sea peoples

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Wed Mar 14 17:37:31 EST 2001

This was originally going to be a development on the notion of amphictyony, a term
which Michael seems to like so much to apply to the early Hebrew traditions. I
separate it (ie cut and paste) from the tangle with Michael in order to make it more
accessible to anyone interested.


The nearest thing to an amphictyony I have seen in all of this affair is the
aggregation of populations to form that loose movement of invading forces which
first manifested itself in single movements which began to be felt by the Egyptians
with the Lukka (Lycians), Sherden (Sardinians) and the Meshwesh (perhaps Mopsos)
crossing the Mediterrannean during the reign of Ramses II. Next came the the
troubles which the Hittites had with peoples on their western front, a movement led
by the Ahhiyawaya (in Hittite, Achaeans in Greek, "Eqwesh" in Egyptian and perhaps
Hivite in Hebrew) in about 1240. Within about fifty years the Hittites disappeared
from the scene, fallen at a time when Ugarit was registering the arrival of people
in boats attacking its coast. Ugarit then fell into silence along with a number of
other cities in the trajectory of the sea peoples, cities in Cyprus, cities in

A letter addressed to the king of Cyprus found in an oven in Ugarit (and therefore
never sent) says:

"the enemy ships are already here, they have set fire to my towns and have done
great damage in the country... did not you know that all my troops were stationed in
Hittite country, and that all my ships are still stationed in Lycia and have not yet
returned? So that the counry is abandoned to itself..."

Ugarit was a vassal to the Hittites and was required to supply troops and ships to
aid the defence of the Hittite empire, but to no avail here. The oven was preserved
in the destruction layer of the site immediately below the layers of soil which
built up over the centuries above it. Ugarit died with the arrival of the sea

We only have a few windows on the events because most of the potential witnesses
were silenced by the sea peoples in their movement around the Mediterrannean from
Greece around to Egypt. The archaeology is a strong witness of events which reflect
such a devastating movement. Another witness can be found on the walls of Madinat
Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, the pharaoh who "defeated" the
confederation of the peoples from the sea; the net result was more like that he
stopped them at his door for the Egyptians had effectively lost all their
possessions in Asia.

Ramses III records an invasion which had at its head the Peleset
(Philistines/Pelasgiotis), followed by the Weshesh (?), Denyen (Danaoi/Danuna/Dan),
Tjekker (Teucri, may linguistically be the same as), the Shekelesh (Siculi or
Sicilians). These peoples made a two pronged attack by sea and by land as depicted
on the walls of Madinat Habu. It took a number of years for them to move from an
area south of Ugarit down to the doors of Egypt, so they dwelled at various
locations on their way. Probably in anticipation of a well-prepared and co-ordinated
invasion of Egypt they occupied the coast of southern Palestine for some years.

Of the populations mentioned by Ramses III, some of them had been heard of before in
Egyptian sources, with the exception of the Philistines, but then, with the
difficulties of sourcing one cannot hope to have the full situation, who were all
the peoples involved.

One thing is clear: this was a movement which was first noted on the Aegean coast of
Asia and then at various stops around to the Levantine coast and down to Egypt where
it was halted, leaving its populations in southern Palestine which had its effect on
that coast, for cities were destroyed, new cities were built, a new culture had
arrived on the coast of what was to become Israel, a culture which is becoming
clearer with more attention paid to it by archaeologists.

You'll note among the sea peoples a number of names that would become well-known in
the Mediterrannean, the Philistines, the Sicilians, the Sardinians, and various
Greek groups. This doesn't mean that these people went on from Palestine, but that
those who attacked Egypt were part of bigger groups of people, ie not all the
Shekelesh (Sicilians) went down to attack Egypt. (It's a bit like the situation with
the Vikings, not all of whom attacked the British coasts, but also captured the
Norman coast of France, penetrated the Mediterrannean, infiltrated the eastern
European river system to eventually attack Constantinople and even the Caspian sea
and Arab ports! These were different groups of Vikings, just as the Sardinians were
different groups who attacked Egypt and who settled on the island west of Italy.)

We have to expect that such upheavals will leave their marks in the area in the
various traditions which survived for later generations. Some will be too obscure
for us to regain, others (with the help of other, more objectively demonstrable,
sources) may be reclaimed.

The OT/HB tells us that there were Philistines at the time of Abraham. If one wants
to attempt to do history with this data then we find that there were no Philistines
in Palestine at the time(s) attributed to Abraham. What we have is the confluence of
two traditions, one which we can reclaim and date regarding the Philistines, but two
traditions which were originally independent of each other. One can expect other
oblique references to the presence of the sea peoples filtering through into Hebrew
literature, such as the strange reference to Dan (Danuna/Danoi) remaining in his
ships or among the Canaanite populations of the area, Perizzites and Hivites, better
known to us as the Philistines (Peleset/Pereset, for the Egyptians made no
distinction between l and r) and the Acheans (in Hittite, Ahhiyawaya). But of the
invasion of the sea peoples there is little trace in the OT/HB tradition. It was not
something directly experienced by the early Hebrews otherwise their traditions would
have reflected the cataclysm. What we find in the OT/HB is the movement westward of
Hebrew people and the coming into contact with the Philistines (and others). The
presence of the Philistines is not one of an intrusion of marauding tribes, but a
presence nlready established on the coast and further inland.

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