Egypt’s Decline: the ‘Sea Peoples’
After the glories of Ramesses II, Egypt went into a long decline. And it wasn’t just Egypt: the whole of the Western Mediterranean went into decline. The Hittites collapsed, and their capital Hattusa was destroyed. The Assyrians in Mesopotamia were attacked and lost most of their empire, though the core survived. In Crete, the Minoan Empire came to an end. In Troy the Trojan war was fought and Troy was destroyed. In Greece the Mycenaean Empire came to an end and Greece entered a 400 year long dark age. And Egypt found itself attacked, and though it survived, it was gravely weakened and gradually fell apart.
This is one of the most interesting episodes in world history. It is often compared with the Dark Age that came with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and we must try to find out just what happened.
The conventional answer is that the decline was due to the ‘Sea Peoples’. The Sea Peoples were a very successful concept invented in 1855 by the French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé and his successor, Gaston Maspero. They were excavating the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, the last of the great mortuary temples on the west bank at Thebes, which recorded in great detail the battles fought by Ramesses III. Here the text referred to a ‘coalition of the sea’ and ‘foreign countries who made a conspiracy in their islands’. Various groups were specified who were involved in the coalition, and etymologists have great fun trying to work out who they were. (The peleset may possibly have been the Philistines but the Sherden , or Shardana are unlikely to have been the Sardinians.)
There are further records. Thus at the beginning of Ramesses II long reign, there was an attack of the Sherden or Shardana who are often named among the Sea Peoples. Subsequently, the Pharaoh Merenpthah, Ramesses’ successor, (1213 to 1203 BC) battled against a coalition with several named groups classified as Sea Peoples, who with their wives, children and belongings, pushed forward into the Delta. A detailed account at Karnak records that after a six-hour battle, the enemy threw down their weapons and abandoned their baggage and dependents, and 6000 soldiers were killed and 9000 taken prisoner. To be sure of the numbers, the hands of all the circumcised prisoners were cut off as were the penises of all the uncircumcised: the heaps of hands and penises were recorded on the walls of the temple.
The Sea Peoples take off
Subsequently in the first half of the 20th century, the concept of the Sea Peoples took off. They were seen as part of a great migration sweeping down from the north and destroying civilisation. Alas, there is no pottery evidence for a great migration, and the identification of the Minoan linear B being Greek destroyed the idea of a Dorian invasion bringing the Greeks into Greece – they were already there. Instead a far more complex picture has emerged.
As far as Egypt is concerned, there were three different groups. There were the Libyans, the people living in Libya along the coast of the Mediterranean to the west of Egypt who were constantly trying to migrate and to settle in the fertile luxury of Egypt: the world’s first ‘illegal immigrants’. They are recorded as coming with their wives and children in wagons, intending to settle. Indeed, eventually many of them succeeded, and the 21st to the 24th dynasties, between 1069 and 715, were Libyan dynasties, when Libyans were named as pharaohs.
Then there were a number of different groups who might be called the Sea Peoples: nine of these groups were mentioned by name by the Egyptians. They joined with the Libyans in battles in the western delta. Then there was a further group who came down from Syria – Canaanites and Philistines – who from the Egyptian point of view formed the other part of a two pronged attack.
(The Philistines represent an interesting phenomenon. Aegean pottery of Mycenaean type makes its appearance in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Philistines are sometimes considered to be Aegean merchants who settled in Canaanite territory and rapidly went native).
The problem is to take a wider look and see why the collapse was so wide spread: burnt layers are found in the archaeological records of many towns in the Eastern Mediterranean. An interesting suggestion has been put forward by Susan Sherratt that we should look at Cyprus. Cyprus is unusual among the countries of the eastern Mediterranean in that it has no palaces. Cyprus is rich in copper, — it is the only major source of copper in the Eastern Mediterranean and thus there were a number of smaller settlements. The biggest settlement, Enkomi, the predecessor to classical Salamis, is a town not a palace, and Cyprus grew rich by producing and working copper, and widely exporting copper and pottery. It was a mercantile economy rather than a palace-based command economy. Its seamen were spread widely over the Mediterranean, and thus when the palace-based empires showed signs of weakness, the traders were tempted to turn into raiders and became pirates.
The ‘Sea Peoples’ represent a very interesting phenomenon. There was no one external migration behind them, it was just that the palace based empires grew rotten, so the seamen were tempted to turn into pirates, and the palaces fell. One does just wonder whether there was some Genghis Khan behind all this: if so he left no traces. But from Egypt to Assyria to Mycenaean Greece, palaces were destroyed, and a Dark Age set in.