The Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples is the term used
for a confederacy of seafaring raiders
who sailed into the eastern shores
of the Mediterranean, caused poli-
tical unrest, and attempted to enter
or control Egyptian territory during
the late 19th dynasty, and especially
during Year 8 of Ramesses III of the
20th Dynasty. The Egyptian
Pharaoh Merneptah explicitly refers
to them by the term "the foreign-
countries (or 'peoples') of the
sea" in his Great Karnak Inscription.
Although some scholars believe that
they "invaded" Cyprus, Hatti and the
Levant, this hypothesis is disputed.

Historical Context

The Late Bronze Age in the Aegean was characterized by raiding and resettling of threatening and migratory peoples, sometimes used as mercenaries by the Egyptians, and operating primarily on land. Many were not listed as Sea Peoples. Among them were the 'prw (Habiru) of Egyptian inscriptions, or 'apiru of cuneiform ("bandits"), and the Mariyannu, who had Indo-European names. Sandars uses the analogous name, "land peoples." Some people, such as the Lukka, were in both categories. The Hebrews receive excellent mention in the Old Testament, but the Philistines, who were among the sea peoples, are seen as the enemy in that source.

The identity of the sea peoples has been an enigma to modern scholars, who have only the scattered records of ancient civilizations and archaeology to inform them. The evidence shows that the identities and motives of these peoples were not unknown to the Egyptians; in fact, many had been subordinate to them or in a diplomatic relationship with them for at least as long as the few centuries covered by the records.

Documentary Records

Byblos Obelisk

The earliest ethnic group later considered among the sea peoples is believed to be attested in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the "Byblos obelisk" (one of many there) found in the "Obelisk Temple" at Byblos. The inscription mentions kwkwn son of rwqq, transliterated as Kukunnis, son of Lukk-, meaning "the Lycian." The date is given variously as 2000 or 1700 BCE.

Early Amarna Age

The Lukka appear much later and also the Shardana in the Amarna Letters, perhaps of Amenhotep III or his son Akhenaten, around the mid-14th century BCE. A Shardana man is an apparent renegade mercenary, and three more are slain by an Egyptian overseer. The Danuna are mentioned in another letter but only in passing reference to the death of their king. The Lukka are being accused of attacking the Egyptians in conjunction with the Alashiyans, or Cypriotes, with the latter having stated that the Lukka were seizing their villages.

Reign Of Ramses II

Records or possible records of sea peoples generally or in particular date to two campaigns of Ramses II, a pharaoh of the militant 19th Dynasty: operations in or near the Delta in the Year 2 of his reign, and the major confrontation with the Hittite Empire and allies at the Battle of Kadesh in the Year 5. The dates of the pharaoh's reign are not known for certain but they must have comprised nearly all of the first half of the 13th century BCE.

In Year 2, an attack of the Shardana or Sherden on the Nile Delta was defeated and the Shardana were led into captivity. The event is recorded on Tanis Stele II. The Shardana kept their status as captives but were incorporated into the Egyptian army for service on the Hittite frontier.

Another stele usually cited in conjunction with this one is the "Aswan Stele" (there were other stelai at Aswan), which mentions the king's operations to defeat a number of peoples including those of the "Great Green." If the latter term means "sea", the "sea peoples" seem to be indicated even at this early date, but if it means the swampy Delta region, then the peoples need not have been of the sea. It is plausible to assume that the Tanis and Aswan Stelai refer to the same event, in which case they reinforce each other.

The Battle of Kadesh was an outcome of the campaign against the Syrians and allies in the Levant in the Year 4. The imminent collision of the Egyptian and Hittite empires became obvious to the both of them and they both prepared campaigns against the strategic mid-point of Kadesh for the next year. Ramses divided his Egyptian forces, which were then ambushed piecemeal by the Hittite army and nearly defeated. The arrival of the last of the Egyptians turned the tide of battle and the king was able to escape, leaving Kadesh in Hittite hands.

At home Ramses had his scribes formulate an official description that has been called "the Bulletin" because it was widely published by inscription. Ten copies survive today on the temples at Abydos, Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel, with reliefs depicting the battle. A poem, the Poem of Pentaur, describing the battle survives also.

The poem relates that the previously captured Shardana were not only working for his majesty, they were formulating a plan of battle for him; i.e., it was their idea to divide Egyptian forces into four columns. There is no evidence of any collaboration with the Hittites or malicious intent on their part, and if Ramses considered it, he never left any record of that consideration.

Ramses had defeated the Kheta, or Syrians, the previous year. The poem relates that the Kheta were at Kadesh now with a force "like grasshoppers". The list is mainly "land peoples", but the Lukka are there as well.

Reign Of Merneptah

I am the ruler who shepherds you ... as a father, who preserves his children, while ye fear like birds ... [Shall the land be wa]sted and forsaken at the invasion of every country, while the Nine Bows plunder its borders and rebels invade it every day? ... They spend their time going about the land, fighting, to fill their bodies daily. They come to the land of Egypt to seek the necessities of their mouths ... Their chief is like a dog, a man of boasting without courage ....Speech of Merneptah before the Battle of Perire, from the Great Karnak Inscription.

The major event of the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, 1213 BC to 1203 BC., 4th king of the 19th Dynasty, was his battle against a confederacy termed "the Nine Bows" at Perire in the western delta in the 5th year of his reign. Depredations of this confederacy had been so severe that the region was "forsaken as pasturage for cattle, it was left waste from the time of the ancestors."

The pharoh's action against them is attested in four inscriptions: the Great Karnak Inscription, describing the battle, the Cairo Column, the Athribis Stele (which last two are shorter versions of the Great Karnak) and a stele found at Thebes, called variously the Hymn of Victory, the Merneptah Stele or the Israel Stele. It describes the reign of peace resulting from the victory.

The Nine Bows were acting under the leadership of the king of Libya. Exactly which peoples were consistently in the Nine Bows is not clear, but present at the battle were the Libyans, some neighboring Meshwesh, peoples from the eastern Mediterranean including the Kheta, or Syrians, and (in the Israel Stele) for the first time in history the Israelites. These land peoples must have arrived in the western delta by fleet. In addition to them the first lines of the Karnak inscription include some sea peoples:

[Beginning of the victory that his majesty achieved in the land of Libya] -i, Ekwesh, Teresh, Luka, Sherden, Shekelesh, Northerners coming from all lands.

Later in the inscription Merneptah receives news of the attack:

... the third season, saying: 'The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded , has fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen---- Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Lukka, 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'

"His majesty was enraged at their report, like a lion", assembled his court and gave a rousing speech. Later he dreamed he saw Ptah handing him a sword and saying "Take thou (it) and banish thou the fearful heart from thee." When the bowmen went forth, says the inscription, "Amun was with them as a shield." After six hours the surviving Nine Bows threw down their weapons, abandoned their baggage and dependents, and ran for their lives. Merneptah states that he defeated the invasion, killing 6,000 soldiers and taking 9,000 prisoners. To be sure of the numbers, among other things, he took the penises of all uncircumcised enemy dead and the hands of all the circumcised, from which history learns that the Ekwesh were circumcised, a fact causing some to doubt they were Greek.

Letters At Ugarit

Some sea peoples appear in four letters found at Ugarit, the last three of which seem to foreshadow the destruction of the city around 1180 BCE. The letters are therefore dated to the early twelfth century. The last king of Ugarit was Ammurapi, or Hammurabi (c. 1191–1182 BC), who, throughout this correspondence, is quite a young man.

The earliest is letter RS 34.129, found on the south side of the city, from "the Great King", presumably Suppiluliuma II of the Hittites, to the prefect of the city. He says that he ordered the king of Ugarit to send him Ibnadushu for questioning, but the king was too immature to respond. He therefore wants the prefect to send the man, whom he promises to return.

What this language implies about the relationship of the Hittite empire to Ugarit is a matter for interpretation. Ibnadushu had been kidnapped by and had resided among a people of Shikala, probably the Shekelesh, "who lived on ships." The letter is generally interpreted as an interest in military intelligence by the king.

The last three letters, RS L 1, RS 20.238 and RS 20.18, are a set from the Rap'anu Archive between a slightly older Ammurapi, now handling his own affairs, and Eshuwara, king of Alashiya. Evidently Ammurapi had informed Eshuwara that a fleet had been spotted at sea.

Eshuwara writes back that if that is so, he had better wall the city in and man it with troops. Where are your troops? he wants to know. In the reply the young king, clearly upset, and calling Eshuwara "my father", relates that his troops were in Hatti and Lukka, and several ships had raided and plundered villages in the state of Ugarit. Eshuwara replies "don't blame me", that those several ships were Ammurapi's countrymen, that the fleet spotted was 20 ships, and he Eshuwara, would like to know where they are.

Reign Of Ramses III

Pharoh Ramesses III, second of the 20th Dynasty, reigning for most of the first half of the 12th century BCE, was forced to deal with other invasions of the Sea Peoples, the best recorded being in his eighth year.

No Land Could Stand Before Their Arms

The ends of several civilizations around 1175 BC have instigated a theory that the Sea Peoples may have caused the collapse of the Hittite, Mycenaean and Mitanni kingdoms. The American Hittitologist, Gary Beckman, writes:

A terminus ante quem for the destruction of the Hittite empire has been recognised in an inscription carved at Medinet Habu in Egypt in the eighth year of Ramesses III (1175 BC). This text narrates a contemporary great movement of peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, as a result of which "the lands were removed and scattered to the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, Alashiya on being cut off. [ie: cut down]"

Ramesses' comments about the scale of the Sea Peoples' onslaught in the eastern Mediterranean are confirmed by the destruction of the states of Hatti, Ugarit, Ashkelon and Hazor around this time. As the Hittitologist Trevor Bryce observes:

It should be stressed that the invasions were not merely military operations, but involved the movements of large populations, by land and sea, seeking new lands to settle.

This situation is confirmed by the Medinet Habu temple reliefs which show that, as Bryce says:

the Peleset and Tjekker warriors who fought in the land battle [against Ramesses III] are accompanied in the reliefs by women and children loaded in ox-carts.

Checking The Onslaught

The inscriptions of Ramses III at his Medinet Habu mortuary temple in Thebes record three victorious campaigns against the sea peoples considered bona fide: Years 5, 8 and 12, as well as three considered spurious: against the Nubians and Libyans in Year 5 and the Libyans with Asiatics in the Year 11. During the Year 8 some Hittites were operating with the sea peoples.

The inner west wall of the second court describes the invasion of Year 5. Only the Peleset and Tjeker are mentioned, but the list is terminated by a lacuna. The attack was two-pronged, one by sea and one by land; that is, the sea peoples divided their forces. His majesty was waiting in the Nile mouths and trapped the enemy fleet there. The land forces were defeated separately.

The sea peoples did not learn strategy from this defeat, as they repeated their mistake in the Year 8 with a similar result. The campaign is recorded more extensively on the inner northwest panel of the first court. It is possible but not generally believed that the dates are only those of the inscriptions and both refer to the same campaign.

In the Year 8 the Nine Bows appear again as a "conspiracy in their isles." This time they they are revealed unquestionably as sea peoples: the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, which are classified as "foreign countries" in the inscription. They camped in Amor and sent a fleet to the Nile.

His majesty once more was waiting. He had built a fleet especially for the occasion, hid it in the Nile mouths and posted coast watchers. The enemy fleet was ambushed there, their ships overturned, the men dragged up on shore and executed ad hoc.

The land army was attacked and routed as it crossed the Egyptian border. Additional information is given in the relief on the outer side of the east wall. The land battle occurred in the vicinity of Zahi against "the northern countries." When it was over several chiefs were captive: of Hatti, Amor and Shasu among the "land peoples" and the Tjeker, "Sherden of the sea", "Teresh of the sea" and Peleset.

The campaign of the Year 12 is attested by the Südstele found on the south side of the temple. It mentions the Tjeker, Peleset, Denyen, Weshesh and Shekelesh.

Papyrus Harris I of the period, found behind the temple, suggests a wider campaign against the sea peoples, but does not mention the date. In it the persona of Ramses III says: "I slew the Denyen (D'-yn-yw-n) in their isles" and "burned" the Tjeker and Peleset, implying a maritime raid of his own. He also captured some Sherden and Weshesh "of the sea" and settled them in Egypt. As he is called the "Ruler of Nine Bows" in the relief of the east side, these events probably happened in Year 8; i.e., his majesty would have used the victorious fleet for some punitive expeditions elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

The Onomasticon of Amenemope, or Amenemipit (amen-em-apt) gives a slight credence to the idea that the Ramesides settled sea peoples in Palestine. Dated to about 1100 BCE, at the end of the 21st dynasty (which had numerous short-reigned pharohs), this document simply lists names. After six place names, four of which were in Philistia, the scribe lists the Shardana (Line 268), the Tjeker (Line 269) and the Peleset (Line 270), who might be presumed to occupy those cities. The Story of Wenamun on a papyrus of the same cache also places the Tjeker in Dor at that time.


A few states such as Byblos and Sidon managed to survive the Sea Peoples' invasions unscathed. Despite Ramses' III's pessimism, Carchemish also survived the Sea Peoples' onslaught. King Kuzi-Tesup I is attested in power there and was the son of Talmi-Tesup who was a contemporary of the last ruling Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II. He and his successors ruled a small empire from Carchemish which stretched from "Southeast Asia Minor, North Syria...[to] the west bend of the Euphrates." from c.1175 BC to 990 BC.

Hypotheses About The Sea Peoples

A number of hypotheses concerning the identities and motives of the sea peoples described in the records have been formulated. They are not necessarily alternative or contradictory hypotheses; any or all might be mainly or partly true.

Philistine Hypothesis

The archaeological evidence from the southern coastal plain of modern day Israel and the Gaza Strip, termed Philistia in the Hebrew Bible, indicates a disruption of the Canaanite culture that existed during the Late Bronze Age, and its replacement (with some integration) by a culture with a possibly foreign (mainly Aegean) origin. This includes distinct pottery, which at first belongs to the Mycenaean IIIC tradition (albeit of local manufacture) and gradually transforms into a uniquely Philistine pottery. Mazar says:

... in Philistia, the producers of Mycenaean IIIC pottery must be identified as the Philistines. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that the Philistines were a group of Mycenaean Greeks who immigrated to the east .... Within several decades ... a new bichrome style, known as the "Philistine", appeared in Philistia ...

Sandars, however, does not take this point of view, but says:

... it would be less misleading to call this 'Philistine pottery' 'Sea Peoples' pottery or 'foreign' pottery, without commitment to any particular group.

Artifacts of the Philistine culture are found at numerous sites, in particular in the excavations of the five main cities of the Philistines: the "Pentapolis" of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. Some scholars (e.g. S. Sherratt, Drews, etc.) have challenged the theory that the Philistine culture is an immigrant culture, claiming instead that they are an in situ development of the Canaanite culture, but others argue for the immigrant hypothesis; for example, T. Dothan and Barako.

Minoan Hypothesis

Two of the peoples who settled in the Levant have traditions that may connect them to Crete: the Tjeker and the Peleset. The Tjeker may have left Crete to settle in Anatolia and left there to settle Dor. According to the Old Testament the Lord brought the Philistines out of Caphtor, which is accepted by the mainstream of Biblical and classical scholarship as Crete, but there are alternative minority theories. Crete of the times was populated by peoples speaking a good many languages, among which were Mycenaean Greek and Eteocretan, the descendant of the language of the Minoans. It is possible but by no means certain that these two peoples spoke Eteocretan.

Greek Migrational Hypothesis

The identifications of Denyen with the Greek Danaans and Ekwesh with the Greek Achaeans are long-standing issues in Bronze Age scholarship, whether Greek, Hittite or Biblical, especially as they lived "in the isles." If the Greeks do appear as sea peoples, what were they doing? Michael Wood gives a good summary of the question and the hypothetical role of the Greeks (who have already been proposed as the identity of the Philistines above):

... were the sea peoples ... in part actually composed of Mycenaean Greeks - rootless migrants, warrior bands and condottieri on the move ...? Certainly there seem to be suggestive parallels between the war gear and helmets of the Greeks ... and those of the Sea Peoples ....

Wood would include also the Sherden and Shekelesh, pointing that "there were migrations of Greek-speaking peoples to the same place [Sardinia and Sicily] at this time." He is careful to point out that the Greeks must only have been an element among the peoples, and that their numbers must have been relatively small. His major hypothesis, however, is that the Trojan War was fought against Troy VI and that Troy VIIa, the candidate of Carl Blegen, was sacked by essentially Greek sea peoples. He suggests that Odysseus' assumed identity of a wandering Cretan coming home from the Trojan War who fights in Egypt and serves there after being captured "remembers" the campaign of Year 8 of Ramses III, described above. He points out also that places destroyed on Cyprus at the time (such as Kition) were rebuilt by a new Greek-speaking population.

Trojan Hypothesis

The possibility that the Teresh were connected on the one hand with the Tyrrhenians, believed to be an Etruscan-related culture, and on the other with Taruissa, a Hittite name possibly referring to Troy, had already been on the academic card table for some time. The Roman poet, Vergil, plays this card when he depicts Aeneas as escaping the fall of Troy by coming to Latium, there to found a line descending to Romulus, first king of Rome. Considering that Anatolian connections have been identified for other sea peoples, such as the Tjeker and the Lukka, Zangger puts together an Anatolian suite:

The Sea People may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.

Mycenaean Warfare Hypothesis

This theory suggests that the Sea Peoples were populations from the city states of the Greek Mycenaean civilization, who destroyed each other in a disastrous series of conflicts lasting several decades. There would have been few or no external invaders and just a few excursions outside the Greek-speaking part of the Aegean civilization.

Archaeological evidence indicates that many fortified sites of the Greek domain were destroyed in the 13th century BCE, which destruction was understood at mid-20th-century to have been simultaneous or nearly so and was attributed to the Dorian Invasion championed by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati. He believed Mycenaean Pylos was burned during an amphibious raid by warriors from the north (Dorians).

Subsequent critical analysis focused on the facts that the destructions were not simultaneous and all the evidence of Dorians came from later times. John Chadwick championed a sea peoples hypothesis, which asserted that as the Pylians had retreated to the northeast, the attack must have come from the southwest, the sea peoples being, in his view, the most likely candidates. He states that they were based in Anatolia and although doubting that Mycenaeans called themselves "Achaeans" speculates that "... it is very tempting to bring them into connexion." He does not assign the Greek identity to all the sea peoples.

Considering the turbulence between and within the great families of the Mycenaean city-states in Greek mythology, the hypothesis that the Mycenaeans destroyed themselves is long-standing and finds support by the reputable Greek historian Thucydides, who theorized:

For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands ... were tempted to turn to piracy, under the conduct of their most powerful men ... they would fall upon a town unprotected by walls ... and would plunder it ... no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.

The connection of these predations to the fall of Mycenaean Greece and more widely to the sea peoples is a logical outcome. Although some advocates of the Philistine or Greek migration hypotheses (above) identify all the Mycenaeans or sea peoples as ethnically Greek, the cautious Chadwick (founder, with Michael Ventris, of Linear B studies) adopts rather the mixed ethnicity view.

Italian Peoples Hypotheses

Theories of possible connections of Sherdana to Sardinia, Shekelesh to Sicily and Teresh to Tyrrhenians even though long-standing are based inconclusively on linguistics. Is the sardine a fish that was caught by Sardinians or was it snared further east? Is a sardonic laugh one caused by the plant, sardonium, from ancient Sardis, capital of Lydia, or from Sardinia? The pre-Roman Sicels are known from a number of locations, including Sicily, presumed named after them. The Tyrrhenian Sea gives some credence to the story of Tyrrhenus mentioned above.

No evidence has been uncovered yet to settle the enigmatic Italian connections of these sea peoples. The self-name of the Etruscans, rasna, does not lend itself to to the Tyrrhenian derivation. Assertions in various articles and books that the Sherdana definitely were or were not from Sardis or some ancestor state have no foundation in the evidence. The Etruscan civilization has been studied and the language partly deciphered. It has variants and representatives in Aegean inscriptions, but these may well be from travellers or colonists of Etruscans during their sea-faring period before Rome destroyed their power. The entire Etruscan civilization can scarcely be explained by a few ships of Teresh or even a whole fleet.

Archaeology is equally enigmatic. About all that can be said for certain is that Mycenaean pottery was widespread around the Mediterranean and its introduction at various places, including Sardinia, is often associated with cultural change, violent or gradual. These circumstances appear to be enough for archaeological theorizers. The prevalent speculation is that the Shardana and Shekelesh brought those names with them to Sardinia and Sicily, "perhaps not operating from those great islands but moving toward them." More recent genetic evidence indicates that the populations in those regions are more related to the people of Anatolia than to anywhere else, but this evidence is not event- or period-specific.

Anatolian Famine Hypothesis

A famous passage from Herodotus portrays the wandering and migration of Lydians from Anatolia because of famine:

In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia .... So the king determined to divide the nation in half ... the one to stay, the other to leave the land. ... the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader ... they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships ... after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria ... and called themselves ... Tyrrhenians.

Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of sea-going migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought. More recently Sanford Holst proposed that the Sea Peoples, facing starvation, migrated from Anatolia and the Black Sea, in cooperation with the earliest Phoenicians (Canaanites just beginning to be called by that name), seeking food and land upon which to settle.

Invader Hypothesis

The term invasion is used generally in the literature concerning the period to mean the documented attacks implying a local or unspecified origin. An origin outside the Aegean also has been proposed, as in this example by Michael Grant:

There was a gigantic series of migratory waves, extending all the way from the Danube valley to the plains of China.

Such a comprehensive movement is associated with more than one people or culture; instead, a "disturbance" happens, according to Finley:

A large-scale movement of people is indicated ... the original centre of disturbance was in the Carpatho-Danubian region of Europe. ... It appears ... to have been ... pushing in different directions at different times.

If different times are allowed on the Danube, they are not in the Aegean:

...all this destruction must be dated to the same period about 1200.

The following movements are compressed by Finley into the 1200 BCE window: the Dorian Invasion, the attacks of the Sea Peoples, the formation of Philistine kingdoms in the Levant and the fall of the Hittite Empire, when in fact those events required at least a few hundred years.

The archaeological evidence is treated in the same way. Robert Drews presents a map showing the destruction sites of some 47 fortified major settlements, which he terms "Major Sites Destroyed in the Catastrophe." They are concentrated in the Levant, with some in Greece and Anatolia. The questions of dates and agents of destruction remain for the most part unanswered in detail, without which no single catastophe or related catastophes can be postulated beyond the level of pure speculation.

The invaders; that is, the replacement cultures at those sites, apparently made no attempt to retain the cities' wealth, but instead built new settlements of a materially simpler cultural and less complex economic level atop the ruins. For example, no one appropriated the palace and rich stores at Pylos, but all were burned up and the successors (whoever they were) moved in over the ruins with plain pottery and simple goods. This demonstrates a cultural discontinuity.

Whether all the discontinuities were sufficiently contemporaneous to warrant a theory of great waves of invasion is another question. Ethnic identities from the Danube and beyond are in short supply in the records.

Danes about to invade England. From "Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund" from the 12th century - Click To Enlarge