Document #6 – Accounts of the Sea People (c.1200)

All five major civilizations of the ancient Near East suffered catastrophic failure and collapse during the era 1220-1150 BC. The Hittites and Minoans never recovered. The Egyptians experienced chaos and had to reshape their political structure. And the Mycenaeans disappeared, but ultimately morphed into the Greeks.

Questions to consider while you read the following two documents [and by consider, I mean you may wish to write some sort of response in your notes):

  1. What do these two documents tell us about what was occurring in the Eastern Mediterranean around the year 1200 BCE?
  2. Where specifically do the documents support your inferences?

The Pylos Tablets

Carl Blegen discovered over 1100 tablets inscribed in Linear B while excavating the Mycenaean site of Pylos on mainland Greece. These tablets survive because they were baked in the fires that destroyed Pylos c.1200, and therefore, record some of the final images of a civilization before its collapse. The Tablets remained unreadable until 1952 when Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B and proved that it was a written form of Greek. Ventris’ discovery was important because it provided evidence of a mixed Mycenaean-Minoan culture on Crete after c.1300 or so. He also proved that written Greek existed nearly 600 years before the time of Homer. Appearing for the first time in the Pylos Tablets are words such as ‘wanax’ (chieftain), ‘gerousia’ (council), and ‘demos’ (people). Most of the Tablets record agricultural production (similar content of the early cuneiform tablets in Sumer), but words such as sesame, cumin gold, and ivory also appear and give a glimpse of the Mycenaean trading network of the period. What follows is a brief selection of the more interesting accounts of the arrival of the Sea People c.1200 BC.

1] To all the gods, one amphora of honey. To the mistress of the Labyrinth (?), one amphora of honey.

2] The northerners have started the work of burying in the forest after a nightmare of agony during which they gored and destroyed and drowned mercilessly while robbing. When we were left alone many were still shivering and frightened after this nightmare of agony.

3] The enemy grabbed all the priests from everywhere and without reason murdered them secretly by simple drowning. I am calling out to my descendants (for the sake of) history. I am told that the northern strangers continued their (terrible) attack, terrorizing and plundering (until) a short time ago.

4] I fell back in fear from the (huge) massacre afflicted on us during this nightmare of suffering. They decided then to burn our refuge and to beat us. All were dragged from the stable and done evil with hammerblows. This filthy deed……..

5] While remembering the terror, we had to recover from the defeat by gently giving very good care to the afflicted and performing surgery.

6] Thus the watchers are guarding the coasts : command of Maleus at Owitono… 50 men of Owitono to go to Oikhalia, command of Nedwatas…. 20 men of Kyparssia at Aruwote, 10 Kyparissia men at Aithalewes…. command of Tros at Ro’owa…. 110 men from Oikhalia to Aratuwa.

[Some of the last tablets written at Pylos speak of rowers being drawn from five places to go to Pleuron on the coast. A second list numbers 443 rowers, crews for at least fifteen ships. A much larger list speaks of 700 men as defensive troops, enough to put to sea with a force of 30 ships.]

Inscriptions from the Temple of Medinet Habu

Medinet Habu is the mortuary temple of Ramses III (r.1186-1155 BC), who was the last pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. It was during Ramses III’s reign that the Sea Peoples, who had already destroyed the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, invaded Egypt by both land and sea. The inscriptions discovered on the walls of Ramses III’s temple of Medinet Habu depict the arrival of the Sea Peoples in Egypt. Ramses III claims to have defeated them, made them subjects, and relocated them to the land of Canaan.

Year 8 under the majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of Re Ramses, Ruler of Heliopolis. Words spoken by the scribe of recruits, general of the Lord of the Two Lands, Wenemdiamun. He says:

Now, at length there came a time when trade began to falter. There was trouble in the great kingship of Hatti. The chiefs of the lands under the heel of the king of Hatti became rebellious, and the lands were consumed in petty bickering. The harbors teemed with warships, and thievery ran rampant upon the water-ways that my companions and I were accustomed to traveling.

Now, we also once traded in the islands and coastal regions to the north and west, where we could acquire fine olive oil, metal-work and wool. But trouble had fallen upon them, as well. The ships that used to come to them bearing the raw metals that they used for their craft and the purple dye for their wool now came in lesser numbers, and had little to exchange. And further, the gods had frowned on them by sending them drought, so that their crops failed. The great lords of the palaces began to fight amongst each other, and the kings began to bicker with their own officials.

This went on for many years, and each year, the trade route yielded less reward. One day, when I had spent several months upon the trade routes and had come home with hardly anything to show, I set foot upon the soil of my homeland in despair. I walked to my house with all of the weight of an ox yoke upon my neck. My wife and children ran to embrace me, and my children jumped with excitement as they always did, crying, ‘What have you brought for us, Father?’ My wife kissed me and asked, ‘Beder, my dear, what gift have you brought this time? Do you have star-flower earrings from Canaan, or a necklace from Kaphtor for me?’

I said to her, ‘Would that I had something to give you, my pretty bird, but my captain could barely afford to pay me the smallest salary. The gold and silver that we brought in were scarcely enough to buy supplies for the journey home. What is more, we lost much of our cargo when we were accosted by Denyen. Many of the old harbors are closed. Fortresses greet us at the shorelines. What is more, some of the great cities of the western lands that we used to trade with are lying in ruins in spite of their great forts, and the people are fleeing to the mountains.

My companions and I despaired of what to do. We sat about in the guest-room of my small home, eating old cheese and drinking the last of the Egyptian wine that I had brought home from my voyages, and not a man spoke a word for some time. Each eye avoided the gaze of a fellow. At last I said, ‘How, then, are we to make it through the year? In whose service are we to run our ship now?’

My friend, Padi, replied, ‘We are in no one’s service now but our own, Beder. If we are to survive, we must make our own work.’ Our ship ceased to work in the service of any ruler. We plied the seas, raiding the villages upon the coastlines and accosting the merchant ships that still went upon the trading routes.

For more than ten years, I pursued this dubious career. I could tell you many stories of the things that we saw in the places that we visited. We have seen things that none of your Egyptian sailors have ever dreamed of, I can assure you. Once, my boat was caught in a dreadful storm, and it was cast ashore on a remote island in the midst of the sea. As we repaired the ship, we soon ran out of provisions, and were forced to live off of the strange plants that grew on the island. Two of our men vanished, and another went out foraging and came back raving like a mad dog, saying that he had been captured by a tribe of monster women, whose bodies were entirely covered with fur. He barely escaped from them with his life, and at any length, died soon afterwards of a strange illness. On another occasion, our ship was nearly capsized by a gigantic beast with many arms that rose up from the depths. We were scarcely able to drive it off with our spears. But this does not concern my story — I was telling you of how I came to join this group and journey towards Egypt.

As the years passed, even piracy ceased to turn the profit that it once did. The merchant ships became even fewer, and those that did sail became more vigilant, and the crews more warlike and ferocious, than ever before. It became more profitable to raid coastal lands. But this was quite difficult, as many of the lands had set up great fortifications of stone on a gigantic scale. One small fleet of pirate ships had very little hope of breaching such a great defense.

But meanwhile, complete disorder had set in upon the kingdom of the Hittites. It was said that king Suppiluliuma [the last known king of the Hittite Empire] could not hold out much longer. His great kingship would soon be finished. At the same time, we in the pirate business were faring very badly.

It came to pass that the chiefs of the Peleset sea raiders came together to discuss our lamentable situation. The chiefs spoke among themselves, and decided that it would be best to unite and push southwards. The Canaanites were still rich and happy, after all, and could offer much plunder, and even trade. Perhaps some of us could even come to settle in Egypt, even if by capture, as I have. Egypt is never lacking in anything, and even prisoners of battle here are often better off than those living freely in the poorer regions to the north.

The ships of the Peleset formed a great fleet and joined forces with the nearby tribe of the Tjekker. I rejoiced at the thought of traveling southward. I took my wife and children, and they were boarded upon a boat with many other women and children of our people, with supplies and horses and oxen. When they reached the mainland, they were to set out with an armed guard and make way for Amurru. I went forth before them in a ship manned by the most ferocious of our fighters, and we led the way, bringing a great fleet against the coast of Hatti-land.

I must honestly tell you that, when we approached the shore of our intended enemies, I was terrified. Every limb of my body trembled, for I knew of the might of the Hittites. After all, had not Hattusas been the most powerful kingdom in the world aside from Egypt since the time of our forefathers? I also knew that several other fleets of Alashiyan ships had tried to battle the Hittites before ours, and had had but limited success in previous attempts. But I need not have feared so much.

The fleet that came to meet us was not the great wall of fire and fury that I had expected, but a few ships, badly prepared. It seems the king of Hattusas was too busy trying to protect his skin from his own kinsmen to prepare a proper fleet. We had their ships capsized and the crews begging for mercy in the space of an hour. Some of the crews, which consisted of Shardana and Shekelesh working in the service of the Hittites, defected to our own side. They had heard the levies of the Hittite kingdom break, and knew that the flood-waters would soon burst forth.

When we had defeated the Hittite fleet, we docked in the harbors and came ashore, with our chariots and weapons prepared. Some of our men went southward, accompanying the women and children in their ox-carts, while others of us marched for the greatest city of the Hittites, where the king was. It was many days march to the city of Hattusas, and we found war and pandemonium along the way. We marched through Tarsus, which was already in flames, and stole the treasure of the city. We stopped at many points to raid and pillage the small settlements that we found, and other bandits and wanderers joined us.

When at last we reached Hattusas, the city was already in shambles. Many of the people had fled upon hearing that we were coming, and civil strife had broken out. We found it an easy thing to drive out the inhabitants of the palace and steal the fine things there, what few had been left behind by the departing populace. We left Hattusas burnt to the ground.

Next, we moved southward to Ugarit. The people of Ugarit had become too soft and lazy with wealth to hold up against us, and we destroyed their fleet and sacked their city in a matter of days. The populace fled while letters for aid were still baking in their kilns. We passed through Kode, Carchemish and Arvad, leaving all of them engulfed with fire. We made our camp in Amurru, and then set out southward again, pressing on for Egypt. My wife and children went along the land route, while I went by sea. It was in the Great Green not far from your river mouths that my fleet met with your Egyptian ships.

Never have I seen such complete pandemonium. Our own ships came forth into the harbor, moving entirely by means of sails, and we rejoiced to see the shore of Egypt. But your Lord Ramses III had already prepared for us by sending forth your ships. We had scarcely had time to realize where we were before they were upon us. They drove forward at us with oars working at full speed, and we found ourselves showered with arrows from your boats.

I despaired of what to do, for our own sailors were not armed with projectiles. It was something we should have anticipated, but we did not. And so with swords and spears and round shields, we stood our ground, as your own ships pulled up alongside ours. Some of the ships were overrun with Egyptians, and others were overturned so that all the people and cargo spilled out into the water. I stood fearing for my life as an Egyptian ship struck ours with its great side, knocking loose the bird head which graced our prow and tipping our ship terribly. One of my brave companions lost his footing upon the slippery deck and plunged into the water. He was drawn under the Egyptian ship and bludgeoned with the oars. At length, he vanished beneath the surface, and I did not see him again.

The Egyptian ship struck our own again, and I found myself all at once beneath the water. I thought to myself, ‘Beder, your time has come, you old fool. You should have followed your convictions about the pirating business right from the start. Just as I was about to give up and let the water claim me, I floated up again, and my head broke the surface. My ship had been capsized, and my companions and their shields were scattered about in disarray. All at once, someone seized me up and snatched me out of the water and dragged me onto another boat. It was one of your Egyptian sailors. He put me in fetters, and said, ‘You have been captured, you vile northerner. If you wish to survive, you had best not struggle.’

I sat there on the deck of that Egyptian boat, cold and wet and coughing up brine, and I knew not whether to weep or celebrate. For I knew that, if, on the one hand, I were to be settled in Egypt in service of the King, your Lord and mine, my troubles were over — so long as I might see my family again. But on the other hand, if I were simply to be slain, all my effort would have been wasted. But now I am here, and it seems I have come home safe at last. Only, would that I could be reunited with my family! Then I would be completely happy.


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