of humans and the horse.