In 1208 B.C.E. Libyans and five other groups—the Shardana, Shekelesh, Akawasha, Lukka and Tursha—invaded the Nile Delta. An inscription on a wall erected by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah in the temple of Amun at Karnak describes the Libyans’ allies as “northerners” or “of the Countries of the Sea.” So modern scholars have come to call these invaders the Sea Peoples.

Some of these Sea Peoples had been known in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a century. A letter written to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1350–1334 B.C.E.) refers to piratical raids on coastal towns in Cyprus and Syria by the Lukka people. The Shardana also had launched surprise attacks by sea, occasionally pillaging Egypt’s coast from the time of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (c. 1388–1350 B.C.E.). Ramesses II (c. 1279–1212 B.C.E.), too, complained about Shardana pirates who “came boldly [sailing] in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.” Because of the Shardana’s reputation as fierce warriors, 19th Dynasty pharaohs sometimes hired them as mercenaries; there were even Shardana in Ramesses II’s royal bodyguard.

About a generation after the Libyan-Sea Peoples’ invasion of Egypt, Ramesses III (c. 1182–1151 B.C.E.) met an even greater menace. Heading toward Egypt was a coalition of marauding groups that had progressed through Anatolia and northern Syria. Inscriptions and reliefs (see photos above and below) on Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu record the threat:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands [or sea-lands, since the word can also refer to a mainland’s coast]. All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti [the Hittite Empire], Kode [Cilicia], Carchemish [a city on the Euphrates in Syria], Arzawa [a Hittite vassal state in western Anatolia], and Alashiya [Cyprus] on, being cut off at (one time). A camp was set up in one place in Amurru [coastal Syria]. 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!” (trans. John Wilson, in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton, 1955])

Ramesses III defeated the Sea Peoples’ army, probably in Canaan. The Sea Peoples’ naval fleet, however, sailed on to Egypt, where it was decimated by the Egyptians. The Harris Papyrus, a long record of the piety and benefactions of Ramesses III, states that the pharaoh settled the Sea Peoples as mercenaries in garrison towns of Palestine and Syria. Soon after his death, Egypt lost control over Canaan. The garrisons of Sea Peoples, perhaps supplemented by more recent arrivals, gained control of a number of coastal sites in the Levant.

Who were these mysterious tribes? Of the many groups mentioned in the Egyptian texts, only two can be identified with a high degree of probability. The Peleset were likely the Philistines, and the Lukka were probably the ancestors of the Lycians, who in classical times inhabited southwestern Anatolia.

According to the Bible, the Philistines came to Canaan from Caphtor (see, for example, Deuteronomy 2:23), the place called Kaptara in Akkadian texts and Keftiu in Egyptian ones. Other biblical texts refer to Philistines as “Cherethites” (probably Cretans) and to part of the Philistine coast as “the Cretan Negev” (1 Samuel 30:14). The Egyptians described Keftiu as a place “in the midst of the Great Green” (the Mediterranean Sea) and depicted its people wearing Minoan-Mycenaean costumes and carrying Minoan-Mycenaean objects, such as long, conical ceremonial cups and vessels in the shape of a bull’s head. So Caphtor/Keftiu probably was the ancient Near Eastern name for Crete or for the region of Minoan-Mycenaean cultural influence (that is, the Aegean).

Archaeologists have traced much of the Philistine material culture to the Aegean. Many types of pottery from 12th-century B.C.E. strata of Philistine cities in Palestine developed from Mycenaean prototypes, the style known as Late Helladic IIIC1. This Aegean-Philistine pottery was not imported from the Aegean or even copied from imported ware; rather, Philistine potters in the Levant simply had retained most of their Aegean traditions.

Although these Philistine ceramic traditions are predominantly Mycenaean, some Philistine pottery types reflect Cypriot styles. We know that many Mycenaeans settled in Cyprus in the late 13th century B.C.E., and there was an additional influx of Aegean groups into Cyprus during the early 12th century B.C.E. All in all, the evidence supports Israeli archaeologist Trude Dothan’s conclusion that the Philistines acquired various cultural influences as they migrated from the Aegean into the Near East.

The Lukka, who were also from the Aegean area, were known as seafaring pirates during the 14th century B.C.E. Hittite and Ugaritic sources indicate that the Lukka lands probably were located in southwestern Anatolia. This corner of Anatolia was called Lycia (Lukia in Greek) in classical times.

The other Sea Peoples mentioned in the Egyptian accounts—such as the Akawasha, Denyen, Tursha, Shardana and Shekelesh—probably came largely from the eastern Aegean region and coastal Anatolia. Some scholars have suggested that the Akawasha should be identified with Homer’s Achaeans. The Denyen have often been equated with the Danaans (Danaoi), a synonym for Achaeans in the Iliad. Others connect them with Cilicia in southern Anatolia, however, and derive their name from the city of Adana. According to some scholars, the Tursha are from a place in western Anatolia called Taruisa by the Hittites, perhaps to be identified with Troy. According to others, the Tursha are Tyrrhenians (Tursenoi), the Greek name for the Etruscans who inhabited north-central Italy in the first millennium B.C.E.

The Shardana and Shekelesh have often been identified as Sardinians and Sicilians (Sikeloi). However, those who support this identification disagree about how the migration worked—with some arguing that these tribes arrived in the Near East from Sardinia and Sicily, and others arguing that they arrived in Sardinia and Sicily from the Near East. Both groups may well be wrong.

Except for the Peleset/Philistines and Lukka/Lycians, in fact, all of these identifications are questionable. We don’t really know exactly where most of the Sea Peoples came from, how large their numbers were, or how much they contributed to the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East. Elusive and intriguing, they remain in the offing of modern scholarship.