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Texts from the Medinet Habu Temple with Reference to the Sea Peoples

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Author Topic: Texts from the Medinet Habu Temple with Reference to the Sea Peoples  (Read 2446 times)
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« on: September 26, 2008, 03:20:03 pm »

The Inscriptions of Medinet Habu
By Michele MacLaren, Liam McManus, and Megaera Lorenz

Ramesses III's temple at Medinet Habu. Image from the Theban Mapping Project website.
    When studying the Sea Peoples, scholars turn to one of the most detailed and well known texts concerning the Sea Peoples, the inscriptions from Medinet Habu.
    Medinet Habu is a mortuary temple that was constructed for Ramesess III at Thebes, in Upper Egypt. The temple decoration consists of a series of reliefs and texts telling of the many exploits of the king, from his campaign against the Libyans to, most importantly, his war against the Sea Peoples.
    The texts and reliefs that deal with the Sea Peoples date to year eight of Ramesess III’s reign, approximately 1190 BCE. The significance of these texts is that they provide an account of Egypt’s campaign against the “coalition of the sea” from an Egyptian point of view. In the inscriptions, Ramesses alludes to the threat the Sea Peoples posed, as can be seen in this portion of text:

…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, Kode, Carchemish, Artawa, and Alashiya on being cut off [at one time].  A camp was [set up] in one place in Amor.  They desolated its people and its land was like that which has never come into being.  (Medinet Habu, Year 8 inscription.)

    The inscriptions go on to specify the groups which were involved in the "confederation": Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh.
    Although Ramesses III boasts of his defeat of the Sea Peoples' coalition on land and sea, the portion of text quoted above gives the impression that the Egyptians were facing a great and strong military presence.  However, some scholars believe that the battles described at Medinet Habu were not one coherent event, but were actually small skirmishes between the Sea Peoples and the Egyptians at different intervals that were conflated in Ramesses' account into two grandiose battles.  Barbara Cifola (1988: 275-306) concluded that, due to the vague manner in which the northern enemies were described, they could not possibly represent one force, and were probably never joined into a clearly defined confederation (see also O’conner 2000: 94).
    The Medinet Habu inscriptions are also significant for their artistic depictions of the Sea Peoples. These provide valuable information about the appearance and accoutrements of the various groups, and can lend clues towards deciphering their ethnic backgrounds (Redford 1992: 251).
    From the textual evidence on the temple walls, it appears that the Peleset and the Tjeker made up the majority of the Sea Peoples involved in the year 8 invasion.  In the artistic depictions, both types are depicted wearing a fillet, from which protrudes a floppy plume and a protective piece down the nape of the neck.  Their armament included long swords, spears and circular shields, and they are occasionally shown wearing body armor.  Other groups, such as the Shekelesh and Teresh, are shown wearing cloth headdresses and a medallion upon their breasts.  The weaponry that they carried consisted of two spears and a simple round shield.  The Shardana soldiers are most obviously armored in the artistic depictions, due to the thick horned helmets that adorn their heads (Redford 1992: 252).
    The land battle and sea battle scenes provide a wealth of information on the military styles of the Sea Peoples.  The reliefs depicting the land battle show Egyptian troops, chariots and auxiliaries fighting the enemy, who also used chariots, very similar in design to Egyptian chariots.  Although the chariots used by the Sea Peoples are very similar to those used by the Egyptians, both being pulled by two horses and using wheels with six spokes, the Sea Peoples had three soldiers per chariot, whereas the Egyptians only had one, or occasionally two.
    The land battle scenes also give the observer some sense of the Sea Peoples’ military organization. According to the artistic representations, the Philistine warriors were each armed with a pair of long spears, and their infantry was divided into small groups consisting of four men each.  Three of those men carried long, straight swords and spears, while the fourth man only carried a sword. The relief depicting the land battle is a massive jumble of figures and very chaotic in appearance, but this was probably a stylistic convention employed by the Egyptians to convey a sense of chaos. Other evidence suggests that the Sea Peoples had a high level of organization and military strategy (O’Conner 2000: 95).
    A striking feature of the land battle scene is the imagery of ox-pulled carts carrying women and children in the midst of a battle. These carts seem to represent a people on the move (Sandars 1985: 120).
    The other famous relief at Medinet Habu regarding the Sea Peoples is of the sea battle.  This scene is also shown in a disorganized mass, but as was mentioned earlier, was meant to represent chaos, again contradicting the Egyptians’ descriptions of the military success and organization of the Sea Peoples.  The sea battle scene is valuable for its depictions of the Sea Peoples' ships and their armaments.  The Egyptians and the Sea Peoples both used sails as their main means of naval locomotion. However, interestingly, the Sea Peoples' ships appear to have no oars, which could indicate new navigation techniques (Dothan 1982: 7).  Another interesting feature of the Sea Peoples' ships is that all the prows are carved in the shape of bird heads, which has caused many scholars to speculate an Aegean origin for these groups. Wachsmann (2000) speculates that the sea battle relief shows the battle in progression, from beginning to end.
    Medinet Habu still remains the most important source for understanding the Sea Peoples, their possible origins, and their impact on the Mediterranean world.  To this day, no other source has been discovered that provides as detailed an account of these groups, and this mortuary temple still provides the only absolute date for the Sea Peoples.

Proceed to excerpts from the Medinet Habu Texts.

Primary Source Bibliography:

Medinet Habu Inscriptions, reign of Ramesses III. Pp. 262-263 in:

Pritchard, J.
    1969     Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New Jersey: Princeton Univeristy Press.

Secondary Sources:

Cifola, B.
    1988     Rameses III and the Sea Peoples: A Structural Analysis of the Medinet Habu Inscriptions.
              Orientalia 57 (3): 275-306.

Dothan, T.
    1982     Philistines and Their Material Culture.  London

O’Conner, D.
    2000     The Sea Peoples and the Egyptian Sources, pp. 85-102, in E. Oren (ed.) The
                 Sea Peoples and Their World: A Reassessment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum Press.

Redford, D.B.
    1992     Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Sandars, N.K.

    1985     The Sea Peoples Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean. London.

Wachsmann, S.
    2000     To the Sea of the Philistines. pp. 103-143, in E. Oren (ed.) The Sea Peoples
                 and Their World: A Reassessment. Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Museum Press.
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