Little-known but greatly feared, the Sea People raided ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age

The Sea Peoples were a mixed group of raiders of unknown origin who raided the ancient Egyptian coastline and the eastern Mediterranean Sea from 1276 to 1178 BCE.

Even today, we don’t know much about this group of ancient seafaring people, other than what is found in records of the places they visited and attacked. It has often been theorized that they came from Anatolia or Southern Europe, and it is thought that they invaded Canaan, Syria, Anatolia, Cyprus, and Egypt at the end of the Bronze Age. The names given to these people are Lukka, Sherden, Sheklesh, Akawasha, and Tursha.

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta.

The Medinet Habu inscriptions are the primary sources of information on the Sea People. There are, as well, three narratives from Egyptian records that refer to nine tribes described as the Sea Peoples. Possible records date to two campaigns of Ramesses II around the Nile Delta. An attack by the Sherden on the Nile Delta was repulsed and defeated by Ramesses, who managed to capture some of the raiders. The event is recorded on the stela from Tanis. The raiders, called the Sherden, were described as sailing boldly in their warships.

The prisoners were forced to join the Egyptian army on the Hittite frontier. The Aswan Stele also details the Pharaoh’s successful attempt to defeat the people from the Great Green (Egyptian name for the Mediterranean). The Poem of Pentaur, which describes the battle of Kadesh, lists the people who were allies of the Hittites; the Sea People are among those listed in the document.

Invasions, population movements, and destruction during the collapse of the Bronze Age, c. 1200 BCE
The Nile Delta

Merenptah was also raided by these Sea People, who had become allies of the Libyans in order to try to invade the Nile Delta again. Researchers have been unable to figure out where these raiders came from; the only mention of them appear in the documents pertaining to the battles.  They were considered formidable adversaries, and Merenptah was noted to have been greatly prideful in having defeated them in 1209 BCE. Around this time, the Sea People were not just looting and harassing the coast, but they also started to bring in tools and household items, looking to develop settlements in Egypt. Unfortunately for the rulers of Egypt, this was not the last of them.

When Ramesses III ruled as Egypt’s Pharaoh, the Sea People returned once again, and this time they destroyed the trading center at Kadesh.  They were known for their quick raids and retreat to the Nile Delta.  Ramesses managed to defeat them in 1180 BCE. It is thought he had known of these raiders due to their harassment of his predecessors. He chose guerrilla tactics as his strategy and ambushed the Sea People up and down the coastline, before turning his attention to those that had made their way inland. They were finally driven from the city of Xois in 1178 BCE, and it is recorded that many were slain or made captives.

Ramesses III

It is a mystery today as to who the Sea People really were. The Egyptian documents never state that they were foreigners, so it could be that they were known neighbors and even sometime allies. This is heavily suggested by their presence in the standing armies of Ramesses.

Whoever they were, they came in great force and were known for their bravery and surprise tactics.