The Sea Peoples

Here is another new section for Chapter 3 of my Middle Eastern history series.

The Sea Peoples

Around the time the Trojan War began, the reign of Ramses II came to an end. At 67 years, it was the second longest reign in Egyptian history. In fact, Ramses outlived his first twelve sons, so the thirteenth son, Merneptah, succeeded him as pharaoh, and he was no spring chicken himself, being in his fifties when crowned. Ramses had enthusiastically followed the policy of constantly announcing glorious victories, even when the real result was a draw or an orderly retreat, as was the case with Kadesh. Merneptah did the same, though he did not rule long enough to engage all the enemies he claimed to have defeated. He did save Lower Egypt from a Libyan invasion, and put down a rebellion in Nubia, but there is no evidence that he acted against another revolt reported in Syria. Today the most famous inscription from Merneptah is a stone tablet sometimes called the “Israel Stele,” because Egyptologists will tell you it is the first (and perhaps only) place where the Egyptians mentioned Israel by name. Most of the stele is a typical royal pronouncement of total victory, as was so common in the ancient Middle East, and it ends with this triumphal paragraph:

“The princes are prostrate saying: ‘Salam!'”

Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:

Tjehenu is vanquished, Hatti at peace,

Canaan is captive with all woe.

Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,

Yanoam made nonexistent;

Israel is wasted, his seed is not,

Khor (Syria?) has become a widow for Egypt.

All who roamed have been subdued.

By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun,

Son of Ra, Merneptah, Content with Maat,

Given life like Ra every day.”

It now appears more likely that Merneptah added his own victories to the list of victories achieved by his two predecessors, Seti I and Ramses II, without stating who won each, so the Merneptah Stele is really a review of what the whole XIX dynasty did. It is also a reminder of the saying “pride comes before a downfall,” because immediately after that, the good times for the dynasty ended. Merneptah was ousted by a usurper named Amenmesses, who was either his brother or his son. A civil war broke out, which engulfed Egypt for the last years of the XIX dynasty (873-855 B.C.?). Amenmesses apparently had the support of Egypt’s former Asian provinces, because after the war, Ramses III, the second pharaoh of the XX dynasty, claimed that his father Setnakht defeated and drove out an Asian named Arsu or Arsa, who had seized power in the eastern Nile delta. Arsa was described as a Syrian, but he may have been an Israelite, because Israel’s King Elah was slain in the house of an official by that name; perhaps he was the commander of some Israelite mercenaries sent to Egypt. Arsa may also have been the same person as Chancellor Bay, who briefly ruled Upper Egypt at the end of the XIX dynasty; unfortunately we don’t have enough records from that murky time to be sure.

The reason for this diversion into Egyptian history is to show the reader that Egypt was unprepared for the upheaval that shook the Mediterranean Basin in the ninth century B.C. It started with the Trojan War, and while Homer claimed that conflict was started by a love triangle between Menelaus, Helan and Paris, we now believe economic factors were more important. The main one is that the iron age had just begun in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean Basin. Before the tenth century B.C., there were some smiths who knew how to work with iron, but it was of poor quality, and not used as much as copper and bronze. Therefore we count the iron age as beginning in the tenth or ninth century, because that was when iron tools and weapons became common enough to replace bronze ones.

You may be surprised to learn that the first years of the iron age were also a time of poverty. Archaeologists looking at sites dating to the bronze age-iron age transition have noted that pottery and other artifacts from the late bronze age were more numerous and of better quality than similar artifacts from the early iron age, leading us to believe that people were richer and life was easier before the bronze age ended. Now we know why; a major climate change took place around the same time, making the weather cooler (and often drier) in the early part of the first millennium B.C. Remember that most people at this time were farmers, and before the invention of money, you were considered rich if you had enough grain, produce or livestock to barter for whatever else you wanted. Now with shorter growing seasons, some crops could no longer be grown, and the chance of crop failure from an out-of-season killing frost increased, so harvests generally were smaller. Consequently times became more difficult for everyone, though the civilizations which did a lot of fishing and trading (e.g., the Greeks, Phoenicians, Aramaeans and Arabs) did not suffer as much as those which were totally dependent on agriculture.

Greece is a difficult place for farming in good times, with its rugged landscape and poor soil; it is easy to imagine that a lot of the warriors attacking Troy were ex-farmers, seeking another way to make their fortune in a worsening climate. Though they were successful, the Greek homeland did not profit from their adventure. An army and navy as big as the one Homer described would have driven many city-states broke, and with so many men gone, the land was vulnerable to invaders. We see as much when the Dorians migrated out of the Balkans a few decades later (about 820 B.C.), and put cities like Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos to the torch. Those warriors who returned to Greece did not have a friendly homecoming, either. Agamemnon was murdered by his queen, Clytemnestra; Odysseus went home to find a gang of suitors trying to take his wife, treasure and throne; Idomeneus sacrificed his son when he arrived safely on Crete, to keep a vow he made to Poseidon, and the other gods, disgusted by this act, put a plague on Crete until the Cretans exiled their hero.

The adventurers who fared the best were the ones on both sides who left home and never returned. The previously mentioned Aeneas was one; another was Mopsus. Mopsus was the grandson of Tiresias, the wise man in the Oedipus legend, and gained a reputation as a great seer; the oracles of Klaros and Mallos were reportedly founded by him. At the start of his career, he was king of Colophon, a city in Ionia (the west coast of Anatolia, which was settled by Greeks around this time). Then after the Trojan War, some Greek warriors, led by Amphilochus of Argos, sailed from Troy to Colophon, seeking new adventure. Among them was Calchas, the evil seer who had persuaded Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, in order to have a favorable wind blow the Greek ships to Troy. When Calchas met Mopsus, they had a divination contest. Mopsus correctly predicted how many figs a fig tree would produce, and how many piglets a pregnant sow would bear, including that only one of the piglets would be a male. The exasperated Calchas killed himself, because he could not predict anything that accurately. Then Mopsus joined the newcomers and they wandered along Anatolia’s southern coast, ancient Pamphylia and Cilia, founding the cities of Aspendus, Phaeselis, Mopsouhestia and Mallos as they went. For a while Mopsus and Amphilochus shared power, but at Mallos they quarreled and Mopsus killed Amphilochus in a duel.

As they traveled along, these adventurers picked up like-minded folk, also seeking to find or make their fortunes. After all, it has happened with migrations and marches in other times and places (e.g., Hannibal and the Gauls in Italy). The result was a snowball effect; the army may have been at least half Greek when it set out from Ionia, but by the time it reached the border of Egypt it was a truly multinational force.  They also had ships, so sometimes the army marched overland, other times it used ships to hop from one port to the next. By contrast, the Egyptians were only fair sailors on the sea, because their boats were designed for cruising the Nile; they called this group the “Sea Peoples” (“Peoples of the Sea” in some translations). Egyptian art from the time of Ramses III show us that the force on land included wagons carrying women and children, meaning that they brought their families along, and were looking for new homes as well as wealth.

Sea Peoples Migration
The approximate paths taken by the Sea Peoples.


The most successful city founded by Mopsus was Adana, in Cilicia; Adana is the fourth largest city in modern Turkey. At nearby Karatepe is a monument built by Azatiwatas, a Neo-Hittite king from the eighth century B.C. Besides a large statue of the Hittite weather god, it contained an inscription written in Phoenician and Luwian; in fact, this inscription provided the key to deciphering the latter. Here Azatiwatas lists all the things he did to make Adana prosper, and calls his family the “House of Mopsus,” thus claiming Mopsus as his ancestor. From this we know that Mopsus was a bonafide historical person, whether or not he could see the future.

Adana is only a few miles from the sea, and it is an easy march from the Cilician coast to the nearest part of Syria. We noted earlier in this chapter that Ugarit, the Phoenician city in this region, was destroyed around the same time as Hattusas, but that wasn’t the only victim; the cities of Alalakh, Hamath, Qatna, Kadesh, and Enkomi on Cyprus, were destroyed, too. It’s a safe guess that the Sea Peoples were responsible for all of this. From Syria they had the choice of going east or south. Continuing the march east would have been ruled out quickly, because the Assyrians were too tough, especially under the current kings, Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III (see below). However, by this point they also would have heard about the turmoil in Egypt, so the lands to the south became the logical destination. As the early XVIII dynasty pharaohs had done, they followed the Levantine coast, only this time going in the opposite direction. That path bypassed the interior kingdoms completely (Damascus, Israel, Judah, Ammon, Moab and Edom); they were probably not rich enough to make the invaders want to postpone their arrival in Egypt. When they reached Ashkelon, one of the five main Philistine cities, Ramses III hired them and the Philistines as mercenaries for a campaign against the Libyans, who were making trouble again (862 B.C.). Xanthus, an historian from the fifth century B.C., reports that at Ashkelon, Mopsus cast a statue of the goddess Asherah into the sacred lake of her temple, before going on the Libyan campaign. Shortly after this he died of a snakebite, though it is not clear whether it happened in Libya or Ashkelon; at any rate, I don’t think the soldier/seer saw that fate coming!

Now that we have returned to Egypt, this is a good place to attempt an identification of the nationalities among the Sea Peoples. No less than ten groups are listed (twelve if you count the Philistines and Libyans), and the problem is that because the ancient Egyptian language is not Indo-European or Semitic, the names they used aren’t likely to sound anything like our names for the same people. Some of the names have appeared before (e.g., the Shardana were mercenaries for Ramses II), but most are only used in Egyptian records from the XX dynasty. Thus, scholars have speculated on their identities for more than a century. Most books, for instance, will try to identify the Shardana and Shekelesh as Sardinians and Sicilians, respectively, when no evidence has yet been found of people from those distant islands getting involved in Middle Eastern affairs this early. For the present, it makes more sense to identify most of the Peoples of the Sea as tribes or nations from Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, who descended upon Egypt like a locust swarm when life became too harsh at home. Here is the list from the inscriptions of Ramses III, and the latest “who’s who” concerning them:

Egyptian Name Likely Identity
Meshwesh Libyans
Peleset Philistines
Teresh/Taruisha* Trojans or Etruscans
Ekwesh/Akaiwasha* Achaeans (Mycenaean Greeks)
Tjeker Teucrians (a Cypriot tribe)
Weshesh Asians (Phrygians)
Shekelesh* Cilicians
Shardana* Lydians (from Sardis)
Lukka* Lycians
Denyen Danaans (Greeks from Anatolia
and the islands)
Khara Carians
Dardany Dardanians (Trojans)

*Fought on the side of the Libyans in Merneptah’s time.

In other history papers I have pointed out that mercenaries may be better trained than native recruits or conscripts, but because they are fighting for money, they are less reliable, and can switch sides at the drop of a hat (a hat full of silver, that is). Ramses III found this out just three years after the first campaign (859 B.C.), when both the Peoples of the Sea and the Philistines turned against him. To his credit he knew they were coming; he established a defensive line near the borders of Judah and Philistia, and ordered every available ship to guard the mouth of the Nile. He also led a campaign east, presumably a pre-emptive strike against the Philistines, but the only enemy mentioned in Egyptian records was the “Seirites,” suggesting that his main opponents were the kingdom of Edom (Mt. Seir is in Edom) and any Bedouins who got in the way. Still, the invading fleet managed to get into the Nile delta before the Egyptians were able to stop them. Afterwards, Ramses built a a temple to himself at Medinet Habu that resembled a fortress, and covered it with some of the most spectacular battle scenes to appear in Egyptian art. Here we can see that the Egyptians compensated for their lack of skill in naval warfare by stationing archers on the shore, to fire arrows at enemy ships; they also did well in hand-to-hand combat, when they got close enough to use grappling hooks to board the other vessels. To keep track of how many enemies they killed, the Egyptians cut off a hand from each victim, and because invaders did not practice circumcision (the Egyptians did), they also cut off and kept the phalluses of the enemy dead–undoubtedbly the worst war trophies of all time! After that one more campaign was fought in Libya in 856 B.C., but Ramses had little to say about this epilogue to the war.

Egypt was saved, and needless to say, Ramses celebrated his great victory. It is unlikely that anyone pointed out that the victory was a defensive one, fought right in Lower Egypt, whereas the victories of the XVIII and XIX dynasties were successful wars of conquest in distant lands. It also was the New Kingdom’s last hurrah; for the rest of his reign, Ramses saw his country suffering under severe economic strain. Within a few decades the New Kingdom would give way to the long period of decline we now call the Third Intermediate Period. In the rest of the world, the situation was similarly grim, due to the cooling climate mentioned above. In preclassical Greece and Aryan India, the age of heroes was coming to an end. For the rest of the period covered by this chapter, and even the next chapter, kings would not be remembered for their wisdom (e.g., Solomon), their wealth or the monuments they built (e.g., the pharaohs); they would be remembered chiefly for raw power, and the terror they struck in the hearts of their opponents.

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