The term Sea Peoples is used collectively in the inscriptions on the temple walls at Karnak and Medinet Habu to describe the confederation of peoples or tribes who attacked Egypt during the reigns of Merenptah and Ramesses III. They are also mentioned in cuneiform records, Greek legends, and in the Great Papyrus Harris, the most extensive state archive ever discovered in Egypt, which most likely formed part of the king’s funerary temple archive. It was probably compiled by order of Ramesses IV to record the benefactions that his father, Ramesses III, had bestowed upon the god’s temples and to list the events of his reign. It was apparently written on the day of his death to ensure that he was accepted by the gods in his afterlife.
The Sea Peoples probably came from different homelands in Asia and were forced, perhaps by hunger and other factors, to exert increasing pressure at first against the Hittite kingdom, which was overwhelmed, and then against the coastal area of Syria/Palestine. Finally, they reached Egypt but were repulsed by the Pharaoh’s troops, although some remained and settled in the Delta and in Palestine. Other groups probably established themselves in the Mediterranean lands and islands. Some of their names are similar to, and have therefore been tentatively identified with, later peoples who lived in this area.
One group, the Akawasha, supported the Libyans in attacking Egypt in year 5 of Merenptah’s reign. They are not represented in Egyptian temple reliefs, but inscriptions indicate that they were circumcised because their hands rather than their genitals were amputated and piled up for presentation to the Egyptian king when the count was made of his slain enemies (presumably only complete parts—hands or genitals— were counted). There is a theory that the Akawasha may have been the Achaeans (Mycenaean Greeks); the similarity of the names “Achaean” and “Akawasha” has led to this tentative identification. But if this is true the evidence that the Akawasha were circumcised is surprising since there is no other indication that the Greeks were circumcised.
Similarly, it has been suggested that the Denen may be the Danoi of Homer’s Illiad and that the Lukka were possibly the Lycians who lived on the south coast of Asia Minor.
The Peleset, who fought against Ramesses III, have been tentatively identified as migrants who, perhaps in two or three stages, migrated into Palestine where they became the Philistines. They are shown in the Egyptian temple wall scenes as clean shaven, wearing a paneled kilt decorated with tassels and a chest protector made of a ribbed corselet or of horizontal strip bandages of linen. On their heads there is a circle of upright reeds or leather strips, and they carry spears and sometimes a rapier sword and circular shield.
They brought their families and possessions in wooden carts with solid wheels (Anatolian in origin) drawn by humpback cattle (such as those bred in Anatolia but not in the Aegean or Palestine). Thus, the Peleset must have had close associations with Anatolia, and they also seem to have had some connection with the Akawasha.
Theories about their homeland include the suggestion of Caphtor (because of biblical references), which can perhaps be identified with Crete or, less probably, with Cilicia in Asia Minor. Crete or Caphtor may only have been places they visited en route, however, and their place of origin may lie elsewhere. The Peleset and the Tjekker (who also finally settled in Palestine where they worked as sea pirates out of the ports) are shown in the Egyptian reliefs wearing feathered headdresses and carrying round shields.
The Teresh and Sheklesh
The Teresh or Tursha appear in the same scenes with beards and pointed kilts with tassels. Strips of linen or leather were bandaged around their chests to protect them, and they carried a pair of spears or a khepesh sword. They were circumcised and may have been the Tyrsenoi (ancestors of the Etruscans), although no evidence yet supports such an early date for the arrival of the Etruscans in their later homeland. It is possible, however, that the Teresh first traveled elsewhere, only reaching this destination much later. In appearance the Teresh resemble the Sheklesh. Like the Sherden, Akawasha, and Teresh the Sheklesh were circumcised (their hands rather than their genitals thus appear in the representation of the enemy count delivered to the Egyptian king). Archaeological evidence in Sicily indicates the arrival of newcomers at the time when the Sheklesh were seeking a new home in the Mediterranean, and it is possible that, as the Sicels, they now reached this island and established themselves there.
The Sherden, first mentioned in Egyptian records in the reign of Amenhotep III, were described as pirates; they served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army from Dynasty 18 onward and were rewarded by gifts of land for their service. In the conflicts with Ramesses III they fought both for and against the Egyptians, and later they were numbered among the pharaoh’s bodyguard. Egyptian temple reliefs show them with distinctive helmets with a large knob or disk at the apex and projecting bull’s horns. They carried round shields and two-edged swords.
They had a history as seafarers or pirates but were also probably associated with particular locations. Cyprus was perhaps their original homeland where bronze working was well established, but they may have moved on to Sardinia (according to the earliest Phoenician inscription found on the island, the name of Sardinia was “Shardan”). One theory identifies the Sherden with the bronze-working people who apparently arrived suddenly on the island between 1400 and 1200 BC and are known to have constructed the local nuraghi (stone towers). Bronze statuettes found on the island depict figures with round shields and horned helmets (but without disks) similar to the appearance of the Sherden. Also, on the neighboring island of Corsica, tombstone scenes depict warriors with banded corselets, daggers, and helmets.
The origins and eventual destinations of the Sea Peoples remain obscure, but they had a radical and far-reaching impact on the political and historical map of the area. It was a feature of their relationship with the Egyptians that some groups of Sea Peoples fought both for and against them. Although Egypt was successful in repelling their attacks, the arrival of these people probably marked the beginning of the Egyptians’ slow and almost imperceptible decline.