For nearly a century in the second millennium B.C., a mysterious band of maritime warriors known as the “Sea Peoples” wreaked havoc on the Mediterranean. “They came from the sea in their warships,” reads one ancient inscription, “and none could stand against them.” There are accounts of the Sea Peoples attacking Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. They may have even toppled the mighty Hittite Empire, yet despite the indelible mark they left on history, scholars know almost nothing about their culture or nationality.
What little information historians have on the Sea Peoples comes from the civilizations that fought wars against them, most notably the ancient Egyptians. One early reference dates to the 13th century B.C. and the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Merenptah, who claimed to have killed 6,000 of the enigmatic seafarers after they allied themselves with the Libyans. An even more detailed account comes courtesy of Ramses III, who fought a series of cataclysmic battles against the Sea Peoples around 1170 B.C. An inscription in Ramses’ mortuary temple at Medinet Habu describes the Sea Peoples as having moved south through the eastern Mediterranean, laying waste to cities in Turkey, Syria, Cyprus and the Levant. “They desolated its people,” it reads, “and its land was like that which has never come into being.”
Ramses’ records describe the Sea Peoples as consisting of a confederation of tribes including the Sherden, Peleset, Denyen, Shekelesh and others. Scholars are still unsure or these groups’ origins, but many trace them to Sicily, the Aegean Sea or the Anatolia region of Turkey. The Peleset, meanwhile, are often identified as the Philistines of the Bible. Equally mysterious is the Sea Peoples’ motivation for ravaging the Mediterranean. Opinions differ, but some historians believe they had been displaced from their homeland by famine or natural disasters.
Whatever their origins, the Sea Peoples returned to Egypt in the mid-12th century B.C. intent on conquest. Ramses III marshaled his forces to the defense of his kingdom, and after routing the Sea Peoples’ army on land, he decimated their fleet at the 1175 B.C. Battle of the Delta, where Egyptian archers lined the banks of the Nile and rained arrows on the invaders’ ships. The war left Egypt greatly weakened, but it also marked the end of the Sea Peoples’ raids. Having been decisively defeated, they vanished from history, leaving behind a mystery that still lingers today. “As for those who reached my frontier, their seed is not,” reads one of Ramses’ records. “Their hearts and their souls are finished unto all eternity.”