Consider Egypt’s relationships with Libya and the “Sea Peoples” during the New Kingdom and assess their possible contribution to the decline of Egypt’s empire and international standing.


The terms Libyan and “Sea Peoples” are one of those naming conventions that are commonly used but need to be properly defined. Then we can look at the evidence for these groups interacting with Egypt. Finally we can look at the decline of the empire, the reasons it declined and their contribution to it.

Sea Peoples and Egypt

Various groups at various times have been described as “Sea Peoples” by the Egyptians. The groups are the Lukka, Sherdan, Shekelesh, Teresh, Ekwesh, Denye (n), Tjeker, Peleset and Weshesh. Their origins are the subject of much debate and disagreement as the historical records are sparse. Shaw describes them as follows “Among the new migrants in the Mediterranean region at this date were a loose confederation of ethnic groups from the Aegean and Asia Minor, known to the Egyptians as Sea Peoples. Some of these groups, such as the Denen, Lukka and Sherdan, were already active by the reign of Akhenaton (1352-1336 BC) while members of the Lukka, Sherdan and Peleset are portrayed as mercenaries fighting for the army of Ramses II (1279-1213 BC) at the Battle of Qadesh” (Shaw, 2000, p. 328) .  Some scholars even dispute that the term should be translated as ‘sea’ preferring ‘green’. “One of the most unfortunate conclusions arrived at by the early Egyptologists attempting to make sense of the Ramesside documents was that wAd-wr  ‘Great Green ‘ meant ‘sea’” (Nibbi, 1975, p. 35). However this opinion is fairly unusual.

DNA studies have been conducted to identify the spread of the Phoenicians, which have also touched on Greek expansion These have not been carried out to any great extent in Egypt, nor on the origins of the Sea Peoples. It would be illuminating to see the same sort of study carried out in Egypt, including the people of the Nile delta, the Western Oasis and Upper Egypt and to see what the DNA reveals. Therefore we are unable to say with any authority exactly where they came from. To simplify the situation for the purposes of this essay, the Sea Peoples were probably from the coastal Mediterranean and its various islands, more important for our purposes is their impact on Egypt.

The first record of any members of this group is from the Amarna period. At that time they hardly ruffled Egypt’s feathers and the army was easily able to contain them, the attacks were small and any settlers were assimilated. “The Amarna tablets also provide early mentions of some groups of the Sea Peoples, namely the Lukka and the Sherdan – the first as pirates raiding Alasiya (= Cyprus) and the coast of Egypt and the second as body guards or mercenaries of Ribaddi of Byblos” (Woudhuizen, 2006, p. 31).

Many foreigners did settle in Egypt and evidence of their lives can be found, often they were quite successful and rose to positions of power. For an apparently xenophobic nation Egypt was surprisingly tolerant of foreigners who came and settled there. “It is also clear, however, that neither Nubian nor Syro-Palestine origins were regarded as particularly disadvantageous factors in terms of an individuals’ status or career prospects, particularly in the cosmopolitan climate of the New Kingdom, when Asiatic religions cults and technological developments were particularly widely accepted” (Shaw, 2000, p. 315).

The Sea Peoples used the “raid” strategy to great effect against the Egyptians.  “This being so, it should not be overlooked that one of the greatest military assets of the Sea Peoples was (as their name implies) their sea power: once they had cleared the waters of the eastern Mediterranean from enemy ships, they could, Just like the Vikings in a later age, attack any location of their choosing by hit and run actions, thus leaving the landlocked Imperial armies no chance at a proper defence!” (Woudhuizen, 2006, p. 41). These early raids, whilst they were difficult for a traditional army to counterattack, were not a full scale invasion. They certainly tested Egypt’s defences and required positive, direct action from whoever was the current king but they were not a serious problem to a strong central government.

Different groups were a problem at various times, during the New Kingdom the following groups interacted with Egyptians with raids and other military actions.

El-Amarna Ramses II Merenptah Ramses III
Lukka x x x
Sherdan x x x x
Shekelesh x x
Teresh x x
Ekwesh x
Denye(n) x
Tjeker x
Peleset x
Weshesh x

Figure 1 Sea Peoples in Egypt (Woudhuizen, 2006, p. 41)

The impact these groups had on the countries they came across varies, the Hittites, Egypt’s traditional rival power were destroyed but the damage to Egypt was limited to the loss of its empire. Egypt came off lightly compared to its neighbours. “The years around 1120 to 1159 saw the collapse of Egyptian influence in the Levant, the total ruin of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, with the abandonment  of their capital Hattusas (modern Bogazkoy), and widespread destruction of cities in the Levant , Cyprus and mainland Greece”  (Sandars, 1985, p. 11).

Libya and Egypt

There was a long history of interaction between Libya and Egypt but the peoples inhabiting this region had changed over time. Those earlier inhabitants had been replaced by a more aggressive and land hungry people.  They joined with the Sea Peoples in attacking Egypt. “From the dawn of Egyptian history, Libyan tribesmen had always been a thorn in the side of Pharaonic government, but their small numbers had prevented them from posing any serious threat to Egypt. During the New Kingdom, however, these older tribal groups had been replaced or absorbed by newcomers from the West: the Labu (who eventually gave their name to Libya), the Meshwesh, the Asbuta, the Hasa and others. With long, cutaway gowns, bearded, and wearing their hair in a long curl on one side, the Labu and Meshwesh had long since graced Ramesside triumph scenes as the enemy whose defeat is to be celebrated. But if under the great Ramses they had been easy prey for pharaoh’s forces, under Merenptah they proved more formidable. For now they were joined by piratical elements from the Aegean, the sea route to Libya was now a supply route” (Redford, 1992, pp. 247-248)

The reason that the attacks by these groups became more aggressive is again subject to much debate and discussion but we do not, as yet, have a definitive answer. Back in 1936 Edgerton said “It is perhaps too early to determine forces, economic and otherwise, underlying the Meshwesh attack on Egypt. It was undoubtedly connected with the restlessness in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time; involving the movement of the Sea peoples, the breakup of the Hittite Empire, the siege of Troy and previous Libyan attempts to settle in Egypt” (Edgerton & Wilson, 1936, p. 74) . However the situation in 1993 had still not clarified.  “One of the most important and stimulating contributions on our topic is formed by Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age, Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C. of 1993. In this work, the author set out to treat the various causes of the catastrophe as suggested in the relevant literature, like earthquakes, drought, systems collapse, and migrations, in order to refute them all;” (Woudhuizen, 2006, p. 40).

Figure 2 Starving Foreign Herdsman at Meir (Jane Akshar 2010)

Woudhuizen himself declines to back any of the various theories. My belief is that it would seem to be a combination of several factors but the inclusion of women and cattle in the invading force would suggest that this migration is primarily economic. To the starving foreign herdsmen, Egypt must have looked a very attractive option to people whose ‘nostrils have ceased, their desire is to breathe the breath” (Edgerton & Wilson, 1936, p. 39).

Figure 3 A cart, oxen, women and children in the middle of the land battle Medinet Habu (Jane Akshar 2010)

The Libyans also changed during their sojourn in the delta, originally a nomadic people with no centralised government or king they had formed alliances based on relationships, brotherhood and clan were important. As they became a settled people this changed and they acknowledged a chief of chiefs, this was significant to the Egyptians, and left them placed to assume kingship should the opportunity arise.  “The records indicate that while an identifiable, supreme chief was important to the Egyptians among the Libyans no term for ‘paramount chief’ was recognised and authority was less centralised” (Ritner, 2007, p. 330).

Decline of the Empire and International Standing

What was happening internally at this time these groups were interacting with Egypt, and what was the consequence of both these internal and external forces.  As has already been mentioned these external stresses were not a serious issue to a strong kingdom. The factors we will consider are

  • Short Reigns
  • Disputed Successors
  • Elderly Kings
  • Key Roles Inherited And Not By Royal Appointment
  • High Priest War
  • Theban Theocracy
  • Decentralisation
  • Lack Of Respect Towards Kingship
  • Increasing Graft And Corruption
  • Famine
  • Defensive Rather Than Offensive Wars
  • Natural Borders No Longer A Protection
  • Reliance on Foreign Mercenaries
  • Loss Of Foreign Prestige

Short Reigns. Disputed Successors, Elderly Kings

Using the data available to us it is possible to draw up a table of the late 19th and 20th dynasty kings and see at a glance the problems of succession, (data extracted from (Dodson & Hilton, 2004). All have problems with their reign except Ramses III and possible Ramses IX, although by then maybe it was late to stop the rot.

King Length of Reign Relationship to Previous King Shared/ Disputed Ruler Weakness
Merenptah 11 Son Old on ascension
Seti II 6 Son Reign too short
Amenmesse} 4 Unknown possible son Siptah Usurper
Siptah} 6 Son of Seti II Amenmesse Young Child
Tawosret 2 Wife Seti II Female
Setnakhte 2 Possible Grandson of Ramses II Reign too short
Ramses III 32 Son
Ramses IV 7 Son Reign too short
Ramses V 5 Son Reign too short
Ramses VI 8 Uncle Reign too short
Ramses VII 8 Son Reign too short
Ramses VIII 2 Uncle Reign too short
Ramses IX 19 No Evidence Possible Son/ Nephew Disputed successor?
Ramses X 10 Unknown Reign too short
Ramses XI 30 Unknown Herihor/Theban Priests Shared Throne

Figure 4 Royal Succession

Ramses II had been a strong vigorous king but his long reign inevitably weakened the power of the throne. By the time he died his successor, Merenptah was an elderly man, this was no vigorous Horus in the Nest. Indeed the entire line seems to have dissolved into kings of unknown parentage like Amenmesse; a child, Siptah and ending up with a female ruler, Tawosret. This is a sad end to the dynasty of a vigorous Ramses II and his 50 odd princes. The following dynasty did not fare any better, after an initial strong start with Ramses III, his successors were a series of short-lived, ephemeral and often elderly men. The Harris papyrus establishes Ramses IV as the legitimate successor but why was that needed as he was clearly the legitimate heir. There is obviously a back story there, with succession problems.

Key Roles Inherited, Not By Royal Appointment, High Priest War, Theban Theocracy, Decentralisation

Important roles became hereditary instead of by royal appointment, diminishing the power of the king. “Under weaker rulers, less loyal executives, and the union of civil and military power in the same hands, these same ‘convenient’ geographical divisions could spell the break-up of the realm” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 243).

There was a theocracy controlling the Theban city state, the high priests of Amun and commanders of the army controlled Karnak and its surroundings. So much economic power had been handed to Amun Re by a succession of successful New Kingdom warrior kings, which had resulted in Karnak becoming independent of the king.  That Thebes became theocracy, a city state with little influence outside its borders, ruled by “the chief general and high priest of Amun” (Shaw, 2000, p. 333) was not the issue as it would have been earlier in Egypt’s history. At that time, it would have been affront against Maat and the kings would have swiftly dealt with the situation. Now they did not seem to care.  “The attitude of the kings to this progressive fragmentation is of key importance. In the first and second intermediate periods the division of power within Egypt among two or more rulers was defiantly perceived as unacceptable; in the third intermediate period, however, decentralisation was not regarded consistently in a negative light” (Shaw, 2000, p. 344). However even this high priesthood was not totally in control, during the reign of Ramses XI “the High Priest of Amun. Amenhotep was ‘suppressed’ for 8 or 9 months. He may have survived this experience for a time at least. The ‘war of the high priest’ was long remembered” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 247).

Lack of Respect towards Kingship, Increasing Graft and Corruption, Famine

During the reign of Ramses IIII there was a conspiracy in the harem to replace the king. “The principal defendant was the secondary queen Tiy, who wanted to place her son Pentewere on the throne. At the same time, a revolt was supposed to take place outside the palace.” (Haslauer, 2001, p. 79). It is quite possible that the aftermath of the harem conspiracy was to destroy the mystic of the god pharaoh or maybe that was long gone before then.

During this period there was a famine caused by a high Nile, the royal tomb workers went on strike as their wages were not paid. Decentralised government meant the king could not control the economics of the kingdom; as a consequence the royal necropolis could not be protected.  The temptation of untold wealth was too much, and it was during this period most of the royal tombs were robbed.  “Economic conditions (famine, high prices of food), graft and corruption, loss of respect for the kings whether dead or reigning were all factors that transformed the sporadic violation of a royal tomb into a flood of pillage in the ensuing decades” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 247).

Defensive Rather Than Offensive Wars, Natural Borders No Longer a Protection, Reliance on Foreign Mercenaries, Loss of Foreign Prestige

Merenptah certainly had to deal with both enemies but seems to have coped with them with no significant problems. But that did not stop further attacks. Nor did it stop the alternative invasion by stealth. Repulsing them at the delta left them ideally placed to gradually infiltrate Egypt in a steady flow across the Western desert via the oasis. This left Egypt with an unassimilated foreign people within its midst and Merenptah’s successors were not able to stop this flow. “In the twenty-five years of weak government by the regimes of the four short-lived kings who followed Merenptah, the Labu and the Meshwesh entered the Western delta unhindered and settled as far east as the bank of the central Nile, destroying the towns of the Xoite township” (Redford, 1992, p. 249).  “…pressure from this quarter could threaten Egypt on a very long front” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 244)

Ramses III was a worthy successor to Ramses II, trouncing the invaders in three separate battles in year 5, 8 and 11, but this was a determined immigration.  Ramses II had fought an offensive war in remote foreign lands; Ramses III was fighting the Nile delta, a defensive war in Egypt itself.  “This victory (Ramses III, Yr 8) protected Egypt from overt invasion from the North but ultimately it was to be the more insidious infiltration of Libyan peoples from the West that was more successful as a means of gaining control of Egypt” (Shaw, 2000, p. 329).

Figure 5 Different races from the sea battle Medinet Habu (Jane Akshar 2010)

Like so many empires Egypt was held back in its ability to fight against an enemy that did not fight in the traditional way. A large army of controlled divisions is hampered in both its thinking and its methods of warfare against hit and run, saboteurs, terrorist, infiltration and similar methods of fighting and invasion. “It was a battle fought according to accepted rules between forces that understood each other. It was therefore quite unlike the fighting at the end of the century when the Land and Sea Raiders were active” (Sandars, 1985, p. 32). Sandars also talks about “The practice of employing foreigners persisted until the end of 13th century, by which time the pressure of new populations on the move had exposed the weakness of the system” (Sandars, 1985, p. 50).

So although Ramses III had repelled these foreigners who were attracted to the rich Egyptian land, they now started infiltrating the land, settling via the Western desert and in the delta, settling but not assimilating. It was Egyptian policy to settle conquered people in Egypt but this did leave them with fifth column in their midst. “Under the energetic leadership of Ramses III, the second pharaoh of the 20th dynasty, Egypt survived the onslaught by the Sea Peoples, who, unsuccessful in their plan to settle in Egypt, took up their abode in various places along the Levant, especially in the Philistine pentapolis (Woudhuizen, 2006, p. 33)”.

A succession of weak kings, a warlike people driven by economic factors to migrate, a settled brotherhood within Egypt willing to assist and an Egypt that was basically unprepared for a foreign world. Its previous geographic isolation left it physiologically unprepared to deal with an invasion force that could cross these previously unassailable natural barriers. Internally Egypt was no longer safe, fortresses were created to protect the people and their valuables, the kings were not in control of the land. “the Libyans and the Meshwesh had not only taken advantage of the general chaos to raid the Delta and ravage its towns, but numbers had actually settled there, and further immigrations threatened, while the mass movements of people which were turning the Aegean basin into a positive whirlpool gave warning of grave danger threatening from the north” (Elgood, 1951, p. 2)

Egypt had lost its foreign power, reputation and influence.  Back in the beginning of the New Kingdom Amenhotep III had rather arrogantly stated that their princess did not marry foreign kings. Now an unthinkable thing happened, an Egyptian princess married abroad (I Kings 3:1).

There is a poignant story about the treatment of an Egyptian envoy, Wenamun, who went to Lebanon to get cedar.  “Upon reaching Byblos, he was shocked by the hostile reception he received there. When he finally gained an audience with Zakar-Baal, the local king, the latter refused to give the requested goods for free, as had been the traditional custom, instead demanding payment. Wenamun had to send to Smendes for payment, a humiliating move which demonstrates the waning of Egyptian power over the Eastern Mediterranean. The whole experience obviously shocked him, two lines stand out which sum up the decline of the importance of Egypt and the lack of respect to its envoy, who was told  “When you pay me for doing it, I shall do it!” (, p. 1) and reflected “And I was silent to this a long time” (, p. 1). It is impossible to imagine the envoy of Tuthmosis III being treated like this


The Egyptian Empire declined as a result of two factors, its overseas satellites were taken over by the Sea Peoples and Libyans at the same time as  weak kingships was disintegrating the kingdom from within. It is possible that with stronger kingship Egypt might even have been able to hang on to its empire. Against this background of decay and weakness the strong rulers that had arisen in Tanis culminating in the Libyan dynasty could have been seen as deliverers and greeted with relief. Indeed the Libyans could said to have re-established Egypt in taking advantage of the situation. Certainly the Libyan dynasty was a rich period in Egyptian history.

“But midway between Memphis and Tanis was the city of Bubastis where a line of Libyan chiefs had by this time been settled for up to five or six generations, each bearing  the title ‘great chief of the Ma(shwash) and so reaching back to the Ramesside period” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 285). These eventually culminated in Shoshenq. “It was this man who now ascended the throne as Shoshenq I. The new ruler was no usurper or mere parvenu, especially if the marriage of MaatKare had preceded Psusennes’ death. Politically Shoshenq eminence was seemly unmatched. By marriage, both his family, and the late Tanite dynasty were indirectly linked” (Kitchen, 1995, p. 286).


Dodson, A., & Hilton, D. (2004). The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo.

Edgerton, W., & Wilson, J. (1936). Historical records of Rameses III. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elgood, P. G. (1951). Later Dynasties of Egypt. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Haslauer, E. (2001). Harem. In D. Redford, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (pp. 76-80). Cairo: American University in Cairo.

Kitchen, K. (1995). The Third intermediate Period in Egypt. Warminster: Aris and Philips.

Nibbi, A. (1975). The Sea Peoples and Egypt. New Jersey: Noyes Press.

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

Ritner, R. (2007). Fragmentation in the Third intermediate Period. In D. Brockman, The Libyan Period in Egypt (pp. 327-340).

Sandars, N. (1985). The Sea Peoples. London: Thames and Hudson.

Shaw, I. (2000). Egypt and the Outside World. In I. Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (pp. 330-368). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woudhuizen, F. C. (2006). The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples. Rotterdam: Erasmus Publications Repository. (n.d.). last accessed November 2010

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