Berbers Expand Across North Africa

Berber tribes inhabiting the Sahara Desert mounted large-scale invasions of the Nile Valley; although successful Egyptian campaigns drove them back, large numbers of Berber captives became Egyptianized.

Summary of Event

Although Libyan tribes west of Egypt are known from predynastic times, the first concrete evidence of their Berber identity is the appearance of the Berber word for “hound” on the stela of Intef II (r. c. 2112-2063 b.c.e.). The first detailed evidence for the Berber tribes comes from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1295-c. 1069 b.c.e.) in Egypt, when the Libyans became a larger military threat than ever before. Merenptah
Ramses III

Depictions and brief textual annotations from the reigns of Seti I ( r. c. 1294-1279 b.c.e.) and Ramses II (r. 1279-1213 b.c.e.) record Egyptian battles with the Libyan groups but are unclear as to whether these battles were the result of Libyan incursions into the Nile Valley or Egyptian raids into Libyan territory. A chain of fortresses built by Ramses II near the Mediterranean coast west of Egypt also provides archaeological evidence for the growing Libyan threat.

The relationship between Egypt and its western neighbors changed dramatically during the reign of Merenptah (r. c. 1213-1203). Several historical inscriptions dating to the fifth year of his reign (c. 1208 b.c.e.) attest to a massive invasion of Egypt by Berber tribes and their Sea People mercenary allies. According to the Great Karnak Inscription of Merenptah, the longest and most detailed account of the battle, Merey, the chief of the Libyans and son of Dedy, led the invasion of Egypt because of a famine in Libya. Merey was accompanied by native Libyan troops and numerous Sea People groups, including the Ekwesh, Lukka, Teresh, Sherden, and Shekelesh. Although dispute remains about their precise origins, the Sea Peoples appear to have been raiders and pirates from the regions around the northern Mediterranean who fought as armored infantry. Around 1100 b.c.e., the Sea Peoples sacked and pillaged most of the major cities of the Eastern Mediterranean basin and were a major contributing factor to the end of the Bronze Age.

The fortresses constructed by Ramses II forced Merey to avoid the Mediterranean coast and lead his combined Libyan and Sea People army along the roads connecting the large oases in the Western Desert of Egypt. After capturing an unspecified oasis (most likely Siwa Oasis), Merey’s troops proceeded to Farafra Oasis, the centrally located and westernmost of the five major oases in the desert west of Egypt. Control of Farafra and access to all the desert routes leading from it enabled Merey to keep the Egyptians uncertain of his final approach into the Nile Valley. The Libyan chief also used the desert routes to form an alliance with Nubian tribes, who created an almost simultaneous diversionary attack in the south.

As the Nubians went into battle against Egypt’s southern armies, Merey committed to an attack on the Nile Delta. As evidence from the Great Karnak Inscription indicates, Merey’s forces probably traveled from Farafra to Baharīya and then to Fayum, crossing the Nile south of Memphis. Although the vanguard of the Libyan army camped in the eastern Delta, Merey seems to have concentrated his forces around the area around Memphis. In response to this enormous threat, Merenptah marshaled his troops at a place called Perire in the eastern Delta (its exact location is unknown) in about 1208 b.c.e. A six-hour battle ensued and ended in an overwhelming defeat of the Sea Peoples and Libyans. Merey escaped and fled back to Libya, but Egyptian documents suggest that he was later killed by his own tribesmen. Although the tactics of the battle are not explicitly described in any ancient source, Merenptah’s texts stress the role of the archers in the Egyptian victory. Merenptah apparently deployed his archers on the wings of his main infantry, preventing the Libyans and their heavily armored mercenaries from engaging in close combat with the lightly armed Egyptians.

Despite Merenptah’s defeat of the Libyan armies and their allies, Egyptian documents report that during the civil war at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty in Egypt, the Berber tribes were successful in penetrating into the western Delta. A coalition of Libyan tribes led by their chief Meshesher also mounted a major invasion in the fifth year of Ramses III (r. 1184-1153) in 1179 b.c.e., only twenty-nine years after the Battle of Perire; in Ramses III’s eleventh regnal year, the Meshwesh Libyan tribe led yet another attack on the Nile Valley. Because the mortuary temple of Ramses III on the west bank of Thebes at Medinet Habu is extremely well preserved, the two Libyan invasions (Year 5 and Year 11) are known from large-scale relief depictions in addition to extensive historical texts. As during Merenptah’s reign, the desire for land in the fertile Nile Delta drove the Libyan invasions under Ramses III. Although Ramses III’s texts do not describe the specific battles of his Libyan wars, the Year 5 text relates Ramses’s attempt to establish an Egyptianized Libyan boy as the leader of the Libyan tribes. This practice of educating foreign princes in Egypt to gain influence over other kingdoms is well attested earlier during Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1570-1295 b.c.e.) relations with Syria-Palestine but seems never to have been applied to Libya. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the attempt to establish an Egyptianized Libyan ruler caused the Year 5 invasion or whether the action was an attempt to prevent a seemingly inevitable invasion.

The impetus for the Year 11 invasion under Ramses III is similarly obscure, but the texts at Medinet Habu seem to imply that the Meshwesh were now at the head of a Libyan coalition and that they were intent on seizing Egyptian territory. The superiority of the Meshwesh among the Libyan groups was perhaps because of their possession of long swords, much like the swords of the Sea Peoples (from whom they probably acquired the technology). The reliefs at Medinet Habu vividly depict the sword-bearing Meshwesh infantry, but the Libyans are not shown with body armor, so again Egyptian archers probably played a crucial role in the battles.

In addition to providing information about the armaments of the Libyans during the invasions under Ramses III, the reliefs at Medinet Habu contain some of the only preclassical evidence for Libyan dress and culture. The Libyans are predominantly shown with long, open leather cloaks, often painted with colored designs. Underneath the cloaks, Libyan warriors wore either a short kilt or elaborate penis-sheath. In well-preserved painted depictions, the Libyans are shown with tattoos. The plunder lists of Merenptah and Ramses indicate that some of the Libyan tribes possessed horses and chariots. Painted rock depictions from the region of Tassili n’Ajjer in the southwestern corner of Libya also reveal details of Libyan dress and chariot culture roughly contemporaneous with late New Kingdom Egypt. Finally, the nomadic nature of Libyan society at this time can be deduced from the huge numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats captured from the Libyans after their unsuccessful invasions.


The Berber invasions of Egypt from 1200-1000 b.c.e. had a significant impact on later periods of Egyptian history. Ramses III settled the Libyan captives from the Year 5 and 11 invasions in Egyptian territory to be used as mercenaries. The thousands of Libyans settled by Ramses III, in addition to the other successful infiltrations, led directly into the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 b.c.e.), when Libyan kinglets in the Delta fought for control of all of Egypt and even became Egyptian pharaohs with all the traditional iconography.

Further Reading

  • Bates, Oric. The Eastern Libyans: An Essay. London: Macmillan, 1914. The only comprehensive treatment of all aspects of ancient Berber society using Egyptian and classical sources, Bates’s work remains important.
  • Brett, M., and E. Fentress. The Berbers. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1996. A general overview of Berber culture, with illustrations of Saharan rock art.
  • Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 b.c.
    Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Covers Sea Peoples, their origins, and military technology.
  • Leahy, Anthony, ed. Libya and Egypt, c. 1300-750 b.c.
    London: Center of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, 1990. Relevant articles by Donald Redford and Kenneth Kitchen on Libyan society and the history of the invasions.
  • Manassa, Colleen. The Great Karnak Inscription of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the Thirteenth Century b.c.
    New Haven, Conn.: Yale Egyptological Seminar, 2003. Translation and commentary on the Great Karnak Inscription, with military analysis.
  • Peden, A. J. Egyptian Historical Inscriptions of the Twentieth Dynasty. Stockholm: Paul Aströms Förlag, 1994. Translations of inscriptions from Medinet Habu.

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