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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Anatolia


Sea Peoples (Bronze Age)

Towards the end of the thirteenth century BC, the international system started to break down. Characterised by international contacts between the empires of the Near East and their interaction with the many smaller states, especially in Syria and Canaan, the kings of Babylonia, Egypt, Elam, the Hittites, Mitanni and - in the later stages - the Assyrians, maintained good lines of communication which opened up the ancient world, especially to trade.

However, the system was one which made the elite very rich and the poor even poorer as their debts increased. Growing numbers of people were leaving the cities to escape unfair and over-exuberantly-applied debts, and they often joined rogue groups which were known as habiru in Syria and the Levant. 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.

The international system was already creaking under the strain when it was also hit by 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.

The destruction, mass migration, loss of trade and, in some cases, the loss of entire cities, served to bring about a dark age which delivered approximately two centuries of isolation to Egypt and the eastern states, Assyria, Babylonia, and Elam. It also isolated cities in Syria and the Levant, and saw the end of Mycenaean civilisation in Greece. The same climate-induced droughts may well have been responsible for much more far-reaching changes too, amongst West Indo-Europeans and South-West Indo-Europeans especially.

The term 'Sea Peoples' was used to collectively 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 Bronze Age collapse they engendered brought the international system to an end, eventually to be replaced by one of great empires, but that change did not happen overnight.

Whilst the beginnings of the collapse, with the gradual formation of groups of habiru, took place from a much earlier date, it was only around 1210 BC that things seriously started to go wrong. The process of collapse lasted until about 1140 BC, followed by a recovery period which did not fully end until around 800 BC.

Judging by various contemporary accounts regarding the sea peoples, it seems that the origin of many of them (if not all) was either in western Anatolia (from places which probably included Ahhiyawa, and the Lukka, and perhaps Karkissa too), or mainland Greece (Mycenaeans who were escaping the Dorian invasion), or the islands in between.

Killebrew states that it is noteworthy that the designation 'of the sea' appears only in relation to the Sherden, Shekelesh, and Eqwesh. Subsequently, this term was applied somewhat indiscriminately to several additional ethnonyms, including the Danya, the Karkisa, the Libu, the Lukka, the Meshwesh, the Peleshet, the Tjekker, the Tyrsennoi, and the Weshesh. The Philistines, too, are portrayed in their earliest appearance as invaders from the north during the reigns of the pharaohs Merenptah and Ramesses III.

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, and from External Links: Listverse, and Heidelberg Historic Literature: Ramses III Papyrus (Heidelberg University Library).)

c.1340 BC

A member of the Shardana group of peoples is mentioned in the Egyptian Amarna letters which contain correspondence with the Near East's other major leaders, including those of Arzawa and the Hittites, along with many minor city state rulers.

Map of Anatolia and Environs 1550 BC
A short dark age had followed the Hittite collapse around 1500 BC, but a much greater one awaited the regional social and political collapse at the end of the thirteenth century BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1286 BC

The Battle of Kadesh (the earliest surviving report of a major engagement) sees the forces of Egypt, under Ramses II, and the Hittites together with their various allies, including troops from Arzawa, plus the Lukka and Karkisa, clash for control of former Mitanni Syria.

The battle ends with no clear outcome although the Hittites come out on top, gaining uncontested control of Syria, and also raiding further south into Canaan at the expense of Egyptian dominance there.

c.1278 BC

Despite successfully campaigning in the Near East to conquer small states and cities such as (probably) Moab, Egypt's Ramses II is still forced to repel a raid by the Shardana, taking prisoners in the process.

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

While not specifically Sea Peoples themselves, the Dorians have already begun invading Mycenaean Greece from the north, perhaps forced to move by those same drought conditions. They form part of a large-scale wave of Indo-Europeans who are migrating southwards from the Danube in this period.

Other eventual groups include Aeolians, Armenians (debatably), Dacians, Epirotes, Illyrians, Ionians, Macedonians, Phrygians (also debatably), and Thracians.

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.

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

c.1200 BC

In Anatolia, Arzawa's old territory is destroyed, as is Hattusa, capital of the Hittite empire, while Ishuwa, Kizzuwatna, and Tarhuntassa also fall. If the Ekwesh do originate from Ahhiyawa as has been theorised, their hostility towards the Hittites probably leads to their being involved in the destruction of that state.

In Syria and Canaan, various raids and attacks take place over a period of time. Alalakh, Amurru, and Hazor are all destroyed and Arvad is sacked. The group of Sea Peoples who are known as the Peleshet grabs territory on the coast of the Levant in the region of Gaza. Other groups settle alongside them - the 'Denyen', Peleshet, Shekelesh, Tjekker, and Weshesh - either permanently or while they launch attacks against Egypt.

The founding of Tabal in Anatolia is additionally associated by some scholars with the Sea Peoples. While a definitive answer is not possible, it is quite feasible to accept that some of their number could settle the region at this time.

c.1195 BC

The ancient Syrian city of Ugarit is probably attacked by the Sea Peoples around this time, as some sources date this as the city's last days. In fact the city does appear to survive a little longer.

Ekwesh warriors in relief
The group of people known as the Ekwesh were involved in the destruction of the Hittite kingdom around 1200 BC, although their origins are clouded in mystery

c.1185 BC

The state of Emar in Syria is destroyed, the easternmost such state to be sacked and destroyed. Large areas of Syria and Anatolia are left depopulated for many decades by this any many other such attacks.

c.1182 BC

Seven ships of Sea Peoples attack and destroy Ugarit, this time definitively ending that state's existence. On Cyprus, Alashiya is sacked.

Much of Ugarit's army is in Hittite Anatolia (and probably lost by this time), and the fleet is near the Lukka lands, despite advice from the kings of Alashiya and Carchemish that Ugarit should look to its own defence. Such warnings are a clear sign of ongoing social collapse.

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.

1176 BC

Egypt fights another successful campaign against attackers from the north, this time against the 'Denyen', Peleshet, Shekelesh, Tjekker, and Weshesh who are operating from a base in Amurru. It seems the victorious Egyptians use their fleet to mount attacks on some of the bases which are being used by their attackers.

Luwian bronze seal
Shown here is a bronze seal which was written in the almost-universal Anatolian language of Luwian, and which was discovered at the site of Troy in 1995

1172 BC

Ramses III records his final (believable) campaign against raiders who are identified as Sea Peoples, with these again being noted as being the 'Denyen', Peleshet, Shekelesh, Tjekker, and Weshesh. Once again defeated by a surprise Egyptian attack, their power seems to wane and their threat appears to fade as they found new settlements on captured territory in the Levant and elsewhere.

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.

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.

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