Egypt: Who Were the Sea People

Who Were the Sea People

By Robert Anderson

A Captured Sea People from Medinet Habu

The Sea People, who we are told of on reliefs at Medinet Habu and Karnak, as well as from the text of the Great Harris Papyrus (now in the British Museum), are said to be a loose confederation of people originating in the eastern Mediterranean. From their individual names, we believe that they may specifically have come from the Aegean and Asia Minor. However, regardless of their organization as a "loose confederation", they did manage to invade Egypt's northern coast and apparently mounted campaigns against the Egyptians on more than one occasion.

The 12th century brought dramatic changes that permanently affected Asia Minor and the civilized world of that time. Between 1200 and 1176 BC, the chaos that occurred in that region was probably a direct outcome of Sea People activity, and may be one reason why we find it difficult to find historical documentation beyond that date in Asia Minor.

We actually believe that the Sea People became active as early as the reign of Akhenaten. These were probably the Denen, Lukka and Sherden. The Lukka and Sherden are also recorded, along with the Peleset as serving as mercenaries in the army of Ramesses II, especially at the Battle of Qadesh. In fact, Ramesses II had earlier been forced to defend himself against attempts by the Sherden to establish a chain of efforts to the west of Egypt. They had arrived in that area almost a century earlier, and are said to have included the Libu, who would eventually give their name to Libya. An inscription of Ramesses II relates in the 8th year of his reign (which is dated c. 1176 BC):

"No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: 'Our plans will succeeded!'

Medinet Habu Inscription

Various scholars have tried to place these people with recognizable regions. We are told by ancient text that they came from Ahhiyawa. However, we are told that the Sea People included:

  • The Peleset, who were non other than the Philistines that gave their name to Palestine.
  • The Lukka who may have come from the Lycian region of Anatolia.
  • The Ekwesh and Denen who seem to be identified with the Homeric Achaean and Danaean Greeks
  • The Sherden who may be associated with Sardinia.
  • The Teresh (Tursha or Tyrshenoi - possibly the Tyrrhenians), the Greek name for the Etruscans; or from the western Anatolian Taruisa
  • Shekelesh (Shekresh, Sikeloi - Sicilians?)

A Sherden Soldier from the Battle of Qadesh depicted on the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos

It would seem that, rather than bands of plunderers, the Sea People were probably part of a great migration of displaced people. The migration was most likely the result of widespread crop failures and famine. In fact, we learn from an inscription at Karnak that Merenptah had already sent grain to the starving Hittites. However, after causing havoc in Mycenaen Greece and elsewhere, they finally arrived on the Delta coast between Cyrenaica and Mersa Matruh. This area was, during this period, seasonally occupied by foreign seafarers sailing from Cyprus via Crete to the Egyptian Delta, so perhaps the initial settlement was not cause for alarm. Here, however, the Sea People joined with the Libyan tribes creating a strong force of some 16,000 men.

As they began to enter Egypt, the warriors were usually accompanied by their wives and families, and it appears that they carried their possessions in ox-drawn cards, prepared to settle down though whatever territory they transverse. After organizing themselves with the Libyans, they began to penetrate the western Delta, and were moving southwards towards Memphis and Heliopolis

Ramesses III smiting the Sea People

This first attack of the Sea people occurred during the 5th regnal year of Merenptah, the 19th Dynasty ruler and son of Ramesses II, and it seems that at first it took that king by surprise. Of course, Merenptah could not allow the Sea People to advance on Egypt's most sacred cities, and it seems that he put an end to this in a six hour battle by killing more than six thousand of them and routing the rest. Those Sea People who were captured appear to have been settled in military colonies located in the Delta, where their descendants would become an increasingly important political factor over time. Moshe Dothan's excavations at the Philistine city of Ashdod between 1962 and 1969, which uncovered a burnt layer dating to the 13th century BC, may correspond to this event, or to the arrival of the Peleset themselves in the area. Merenptah's victory was recorded on the walls of the temple of Amun at Karnak and on the document we often refer to as the Israel Stele from his funerary temple.

However, the Sea People's alliance appears to have remained strong, for afterwards they destroyed the Hittite empire, ransacking the capital of Hattusas, and were probably responsible for the sacking of the client city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, as well as cities such as Alalakh in northern Syria. Cyprus had also been overwhelmed and its capital Enkomi ransacked. It was clear that their ultimate goal was Egypt.

In the 8th regnal year of Ramesses III, they again returned to attack Egypt, by both land and sea. Ramesses III records that:

"The foreign countries made a plot in their islands. Dislodged and scattered by battle were the lands all at one time, and no land could stand before their arms, beginning with Khatti [1], Kode [2], Carchemish [3], Arzawa [4], and Alasiya [5]... A camp was set up in one place in Amor [6], and they desolated its people and its land as though they had never come into being. They came, the flame prepared before them, onwards to Egypt. Their confederacy consisted of Peleset, Tjekker, Sheklesh, Danu, and Weshesh, united lands, and they laid their hands upon the lands to the entire circuit of the earth, their hearts bent and trustful 'Our plan is accomplished!' But the heart of this god, the lord of the gods, was prepared and ready to ensnare them like birds... I established my boundary in Djahi [7], prepared in front of them, the local princes, garrison-commanders, and Maryannu. I caused to be prepared the rivermouth like a strong wall with warships, galleys, and skiffs. They were completely equipped both fore and aft with brave fighters carrying their weapons and infantry of all the pick of Egypt, being like roaring lions upon the mountains; chariotry with able warriors and all goodly officers whose hands were competent. Their horses quivered in all their limbs, prepared to crush the foreign countries under their hoofs. "

Defeated Philistines being led into captivity

Again, Egypt seems to have been ready for this onslaught, for they have positioned troops at Djahy in southern Palestine and fortified the mouths of the Nile branches in the Delta. The clash, when it came was a complete success for the Egyptians. The Sea Peoples, on land, were defeated and scattered but their navy continued towards the eastern Nile delta. Their aim now, was to defeat the Egyptian navy and force an entry up the river. Although the Egyptians had a reputation as poor seamen they fought with the tenacity of those defending their homes. Ramesses had lined the shores with ranks of archers who kept up continuous volleys of arrows into the enemy ships when they attempted to land. Then the Egyptian navy attacked using grappling hooks to haul in the enemy ships. In the brutal hand to hand fighting which ensued the Sea People are utterly defeated. Ramesses III recorded his victory in stone on the outer walls of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu and the author of the Harris papyrus included the accounts of these campaigns as well. He tells us that:

"As for those who reached my boundary, their seed is not. Their hearts and their souls are finished unto all eternity. Those who came forward together upon the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the rivermouths, and a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. "

The Sea Battle of Ramesses III's Encounter with the Sea People
The Sea Battle of Ramesses III's Encounter with the Sea People

While the Sea People forever changed the face of the Mediterranean world, they never succeeded in conquering Egypt, and their presence in Syria-Palestine does not at first seem to have affected Egypt's sway over its northern territories.

[1] Khatti: The Hittite empire in Anatolia, Hatti
[2] Kode: Cilicia
[3] Carchemish: City on the Euphrates in northern Syria
[4] Arzawa: Country in western Anatolia, allied to Hatti
[5] Alasiya: Cyprus
[6] Amor: Amurru in northern Syria
[7] Djahi: region in Canaan, possibly in the Judean hills


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Last Updated: June 9th, 2011