Mercenaries or refugees? the evidence from the inscriptions of Merenptah on the ‘Sea Peoples’


  • Konstantinos Kopanias



During the fifth regnal year of Merenptah (either 1208 BC or 1219 BC), king Merey of the Rebu/Lebu attacked Egypt, together with his archers and many northern warriors. These northerners were not affiliated with any of the existing minor or major kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean, since they are only identified by obscure ethnonyms. Five inscriptions of Merenptah refer to these particular events, but they offer scarce historical information; a sixth one, inscribed on a wall of the Amun temple in Karnak, is the most elaborate one. Although the Karnak inscription has often been cited, most scholars usually focus on the parts referring to the ‘Sea Peoples’, which are often examined in isolation and out of their context. The aim of this paper is to re-examine the available evidence.


Adams, M.J. and M.E. Cohen 2013. The ‘Sea Peoples’ in Primary Sources, in A.E. Killebrew and G. Lehmann (eds) The Philistines and other ‘sea peoples’ in text and archaeology (Archaeology and biblical studies 15.): 645–664. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Astour, M.C. 1965. New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit. AJA 69(3): 253–258.

Baines, J. and J. Málek 1980. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York: Facts On File.

Bakry, H.S.K. 1973. The Discovery of a Temple of Merenptaḥ at Ōn: A. Merenptaḥ commemorates his victory over the Libyans. Aegyptus 53(1/4): 3–21.

Barako, T.J. 2001. The Seaborne Migration of the Philistines. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University.

The Changing Perception of the Sea Peoples Phenomenon: Invasion, Migration or Cultural Diffusion? in N.C. Stampolides (ed.) Sea routes. From Sidon to Huelva interconnections in the Mediterranean 16th – 6th c. BC: 163–71. Athens: Museum of Cycladic Art.

Bard, K.A. 2007. Introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Beckman, G.M., T.R. Bryce and E.H. Cline. 2011. The Ahhiyawa Texts. Writings from the ancient world. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Bietak, M. 1985. Response to T. Dothan, in J. Amitai (ed.) Biblical Archaeology Today: 217. Jerusalem. Israel Exploration Society.

Bietak, M., N. Math, and V. Müller. 2012–3. Report on the Excavations of a Hyksos Palace at Tell el-Dabca/Avaris (23rd of August – 15th of November 2011), Egypt and the Levant 22–3: 18–52.

Bollig, M., M. Schnegg and H.-P. Wotzka. 2013. Pastoralism in Africa. Past, present, and future. New York: Berghahn.

Brand, P.J. 2011. The Date of Battle Reliefs on the South Wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall and the West Wall of the Cour de la Cachette at Karnak and the History of the Later Nineteenth Dynasty, in M. Collier, S.R. Snape, G. Criscenzo-Laycock, C. Price and K.A. Kitchen (eds) Ramesside studies in honour of K.A. Kitchen: 51–84. Bolton: Oxbow.

Breasted, J.H. 1906. Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume III, Historical Documents from the earliest times to the Persian conquest. Chicago: The University of Illinois Press.

Bryce, T.R. 2010. The Hittite Deal with the Hiyawa-Men, in Y. Cohen, A. Gilan and J.L. Miller (eds) Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and Their Neighbours in Honour of Itamar Singer: 47–53. StBoT 51. Wiesbaden. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag.

Cline, E.H. 2009. The Sea Peoples’ Possible Role in the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, in D. Danielidou (ed.) DORON. Studies in honour of Professor Spyros Iakovidis: 191–198. Athens. Athens Academy.

— 2014. 1177 B.C. the year civilization collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Drews, R. 2000. Medinet Habu: Oxcarts, Ships, and Migration Theories, JNES 59(3): 161–190.

Emanuel, J. 2012. Cretan Lie and Historical Truth: Examining Odysseus’ Raid on Egypt in its Late Bronze Age Context, in V. Bers, D. Elmer, D. Frame and L. Muellner (eds) Donum Natalicium Digitaliter Confectum Gregorio Nagy Septuagenario a Discipulis Collegis Familiaribus Oblatum: 1–41. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Faust, A. 2008. Israel’s ethnogenesis: settlement, interaction, expansion and resistance. Approaches to anthropological archaeology. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox Pub.

— 2015. The Bible, Archaeology, and the Practice of Circumcision in Israelite and Philistine Societies, JBL 134(2): 273–290.

Gander, M. 2010. Die geographischen Beziehungen der Lukka-Länder. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter.

García, J.C.M. 2014. Invaders or just herders? Libyans in Egypt in the third and second millennia BCE. World Archaeology: 1–14.

Godley, A.D. 1920. Herodotus, with an English translation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grandet, P. 1994. Le Papyrus Harris I, BM 9999. Bibliothèque d’ètude 2. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire.

Halayqa, I.K.H. 2010. The Demise of Ugarit in the Light of its Connections with Ḫatti. UF 42: 297–332.

Hasel, M.G. 1998. Domination and Resistance, Egyptian Military Activity in the Southern Levant, ca. 1300–1185 B.C. Boston: Brill Academic.

Hawkins, K. 2013. How Israel Became a People. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Higginbotham, C.R. 2000. Egyptianization and Elite Emulation in Ramesside Palestine. Governance and Accommodation on the Imperial Periphery. Culture and history of the ancient Near East 2. Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill.

Hoftijzer, J. and W.H. van Soldt. 1998. Texts from Ugarit Pertaining to Seafaring, in S. Wachsmann (ed.) Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant: 333–344. Texas: A & M University Press.

Huehnergard, J. 1999. The Akkadian Letters, in W.G.E. Watson and N. Wyatt (eds) Handbook of Ugaritic studies: 375–389. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Boston: Brill.

Iskander, S. 2010. Merenptah’s Confrontations in the Western Desert and the Delta, in S. D’Auria and J.A. Josephson (eds) Offerings to the discerning eye. An Egyptological medley in honor of Jack A. Josephson: 187–194. Culture and history of the ancient Near East 38. Leiden & Boston: Brill.

Janzen, M. 2013. The Iconography of Humiliation: The Depiction and Treatment of Bound Foreigners in New Kingdom Egypt. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Memphis.

Jung, R. 2009. Pirates of the Aegean: Italy - the East Aegean - Cyprus at the end of the Second Millenium BC, in V. Karageorghis and O. Kouka (eds) Cyprus and the East Aegean: intercultural contacts from 3000 to 500 BC: an international archaeological symposium held at Pythagoreion, Samos, October 17th - 18th 2008: 72–93. Nicosia: A.G. Leventis Foundation.

Kahn, D. 2012. A Geo-Political and Historical Perspective of Merneptah’s Policy in Canaan, in G. Galil, A. Leṿinzon-Gilboʻa, A.M. Maeir and D. Kahn (eds) The ancient Near East in the 12th-10th centuries BCE. Culture and history : proceedings of the international conference, held at the University of Haifa, 2–5 May, 2010: 255–268. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 392. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Kaniewski, D., J. Guiot and E. van Campo 2015. Drought and societal collapse 3200 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean. A review. WIREs Climate Change 6(4): 369–382.

Killebrew, A.E. 2005. Biblical peoples and ethnicity: an archaeological study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and early Israel, 1300–1100 B.C.E. Archaeology and biblical studies 9. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

— 2014. Hybridity, Hapiru, and the Archaeology of Ethnicity in Second Millennium BCE Western Asia, in J. McInerney (ed.), A companion to ethnicity in the ancient Mediterranean: 142–157. Chichester, West Sussex. Wiley Blackwell.

Killebrew, A.E., and G. Lehmann. 2013. Introduction: The World of the Philistines and Other ‘Sea Peoples’, in A.E. Killebrew and G. Lehmann (eds), The Philistines and other ‘sea peoples’ in text and archaeology: 1–17. Archaeology and biblical studies 15. Atlanta. Society of Biblical Literature.

Kitchen, K.A. 1982. Ramesside Inscriptions, Vol. 4. Oxford: Blackwell.

— 1990. The Arrival of the Libyans in Late New Kingdom Egypt, in A. Leahy (ed.), Libya and Egypt: c1300–750 BC: 15–27. Society for Libyan Studies. London: SOAS Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies and the Society for Libyan Studies.

Klengel, H. 1974. Hungerjahre in Ḫatti, AoF 1: 165–74.

Knapp, A.B. and S.W. Manning 2016. Crisis in Context. The End of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. AJA 120(1): 99–149.

Kopanias, K. Forthcoming. Πειρατές, Hapiru και Μισθοφόροι στην Ανατολική Μεσόγειο κατά την Ύστερη Εποχή του Χαλκού, in Π. Σγουρίτσα and Όλ. Παλαγγιά (eds) Πρακτικά ημερίδας στη μνήμη του Ακαδημαϊκού Καθηγητή Σπ. Ιακωβίδη, 6 Μαϊου 2015, Αθήνα. Athens.

Lambrou-Phillipson, C. 1993. Ugarit: A Late Bronze Age thalassocracy? The evidence of the textual sources. Orientalia, NOVA SERIES 62(3): 163–170.

Lefebvre, G. 1927. Stèle de l’an V de Méneptah, ASAE 27: 19–30.

Lehmann, G.A. 1996. Untersuchungen zur späten Eisenzeit in Syrien und Libanon. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Lichtheim, M. 2006. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 2, The New Kingdom. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Linder, E. 1970. The Maritime Texts of Ugarit: A Study in Late Bronze Age Shipping, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Brandeis University.

— 1981. Ugarit: A Canaanite thalassocracy, in G.D. Young (ed.) Ugarit in Retrospect: 31–42. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Manassa, C. 2003. The Great Karnak inscription of Merneptah: grand strategy in the 13th century BC. (Yale Egyptological studies). New Haven, Conn: Yale Egyptological Seminar, Dept. of Near Estern Languages and Civilizations, The Graduate School, Yale Univ.

Matić, U. Forthcoming A. Archaeology of genital mutilation: Phalli-cutting, military violence and gender in ancient Egypt, in Hierarchy and Equality Representations of Sex/Gender in the Ancient World. International Conference, September 11–13, 2016, Athens, organized by the Norwegian Institute at Athens and the Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo.

— Forthcoming. Traditionally Unharmed? Women and Children in NK Battle Scenes, in A. Kahlbacher and E. Priglinger (eds), Proceedings of the 5th International Congress for Young Egyptologists, Vienna, 15–19 September 2015. Contributions to the Archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Scienses.

Nougayrol, J., E. Laroche, C. Virolleaud and C. Schaeffer 1968. Ugaritica 5. Nouveaux textes accadiens, hourrites et ugaritiques des archives et bibliothèques privées d’Ugarit. Commentaires des textes historiques (première partie). Mission de Ras Shamra. Paris: Geuthner.

O’Connor, D. 1987. Egyptians and Libyans in the New Kingdom. An Interpretation. Expedition 39(3): 35–37.

O’Connor, D. 1990. The nature of Tjemhu(Libyan) society in late New Kingdom Egypt, in A. Leahy (ed.) Libya and Egypt: c. 1300–750 BC: 29–114. Society for Libyan Studies. London: SOAS Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies and the Society for Libyan Studies.

Palaima, T.G. 1991. Maritime Matters in the Linear B Tablets, in R. Laffineur and L. Basch (eds) Thalassa: L’Égée préhistorique et la mer. Actes de la troisième rencontre égéenne internationale de l’université de Liège, Station de recherches sousmarines et océanographiques (StaReSO), Calvi, Corse (23–25 avril 1990): 273–310. Aegaeum 7. Liège: Université de Liège, Histoire de l’art et archéologie de la Grèce antique.

Rata, C.G. 2013. The Emergence of Israel in Canaan: An Update and Criticism, TTJ 16(2): 89–117.

Redford, D.B. 1986. The Ashkelon Relief at Karnak and the Israel Stela. IEJ 36: 188–200.

— 1992. Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

— Ed. 2001. The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

— 2006. The Tjeker. Scripta Mediterranea 27–28: 9–14.

Routledge, B. and K. McGeough. 2009. Just What Collapsed? A Network Perspective on ‘Palatial’ and ‘Private’ Trade at Ugarit, in C. Bachhuber and R.G. Roberts (eds) Forces of transformation. The end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean : proceedings of an international symposium held at St. John’s College, University of Oxford 25–6th March, 2006 (Themes from the ancient Near East BANEA publication series 1): 22–9. Oxford and Oakville, CT: Oxbow.

Salimbeti, A. and R. D’Amato. 2015. Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean c.1400 BC-1000 BC. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Sasson, J.M. 1966. Canaanite Maritime Involvement in the Second Millennium BC. Journal of the American Oriental Society 86(2): 126.

Schulman, A.R. 1987. The Great Historical Inscription of Merneptaḥ at Karnak: A Partial Reappraisal, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 24: 21–34.

Singer, I. 1988. Merneptah’s Campaign to Canaan and the Egyptian Occupation of the Southern Coastal Plain of Palestine in the Ramesside Period. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269: 1–10.

— 1999. A Political History of Ugarit, in W.G.E. Watson and N. Wyatt (eds) Handbook of Ugaritic studies: 603–733. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Boston: Brill.

Snape, S.R. 2003. Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham and Egyptian foreign trade in the 13th century BC, in N.C. Stampolidis and V. Karageorghis (eds) Ploes. Sea Routes…: Interconnections in the Mediterranean, 16th-6th c. BC: 63–70. Athens: University of Crete, Leventis Foundation.

— 2010. Vor der Kaserne: External Supply and Self-Sufficiency at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, in M. Bietak, E. Czerny and I. Forstner-Müller (eds) Cities and Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: 271–288. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Snape, S.R. and P. Wilson. 2007. Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham. Bolton: Rutherford Press.

Spalinger, A.J. 2005. War in ancient Egypt. The New Kingdom, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Stager, L.E. 1985. Merneptah, Israel and Sea Peoples: New light on an Old Relief. Eretz-Israel 18: 56–64.

Tykot, R. 1994. Sea Peoples in Etruria? Italian Contacts with the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age. Etruscan Studies 1(5): 59–83.

van der Veen, P., C. Theis and M. Görg 2010. Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2(4): 15–25.

van Dijk, J. 2000. The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom, in I. Shaw (ed.) The Oxford history of ancient Egypt: 265–307. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vandersleyen, C. 1995. L’Égypte et la vallée du Nil Vol. 2: De la fin de l’ancient empire à la fin du nouvel empire. Paris: Nouvelle Clio.

Vita, J.-P. 1999. The Society of Ugarit, in W.G.E. Watson and N. Wyatt (eds) Handbook of Ugaritic studies: 455–498. Handbuch der Orientalistik. Boston: Brill.

Wachsmann, S. Ed. 1998. Seagoing Ships and Seamanship in the Bronze Age Levant. Texas: A & M University Press.

White, D. 2002. Marsa Matruh. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Antrhopology’s excavations on Bate’s Island, Marsa Matruh, Egypt 1985–1989. (Prehistory monographs 2). Philadelphia: Institute for Aegean Prehistory Academic Press.

Yasur-Landau, A. 2003. One If by Sea … Two If by Land: How Did the Philistines Get to Canaan? Two: By Land—the Trek through Anatolia Followed a Well-Trod Route. Biblical Archaeology Review 29(2): 34–39, 66–67.

— 2010. The Philistines and Aegean migration at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Youssef, A. 1964. Merenptah’s Fourth Year Text at Amada. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 58: 273–280.

Yurco, F.J. 1997a. Merenptah’s Canaanite Campaign and Israel’s Origins, in E.S. Frerichs and L.H. Lesko (eds) Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence: 28–53. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

— 1997b. Merneptah’s Wars, the ‘Sea Peoples’ and Israel’s Origins, in J. Phillips, L. Bell, B.B. Williams, J. Hoch and R.J. Leprohon (eds) Ancient Egypt, the Aegean and the Near East: Studies in Honour of Martha Rhoads Bell: 497–506. San Antonio, TX: Van Siclen Books.




How to Cite

Kopanias, K. (2017). Mercenaries or refugees? the evidence from the inscriptions of Merenptah on the ‘Sea Peoples’. Journal of Greek Archaeology, 2, 115–130.



Prehistory and Protohistory