Sea Peoples Contribute to Mediterranean Upheaval

The Sea Peoples appeared in the eastern Mediterranean amid massive changes in trade and political structures.

Summary of Event

Among the most significant events in human history is the emergence of the Sea Peoples in the twelfth century b.c.e. During this era, palace culture collapsed, causing comparative economic hardship throughout the Mycenaean world; the Hittite kingdom disappeared overnight; and a number of city-states in Syro-Palestine were destroyed or depopulated. The empire of the Egyptian New Kingdom also waned at this juncture. The political vacuum created by the collapse of the empires enabled small states, such as Israel and Damascus, to emerge and to play significant roles in the trade and politics of the region. Precisely what role these divergent groups played in these events has become a question of debate.

The Sea Peoples were not a monolithic group but a collection of raiders from various locales. In surviving texts, these groups are mentioned as appearing on occasion as raiders or mercenaries. In some Egyptian texts, for example, the following geographic or ethnic names were assigned to them by scholars (not all of these associations are agreed on by all modern scholars): the Tjekker, Sherdani (Shardana; Sardinia), Lukka (Lycia in Anatolia), Shklsh (also Shekelesh), Trsh (also Teresh; the Tyrsenoi, whom Herodotus asserted migrated from Lydia in Anatolia to Eturia in Italy), ’qwsh (also Ekwesh; Achaeans), Sikila (Sicily), Danuna (either Cilicia in Anatolia or the Greek mainland), Wshsh, and Peleshet (also Peleset; the Philistines, whom the Hebrew Bible asserts came from Crete; some scholars argue for an Anatolian origin). The notion of restless marauders wreaking havoc in the wake of the Trojan War is no longer in vogue among scholars.

The collapse of palace states and economies in Greece and the Aegean at this time is associated with the Sea Peoples, as some sites show signs of destruction and others were abandoned. The variety of material goods attested in the cities was reduced (especially in terms of import goods), which may in turn reflect that social stratification was lessened. Whether the Sea Peoples were the catalyst for these events across the region or were the product of the effect of this collapse is debated; some material culture antecedents preceded their arrival. Cyprus serves as an example, as its economic collapse was the result of warfare. The changing material culture of the island is most likely attributable to these invaders as well. As in the rest of the Aegean, trade resumed on a lesser scale.

The collapse of the Hittite Empire may have been the result of Anatolian Sea Peoples ousting overlords. The Sea Peoples allied themselves with local ethnic groups in the course of their obliteration of the Hittites. Economic collapse in the region closely followed political collapse.

An Ugaritic text refers to the Sikila, who lived in ships, as being the aggressor against the city of Ugarit (near coast of modern-day Syria), ultimately destroying it in perpetuity. Other cities on the Syrian coast were destroyed and others abandoned. Trade was disrupted there as it had been in the Aegean world. Contrary to what occurred in the Aegean world, however, the Syrian sites were not repopulated by the Sea Peoples.

The presence of the Sea Peoples in Palestine (the Roman name for Philistia) at this time is attested in both the Hebrew Bible and Egyptian sources. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III proclaimed his victory over the Sea Peoples in a papyrus. The text also describes his subsequent settling of their numerous warriors in the coastal regions of Palestine, with support of the royal treasury. These groups were settled as mercenaries to support the Egyptian administration. The Hebrew Bible indicates that early Israelite society was under either a political or an economic overlordship of these peoples, precipitating the crisis that produced the emergence of the Israelite state. Philistine dominance waned by the second half of the eleventh century b.c.e. Archaeological evidence reveals Philistine cities that were well planned with regard to both defense and economic production. The Philistines engaged in farming as well as metalworking and raiding.

Two battle scenes between the Egyptians and coalitions of Sea Peoples are illustrated on wall reliefs in a temple of Ramses III. These show warriors, in ships or captured, wearing decidedly Aegean dress. One relief depicts a scene with ox carts and civilians near the battle. Traditionally, it has been interpreted to show that there was an intent to settle Egypt after ousting the pharaonic forces, as the Egyptians fought a life-and-death struggle to repel the invaders. However, the context of the text accompanying the relief suggests instead a procession of refugees from Sea People cities in Palestine destroyed by the Egyptians. The Egyptian presence in Palestine ends in the coastal plain with the advent of the Philistines, as its empire recedes. Whether one holds that the Philistines were the product or the cause of all this economic and political chaos, clearly their presence greatly exacerbated the process.


The most obvious lasting impact of these events is that the power vacuum created by the actions of the Sea Peoples provided the opportunity for Israel to become a significant state during Iron Age I. The threat of the Philistine presence forced the Israelites to develop a full-fledged state, abandoning their tribal structure. The impact of Israel on Western civilization and world history cannot be overstated.

Further Reading

  • Dothan, Trude. The Philistines and Their Material Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. This is still the definitive work on the Philistines.
  • Dothan, Trude, and Moshe Dothan. People of the Sea. New York: Macmillan, 1992. The Dothans produce an extremely readable account of their uncovering of Philistine and other Sea People material culture.
  • Drews, Robert. “Medinet Habu: Oxcarts, Ships, and Migration Theories.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 59 (2000): 161-190. An excellent critical essay questioning a number of assumptions by the traditional scholarly consensus concerning the significance of the artwork and texts from Medinet Habu.
  • Sanders, N. K. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Mediterranean. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. Presents the traditional understanding of the impact of the advent of the Sea Peoples in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Ward, William, and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, eds. The Crisis Years: The Twelfth Century b.c. from Beyond the Danube to the Tigris. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1992. A collection of twenty-three essays by leading scholars that explore the phenomenon of the Sea Peoples from a number of areas, including Europe, Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, Israel, and Mesopotamia.

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