The Role of the "Sea Peoples" in Transforming History

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The Role of the "Sea Peoples" in Transforming History


At the end of the thirteenth century b.c., the major powers of the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia and Egypt, entered a period of political turmoil, economic privation, and population shifts that resulted in deep permanent changes in the cultural identity of the ancient world. The Hittite empire in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) collapsed and disappeared completely; the civilization of Mycenaean Greece was utterly destroyed; cities in Syria and on the coast of the Levant were sacked and abandoned; and Egypt, having lost its territories in Syria and Palestine, just managed to maintain its borders. The ensuing period of disruption lasted for several hundred years. Various circumstances combined to produce this period of collapse, but the migrations and invasions of different population groups throughout the Mediterranean world were a major factor. Egyptian sources call these wandering tribes "peoples of the sea" from which modern scholars adopted the name "Sea Peoples."


The cultures of the Aegean and Near East enjoyed a period of remarkable prosperity and general stability in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries b.c. The great political powers of the day—the Egyptians, Hittites, Mitanni, and Babylonians—maintained sophisticated diplomatic relations, carried out extensive commercial activity, and struggled with each other to control the economically lucrative areas of Palestine, northern Syria, and the Levantine coast. The commercial centers of the Levant provided access to the Aegean islands and mainland Greece, where the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures prospered. Trade contact and diplomacy led to artistic and cultural exchange on a scale that far surpassed that of any earlier period. For the first time, there was a truly international order.

For most of this period, Egypt was universally acknowledged to be the "leading nation," and as such governed an empire that extended north through the Sinai, up the Palestinian coast into Syria, and south down the Nile into Nubia. The only threats to Egypt's prominence came from the Hittites of Anatolia, rebellious vassals, occasional incursions of Libyan tribes from the west, and sporadic attacks of pirates or nomads. Under the leadership of Ramses II (c. 1290-1224 b.c.), Egypt apparently dealt easily with these threats. In the fourth year of Ramses's reign, the Sherden, pirates from the Aegean islands or the Syrian coast, launched an aggressive attack against the Egyptian delta. Ramses defeated them and solved the problem of any future threat by incorporating the surviving Sherden into his own army. This is the earliest mention of any of the "Sea Peoples," and it is noteworthy that they became an important mercenary contingent in the pharaoh's army.

Inevitably, Ramses came into conflict with the Hittites over control of Syria, and fought them at Kadesh around 1286 b.c. The battle was inconclusive, but both armies included mercenary contingents whose tribal names would later appear among lists of the "Sea Peoples." Thus the Lukka and the Dardanians, both from the south coast of Anatolia, fought for the Hittites, while the Sherden fought for the Egyptians. At this point the Egyptians and Hittites were still strong enough to deal fairly easily with these aggressive groups. That both powers thought it desirable to include these people in their armies attests to the great fighting ability of the tribes, but it also anticipates a dangerous weakness on the part of the great powers; namely their dependence on mercenaries. The Egyptians and Hittites resolved their differences and signed a peace treaty in c. 1268 b.c. and the political situation in the Near East was apparently stable. However, the lengthy reign of Ramses II (c. 1290-1224 b.c.) led to a succession crisis, political confusion, and economic exhaustion which weakened Egypt and left her vulnerable to attack. Toward the end of the thirteenth century b.c., the Hittites also suffered from internal political problems that drained central authority and provided vassals with an excuse to rebel.

The Aegean Islands and Greek mainland also experienced prosperity and economic growth in the thirteenth century b.c. The Mycenaeans (named by scholars after the city of Mycenae) controlled Greece and the Aegean from separate city-states whose power depended on a strong warrior class. Each city was autonomous, ruled by a king, and protected by heavy fortifications. Exactly how much contact the Mycenaeans had with the Hittites, Egyptians, or Levantine trading ports is not known, but later Greek tradition dates the famed Trojan War to the end of the thirteenth century b.c., and there is evidence of trade and possible Mycenaean colonization in Anatolia and the Levant. The Mycenaeans fought each other frequently, and inevitably this constant warring took its toll. Starting in c. 1250 b.c., the Mycenaean economy suffered a period of decline which weakened the city-states and left them susceptible to outside threats.

Eventually, general economic decline and bad environmental conditions (drought) throughout the eastern Mediterranean made it impossible for the great powers to function effectively against increasingly active pirates and land raiders. Just what started the deadly attacks of these raiders remains subject to debate, but the devastation they caused is certain.


In the fifth year of the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (c. 1224-1214 b.c.), Egypt was attacked by the Libyans and a coalition of "Sea Peoples" including the Ekwesh, Shekelesh, Sherden, Lukka, and Teresh, all apparently originating in coastal Anatolia. This was not intended to be a simple raid to gain booty, but was a concerted effort to invade Egypt for the purpose of settling there. Merneptah managed to fight off the invasion but the worst was yet to come. About 30 years later, the pharaoh Ramses III (c. 1194-1162 b.c.) confronted a large invading army of "Sea Peoples." According to Ramses,

. . . as for the foreign countries, they made a conspiracy in their lands. All at once the lands were on the move, scattered in war. No country could stand before their arms: Hatti (the Hittites), Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya (Cyprus). They were cut off. A camp was set up in one place in Amor (Amurru, i.e. northern Syria). They desolated its people, and its land like that which has never come into being. (cf. A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 b.c., vol. II. London: Routledge, 1995, p. 387)

This inscription provides our only written description of these events. According to the Egyptians, the Hittite Empire, the cities of the Levant, and Cyprus had already succumbed to the invaders who then swept down the coast to invade Egypt. In fact, excavations in the cities of the Hittite Empire, northern Syria, and the Levant have shown massive destruction levels. The Hittite civilization, which had thrived in Anatolia for nearly 1,000 years, was so utterly destroyed that it was completely forgotten until its rediscovery in modern times. The Levantine cities of Emar and Ugarit were devastated and never reoccupied, as were several sites in Palestine. In Egypt, Ramses III and his army fought a desperate battle against the combined forces of the Peleset, the Tjerkru, the Shekelesh, the Da'anu, and the Washosh. The Egyptians prevailed but lost their holdings in Syria-Palestine and much of their land to the south of Egypt in Nubia as a result. Although Egypt managed to repel the invaders, the Twentieth Dynasty effectively represents the end of the New Kingdom and in some ways, the end of pharaonic Egypt. Never again would Egypt attain such high political and cultural levels; never again would Egypt lead the international order.

While the eastern Mediterranean succumbed to the invasions of the "Sea Peoples," Mycenaean Greece suffered total destruction as well. Just who was responsible for destroying the Mycenaeans is debated, but many scholars attribute their extinction to an invasion of new people, the Dorians, from the north. The devastation was so complete that many cities ceased to exist and the society sank into illiteracy, having lost the ability to write in the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans. Greece had entered a "dark age" so severe it would last for about 400 years.

The end of the Bronze Age is characterized by migrations of different ethnic groups and the collapse of very old, established political bodies such as the Hittites. The destruction wrought by the "Sea Peoples" brought the Bronze Age to a bloody end, but many positive changes occurred as a result. The roving tribes, having no one left to prey upon, finally settled. The Peleset mentioned in the inscription of Ramses III have been identified by scholars as the Philistines, who settled in Palestine at this time. The Sherden and Shekelesh are associated with the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, respectively, while the Teresh may be linked to the Etruscans of Italy. Although these identifications are uncertain, they do underscore some of the key movements that occurred as a result of the invasions described above. Sometime during this period the Israelites, who were not "Sea Peoples" settled in Palestine and made the transition from a nomadic to an urban way of life.

The destruction of Bronze Age cultures left a political vacuum that would eventually be filled by new people and new political concepts. The great Bronze Age powers had all been monarchies in which the economy was controlled by a strong central authority. Most of these cultures functioned by a system of tax and distribution, with little opportunity for independent commerce. The collapse of this type of political system paved the way for innovation. For example, the Greeks, still living in separate city-states, abandoned the old aristocratic warrior society and eventually developed new types of governments, few of which included kings. The decline of the Hittite and Egyptian states allowed other Near-Eastern countries such as Assyria and Babylon to become more powerful. The influx of new ethnic groups throughout the Mediterranean led to technical innovations, such as the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians and the development and use of iron. The elusive "Sea Peoples" may have initiated a period of decline in the eastern Mediterranean, but out of this ruins rose the great cultures of the Iron Age—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans.


Further Reading

Barnett, R. D. "The Sea Peoples." In The Cambridge Ancient History, third ed., vol. 2, part 2. (1975): 359-378.

Drews, R. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of c. 1200b.c.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Kuhrt, A.The Ancient Near East c. 3000-300b.c., vol. 2. London: Routledge, 1995.

Redford, D. B. Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Sandars, N. K. The Sea Peoples. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

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The Role of the "Sea Peoples" in Transforming History

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