Who Were the Sea Peoples?

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Relief Depicting Captive Sea Peoples Peleset Prisoners from the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu

Of all the people of the ancient world, one of the most important but least known is a group collectively known as the “Sea Peoples.” The Sea Peoples were actually at least nine different groups who sacked countless cities and kingdoms in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean region from about 1220 BC until 1170 BC. Wherever the Sea Peoples went, destruction followed as the Hittite Empire, the wealthy city-state of Ugarit, and Mycenaean Greece were just some of the more important peoples who did not survive their attacks. Today, modern scholars know about the movement of the Sea Peoples, their names, and even the way they dressed from modern archaeological work and inscriptions from two Egyptian kings who recorded the attacks on their kingdoms, but even with that information there are still many questions surrounding these enigmatic ancient peoples.

Most difficult of all for modern scholars to answer is the question: who were the Sea Peoples? The question is difficult to answer for a number of reasons. First, none of the Sea Peoples tribes were literate when they embarked on their historic raids, so therefore there is no first person account that relates the various tribes’ origins. Second, since the Sea Peoples were actually several different tribes who only occasionally worked together before going their separate ways again, their origins can be found in multiple places. Still, thanks to the ancient Egyptian sources and work conducted by modern scholars, some reasonable conclusions can be drawn about the origins of the Sea Peoples. Most of the Sea Peoples tribes more than likely originated in Europe and many were therefore Indo-Europeans. More importantly, the names the Egyptians used to refer to the different Sea Peoples tribes provide even more clues that can help answer the question of their origins in Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

The Late Bronze Age System

When the Sea Peoples erupted on the historical scene in the late thirteenth century BC, the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean was quite a civilized and orderly place. Beginning around 1500 BC and lasting until the advent of the Sea Peoples, the major kingdoms of the region developed a global system that stretched from Egypt to Persia and from Anatolia down to the Arabian Peninsula. The kingdoms of Egypt, Mittani, Hatti, Babylon, and later Assyria and Alyshia comprised the core of this Late Bronze Age system, which modern scholars often term the “Great Powers Club.” [1]

The purpose of the Great Powers Club was similar to global systems from other periods in world history – it encouraged stability in the region and the development of wealth among member kingdoms through trade. The major powers used diplomacy to avoid major conflicts in order to keep the trade routes open, which led to the greatest period of international trade in the Bronze Age. [2] But the wealth and stability that the Great Powers Club brought to the ancient Near East proved to be ephemeral. As long-distance trade was being conducted in the region, numerous bands of warriors and pirates were making their way into the region from the western Mediterranean and Europe with only one thing on their minds – plunder.

The Collapse

Granite Statue of Ramesses III Being Crowned by the Gods Horus and Seth

The origins of the historical context in which the Sea Peoples arrived on the scene in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean are just as enigmatic as the genesis of the various tribes. The collapse of the Bronze Age is difficult for people today to contemplate, but experts of the period have claimed that it was arguably the worst disaster in the ancient world, even more so than the downfall of the Roman Empire. [3] Most scholars are in agreement with Drews that the collapse of the Bronze Age was a catastrophe like none other, but disagreements persist concerning what brought about the collapse.

One early theory was that a series of deadly earthquakes caused widespread destruction throughout the region, which displaced the Sea Peoples, who then took advantage of the situation. The theory sounds plausible, but there is little textual evidence to support this theory – no Hittite, Egyptian, or Ugaritic texts mention any significant earthquakes during this period. Also, as Drews points out, the lack of technology during the Bronze Age would have inhibited any widespread destruction since there was no electricity that would have caused fires. [4]

Similar to the earthquake theory and one that has gained more adherents in recent years is the drought theory. Unlike the earthquake theory, there is some primary source evidence to support the idea of widespread drought in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus mentioned in his history of Lydia that the region had suffered from drought long before his time [5] and there is an extant New Kingdom Egyptian text that mentions grain being sent from Egypt to Hatti as aid. [6]

Finally, there is evidence that overpopulation in the Aegean region, specifically mainland Greece, contributed to the movements of the Sea Peoples. For instance, the region of Messenia on the Peloponnese peninsula reached a peak population of 50,000 just before the Sea Peoples invasions began. [7] The reality is that a combination of two or more factors probably contributed to the invasions. Overpopulation in Greece may have led some there to become pirates, while in Anatolia where there was drought groups formed to find new land. Whatever the reason, or reasons, for the movement of peoples at the end of the Bronze Age, once the lid was opened it would prove impossible to close.

The Sea Peoples Arrive

Cartouche (Name) of Merenptah at Karnak Temple

The reason why modern scholars know as they do about the Sea Peoples, which is admittedly lacking in several areas, comes from a combination of modern archaeology and extant ancient Egyptian texts. Egypt suffered at least two major attacks by the Sea Peoples – one in year five of King Merenptah’s (ruled ca. 1224-1204 ) reign and the other in Ramesses III’s (reigned 1186-1153 BC) eight year of rule, or about 1219 BC and 1176 BC respectively. Merenptah’s victory over the Sea Peoples was commemorated on the walls of the Karnak Temple, which names the individual Sea Peoples tribes involved along with their Libyan allies. It states:

“The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded, has fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen . . . Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Luka, Teresh, taking the best of every warrior and every man of war of his country. He has brought his wife and his children . . . leaders of the camp, and he has reached the western boundary in the fields of Perire.” [8]

In terms of the ancient world, the battle was actually quite large as the stela records over 6,000 Libyans and 1,000 Sea Peoples as casualties. [9] The alliance between not only the Sea Peoples tribes, but among the Sea Peoples and the Libyans is interesting and is still not fully understood. It is believed, though, that the Sea Peoples sailed across the Mediterranean to Cyrenaica (coastal Libya) where they then formed an alliance with the Egyptians’ eternal enemies, the Libyans. [10] The timing of the attack is also important. Some scholars believe that the Sea Peoples sailed to Libya right after some of them sacked the legendary city of Troy in Anatolia. [11]

The next Sea Peoples’ attack on Egyptian took place during the reign of Ramesses III, who observed his victory over the mysterious invaders with inscriptions and pictorial reliefs on his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. The Sea Peoples attacked once more with the Libyans, but there were some fundamental differences in the second attack. First, there were some different tribes involved in the second attack and the Egyptians reliefs depict families and livestock moving along with the Sea Peoples warriors. [12] The Medinet Habu inscriptions also list the cities in the Levant the Sea Peoples destroyed before they arrived in Egypt, which indicates they came by land from the northeast. Part of the inscription reads:

“The countries . . . the [Northerners] in their isles were disturbed, taken away in the fray . . . at one time. Not one stood before their hands, from Kheta, Kode, Carchemish, Arvad, Alasa, they were wasted. [The]y [set up] a camp in one place in Amor. They desolated his people and his land like that which is not. They came with fire prepared before them, forward to Egypt. Their main support was Peleset, Thekel, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, (these) lands were united, and they laid their hands upon the land as far as the Circle of the Earth. Their hearts confident, full of their plans.” [13]

The Sea Peoples Identified?

Modern Drawing of the Sherden/Shardana from the Temple of Medinet Habu

Thanks to the ancient Egyptians, the names of the Sea Peoples are known, but it has been the task of modern scholars to identify those names with either the tribes’ places of origins, or in some cases with their ultimate region of settlement. By viewing the Sea Peoples in this way, more light has been cast on their mysterious origins and identities. Perhaps one of the most mysterious of all the Sea Peoples was the Ekwesh. The Ekwesh are only mentioned in the Merenptah inscriptions, which is certainly important when one considers their appearance in Egypt after the legendary Trojan War. Many modern scholars believe that Ekwesh was simply the Egyptian pronunciation of “Achaioi,” the ancient word for the “Achaeans,” who were the pre-Classical or Mycenaean era Greeks. [14] This theory posits that essentially remnants/renegade bands of Mycenaeans first sieged Troy and then sailed across the Mediterranean to attempt to do the same to Egypt. [15] Besides the philological similarity between “Achaean” and “Ekwesh,” there is a passage in the Odyssey where the Greek/Achaean/Mycenaean heroes arrive in Egypt after their destruction of Troy, but are defeated by the locals. [16]

The Egyptian names of most of the other Sea Peoples can also be traced to known locations in the Mediterranean basin. The Luka are thought to have been associated with the region in Anatolia known as Lycia and were once believed to be allies of the Hittites before that empire collapsed, possibly partially at their hands. [17] The Teresh are generally associated with the Tuscany region of Italy and the Etruscan peoples, but it is unknown if they were originally from there or if they gave the name to the region after the collapse. [18] The Tjeker and Skelesh, who may have actually been the same tribe, are believed to have originated in Sicily and then settled in the Levant after the invasions. [19]

Perhaps the two most interesting and possibly the most historically important of the Sea Peoples tribes were the Danuna and Peleset. Most modern scholars believe that both the Danuana and the Peleset contributed heavily to the historical books of the Old Testament and the ancient Kingdom of Israel, but they were on different sides of the struggle. The Danuna probably originated in the Anatolian region of Cilicia and then settled in the Levant and became, or integrated with, the biblical tribe of Dan once the invasions had ended. [20] The Pelest tribe is now almost unanimously associated with the biblical Philistines, with their ultimate origins still being somewhat of a mystery, although they are believed to have also been in Anatolia before arriving in the Levant. [21]

According to the Egyptian sources, some of the Sea Peoples actually stayed in Egypt once the wars were done. The Weshesh tribe is the least known of all the Sea Peoples, but a text from the reign of Ramesses III states that they along with the Sherden/Shardana were held in Egypt as captives. [22] Of all the Sea Peoples tribes, the Egyptians had the most contact with the Sherden/Shardana. Members of the Sherden were employed as mercenaries by the Egyptians as far back as Ramesses II (ruled ca. 1290-1224 BC) and some were even depicted at Medinet Habu as fighting with the Egyptians against the Sea Peoples. It is believed that they either originated in or settled the island of Sardinia. [23]

Conclusion

The impact that the Sea Peoples had on world history was massive. They destroyed the Hittite Empire, brought down the city-state of Ugarit, and sent Greece into a dark age. But as quickly as the Sea Peoples entered the historical record, they vanished almost as fast. The precise origins of the Sea Peoples may never be known, but based on a combination of modern archaeological work and the available ancient Egyptian texts a reasonable conclusion can be drawn. The Sea Peoples originated from different parts in Europe and Anatolia before they coalesced into a confederation that attacked several of the major Bronze Age powers. After the destruction was done, some went back to Europe while others settled in the Levant.

References

  1. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 129
  2. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 241
  3. Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 3
  4. Drews, pgs. 38-39
  5. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin Books, 2003), I, 95
  6. Astour, Michael C. “New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit.” American Journal of Archaeology 69 (1965) p. 225
  7. Sandars, Nancy. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean. Revised Edition. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 77
  8. Breasted, Henry, ed. and trans. Ancient Records of Egypt. Volume 3, The Nineteenth Dynasty (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 243
  9. Breasted, pgs. 248-9
  10. Cline, Eric H., and David O’Connor. “The Mystery of the ‘Sea Peoples.’” In Mysterious Lands. Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London: University College London Press, 2003), p. 117
  11. Drews, p. 42
  12. Cline and O’Connor, p. 117
  13. Breasted, Henry, ed. and trans. Ancient Records of Egypt. Volume 4, The Twentieth through the Twenty-sixth Dynasties. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pgs. 37-38
  14. Cline and O’Connor, p. 114
  15. Redford, p. 253
  16. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V. Rieu and D.C. Rieu. (London: Penguin Books, 2003), XIV, 240-70
  17. Sandars, p. 107
  18. Cline and O’Connor, p. 113
  19. Cline and O’Connor, p. 115
  20. Cline and O’Connor, p. 115
  21. Wainwright, G.A. “Some Sea-Peoples.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47 (1961) pgs. 78-79
  22. Cline and O’Connor, p. 116
  23. Redford, p. 243
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