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Sea Peoples

Sea Peoples is the term used in ancient Egyptian records of a ship-faring raiders who drifted into the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and attempted to enter Egyptian territory during the late 19th dynasty, and especially year 5 of Rameses III of the 20th Dynasty.

Historic Records

The earliest mention of the Sea People proper is in an inscription of the Egyptian king Merneptah, whose rule is usually dated from 1213 BC to 1204 BC. Merneptah states that in the fifth year of his reign (1208 BC) he defeated an invasion of an allied force of Libyans and the Sea People, killing 6,000 soldiers and taking 9,000 prisoners.

About 20 years later the Egyptian king Ramses III was forced to deal with another invasion of the Sea Peoples, this time allied with the Philistines. In the mortuary temple he built in Thebes Ramses describes how, despite the fact "no land could stand before" the forces of the Sea People and that they swept through "Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya" destroying their cities, he defeated them in a sea battle. He gives the names of the tribes of the Sea People as including: the Peleset, the Tjeker, the Shekelesh, the Denyen, and the Weshesh. However, because this list is identical to the one Merneptah included in his victory inscription and because Ramses also describes several fictitious victories on his temple walls, some Egyptologists believe that he never actually fought the Sea Peoples, but only claimed the victories of Merneptah as his own - a common ancient Egyptian practice.

A Sea People appear in another set of records problematically dated around the early 12th century BC. Ammurapi, the last king of Ugarit (c.1191 BC - 1182 BC) received a letter from the Hittite king Suppliluliuma II warning him about the "Shikalayu who live on boats" who are perhaps the same people as the Shekelesh mentioned in Merneptah's list. It may be relevant that shortly after he received this communication, Ammurapi was overthrown and the city of Ugarit sacked, never to be inhabited again.

Theories about the Sea Peoples

The abrupt end of several civilizations in the decades traditionally dated around 1200 BC have caused many ancient historians to hypothesize that the Sea People caused the collapse of the Hittite, Mycenaean and Mittani kingdoms. However, Marc Van De Mieroop and others have argued against this theory on several points. Grimal argues that the kingdoms of the Mittani, Assyria, and Babylon were more likely destroyed by a group who dwelled on the edges of the settled lands called by the Akkadian word habiru. Another argument Grimal makes is that the attempted Sea People invasion of Egypt that Ramses III foiled is now seen as nothing more than a minor skirmish, the records of his victories on his temple walls being greatly exaggerated. Though it is clear from the archeological excavations that Ugarit, Ashkelon and Hazor were destroyed about this time, Carchemish was not and other cities in the area such as Byblos and Sidon survived unscathed.

Another theory concerning the Sea People, based on their recorded names, is that they may have been formed of people involved in the Greek migrations of this period, either the Greek-speaking invaders (identifying the "Ekwesh" with the Achaeans and the "Denyen" with the Dananoi, an ancient name for the Greek people). This theory implies that the Philistines were part of this Greek-speaking confederacy.

Lack of definite information about these ancient forerunners of the Vikings is the chief cause of their mystery, rather than anything concerning their intrinsic nature. As abruptly as they enter history, the Sea People leave it.

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