Who Were the Sea People

 Who Were the Sea People?

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. 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. Medinet Habu Inscription

Various scholars have tried to place these people with recognizable regions. 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?)


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


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. "


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 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. 

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

Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats

 Ancient Egypt Ships and Boats 

When men live by water, whether marsh, river, or sea, they eventually discover ways to build vehicles to move across that water. Egypt’s life has always turned around its River, the Nile, and its marshes in the Delta.The cheapest form of primitive boat was the pot boat, simply a clay container large enough to accommodate a passenger. It was meant for places free of rocks and was ideal for getting around the marshy areas of the Nile delta. Egypt was fairly treeless and it would be difficult to find other means of building boats.

Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats


The Egyptians did find enough wood to make planked boats. There is evidence that the Old Kingdom of Egypt had the first planked boats ever made. The boat made out of planks was an improvement on the dugout which was hollowed out of a single log. In southern Egypt, archaeologists have found a multitude of pictures of boats that, shortly before 3100 BCE, were drawn on rock outcrops or were included as part of the decoration on pottery. Among them, are some that show a mast with a broad square sail hung from it. The tombs of Egypt have yielded pictures and even models of a variety of river craft, from tiny rowboats through swift yachts and dispatch boats to enormous barges large enough to carry huge obelisks weighing hundreds of tons from the quarries.The earliest surviving example of a sewn boat, one which had the side planking sewn together with fibers, cords, or thongs, was found beside the great pyramid of Giza. It is most probably a descendant of boats going back into Egypt’s predynastic times.

 Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats

The Nile River was the catalyst for these and more early boats. It is a perfect waterway, running some 500 miles from the beginning of the delta near Cairo to the First Cataract at Aswan (Elephantine). Since the prevailing wind blows against the flow of the water, boatmen could drift downstream (or with the current), and when returning they could raise sail and be gently driven back home. The Egyptians were also the first recorded people to use sails on their craft.

If wood was scarce in Egypt, reeds were not. For their first water transport, the Egyptians turned to these bulrushes. By the middle of the fourth millennium BCE they were building rafts of bundles of reeds tied together, eventually learning to shape them, making them long and narrow and gracefully bowed. They fashioned paddles to propel the rafts and mounted paddles to serve as rudders. They built craft large enough to accommodate two deck cabins and require a long line of rowers to move them.

The first sail was probably a large leafy frond set up in the bow. By about 3500 BCE the Egyptians had replaced this leaf frond with a true sail, made of woven reeds or leaves set on a vertical mast, shaped square.

By the Old Kingdom, reed ships were now taking on a more boat-like shape, with a spoonlike form and a prow and stern that came together into a point, often finished off with an ornament shaped like a lotus bud. But with the new pyramid-building program, stone was required—stone which could only be obtained from quarries on the other side of the river or upstream at Aswan. Riverboats were needed that could transport huge limestone blocks. Boats now had to be made of wood.

Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats
These first wooden boats were more or less replicas of the earlier reed boats. They were built square at each end, more barge than boat. Since Egypt lacked good timber, the shipwrights devised a special technique. They used the acacia tree, with brittle wood which only comes in short lengths. But they cut planks three feet long, put together like brick, building up the hull from a central plank laid for the bottom. They would join the three foot planks together edge to edge by means of long close-set dowels, and when the hull was built up they stretched crossbeams over it. The Pharaoh Snefru, who ruled Egypt about 2600 BCE, was reported to have imported forty ships filled with cedar logs to build more ships. In the tombs of pharaohs and nobles in earlier dynasties, archaeologists have found jars and pitchers made in Palestine and Syria, and in those lands, they have dug up artifacts that were unquestionably Egyptian. Were these transfers of objects done by land or by sea?

Egypt also needed myrrh for unguents and embalming, and frankincense to burn with myrrh in its temples. These products came from southern Arabia and parts of what is now Ethiopia and Somalia. The only alternative to the overland route with all its middlemen and increase in prices and costs was by water down the Red Sea. But the Nile was separated from the Red Sea, the closest place between being an eight-day march across desert, near the Wadi Hammamat. A minister of Mentuhotep III, named Henu, inscribed how he was assigned the job of dispatching a ship to the land of Punt to gather myrrh. But first he had to take 3000 men to the Red Sea and build the ship.


In the Western or European world, boats have been built starting with a skeleton of keel and ribs, with a skin of planking attached. The Egyptians constructed their vessels, whether small or large, without keel, and with few, very light ribs. They had no violent storms, winds ripping currents or waves; they mostly sailed a river. The only stiffening provided beyond a handful of ribs consisted of beams run from side to side on which the deck was laid.

When Sahure in 2450 BCE wanted to transport men to the Lebanon coast, boats were needed that adapted this river-design to sea sailing. Around one end of the vessel was looped an enormous hawser, which was carried along the centerline above the deck and looped about the other end. This served for internal stiffening, as the hawser kept the ends from sagging when the boat rode heavy waves. An elaborate netting was also added, which ran horizontally about the upper part of the hull. A two-legged mast rather than the single mast was also designed, and it served to distribute the pressure, steadied by lines fore and aft. A tall, slender square-sail was mounted with two spars spreading it, a yard along the head, and a boom along the foot. When there was no wind, sail was taken in, the mast lowered, and rowers could power the ship along.

Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats

A thousand years later, shipbuilders were designing the ships that were shown on Hatshepsut’s reliefs. These had graceful lines and were faster than Sahure’s ships. The sail was broader, not as tall as before, extremely wide. There were fifteen rowers along each side, the overall length of these ships must have been about 90 feet. Trade with Punt was steady and enriching.

Also, obelisks for her temple needed to be transported from Aswan quarries. These obelisks were each almost 100 feet high, and the barge built to ferry them was some 200 feet long with a beam of 70 feet. It required almost 30 oar-driven tugs, each with 30 rowers, to tow that barge.

During the reign of Tuthmosis III, Hatshepsut’s successor, Egypt’s trade increased still more. Punt provided incense, ivory, and rare woods. Copper was brought from Cyprus and silver from Asia Minor. One king of Cyprus in turn requested horses, chariots, a wooden gold plated bed, jars of oil. In another letter he requests a sorcerer who is expert with eagles. A record of such trade activity stands as a painting on the wall of the tomb chamber of Kenamun, official under Amenhotep III.

A wave of invading peoples came out of the eastern Mediterranean right to their very shores. Ramesses III repelled this invasion, celebrating his victory by carving on the temple wall an account accompanied by reliefs describing the sea battle. The description of the Egyptian ships shows that their warships at least have become shorter and heavier in the hull, the anti-sagging truss has disappeared, indicating that some other method of inner strength had been utilized. The elegant curved stern, too delicate for war, was replaced by an undecorated sloping stern and the sternpost replaced by a simple projection ending in a lion’s head. Egypt had joined the rest of the Mediterranean in building its watercraft for war.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

 Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

As a practical weapon, it was the battle axe that eventually replaced the mace as one of the Egyptian military's primary close combat weapons.Infantry armed with battle axes were typically deployed after the enemy had been weakened by archers. The axe was more effective in cutting wounded or fleeing enemies to pieces than it was in breaching an intact battle line.  The Hyksos, Asiatics themselves, are credited with having introduced scale body armor into Egypt and brought about changes in the form of the battle axe there by the middle of the 2nd millennium.

 Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

Hence, one distinguishes between two kinds of battle axe: the cutting and the piercing axe. Both were used by Egyptian soldiers, but under different circumstances.
The cutting axe is a blade fastened to a sizable handle, the idea being to keep as far as possible from harm's way. As relatively little power was exerted the affixing of the blade to the handle was not very critical. The head was generally inserted into a hole or groove in the wooden handle and tied fast.  The cutting axe is effective against enemies who do not wear body armor and helmets, as was the custom in Africa, Egypt included. It disappeared as armor became more prevalent, which happened later in Egypt than in Asia, where as early as the 3rd millennium BC Sumerians are depicted wearing helmets.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

The piercing axe was designed to penetrate armor, above all helmets. In Asiatic cultures this brought about a change in the way the blade was connected to the handle. The blade was cast with an eye through which the handle could be inserted. In reality, the cutting blade was used throughout Egyptian Dynastic history, while the piercing blade did not appear until the Middle Kingdom. Overall, we can distinguish between about five different subtypes of battle axes.

In the Old and Middle Kingdom, we find a relatively small, semicircular axe head affixed to a long shaft, while the first, long piercing axe head shows up  only in the Middle Kingdom. Also in the Middle Kingdom, we also begin to see the scalloped, or tanged axe head. Then in the New Kingdom, we find a very long, narrow axe head used for piercing, as well as an openwork axe head, introduced at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty which appears to have been purely for ceremonial or funerary purposes. Essentially, the New Kingdom battle axe blades were refined into a much longer, narrower and straighter form designed to achieve deeper penetration. Hence, throughout the dynastic period, the battle axe was one of the most commonly used weapons, first eclipsing the mace, and then gradually being replaced itself.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

Even the adaptation of the axe to piercing armor could not prevent its falling into disuse. For example they continued to use flint knives even up to the Roman period for ritual butchering, and, like the mace, we continue to find examples of ornamental or ceremonial battle axes long after their abandonment as a practical weapon.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

Swords and Daggers

Daggers were used as a weapon from the very earliest periods of Egyptian history, though like the battle axe, initially they were one and the same as knives used for non-military work. Initially made of flint, at no time would the standard dagger have been a very effective weapon against battle axes or even maces, with their long reach. However, almost from the very  beginning of Egyptian history, they were adorned as ceremonial objects, first made of flint, but with golden hilts at times, and later even more ornate and varied construction.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

However, it was the dagger that would eventually lead to a more useful close combat weapon: the sword.

Unlike the other arms used by the ancient Egyptians, including knives and daggers, swords were a direct consequence of the introduction of metal. There are no stone predecessors of this kind of weapon. Axes, arrows and spears have a long wooden handle or shaft and a small cutting or piercing head which was fashioned of flint during the Neolithic period.  Swords, on the other hand, often have short wooden or ivory handles and long cutting edges, which could only be achieved with a metal harder than copper. Bronze, easier to cast than copper and significantly harder, was first used for making swords. Its natural temper could be further augmented by repeated heating and cooling and hammering.


Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

Initially, what we may think of as a sword was simply an elongated dagger. This weapon first seems to have appeared at the beginning of the New Kingdom and gradually developed into a weapon resembling a short sword. The most specialized form of these early daggers was the khepesh, modeled on an Asiatic form that first appeared in the Second Intermediate Period, though it did not see widespread use in Egypt until the late New Kingdom. We find, for example, khepesh, which were named for their similarity to the foreleg of an animal and were  very scimitar-like weapons, being employed to decapitate Sea People prisoners in reliefs from the time of Ramsesses III.

Edged Combat Weapons of Ancient Egyptians

The Sea Peoples had learned metallurgical techniques from the more advanced peoples in eastern Europe. After their defeat, many were incorporated into the Egyptian army, and under their influence longer swords of up to 75 centimeters began to be forged. They moreover favored a straight, two-edged blade with a sharp point, which replaced the curved Egyptian swords.  But it was with improvements in the production and working of iron that the sword became the main weapon of the ancient infantry all around the Mediterranean. Less brittle than bronze, iron weapons could be made thinner and lighter and still retain their strength.  Maces and axes were effective because of the weight of their heads and the force of the fighter, iron swords favored the swordsman with the better technique. Precision of movement and the timing of the strike could give even physically less than overwhelming soldiers an edge over much stronger opponents.

Swords can be used for both cutting and stabbing. The blades of cutting swords were often bent and wide. Troop contingents were issued with either of these kinds of sword and deployed accordingly.

In the army of Ramesses III for instance, Sherden and Philistine mercenaries armed with pointed piercing swords preceded native Egyptian soldiers with curved cutting swords. The Sea People shock troops breached the ranks of their Libyan opponents who were then cut to pieces by the Egyptians.  Scabbards were known, though seemingly rarely used.

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