10. Sea Peoples' Inscriptions:

Egypt and Its Neighbors Under Ramses III

The New Kingdom of Egypt was established around 1500 B.C. after a period of political turmoil during which Egypt was for a time ruled by a foreign people, the chariot-riding Hyksos. It was an age characterized by more active contacts between the Nile-based civilization and other societies in the Mediterranean and Near East than had existed before. Some of these contacts, however, took the form of warfare. Egypt came under attack after about 1200 B.C.. by a confederation of foreign tribes referred to as the "Sea Peoples." They comprised many different ethnic groups that sought new lands on which to settle after having been displaced from areas further north. While the Sea Peoples were successful in gaining a foothold in many other places throughout the Mediterranean world, they faced an organized political and military opponent in the New Egyptian Kingdom. A set of impressive carvings showing the wars between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples was found in Medinet Habu in the western district of Thebes in Upper (southern) Egypt. It was part of the great funerary temple complex built by Ramses III, pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt during the Twentieth Dynasty (ca. 1184-1075 B.c.).

Ramses's career was notable for its monumental buildings and military campaigns: both accomplishments were celebrated in these reliefs and inscriptions. Colossal carvings flanked the gates to the Temple of Medinet Habu, whose portals stood nearly one hundred feet tall. Many of the scenes depict the pharaoh mustering his troops in preparation for war; others show him triumphant in battle over various enemies, whose distinctive costumes have allowed scholars to identify them variously as Nubians, Libyans, and Sea Peoples. The latter were identified with the Philistines (a people known from the Hebrew Bible as having inhabited the area that is now Palestine), for both sported plumes of feathers in their head-dresses. The following texts represent the "captions" to the great carvings, which show scenes of Ramses's victorious battles. The pharaoh's boastful account underscores official Egyptian attitudes toward hostile outsiders and the image of the pharaoh as the military protector of the land of Egypt. His task was to secure Egypt against all outside threats. Note especially the many titles by which a pharaoh was known to his people.

A. Ramses III Issuing Equipment to His Troops for the Campaign Against the Sea Peoples


Ramses III, standing in a rostrum, supervises the issuing of equipment to his army. Above, a bugler sounds a call, while standard-bearers and officials salute the King. Below, a prince gives his orders, which are taken down by a scribe. Other scribes record the army units and list the equipment issued. We may recognize helmets, spears, bows, sickle-swords, corselets, quivers, and a shield among the arms and armor issued.

Text over the Officials

"Words spoken by the officials, the companions, and the leaders of the infantry and chariotry: 'Thou art Re, as thou risest over Egypt, for when [thou] appearest the Two Lands live. Great is thy strength in the heart of the Nine [Bows], and thy battle cry (reaches) to the circuit of the sun. The shadow of thy arm is over thy troops, so that they walk confident in thy strength. Thy heart is stout; thy plans are excellent, so that no land can stand firm when [thou] art seen. Amon-Re leads thy way; he casts down for thee every land beneath thy soles. Glad is the heart of Egypt forever, for she has a heroic protector. The heart of the land of Temeh is removed, the Peleset are in suspense, hidden in their towns, by the strength of thy father Amon, who assigned to thee every [land] as a gift.'"

Text Before the King

"The King himself says to the officials, the companions, and every leader of the infantry and chariotry who is in the presence of his majesty: 'Bring forth equipment! Send out troops to destroy the rebellious [countries] which know not Egypt, through the strength of my father Amon!'" Text in a Horizontal Line in the Center of the Scene "------------[Usermare-Meri]amon, the mighty bull, crushing the Asiatics, lord of [--------] in the lands, like----------entering [into] the midst ---------." Text over the Two Scribes in the Center "----------- giving equipment to the infantry and chariotry, to the troops, the Sherden, and the Nubians."

Text over Two Officials on the Left

"Receiving equipment in the presence of Usermare-Meriamon, rich of strength."

Text over Soldiers on the Left

"The infantry and chariotry, who are receiving equipment in the presence of [his] majesty."

Text over a Prince at the Base

"The Crown Prince, Great Royal Scribe, and Royal Son ---------- he says to the commanders of the army, the captains of the troops, and the officers of the troops. 'One speaks thus, namely Pharaoh: "Every picked man, good -------- , every valiant one who is in the knowledge of his majesty, let them pass by in the presence of Pharaoh to receive equipment."'"

Text over the Officials at the Base

"That which the officials and the commanders of the troops said. 'We will act! We will act! The army is assembled, and they are the bulls of the land: every picked man of all Egypt and the runners, capable of hand. Our lord goes forth in valor, so that we may plunder the plains and the hill-countries. He is like Montu, the strong -----------.'"

Text over Soldiers at the Lower Left


Text Behind the King

"All the gods are the (magical) protection of his body, to give him valor against every country."

Text by the Scene-Divider on the Right

"Live the good god, smiting the Nine Bows, making them non-existent, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Usermare-Meriamon: Son of Re, Lord of Diadems: Ramses III, beloved of Amon-Re, King of the Gods."

B. Ramses III on the March to Zahi Against the Sea Peoples


Ramses III in his chariot sets out against the Sea Peoples, accompanied by Egyptian and foreign troops ....

Text Before the King

"The King, rich in strength as he goes forth abroad, great of fear and awe in the heart of the Asiatics; sole lord, whose hand is capable, conscious of his strength, like a valiant lion hidden and prepared for wild cattle, freely going forward, his heart confident, beating myriads into heaps in the space of a moment. His potency in the fray is like a fire, making all those who assail him to become ashes. They have fear of his name, (even) when he is afar off, like the heat of the sun upon the Two Lands; a wall casting a shadow for Egypt, so that they rest under the strength of his arms; King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Usermare-Meriamon; Lord of Diadems: Ramses III."

Text Behind the King

"His majesty sets out in valor and strength to destroy the rebellious countries."

Text over the Troops at the Base

"His majesty sets out for Zahi like unto Montu, to crush every country that violates his frontier. His troops are like bulls ready on the field of battle; his horses are like falcons in the midst of small birds before the Nine Bows, bearing victory. Amon, his august father, is a shield for him; King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ruler of the Nine Bows, Lord of the Two Lands, ------- ------."

Text by the Scene-Divider on the Right

"Live the good god, lord of strength, mighty of arm, charging into hundred-thousands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Usermare-Meriamon; Son of Re, Lord of Diadems: Ramses III, beloved of Amon-Re."

Over the Span

"The great chief span of his majesty, 'Amon Gives the Sword.'"

C. Ramses III in Battle with the Land Forces of the Sea Peoples


Ramses III in his chariot charges into the thoroughly disorganized Sea Peoples. He is supported by Egyptian infantry and chariotry and by foreign auxiliaries. The Sea Peoples flee on foot and in their chariots, while their women, children, and baggage move away in heavy oxcarts.

Text Before the King

"[T]he sight of him, as when Set rages, overthrowing the enemy in front of the sun bark, trampling down the plains and hill-countries, (which are) prostrate, beaten from tail to head before his horses. His heat burns up their bodies like a flame. Hacked up is their flesh to the duration of eternity."

Text by the Scene-Divider on the Right

"Horus, mighty of strength, conquering hundred-thousands, overthrowing those who attack him, gathered together beneath his soles; King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands: Usermare-Meriamon; Son of Re, Lord of Diadems: Ramses III."

Text over the Span

"The great chief span of his majesty, 'Beloved of Amon.'"


from N. M. Bailkey and R. Lim, Readings in Ancient History (Boston, 2002), pp. 51-55.