Invaders from the Sea

The biggest threat to it and indeed to the whole Syrian and Levantine coast-and for that matter, to the southern Anatolian coast, Cyprus, and the Egyptian Delta-came from the sea. Throughout the Late Bronze Age, and in many earlier and later periods as well, the eastern Mediterranean was a dangerous place for travel. That was partly because of the natural hazards of sudden storms, which left many a merchant ship and other vessels at the bottom of it. But also because of piracy. In the mid-14th century, Akhenaten had written to the king of Alasiya (= Cyprus or part thereof) complaining about the seabooting activities of the notorious Lukka people operating from bases on the southern Anatolian coast and attacking cities on the shores of Egypt. He accused the Alasiyan king and his subjects of complicity in the attacks. The Alasiyan king objected strongly. His cities too, he declared, had suffered annual raids by pirates. We also hear of raids upon the Egyptian coast by buccaneers called Sherden, in the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II. And in the last years of the Late Bronze Age, what was almost certainly another pirate group, called `the Shikila who live on boats’, appears in a letter sent by a Hittite king (probably the last one, Suppiluliuma II) to a Ugaritic king (probably the last one, Ammurapi). The letter shows deep interest in these boat-people. Its author had learnt that a citizen of Ugarit called Ibnadushu had been captured by them, but was subsequently released or escaped his captivity. He requested that Ibnadushu be sent to Hatti for debriefing, with the promise that he would be returned home safely afterwards. The Great King was understandably anxious to find out more about the size and the movements of pirate operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Largely, it must be, because of the serious threat they posed to the safety of transport ships in the waters of this region and the increasingly vital role these ships were playing in the struggle `to keep alive the land of Hatti’.

Ugarit’s final days provide a microcosm of the forces of upheaval and destruction that engulfed much of the Near Eastern world in the late 13th and early 12th centuries. For the Syrian coastal kingdom, the dangers came particularly from the sea. Ammurapi kept a squad of coastwatchers on constant alert, scanning the horizon. Then came the news he most feared: enemy ships had come into view just off his kingdom’s shores and were heading directly for the capital. Ammurapi wrote to the Carchemish viceroy, Talmi-Teshub, begging for assistance. Perhaps out of pique for Ugarit’s earlier lack of cooperation, but more likely now because he had no choice, Talmi-Teshub wrote back offering nothing but advice: `As for what you have written to me: “Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!” Well, you must remain firm. Indeed for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? No? Behind the enemy, who press upon you? Surround your towns with ramparts. Have your troops and chariots enter there, and await the enemy with great resolution.’ In other words, you’re on your own. Make the best of what resources you already have. These were little enough. We have noted that Ammurapi had responded positively to a Hittite demand to send his troops and chariots to Hatti, even though what he sent was considered inadequate and second-rate. And after a second demand was made of him, by Suppiluliuma II, he had sent his fleet to the coast of Lukka in south-western Anatolia- for reasons scholars are still debating. We can understand the desperateness of Ammurapi’s appeal to the viceroy.

It was to no avail. Ammurapi was left defenceless. With part of his land forces and all his navy elsewhere, he had no chance of repelling the seaborne marauders now rapidly descending upon his kingdom. He wrote to the king of Alasiya, with whom he seems to have had close ties, describing how critically dangerous his situation was: `My father, the enemy’s ships have been coming and burning my cities and doing terrible things in my country. All my troops and chariots are in the land of Hatti, and all my ships are in Lukka. My land has been left defenceless!’ Though the letter’s precise date is uncertain, its words of despair and abandonment could have been among the very last Ammurapi put to tablet. Indeed, so sudden was the final enemy onslaught upon his kingdom that letters ready for despatch from the capital never left it. They were found by archaeologists in the house of a scribe called Rapanu – graphic evidence in themselves of the city’s sudden, violent end. Ammurapi’s royal seat, centre of one of the most prosperous kingdoms of Late Bronze Age Syria, was looted and abandoned. There was no Iron Age successor. Ugarit would never rise from its ashes.

Its destruction belongs within the context of the general waves of upheavals and devastations that brought the Late Bronze Age civilizations to an end in both the Aegean and the Near Eastern worlds. Environmental catastrophes (earthquakes, prolonged droughts, and the like), new waves of invaders from the north, the collapse of central administrations, disruption of international trading links, and economic meltdown (to give a modern ring to our tale) have all been suggested as factors contributing to the disintegration of the Bronze Age world. These possibilities will no doubt continue to be debated by scholars, inconclusively and endlessly. But Egyptian records, supported to some extent by archaeological data, specifically associate the devastations with large groups called `peoples from the sea’, a motley conglomerate of marauders who travelled by land as well as by sea as they swept across and destroyed much of the Near Eastern world early in the 12th century. Already in the reign of the pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203), groups of invaders called Sherden, Shekelesh, Lukka, Ekwesh, and Teresh had attacked the coast of Egypt.

Merneptah managed to repel the intruders, but their attacks on Egypt were merely a prelude to the invasions of the eastern Mediterranean countries during Ramesses III’s reign (1184-1153). On the walls of his funerary temple at Medinet Habu at Thebes in Uppper Egypt, Ramesses graphically records the trail of ruin left by these peoples: `The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”

These invasions were not simply or even primarily military operations. They involved mass movements, both by land and by sea, of peoples who were most likely the victims rather than the causes of the disasters that brought about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilizations. Displaced from their homelands, they had sought new lands to settle, taking on a marauding character as they did so. What happened to them after they were beaten off by Ramesses III? Some like the Shekelesh, the Sherden, and the Teresh may have gone west, perhaps to Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy. A proportion of the Sherden may have stayed on in Egypt, becoming mercenaries in the pharaoh’s armies. Another group, the Peleset, almost certainly became the people well known from biblical sources as the Philistines.

The Philistines

`An uneducated or unenlightened person; one indifferent or hostile to culture.’ Thus the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines the term `Philistine’ as we use it today. In so doing, it provides a classic example of the powerful influence the Bible has exercised on Western civilization’s vocabulary and ways of thinking. The Philistines figure prominently in biblical tradition as the archetypal enemies of the early Israelite rulers. Their origins can be firmly linked to the historical record, for their ancestors, called the Peleset in Egyptian records, were among the Sea Peoples who pillaged their way through much of the Near Eastern world before being stopped by the pharaoh Ramesses III. In Egyptian reliefs from Ramesses’ reign, the Peleset are depicted wearing tasselled kilts and what appear to be feathered headdresses. After the Sea Peoples’ break-up and dispersal, these proto-Philistines finally settled in south-western Palestine, on that part of the southern coastal plain that came to be called Philistia. Five cities, the so-called Philistine Pentapolis, provided the focal points of Philistine civilization. They were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gaza, and Gath.

It is not surprising that the Philistines, the Israelites’ arch-enemies and a people who in their victories could be as brutal and destructive as any of their contemporaries, should get a bad press in our biblical sources. But to portray them as crude, uncivilized barbarians really flies in the face of the facts. The material remains of their civilization provide ample evidence that they were a highly cultured people, with advanced architectural, engineering, and technological skills, and a high level of attainment in the arts and crafts. It was perhaps partly their refined, urban-based civilization that roused the moralistic ire of the Israelites. Especially those Israelites who had led an ascetic existence in the hill-country of Palestine before descending on the plains, where they sought a more secure, settled way of life. In the process, they came into conflict with the Philistines.


These were the unfortunate occupants, in biblical tradition, of the `Promised Land’, the land vouchsafed by God to the Israelites after their return from Egypt, as recorded in the biblical story of the Exodus. It lay in the region covered in part by modern Israel and Lebanon. With the go-ahead given by God, the returning Israelites virtually obliterated the Canaanites to provide themselves with their own living space, bringing them, as a consequence, into contact and conflict with the Philistines. In a broad sense, the term `Canaanite’ is sometimes used to refer to all the ancient peoples of the Levant, up to the last decades of the 4th century bc. But these peoples were divided into a number of tribal groups, city-states, and kingdoms, each of which developed its own political and social structures, and a number of its own distinctive cultural traits. They identified themselves, and were almost always identified by others, not as Canaanites but by the names of the specific tribal and political units to which they belonged. This explains why in the ancient sources `Canaanite’ is rarely used as a generic designation for them, outside the Bible. The first clearly attested use of the term occurs in the 18th-century archives of Mari on the Euphrates, and there are occasional references to Canaan and Canaanites in later Bronze Age texts; for example, we have seen that Canaan was the place of exile of Idrimi, later king of Alalah, while he was on the run after fleeing his city Aleppo. Canaanites were among the prisoners-of-war deported to Egypt by the 15th-century pharaoh Amenhotep II, and in the following century, Canaan appears several times in the Amarna letters. Subsequently Canaanites are attested in biblical sources as the pre-Israelite occupants of the `Promised Land’. Some scholars have argued that the Israelites themselves, despite their `biblical’ loathing for every aspect of Canaanite culture, were in fact a sub-branch of the Canaanite peoples who withdrew to the Palestinian hill-country during the unsettled conditions in Syria-Palestine and elsewhere at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

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