Sea Peoples

Definition

by
published on 02 September 2009

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. 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”).

Names of what may have been the tribes which comprised the Sea Peoples have been recorded as the Sherden, the Sheklesh, Lukka, Tursha and Akawasha. Outside Egypt, they also frequently assaulted the coastal regions of the Hittite Empire, the Levant and other areas around the Mediterranean coast. 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. 

The Sea Peoples are mentioned as allies of the Hittites by Ramesses II in his record of the Battle of Kadesh in 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 the Nile 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.



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