The Peoples of the Boats

After an era of glitter and grandeur, in which the material well-being of the civilized world reached new heights, a period of cultural decay began to take root. During this weakening period of rot and political confusion, the Mediterranean was filled with boats. The boats carried people to new lands to settle, and families – women and children, were on them. But many of the boats were laden with men – strong men, men who wanted something more, and men who were ready to take it from those who couldn’t hold on to it.

No, this isn’t 2015. This is the Late Bronze Age. And the people crossing the Mediterranean on their boats weren’t “refugees” moving towards Europe. This migratory wave has come down to us by the name of the “Sea Peoples.”


The Sea Peoples remain a mystery in many respects. They were more like a storm than anything else – appearing on the scene from their boats, destroying, and disappearing just as quickly. What cannot be denied is their impact. Just as we know of hurricanes from centuries ago from data such as tree rings, we know about the Sea Peoples from accounts and fragments, broken as many are. We can tell, remotely, that something destructive must have come, and that it came in a significant amount via boats.

The political map of the civilized world of the eastern Mediterranean at the height of the Late Bronze Age, circa 1250 B.C., looked like this:

Late Bronze Age, 1250 B.C.

This was the time of the legendary Pharaoh Ramesses II and his treaty with the resplendent Hittite Empire. It was also, we think, the time of an even greater legend – that of the Trojan War. Well, if it did happen at any time in a way resembling what Homer described, it should have happened then, that is. The Mycenaean culture in Greece was flourishing, trading with Troy, and even pissing off the Hittites. It was also the time that the Assyrians were on the rise. International trade was booming, with routes spanning thousands of kilometers to find that most precious of commodities, tin, for bronzeworking.

And yet, there were signs that behind the grand facade, the forces of entropy and decay had already begun to take root. In truth, Egypt’s power peaked in the reign of Amenhotep III a century before. Hittite power, while perhaps strong on the surface, seemed to be even less stable, as it waned quickly after the death of Ramesses’ contemporary, the Hittite king Hattusili III.

By the turn of the 12th century BC, things really began to take a nosedive. Like dominoes, the great powers on the map disappeared in a storm of flames. The Hittite Empire was destroyed, fragmented into “neo-Hittite” states, and the glorious capital of Hattusa was abandoned in 1178 B.C. The Syrian and Canaanite city-states also fell, and one by one, the glorious palaces in Greece – Knossos, Pylos, Tyrins, and eventually Mycenae itself were burned and abandoned.

In the stroke of half a century, the great powers of the past several were utterly and totally destroyed.

Sea Peoples invasion migration

Scholars have long debated the reasons why. A combination of factors including natural disasters are thought to be involved, but one important reason was not natural at all, as the map above displays, for it was around 1200 B.C. that ominous boats first appeared in the Mediterranean.

The Late Bronze Age was yet another period of migrations. Among these were the “Sea Peoples.” The Sea Peoples should not be seen as a monolithic bloc. Then (as now), they were a group of tribes, migrating in their boats to new lands. The Egyptians give them various names. There were the Libyans, under their king, Maraye, but there were also various other tribes, the “Akwasha,” the “Luca,” the “Tursha,” and the “Sheklesh.” These may be the Egyptian terminology for more familiar names – the Achaeans, the Lycians, the Tyrsenoi (possibly the forebears of the Etruscans), and the Sicilians.(1) Some of these, most obviously the Achaeans, are mentioned by Homer, and indeed, in his Odyssey, when Odysseus returns in disguise to his swineherd Eumaeus, he tells a story about a piratical raid on Egypt that went horribly wrong:

I stayed home for only a month, enjoying my children, my wife, and all my possessions. Then I felt an urge to voyage to Egypt with my godlike companions. I fitted out nine ships with care.

On the fifth day I moored my ships in the river Nile, and you can be sure I ordered my trusty mates to stand by and guard them while I sent out scouts to look around. But the crews got restless and cocky and started pillaging the Egyptian countryside, carrying off the women and children and killing the men. The cry came to the city, and at daybreak troops answered the call. The whole plain was filled with infantry, war chariots, and the glint of bronze.

They killed many of us outright with bronze and led the rest to their city to work as slaves.(2)

Is Homer here relaying a genuine memory of the raids of the Sea Peoples on Egypt, and significantly, as we will see, their failure?

Some have even mentioned that Homer’s account of the Trojan War itself sounds more like a piratical raid than a war between great states, and, lo and behold, what has been called Troy VII seems to have been destroyed in war, and dated exactly to the time of the Sea Peoples, and beyond the point, some say, at which it would be feasible for a grand coalition of Mycenaean states to attack it and its allies in a sort of Aegean World War.

Regardless of these various historical theories, what cannot be denied is the destruction the Sea Peoples wrought. Everywhere there are mentions of the terrible effects that the Sea Peoples, arriving on their boats, told on their victims. On Crete, after the collapse of the palaces at Knossos and elsewhere, it seems that the local population was forced to build uncomfortable settlements on mountains just to survive the onslaught of the boats. The Hittites fell just as much as Troy did, and while numerous Syrian and Canaanite city-states seem to have been destroyed in natural disasters, others appear to have been sacked.

The one remaining major power in the region that did survive (as ever) the storm of boats was Egypt. And it is to Egypt we now turn.

Stop the boat people and migrant boats.
The migrant peoples of the boats were the scourge of the Late Bronze Age. How did Egypt survive?

Merneptah Defends his People:

The great Ramesses II died in 1213 B.C. at the age of 90 after a glorious reign of 67 years. While the famous pharaoh is not quite so great as he made himself out to be, his reign was one of peace and prosperity. It was the last Egyptian golden age. Since Ramesses lived so long, many of his children predeceased him. His successor was his thirteenth son, Merneptah, already in his 60’s.

Merneptah statue

It is usually the unhappy fate of the sons of giants such as Ramesses to wallow in obscurity, often losing their minds in the process. This is indeed the crux of one of the 48 Laws of Power – “Law 41: Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes:”

What happens first always appears better and more original than what comes after. If you succeed a great man or have a famous parent, you will have to accomplish double their achievements to outshine them. Do not get lost in their shadow, or stuck in a past not of your own making. Establish your own name and identity by changing course. Slay the overbearing father, disparage his legacy, and gain power by shining in your own way.(3)

Merneptah did indeed follow this law, or perhaps, was forced to. Old as he was when he assumed the throne, he probably would have liked to simply preside over a tranquil Egypt, but it was not to be, for the storm of boats began. It was in Year 5 of his reign (1208 B.C.) that the first wave of the Sea Peoples, allied with the Libyan king Maraye, were on the move.

This was an extreme danger to Egypt’s security. Unlike the glorious campaigns of Thutmose III, or even the not-quite-so-glorious ones of his father, Merneptah was dealing with an enemy that was in the heart of Egyptian territory, and the accounts do not describe something so dissimilar to modern ears:

Maraye, the king of the Libyans, led not only his fighting men but all the peoples of his tribe, women and children, with their cattle and household equipment, in a vast migration. Yet the threat of the Libyans was not new. What was new, and disturbing, was the presence of alien peoples among the military allies of Maraye.(4)

Merneptah had undoubtedly known of the great threat. The Hittite Empire was in a state of pandemonium, and, in an act of faith to his father’s peace treaty, Merneptah sent grain to the beleaguered Hittites.(5) Now he was facing the threat on his own doorstep:

One came to say to his majesty in Year 5, second month of Shomu to the effect that: “The wretched chief of the enemies of Rebu, Merey, son of Dedy, has descended upon the foreign land of Tjehenu together with his bowmen. Sherden, Sheklesh, Akwasha, Lukka, and Tursha, consisting of the seizure of the best fighter and runner of his foreign land, he bringing his wife, his children…the great chiefs of the tent. It is at the fields of Perire that he reached the western borders.”(6)

Merneptah, in dealing with this crisis, is supposed to have received a vision to give him more confidence.

Ptah himself appeared to the king in a dream and offered him a sword. Merneptah, on this symbolic advice, sent out the army.(7)

Merneptah, assuming his role as the defender of Egypt’s people and culture, acted swiftly and decisively. His army encountered the migratory coalition and dealt them a brutal defeat at Perire, killing over 6,000 of them and taking 9,000 prisoners.(8)

And there was much rejoicing:

Officers, infantry, chariotry, and all the veterans of the army bearing plunder, before them loaded with the uncircumcised phalli of the foreign land of Rebu together with the severed hands of all the foreign lands which were with them in containers and baskets; the enemies of their land. Now the entire land was rejoicing to heaven, the towns and nomes acclaiming because of these marvels which have happened. Tribute underneath the window of appearances to let his majesty see that he is victorious.(9)

Merneptah’s campaign was a complete success, and though he did not partake in the actual fighting due to his advanced age, in organizing this campaign, Merneptah had outshone his famous father in one crucial respect – he successfully defended Egypt’s borders from invasion, and the victory at Perire was far more impressive than Ramesses II’s legendary Battle of Kadesh in 1279 B.C.

Sea Peoples boats migrants
Merneptah’s defeat of the Sea Peoples on the Great Karnak Inscription.

Yet Merneptah’s encounter with the Sea Peoples would not be Egypt’s last. The boats stopped, but only temporarily. The Sea Peoples would reemerge, stronger than ever, and from their boats, attack a far weakened Egypt.

Ramesses at the Brink:

The 20th Dynasty came to power after a period of usurpation and upheaval at the end of the 19th. In 1186 B.C., its second ruler, Ramesses III, took the throne. The geopolitical situation was far different than from Merneptah’s time just a generation earlier. The peoples of the boats had wrecked far more havoc. The Hittite Empire was on its last legs. The cities in Syria and Canaan were being destroyed. Troy VII was at this time burning, and the great palace at Pylos had already been burned, with more soon to come.

Ramesses III sea peoples

Ramesses III’s great mortuary temple at Medinet Habu describes the chaos of the time:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in the islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya being cut off. 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 toward Egypt while their flame was prepared before them.(10)

The Sea Peoples were back and stronger than ever. In addition to Merneptah’s old enemies, the migratory coalition was joined by some new boats bearing new tribes. These were names that might be familiar – the “Danu,” likely the Danaoi of Homer, and the “Pelset,” the Phillistines. And yet, these people were not purely a military expedition, that would probably be too organized compared to what went on:

These people were not so much an army as a swarm of army ants, a vast column of warriors, oxen, children, wagons, and baggage carts which swept like a scourge through the eastern lands. They dealt the Hittites their death blow and came down on Egypt by sea and by land.(11)

The situation was even more dire than in Merneptah’s time. Egypt was vastly diminished, and the Sea Peoples were confident, their boats swelling. Where they had once put the great civilizations on the brink, the Sea Peoples had now toppled them one by one, and Egypt, always prime real estate for settlement, was next to face the boats:

The men who fought under Ramesses III had their backs to the wall, and they fought with the knowledge that defeat meant slavery or annihilation. The Egyptian Empire was dead.(12)

This was not some far off war as in the celebrated campaigns of Thutmose III or Ramesses II. The fight was once more on Egypt’s doorstep, and unlike Merneptah’s time, there was no one to turn to. It was all or nothing.

Fortunately, as is so often the case, dire times produce just the right men to take the lead. Ramesses III wasted no time, and in several ferocious battles on land (The Battle of Djahy) and sea (The Battle of the Delta), the Sea Peoples were stopped in their tracks, their boats destroyed:

Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river-mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed, and made into heaps from tail to head. Their ships and their goods were as if fallen into the water. I have made the lands turn back from even mentioning Egypt, for when they pronounce my name on their land they are burned up.(13)

Battle of the Delta boats Sea Peoples
The naval Battle of the Delta, fought on water against the Sea Peoples.


Battle of Djahy Sea Peoples refugees
The Battle of Djahy against the Sea Peoples.

In addition to this account in his mortuary temple, Ramesses III mentions the same on the Papyrus Harris:

I overthrew those who invaded from their lands. I slew the Danuna who are in their isles, the Tjekker and the Pelset were made ashes. The Shardana and the Weshesh of the sea, they were made as those that exist not, taken captive at one time, brought as captives to Egypt, like the sand of the shore. I settled them in strongholds bound in my name. Numerous were their classes like hundred-thousands. I taxed them all, in clothing and grain from the store-houses and granaries each year.(14)

Although this latter subjugation has been met with some skepticism by scholars, what cannot be doubted was that Ramesses III, through his prompt response to the threat posed by the migratory boats, saved Egypt from invasion. His rewards for the effort were (likely) to eventually be murdered by members of his own family and to have his dynasty degenerate after that, but the Muses can say of him that he prevented Egypt from going the way of the Hittites, Trojans, Syrians, Canaanites, and Mycenaeans.

Egypt would degenerate as a civilization, but not from the Sea Peoples and their boats, and it would ultimately survive in one form or another independently, if disunited, for hundreds of years afterward, and leave its monuments for all time, whereas those of Mycenae and Hattusa would only be rediscovered in much dilapidated condition after careful excavation 3,000 years later.

Such is the fate of those that cannot or will not defend their civilizations.

What We Can Learn:

The Bronze Age collapse teaches us that civilizations that have endured for centuries, even millennia, can fall very quickly. In the face of weakness, whether from internal corruption, by the whims of nature, or at the hands of an invader, the universe is pitiless. Be strong or be destroyed. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The first corollary of this key lesson is that you must have the balls to defend your country.

Merneptah and Ramesses III show us that in the face of great danger, decisive, firm, and competent leadership can produce tremendous results. That Egypt was the only major power not to fall to the waves of migratory boats bearing the Sea Peoples is proof. Merneptah and Ramesses III loved their country and their people. Merneptah wrote at Karnak that the Libyans and the Sea Peoples “loved death and hated life,” a calling card to traditional Egyptian “love of life” that he was prepared to defend.(15)

Despite the fact that Egypt was well past its peak, Merneptah and Ramesses III showed that swift action, motivated by the deepest patriotism, could still work wonders. Where Akhenaten sat back and watched as Egypt’s power was weakening from without as he went to war on the traditions and well-being of the country from within, Merneptah and Ramesses III, acting at a time of far less power and glory, protected their people from the migratory boats and achieved decisive results.

These two men, in confronting the Sea Peoples and their boats, acted in the right way. They have earned our respect, and we seek to learn from their example.

Merneptah mummy Sea Peoples boats
Merneptah’s mummy.


Ramesses III mummy Sea Peoples boats
The mummy of Ramesses III.

The second major part of the lesson this time period conveys is that uncontrolled mass migrations destroy civilizations. They are just as much, if not an even greater threat, than military invasions. If we measure the success rate of uncontrolled migratory waves compared to military action on the destruction of civilizations and dark age transitions, I suspect the latter would be higher.

Merneptah and Ramesses III show us in their campaigns against the Sea Peoples that had destroyed their contemporaries that we must remain vigilant, and not shirk from our responsibilities to defend our nations.

Sources Cited:

  1. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 257-258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  2. Homer, Odyssey, translated by Stanley Lombardo, Book 14, lines 267-296.
  3. Greene, Robert. The 48 Laws of Power. New York: Penguin, 2000. 347.
  4. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 257-258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  5. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 257-258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  6. Manassa, Colleeen. “The Great Karnak Inscription of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century B.C.Yale Egyptological Studies Year 5, 2003, 23.
  7. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  8. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  9. Manassa, Colleeen. “The Great Karnak Inscription of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century B.C.” Yale Egyptological Studies Year 5, 2003, 52.
  10. Cline, Eric. “The Collapse of Civilizations.” In 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, 2-3. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  11. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 263. London: Robinson, 2010.
  12. Mertz, Barbara. “The Broken Reed.” In Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, 258. London: Robinson, 2010.
  13. Cline, Eric. “The Collapse of Civilizations.” In 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, 6. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  14. Cline, Eric. “The Collapse of Civilizations.” In 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, 6. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  15. Manassa, Colleeen. “The Great Karnak Inscription of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century B.C.” Yale Egyptological Studies Year 5, 2003, 34-5.
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