In 1208 BCE Libyans and five other groups—the Shardana, Shekelesh, Akawasha, Lukka and Tursha—invaded the Nile Delta. An inscription on a wall erected by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah in the temple of Amun at Karnak describes the Libyans’ allies as “northerners” or “of the Countries of the Sea.” So modern scholars have come to call these invaders the Sea Peoples.
Some of these Sea Peoples had been known in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a century. A letter written to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1352-1334 BCE) refers to piratical raids on coastal towns in Cyprus and Syria by the Lukka people. The Shardana also had launched surprise attacks by sea, occasionally pillaging Egypt’s coast from the time of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1352 BCE). Ramesses II (c. 1279–1213 BCE), too, complained about Shardana pirates who “came boldly [sailing] in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.” Because of the Shardana’s reputation as fierce warriors, 19th Dynasty pharaohs sometimes hired them as mercenaries; there were even Shardana in Ramesses II’s royal bodyguard.
About a generation after the Libyan-Sea Peoples’ invasion of Egypt, Ramesses III (c. 1186-1155 BCE) met an even greater menace. Heading toward Egypt was a coalition of marauding groups that had progressed through Anatolia and northern Syria. Inscriptions and reliefs on Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu record the threat:
The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands [or sea-lands, since the word can also refer to a mainland’s coast]. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti [the Hittite Empire], Kode [Cilicia], Carchemish [a city on the Euphrates in Syria], Arzawa [a Hittite vassal state in western Anatolia], and Alashiya [Cyprus] on, being cut off at (one time). A camp was set up in one place in Amurru [coastal Syria]. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward 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 succeed!” (trans. John Wilson, in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton, 1955])
Ramesses III defeated the Sea Peoples’ army, probably in Canaan. The Sea Peoples’ naval fleet, however, sailed on to Egypt, where it was decimated by the Egyptians. The Harris Papyrus, a long record of the piety and benefactions of Ramesses III, states that the pharaoh settled the Sea Peoples as mercenaries in garrison towns of Palestine and Syria. Soon after his death, Egypt lost control over Canaan. The garrisons of Sea Peoples, perhaps supplemented by more recent arrivals, gained control of a number of coastal sites in the Levant.
Who were these mysterious tribes? Of the many groups mentioned in the Egyptian texts, only two can be identified with a high degree of probability. The Peleset were likely the Philistines, and the Lukka were probably the ancestors of the Lycians, who in classical times inhabited southwestern Anatolia.
According to the Bible, the Philistines came to Canaan from Caphtor (see, for example, Deuteronomy 2:23), the place called Kaptara in Akkadian texts and Keftiu in Egyptian ones. Other biblical texts refer to Philistines as “Cherethites” (probably Cretans) and to part of the Philistine coast as “the Cretan Negev” (1 Samuel 30:14). The Egyptians described Keftiu as a place “in the midst of the Great Green” (the Mediterranean Sea) and depicted its people wearing Minoan-Mycenaean costumes and carrying Minoan-Mycenaean objects, such as long, conical ceremonial cups and vessels in the shape of a bull’s head. So Caphtor/Keftiu probably was the ancient Near Eastern name for Crete or for the region of Minoan-Mycenaean cultural influence (that is, the Aegean).
Archaeologists have traced much of the Philistine material culture to the Aegean. Many types of pottery from 12th-century BCE strata of Philistine cities in Palestine developed from Mycenaean prototypes, the style known as Late Helladic IIIC1. This Aegean-Philistine pottery was not imported from the Aegean or even copied from imported ware; rather, Philistine potters in the Levant simply had retained most of their Aegean traditions.
Although these Philistine ceramic traditions are predominantly Mycenaean, some Philistine pottery types reflect Cypriot styles. We know that many Mycenaeans settled in Cyprus in the late 13th century BCE, and there was an additional influx of Aegean groups into Cyprus during the early 12th century BCE All in all, the evidence supports Israeli archaeologist Trude Dothan’s conclusion that the Philistines acquired various cultural influences as they migrated from the Aegean into the Near East.
The Lukka, who were also from the Aegean area, were known as seafaring pirates during the 14th century BCE Hittite and Ugaritic sources indicate that the Lukka lands probably were located in southwestern Anatolia. This corner of Anatolia was called Lycia (Lukia in Greek) in classical times.
The other Sea Peoples mentioned in the Egyptian accounts—such as the Akawasha, Denyen, Tursha, Shardana and Shekelesh—probably came largely from the eastern Aegean region and coastal Anatolia. Some scholars have suggested that the Akawasha should be identified with Homer’s Achaeans. The Denyen have often been equated with the Danaans (Danaoi), a synonym for Achaeans in the Iliad. Others connect them with Cilicia in southern Anatolia, however, and derive their name from the city of Adana. According to some scholars, the Tursha are from a place in western Anatolia called Taruisa by the Hittites, perhaps to be identified with Troy. According to others, the Tursha are Tyrrhenians (Tursenoi), the Greek name for the Etruscans who inhabited north-central Italy in the first millennium BCE
The Shardana and Shekelesh have often been identified as Sardinians and Sicilians (Sikeloi). However, those who support this identification disagree about how the migration worked—with some arguing that these tribes arrived in the Near East from Sardinia and Sicily, and others arguing that they arrived in Sardinia and Sicily from the Near East. Both groups may well be wrong.
Except for the Peleset/Philistines and Lukka/Lycians, in fact, all of these identifications are questionable. We don’t really know exactly where most of the Sea Peoples came from, how large their numbers were, or how much they contributed to the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East. Elusive and intriguing, they remain in the offing of modern scholarship. (see more in next articles)
Archeological Evidences – City by City
Mycenae. Described by Homer as a “strong-founded citadel” that was “rich in gold,” Mycenae was the greatest of the Mycenaean cities that flourished in mainland Greece from about 1600 to 1200 BCE (In the Trojan War, Mycenae’s king, Agamemnon, is the king of kings who leads the Greeks into battle.) Around 1500 BCE Mycenaeans conquered the island of Crete and adapted the Minoan script, called Linear A, to write their own language, an ancient form of Greek.
This new script, called Linear B, was used solely for recording inventories and commercial transactions; hundreds of Linear B tablets have been found both on Crete and in such Mycenaean cities as Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae itself. When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae in the 1870s, he uncovered royal shaft graves filled with extraordinary gold artifacts. All of the Mycenaean cities were destroyed toward the end of the 13th century BCE or the beginning of the 12th century BCE.
Knossos. The island of Crete gave rise to Europe’s first and most splendid Bronze Age civilization. In the early second millennium BCE, the Minoans, named by modern archaeologists after the legendary King Minos, built an elaborate palace complex at Knossos, which was excavated—and partly restored—by the British antiquarian Arthur Evans about a century ago.
The Minoans were extremely influential in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean—trading textiles, timber and wine to Cyprus for copper and Anatolia for tin. Minoan frescoes dating to the 17th century BCE. This new script, called Linear B, was used solely for recording inventories and commercial transactions; hundreds of Linear B tablets have been found both on Crete and in such Mycenaean cities as Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae itself. When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae in the 1870s, he uncovered royal shaft graves filled with extraordinary gold artifacts (shown at left). All of the Mycenaean cities were destroyed toward the end of the 13th century BCE or the beginning of the 12th century BCE.
Troy. Located near the western entrance to the Dardanelles, ancient Troy (modern Hisarlik, in northwestern Turkey) grew rich levying mooring fees on vessels waiting to negotiate the straits leading to the Black Sea. First inhabited in the early third millennium BCE., Troy became an important commercial center for wool, horse-breeding and metalworking. (The gold objects of “Priam’s Treasure,” excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, are from the end of the third millennium BCE.) Late Bronze Age Troy, perhaps the city described by Homer, lasted from about 1700 to 1200 BCE.; this settlement featured towering fortifications and a great defensive moat. The citadel’s palaces were destroyed around 1250 BCE.—either by earthquake, fire or attack—and replaced by more modest buildings. Some 70 years later, Troy was attacked and burned.
Hattusa. So vast was the Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Bogazköy, in central Turkey) that its circuit walls ran for six miles. The city contained a temple complex with a remarkable library of over 3,000 clay tablets—many of them written in Hittite, the earliest recorded Indo-European language. The Hittites worshiped their “One Thousand Gods” in the sanctuary of Yazilikaya, a rock outcropping 2 miles from Hattusa that was carved with images of Hittite and Hurrian deities and kings. By the mid-14th century BCE the Hittites had become one of the Near East’s superpowers, rivaling Egypt in the south and Assyria in the east. Toward the end of the 13th century BCE, however, their kingdom suddenly collapsed and Hattusa was destroyed.
Ugarit. During the second half of the 14th century BCE, Ugarit, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, experienced a period of great peace and prosperity. Ugarit’s merchants traded for Mesopotamian and Lebanese timber, Mycenaean pottery, Egyptian ivory, Cypriot copper and Anatolian tin. This was one of the Bronze Age’s most scintillating cities: Its citizens carved delicate ivory figurines (above), made elaborate inlaid furniture, adapted the Semitic alphabet for cuneiform characters and recorded numerous Canaanite myths, songs and stories. (Much of this was revealed by the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer, who excavated Ugarit from 1929 to 1970.) Ugarit’s golden age ended around 1300 BCE, when an earthquake struck the region and a tidal wave and fire engulfed the city. A century later, invading Sea Peoples from the Aegean disrupted the city’s commercial routes and forced much of its population to migrate to other sites. The Sea Peoples eventually conquered Ugarit and set the city ablaze.
Megiddo. Perhaps no other city in the ancient world is so associated with destruction as the mountaintop citadel of Megiddo, in north-central Israel. (The word “Armegeddon,” referring to the final battle between Good and Evil, derives from har Megiddo, a Hebrew term meaning “mountain of Megiddo.” Settled by Canaanites in the fourth millennium BCE, Megiddo prospered greatly during the Late Bronze Age. During this period, a palace was built near the gateway of the city, with an ingenious passageway cut through the bedrock to link the citadel to a spring outside the city’s walls. Around 1130 BCE, Megiddo and other Canaanite cities were violently destroyed—perhaps by a strong earthquake.