History

History Of A People: The Sea Peoples

up to 1200 BC

And this time I get to do everything without a map. I think I may have diverted my series a little bit from just covering countries, I’m ending up like I’m going to cover interesting people groups as well. So here we go with a very interesting people group, one that, more than most of what I’ve done so far, make up probably one of the greatest mysteries of history, the late Bronze Age collapse in the Mediterranean area, causing collapses and instability from Greece to Egypt to the Levant. The Sea Peoples, and that’s the only name we have for them. If they ever existed.

Timeline

Okay, let’s go over the basics of what we do know. In the period leading up to 1200 BC, Egyptian and other records make several mentions of ‘sea peoples’ coming towards their shores and being disruptive at best, violently destructive at worst. There’s little we know about them but it’s what follows in the history that makes them interesting. They are assumed by some to be responsible for the collapse of several societies in Greece, Egypt and Anatolia. The palace government in Greece that I talked about last time in Mycenaean Greece? Gone, after that, replaced by Greek villages in the Greek Dark Ages. Mycenae was destroyed, as was about every other major city around the Eastern Mediterranean. Troy, if it was not already destroyed, was destroyed again. The Hittite Kingdom disappeared too, the kings of Hattusa seeing their city fall into destruction. The New Kingdom of Egypt itself, the largest and most powerful state in the world at that time was brought to the brink of collapse under the disastrous reign of Ramesses VI and would not survive a further century under what we know as ‘the New Kingdom’, instead disappearing into another intermediate period of instability. It separated the Age Of Heroes from the Age of History, was a collapse of civilisation perhaps even on par with the Roman Empire, the Late Bronze Age collapse was a big deal for civilisation and historians have been scrambling to find a cause. And for the last century, although they were not directly responsible for the collapse, it would have taken more than a few raids to bring down empires  the commonly accepted wisdom, although it is still being challenged, is that incessant raids by those known as The Sea Peoples were the first major sign that things were not quite stable in these empires.

They were not so much a group of peoples but rather several peoples. The Egyptian texts that describe them make note of nine distinct tribes, the Denyen, the Ekkesh, the Lukka, the Peleset, the Shekelesh, the Sherden, the Tjeker, the Teresh and the Weshesh. All but the last have several strong theories as to who they might represent. The fourth one, the Peleset, is very close to the Pelasgians, a Greek term for all of the people who lived in their part of the world but were not Greek. Some cross-cultural contact between Greece and Egypt and one could well believe that they were some migratory force of Mediterranean bandits and pirates hailing from islands and coasts all along the Mediterranean. Equating some of the others with Cicilians, Sardinians, Sicilians, Lycians and early Italians would seem to make some sense, raiding parties from the less advanced areas of the Mediterranean striking out at the rich empires that they shared a coast with. The Sherden were the first met, captured by the great king Ramesses II after an ill-timed raid. What it does note is that they were no simple fishermen, they had warships and were well prepared to invade. At that time the Egyptians were of course fighting the Hittites at Kadesh, and Sea Peoples seem to show up on both sides of the conflict, some of the Sherden prisoners allegedly advised Ramesses on battle formations (and then Ramesses acted shocked that pirates could possibly be untrustworthy when these formations caused him to nearly lose the battle) while other Sea Peoples allied themselves with the Hittites. But early days yet.

Years later, by the time of Ramesses III, that pharoah watches as many neighbouring smaller kingdoms are decimated all around him, the Hittites, many minor Syrian cities. The suspicion, although it is not directly confirmed, is that the Sea Peoples, who had continued to be present in Egyptian inscriptions from Ramesses II down to now, were orchestrating these attacks and that it had turned from simple raids into large movements of population. It was against Ramesses that this wave faltered as he records several victories against the invaders, at least a few of which we’re sure he actually won. One definite battle he won involved him hiding his fleet in the Nile Delta, leading the Sea People fleets into a trap, upon which they were capsized and their forces summarily executed.

What happened then with the Sea Peoples is disputed. For some, they disappeared from history, the people becoming absorbed into native populations and once the instability they caused or otherwise caused the Bronze Age collapse were mostly gone. There is a theory that the Pharoahs settled the defeated Sea Peoples in Judea, where they might have, based on names like Denyen and Peleset made up some of the Israelite tribes, particularly the more maritime and unruly ones like Dan and Asher, as well as the Philistines.

I would perhaps say The Sea Peoples are one of the greatest mysteries of history and why I love studying it. You can paint them as these harbingers of doom, pirates and rapscallions heralding the start of a historic dark age and that is definitely what those under attack by them wanted the readers of their inscriptions to believe. Propaganda never changes.

I’m going to go back a bit and do the multi-cultural centre of the Middle East, Mitanni, next time.

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