The mysterious Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples were a confederacy of naval raiders who harried the coastal towns and Cities of the Mediterranean region between approximately 1276-1178 BCE, concentrating their efforts especially on Egypt. Outside Egypt, they also frequently assaulted the coastal regions of the Hittite Empire, the Levant and other areas around the Mediterranean coast.

The nationality of the Sea Peoples remains a mystery as the only records we have of their activities are mainly Egyptian sources who only describe them in terms of battle (such as the record from the Stele at Tanis which reads, in part, “They came from the sea in their War ships and none could stand against them”).  Among the Sea peoples identified in Egyptian records are the Ekwesh, a group of Bronze Age Greeks (Achaeans); Teresh, Tyrrhenians, ancestors of the Etruscans; Luka, an Anatolianpeople of the Aegean (their name survives in the region of Lycia); Sherden, probably Sardinians; Shekelesh, probably the Italic tribe called Siculi; Peleset, generally believed to refer to the Philistines, who might have come from Crete and were with the Tekrur (possibly Greek Teucrians) the only major tribe of the Sea Peoples known to have settled permanently in the Levant. Their origin and identity has been suggested (and debated) to be Etruscan/Trojan to Italian, Philistine, Mycenaen and even Minoan but, as no accounts discovered thus far shed any more light on the question than what is presently known, any such claims must remain mere conjecture.  Another theory is that they could have been a deserted army, or even survivers after a lost war. A third theory point at the rise of the Sea People to the first fall of the city Troy in Anatolia around 1250 BCE (the famous battle with the Troyan Horse is a later battle, possibly 60-70 years later).

The Sea Peoples are mentioned as allies of the Hittites by Ramesses II in his record of the Battle of Kadeshin 1274 BCE and, in the second year of his reign, he defeated them in a naval battle off the coast of Egypt.Ramesses cleverly allowed the war ships and their supply and cargo vessels to approach the mouth of theNile and attack what seemed to be a small defending Egyptian fleet, before launching his full attack upon them from their flanks and sinking their ships. This battle involved (it seems) only the Sherdan Sea Peoples and after the battle many were pressed into Ramesses’ army and some served as his elite body guard.

Ramesses’ successor, Merneptah (1224-1214 BCE) continued to be troubled by the Sea Peoples who allied themselves with the Libyans to invade the Nile Delta. At this point in their History it seems the Sea Peoples were seeking to establish permanent settlements in Egypt as the invading force brought with them scores of household goods and building tools. Egyptian records tell us that Merneptah, after praying, fasting, and consulting the gods in the matter of strategy, met the Sea Peoples on the field at Pi-yer where the combined Egyptian force of infantry, cavalry and archers slew over 6,000 of their opponents and took captive members of the royal Libyan family.

During the reign of the Pharaoh Ramesses III (1194-1163 BCE) the Sea Peoples attacked and destroyed the Egyptian trading center at Kadesh (in modern day Syria) and then again attempted an invasion of Egypt. They began their activities with quick raids along the coast (as they had done in the time of Ramesses II) before driving for the Delta. Ramesses III defeated them in 1180 BCE but they returned in force. Ramesses then set up ambushes along the coast and the Nile and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them hidden along the shoreline to rain down arrows on the ships at his signal, once they were in range. Once the ships’ complement was dead or drowning the ships were set afire with flaming arrows and the Sea Peoples were finally defeated off the City of Xois in 1178 BCE. Egyptian records, again, detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive and pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. 

After their defeat by Ramesses III the Sea Peoples vanish from history, the survivors of the battle perhaps being assimilated into Egyptian culture. No records indicate where they came from and there are no accounts of them after 1178 BCE but, for almost one hundred years, they were the most feared sea raiders in the Mediterranean region and a constant challenge to the might and prosperity of Egypt.

The Sea People attacked attacked capitals and cities important to a country’s administration. In these cities they destroyed government buildings, palaces and temples, while leaving residential areas and the surrounding countryside untouched. By doing this, they destroyed the local leadership, and could win fairly easy victories.  The Sea People were in almost all ways a negative and destructive force for the region. Even if the Sea People destroyed much through their campaigns, it is believed that they were the founders of the Philistine and Phoenician civilizations, which soon grew to some of the most important forces in the eastern Mediterranean.

The term ‘Sea People’ is introduced by the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero in the 19th century.

Greek Bronze Age – Sea Peoples
Sea Peoples (Greek language)
Sea Peoples – from Cuneiform Tablets to Carbon Dating 


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