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African Kingdoms

North Africa


Meshwesh of Libya (Sea Peoples)

Towards the end of the thirteenth century BC, the international system in the Near East began to break down. Communications between the many smaller states, especially in Syria and Canaan, and the kings of Babylonia, Egypt, Elam, the Hittites, Mitanni and the Assyrians, gradually broke down as events overwhelmed many of them.

The system was inherently unfair, often making the poor even poorer, often dispossessing them of everything. During the second millennium BC growing numbers of people left the cities to escape, often joining rogue groups which were known as habiru. These groups not only maintained a way of life which was free of the control of the major kings, they also raided their cities and supplies.

Then the region was hit by climate-induced drought and a loss of crops during the thirteenth century BC. Food supplies dwindled and the number of raids by habiru and other groups of peoples who had also banded together greatly increased until, by about 1200 BC, this flood turned into a tidal wave which destroyed the Hittites and many Anatolian and Syrian cities and states. A dark age descended on the eastern Mediterranean region.

The term 'Sea Peoples' was used to refer to the mass of raiding and migratory peoples who existed in this period. They frequently took everything with them on their attacks - wives, children, and belongings - and often settled in any territory which they managed to conquer. The Meshwesh (often abbreviated as 'Ma' in Egypt) were an ancient Libyan tribe from the region of Cyrenica who were in an almost constant state of conflict with Egypt's Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties.

In 1208 BC and 1179 BC a large number of Libyans were joined by various Sea Peoples in attacks on Egypt. A further attack in 1176 BC was led largely by the Meshwesh, and when they were captured they were settled in Egypt and pressed into service. However, this did not stop further attacks from Libya.

In fact, Meshwesh continued to prove problematical for Egypt for several centuries. By the eighth century BC they (or at least a division of them) were dominated by the Libu who formed their own city state within the Egyptian Nile Delta, centred on Sais. It has been argued in modern scholarship that the Meshwesh were later known by many variations of the same name, such as the Mazyes who were noted by Hecataeus of Miletus and the Maxyes by Herodotus, while Latin writers noted them as the Mazices and Mazax.

Central Anatolian mountains

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Philistines and Other 'Sea Peoples' in Text and Archaeology, Ann E Killebrew (Society of Biblical Literature Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 2013), from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, from The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Velleius Paterculus, J C Yardley, Anthony A Barrett, from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), and from External Link: Listverse.)

c.1210 BC

Increasing drought in the Near East results in famine and the subsequent movement of peoples who are in search of new food supplies. Collectively known by chroniclers as the Sea Peoples, various groups begin raiding the Mediterranean coastline, attacking kingdoms and destroying cities and, in some cases, even settling in the conquered areas.

Habu relief at Medinet
Attacks by the Sea Peoples gathered momentum during the last decade of the thirteenth century BC, quickly reaching a peak which lasted about forty years

1208 BC

Egypt fights off an attempted invasion by a confederation of Libyan and northern peoples in the Western Delta. Raids on this area have already been so severe in recent years that the region is 'forsaken as pasturage for cattle, it was left waste from the time of the ancestors'.

Included amongst the ethnic names of those invaders which have been repulsed in the ongoing battles are the Danya, the Ekwesh, the Lukka, the Shekelesh, and the Tjekker, while the Meshwesh are likely included amongst Libyan numbers of these Sea Peoples.

1179 BC

Ramses III of Egypt records that he fights off an attack by Libyans (probably including Meshwesh) and people from the north, almost certainly Sea Peoples. The Peleshet and the Tjekker are mentioned.

c.1100 BC

The Egyptian Onomasticon of Amenemope document appears to confirm that the former Sea Peoples, the Peleshet, Sherden, and Tjekker, are still settled in Philistia. There they are most likely submerged into the growing Philistine civilisation.

Sherden bronze mask
Bronze mask dated between 1400-1150 BC probably depicting a Sherden warrior, although the horns are missing from the holes at the top of the head

The age of the migratory Sea Peoples is largely over, as the turmoil and chaos (such as during Egypt's 'Third Intermediate Period' or in Syria) gives way to an already-active dark age and a gradual rebuilding of civilisation. Libyans continue to press against the western border however, gradually making inroads across the Nile Delta. The Meshwesh are included in this number.

c.943 - 720 BC

A series of Meshwesh Libyans rule Egypt from circa 943 BC until 720 BC, beginning with Shoshenq, successor to Nimlot who likely rules Libyans in the 970s BC. They had been settled in Egypt since the Twentieth dynasty.

Although the dynasty seems to have originated at Bubastis, the kings almost certainly rule from Tanis, which is their capital and the city in which their tombs have since been excavated.

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