Invasions by the mysterious Sea Peoples in the 12th century BC not only devastated the Hittite Empire but also forced the Egyptians back to their traditional Nile kingdom.
The Fall of Hatti
The treaty remained in effect, and peaceful relations persisted, until the fall of the Hittite empire under pressures from both the Assyrians and the migrating Sea Peoples (who ushered in the Iron Age), just about the beginning of the reign of Ramesses III of Dynasty 20. The Hittite empire would be succeeded – in name only – by the biblical Hittites, the Neo-Hittites of North Syria; and Egypt would be left as the only remaining one of the three original superpowers. In an inscription dated to his fifth regnal year, Merenptah, the successor of Ramesses II, mentions that he had supplied shiploads of grain to Hatti after a disastrous crop failure (Kitchen 1982: 215; Davies 1997: 156–57).45 In the historical inscription of his year 8 at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III describes the destruction of Hatti by the Sea Peoples (presumably under its last known king, Suppiluliuma II, the younger son of Tudhaliya IV): “No land could stand before their arms” (Edgerton and Wilson 1936: 53; Peden 1994: 29). The lands of Qode/Kizzuwatna, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alasiya/Cyprus also fell in the same series of assaults, as did Ugarit and Troy. Egypt, itself in turmoil at the time, was in no position to come to Hatti’s aid.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian propaganda machine, always operating at a fever pitch, continued to portray the Hittites in typically xenophobic fashion. In a series of undated battle scenes, set pieces from his great temple at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III – eager to emulate his illustrious predecessor, Ramesses II – anachronistically records fictitious victories over three Hittite-controlled towns! (Edgerton and Wilson 1936: 94–96). At Karnak he also borrows freely from Sety I in describing himself as “one who has trampled down the Hittites and slain their chief – (all) thrown to the ground in (pools of) their (own) blood” (Epigraphic Survey 1936: pl. 82A).48 The symbolic value of Hatti as an enemy overcome was maintained down into the Roman period (Gauthier 1927: 188). However, it was not a time for celebration. There would be no “peace dividend,” as Egypt was already suffering the beginnings of internal instability – the economic, social, and civil disorders which characterize the end of the New Kingdom. Shortly after the death of Ramesses III, Egypt would lose all claim to superpower status for the better part of two centuries – just as the Israelite and Philistine/Palestinian kingdoms were organizing themselves in Canaan. But that is another story.
Later, in Dynasties XIX and XX (the Ramesside Period), the Sherden, originally sea raiders in the eastern Mediterranean, performed similar duty. These foreigners appear both in texts as well as in battle reliefs serving the Pharaoh. They also owned plots of land in Egypt, small to be sure, but this must indicate that they had become settled within the Nile Valley. In other words, the Sherden were inhabitants of the land that they served. The males appear to have been organized into separate contingents within the Egyptian army. Indeed, they are connected with various “strongholds,” presumably set up by the Ramesside kings in order to continue their separate way of life. The Sherden are also known to have been organized along different military lines than the Egyptians. But they did not remain loyal to their monarchs only for pay. They actually lived in Egypt and belonged to the economic structure of the land. Noteworthy is the presence of Sherden “mercenaries” within the Egyptian army at Kadesh in the king’s fifth regnal year. Sherden were acting as a guard around Ramesses on the occasion when he ordered the Hittite scouts to be beaten.
The Sea Peoples
In Ramses III eighth regnal year, the Sea Peoples attacked. This event, comprising two separate attacks by land and sea, was a result of the enemy presence hovering along the settled coastline of the eastern Mediterranean and also moving overland through Asia Minor and Syria. As with the Libyans, the warfare resulted from their attempt to settle in the Egyptian-held territory. In the case of the Sea Peoples we witness the next stage of their bellicose policy. These foes of Egypt were actually originally soldiers of fortune but also traders. Like the Norsemen, and the Islamic pirates of the western Mediterranean who threatened Italy and Spain, the Sea Peoples would trade if they had to. But if a port city was undefended or even unfortified, then it was easy prey to these raiders.
By and large the sources for all of these defensive wars are found in the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, located to the west of the city of Thebes. On the walls of that religious building we see and read the accounts of battle. Significantly, the Sea Peoples appear in at least three guises, all of which can be determined by their headdresses. Some have feathers on their helmets whereas other used horns. A third type is depicted with thick caps. Some of them turn up in the scenes of both the Libyan wars under Ramesses III. The confederacy of these pirates included the Peleshet (the later Philistines), Shekelesh, Sherden, Weshesh, and the Denyen. Beside the reappearance of the Sherden on the opposite side of battle was the last group who appear to have come from southeastern Anatolia. The other ethnic units of this amorphous group have been identified earlier.
The lengthy Year Eight Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu outlines the Sea Peoples’ threat. A background to the two-pronged advance upon the Delta is reported, but this portion of the historical narrative is very vague and, in fact, lacking in historical exactitude. For example, the opening baldly states “The foreign lands made a confederacy in their islands.” If we accept this Egyptian account then we must assume that some type of military alliance among many of the Sea Peoples had come to pass. It was in the far north, and led to success against the various kingdoms and city-states in Anatolia and Syria. The allies of the Hittites – Qadi and Carchemish in North Syria as well as Arzawa in southwest Anatolia and Cyprus (Alashiya) – were taken. The Hittite empire fell. Somewhat earlier, accounts from the northern Lebanese port of Ugarit indicate a series of naval preparations and battles at sea just before that crucial city was taken by the enemy, thereby indicating that this massive success could not have been sudden.
The confederacy reassembled in the middle of Amurru in northern Syria and then moved down by land into Palestine. We can presume that the attack was directed along the coast if only because a fleet of Sea Peoples later made its way to one of the Nile mouths in the Eastern Delta. The threat was severe and the local military and civilian Egyptian administrations of Palestine could not deal with it. Scenes at Medinet Habu show Ramesses marching in his chariot out against the enemy accompanied by his native troops as well as foreign ones (e.g., Sherden); the final charge on the battlefield was with the chariotry. The Sea Peoples had arrived with foot soldiers as well as their women, children, and baggage train, the latter pulled by oxen. The attempt was aimed at settlement along the coast of Southern Palestine and possibly in the more lush regions of northern Egypt.
At this time the population of the Delta had expanded more rapidly in Dynasties XIX–XX than in the Nile Valley, and therefore this region had become more important. This is best seen in the transference of the capital from Memphis to Avaris in the early Ramesside Period, and may also be observed in the subsequent move to Tanis at the close of the New Kingdom. The topographic layout of the Delta in Dynasties XIX and XX has been ably reconstructed so that we are able to understand the geographical ramifications of the Sea Peoples’ naval attack as well as the persistent Libyan threat. North of Memphis there were three main Nile arms, two of which branched off in the middle of the Delta. The Western River, located east of the actual desert tract of Libya, split into two arms further north, roughly at the site of Kom el Hisn. It formed an effective boundary. The age-old city of Sais, also in the west, was located on the Water of Ptah, the second branch. In the center of the Delta was the Great River. According the Great Karnak Inscription of Merenptah, the Libyans had at an earlier time crossed this key zone. To the east were respectively the Water of Amun and the Water of Re. Both Avaris, modern Tell ed-Daba, and Bubastis, somewhat upstream, were situated on the second branch. Heliopolis had its own canal, called Ity, and even here the Libyans threatened the Egyptians in Merenptah’s time. Lastly, at the egresses of Egypt to the northeast were the famous Bitter Lakes, the Biblical Sea of Reeds, and Shi-Hor, the name of a lake as well as the most eastern arm of the Nile. Various canals later connected the Nile arms of the Delta, thereby horizontally linking all key Delta cities, but it is unclear whether such a complex system existed in the New Kingdom.
Especially perturbing is the absence of any direct reference to these Nile arms or canals. On the other hand, the purposeful avoidance of any well-known cities or localities allows us to hypothesize that the naval battle occurred either directly on the Mediterranean coast or not too far away. The Egyptian soldiers were able to stand and operate from the shore. No quays are recorded in the inscriptions or depicted in the scenes; neither do we see any signs of habitation or human construction. In other words, the locality was probably somewhat north of the capital of Avaris if, indeed, the battle took place in the east as generally assumed. Yet there remains the possibility that this naval encounter was in the west. After all, were not the Sea Peoples and the Libyans allies at an earlier time when Merenptah ruled, and is it not reasonable to see the enemy flotilla aiming at the same region that the Libyans did? These questions must remain unanswered at the present time, owing to the dearth of explicit data.
In the lengthy narrative of the Sea Peoples’ war one common subsection is oriented to a royal address of Ramesses III. We find this literary approach pinpointing the organization of Egypt. A list of the key officials and military men who heard their king’s encouraging words of success against the enemy is included. The military classes of Egypt are mentioned as well as the king’s sons and royal officials. An additional scene presents this outlook in pictorial format. Ramesses III addressed his “leaders of the infantry and chariotry” before setting out on the campaign. War equipment was handed out to the army, thus indicating that most of the weapons were owned by the state. Included were helmets, sickle swords, corselets, quivers, spears, and bows. This evidence further reinforces our contention that the state virtually controlled the entire economic organization of the army. Horses are not present, a point well worth stressing as we shall examine this situation later. The eldest king’s son and heir is in charge of the distribution, and from him the commands descend to the army commanders and the lower combat officers. This first scene of the Sea Peoples’ war paints the opening call to arms. The army is prepared, and we may assume that, because Ramesses III is standing on a rostrum, this was the occasion when the king spoke to his troops just before marching. The following depiction reflects the march into Asia (Djahy). On land he pressed the enemy and defeated them.
The narrative inscription provides the necessary detailed written account. The backdrop to the war, however, merely limns the causes of the attack. The frontier in Palestine was organized. Can we presume that the king met these invaders far south of Byblos at the coast in southern Palestine or was the battle close to the old northern border? The inscription, at any rate, later adds that the enemy was met at the frontier and crushed. Ramesses’ princes, garrison commanders, and the elite maryannu formed the bulk of the officer class who were ordered to provide an effective defense. Evidently, enough time remained for the Pharaoh to face his enemies. The whole body of troops is specified. Within the chariotry were “runners,” although there is scholarly dispute concerning the exact significance of this term. “Picked men” and chariot warriors are also listed. This interesting sidelight therefore indicates that three separate contingents of soldiers composed the chariot arm of the state even though two men remained on the war vehicles.
A second series of reliefs adds to this account, and the accompanying lengthy historical inscription likewise provides welcome support to our analysis. A further contingent of Sea Peoples came by water. The text states that there was a naval encounter at the mouths of the Nile in the Delta. The king’s defensive measures included a stockade of lances that was set up on the shore to impede the enemy ships. At the minimum, this was done to prevent the Sea Peoples from landing their troops. In the accompanying reliefs, perhaps reflecting artistic sensibility, only four Egyptian ships attack five Sea Peoples war vessels. The king remained on land while his archers provided the necessary attack force. No chariots were employed because the battle was fought from shore to ship and from ship to ship. The naval victory was celebrated at a coast fortress. Ramesses III indicates the types of ships employed in this defense, and that they were also divided into three groups: ordinary transporters, galleys, and coasters. The first term was the most common one, and we can assume that the king requisitioned all types of Nile-bound vessels in order to provide his defense. The second refers to cargo ships whereas the third was employed for naval vessels undertaking lengthy voyages in the Mediterranean along the eastern coastline of Palestine and Syria.
Ramesses IV provides supplementary information concerning the Sea Peoples in the Great P. Harris, written soon after his accession. But the account of his father’s wars does not indicate much besides a list of the names of the Sea Peoples. Tjeker, Peleshet, Weshesh, and Sherden are named. The latter two are subsumed under the rubric of “Peoples of the Sea.” This narration further reveals the organization of the Egyptian army in the king’s reign. Infantry and chariots are logically separated as earlier, and Sherden and Qeheq (a Libyan tribe) soldiers are named. Once more the necessity of employing foreign elite men within the Egyptian war machine is stressed.
The naval battle, quite rightfully, has been the subject of much study. The ships of the enemy reflect an Aegean tradition, one that was based on relatively long sea voyages across a large extent of water. In other words, they were not mere coasters or trading vessels. The hulls of the enemy fleet were angular and the prows and sternposts vertical. In addition, it seems that the Egyptian fleet blockaded the river outlets in order to prevent the enemy from escaping. This novel interpretation implies that Ramesses purposely waited until the enemy was close to disembarking and then, after having trapped them between shore and sea, attacked. In the scenes of battle, the enemy ships are stationary and within range of the land-based archers.
Their vessels appear slender and lower in the water than the Egyptian ones, but a problem remains concerning the artistic impression. The Egyptian ships, on the other hand, reveal quite astounding details. Their high angular sternpost has no native parallel. The aftercastles were built with two stories, thereby providing a higher base for the naval archers and giving the helmsman a better position. But the high bulwark that protects the rowers is not known in the Nile Valley even though it was commonplace among the Aegean Bronze Age galleys. The low prow may imply the practice of ramming and therefore reflect a technological defense against the maritime activities of the Sea Peoples. This interpretation, however, seems questionable.
Under Ramesses II and III the Egyptians began to employ a type of merchant ship hitherto unknown within the Nile Valley. These ships, called menesh, were probably built in the royal dockyards. But they were not developed from local sailing vessels known to the Egyptian for many centuries earlier. Lucien Basch has proposed that these menesh were derived from the north, and he pinpoints Syria, although Phoenicia is meant, as the origin. Known from the early years of Ramesses II, these ships were also present in the naval battle of Ramesses III against the Sea Peoples but operated as well in the Red Sea for voyages to the fabulous land of Punt, inland from the Somali coast or, as has been recently argued, along the southern coastline of Arabia. By and large, it seems reasonable that in Dynasty XIX, if not somewhat earlier, the flotilla of Egypt was reorganized according to the naval traditions of the Phoenicians. Their ports had close connections with various peoples traversing the eastern Mediterranean, and possibly their shipwrights had developed the high prows and sterns of other foreign sea cruisers.
Moreover, these high prows were also common in scenes of the Syrian ships that unloaded their produce at Thebes in Dynasty XVIII. It appears reasonable to conclude that the Egyptian state improved its own merchant and combat navy during the second half of Dynasty XVIII and the first part of the succeeding dynasty in order to transport soldiers and to deliver “tribute” from Asia. Later, however, they would be used in sea combat.
The reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus. At any rate, the juxtaposition of both fleets is so close that we must conclude that only the final hour of the battle is pictorially recorded. The melee appears similar to a land battle, with the tactics of the Egyptian navy dependent upon the use of archers, thereby reflecting the New Kingdom tradition of the composite bow. In other words, just as with chariots, bows and arrows provided the main element of fighting.
 The specific implications of these representations probably rest on Hatti’s recent fall: it should be no surprise to the (ancient) viewer that Egypt survived the attacks of the Sea Peoples, and gloriously defeated them, whereas Hatti did not – after all, Egypt has always been stronger than the Hittites, as witnessed by its great victories over them.