History Files

Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Anatolia


Peleshet (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 Peleshet (Peleset, or Pulasati) were part of a combined force of Sea Peoples which attacked Egypt in 1179 and 1176 BC.

The Egyptian scenes of the battles which took place show the Peleshet to be clean-shaven, wear a panelled kilt, a chest protector, and a circle of upright reeds or leather strips on their head. At around the same time they also grabbed territory for themselves on the coast of the Levant, and perhaps initially used this as a base for continued attacks on Egypt. The regional city of Gezer and others were destroyed around the same time.

The Peleshet may have been relatively small in number but highly advanced in terms of arms and fighting ability, allowing them to take over the region and dominate as a new layer of nobility. Their origins are unknown but, as with other Sea Peoples, they are generally believed to have originated in western Anatolia or the Greek islands. Then they intermarried with the natives in the Levant to quickly replace the European elements in the DNA of their descendants. In time they entered records which would become part of the Old Testament in the form of the Philistines.

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 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

c.1200 BC

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', Shekelesh, Tjekker, and Weshesh - either permanently or while they launch attacks against Egypt.

1176 BC

Egypt fights a successful campaign against attackers from the north - not the first time it has had to do this. This time it is 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.

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)

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.

This is the period of Israelite settlement after the traditional exodus from Egypt. The general regional instability has seen the end of the Hittite empire, Canaanites are being reduced to owning the shores of Lebanon (eventually to become the sea traders known as the Phoenicians), the Philistines and other Sea Peoples are first settling on the lower coast of the Levant, and various neo-Hittite city states are arising in northern Syria, many of which come into contact with the Israelites.

Medieval German manuscript depicting Shagmar of the Israelite judges
The third of the Israelite judges is Shagmar or Shamgar ben Anath, who slaughters six hundred of the Israelites' enemies using an ox goad, as depicted in this medieval German manuscript

As they arrive and settle in the region, these Israelites may join up with the habiru who have settled in the hill country, and they may be joined by late additions to their confederation of tribes: the tribes of Asher and Dan appear to originate from the Weshesh and Danya.

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites go on to conquer a large number of cities, mostly Canaanite, and including Dor, Gezer, Megiddo, Shimron-meron, and Tirzah (the original capital of the later kingdom of Samaria). What follows is a period of history in which the Israelite Judges govern the Israelite settlements in place of the tribal patriarchs.

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