Egypt’s decline

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 map showing the Sea Raiders is both good and bad. The arrows are, shall we say, not very fashionable. The Dorians invading Greece were written out of history with the decyphering of Minoan Linear B, proving that the Greeks were already in Greece. The dotting line showing invaders in the middle of the Black Sea should be removed completely. However the images showing the burning towns are spot on, as are the images showing the towns that were not destroyed. Take away the arrows and this shows very well the distribution of the Sea Raiders. (Wikipedia)

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.

A relief from the temple at Medinet Harbu showing the Sea Peoples being repulsed by the pharaoh on the right shooting arrows. The text in the temple refers to the invaders as being from the northern countries.(Wikipedia)

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.

Rather poor pots like this one with Mycenaean type decoration are often found in the eastern Mediterranean are sometimes thought to be philistine. (Wikipedia)

(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.


Egypt does rather well

But compared to the rest of the world, Egypt did rather well.  The long period of decline running from the death of Ramesses II to the death of Ramesses XI covers some 144 years, divided into two halves. The first half consists of the tail end of the nineteenth dynasty when there were five pharaohs, none of them called Ramesses.  The line died out and we come to the twentieth dynasty which consisted of ten pharaohs of whom only the first was not called Ramesses, though the remaining nine run continuously from Ramesses IV to Ramesses IX.

The Great Harris Papyrus recording the deeds of Ramesses III is in five sections. The first three sections record the gift by the pharaoh to the temples of the three main towns: Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis. Each section is prefaced by a little vignette. This is the heading of the section of the gifts at the temple at Memphis. It shows Ramesses III (right) presenting gifts to Ptah, the chief deity of Memphis and the lion headed Sekhmet and Nefertum, the god of the lotus. (BM)

Our information about the start of the dynasty is dominated by what is known as the Great Harris Papyrus.  This was a huge papyrus bought by the merchant Anthony Harris in 1855 and subsequently sold by his daughter to the British Museum in 1872.  It was originally 41 metres long, but was cut up into nine more manageable pieces.  The text falls into five main sections.

The first three sections are devoted to gifts given by the pharaohs to the temples at Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis.  The size of these gifts was enormous: for example the temple at Thebes received 309,950 sacks of grain as well as huge amounts of metal and precious stones.  One wonders whether these donations form the core of the later problems: much of the subsequent story is an account of how the temples and the priests became too powerful, and took over as the rulers of large chunks of Egypt.   The final section is the historical section covering Ramesses III’s campaigns against the Sea Peoples.

What the papyrus does not tell us is that his reign ended with a harem plot to murder the king during the annual Opet festival in Thebes and put a rival on the throne. Another papyrus reveals details of the plot, and how it did not succeed and the criminals were forced to commit suicide.

The other problems

The story of the 20th dynasty is dominated not only by the attacks of the Sea Peoples but from the Nubians to the south, and also from the growing power of the priests of Amun in Thebes.  In the chaos at Thebes, the pharaoh’s workmen went on strike because they had not been paid, and abandoned their camp at Deir el Medina and settled in the temple of Medinet Habu. By the end of the dynasty the power of the pharaoh was restricted essentially to the delta, though even here there were problems because at the capital, Piramesse, the Nile was shifting its course to the east, leaving the core of the town high and dry.


In the latter part of the 20th Dynasty an unsuccessful attack on Nubia failed and thus their access to the gold of Nubia was cut off and so they resorted to the ultimate degradation: tomb robbing. There was lots of gold in the royal tombs, so they set organised state sanctioned tomb robbing. The tombs were broken open , the gold and the jewelry was taken away, but the bodies were then properly wrapped up and labeled and buried in cacheries of several pharaohs together. Some of these caches have been discovered by modern excavators, so we can analyses the mummies of some of the pharaohs even though we have none of their grave goods.

The conditions at this time are well illustrated in the Tale of Wenamun, papyrus now in Russia. Wenamun was a priest in Thebes who was sent on a mission to Byblos to buy wood, some of the famed cedars of Lebanon needed to build ships. On his trip to the north he was robbed, but when he reached Byblos they demanded down payment for the wood, so he had to wait around for over a year until the payment arrived – gold, silver, linen garments 500 rolls of papyrus, 500 cows’ hides, 20 bags of lentils and 30 baskets of fish. In return 7 great cedar logs were sent to Egypt ans more were promised.  Eight huge cedar trees were then dispatched, but on his way home Wenamun was blown off course and landed in Cyprus – and at this point the papyrus breaks off. But the story well illustrates the down graded position of Egypt: Lebanon or rather Syria was no longer a vassal state gift exchange no longer worked, a down payment was needed. Egypt had come down in the world.


The final chapter, on the long sunset of ancient Egypt, will be coming shortly.

Thereafter, it is time to explore classical China, to see how the third of our ‘palace economies’  shared some of the experiences of ancient Egypt,  and how it differed.

On to China


3rd June 2019