Attacks on Egypt1

Most of the biblical stories that mention the Philistines are found in the Old Testament books of Judges and 1 Samuel. Who were these enigmatic people? Where did they come from? Were the biblical Philistines related to the Sea People invaders mentioned in the Egyptian histories of the period? Some Egyptian court records of the twelfth century B.C. mention the Philistines specifically as part of a group of invaders from the sea who were repulsed and then were settled in Canaan. Were the Egyptians referring to the same people we read about in Judges and 1 Samuel?

These questions will be addressed by first examining the Egyptian records concerning the Sea People invaders to see if we can determine from them the origins of the Philistines. After having done so, we will look at the intriguing plague account in 1 Samuel 5 and 6 and compare it with a parallel account in the Iliad, book 1. The ritual ascribed to the Philistines in the 1 Samuel account may provide another clue to their origins. In addition, our investigation will lead us to the Aegean, to Anatolia, to Egypt, and to Cyprus to examine ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeological remains.

According to the Egyptians, the Philistines were just one tribe of a confederation of tribes who invaded Egypt and settled on the coastal plain south of Mount Carmel. They evidently became the dominant group in this confederation, because the writers of the Old Testament seem to use the word Philistine as a generic term to describe all the people who were moving onto the coastal plain at the time that the Israelites were carving a niche for themselves in the hill country of Canaan under Joshua and the succeeding judges.

The Egyptians tell of two great movements against them of people scholars have dubbed "the Sea Peoples." The Egyptians themselves do not use the phrase Sea Peoples, however, nor do they have a single generic name for all of the invaders, as found in the Bible. Instead, they refer to the invaders as "foreigners from the sea" coming from the "northern countries" or "their islands" beyond the sea, that is, the Mediterranean. The first invasion, recorded at Karnak in Upper Egypt, was in the fifth year of Pharaoh Merneptah, during the final third of the thirteenth century B.C. (See pp. 90-91 for an explanation of this dating.) The Karnak record lists five specific groups as part of that invasion (Barnett 1975, 366-69):

Other spelling/


1. A-qi-ya-wa-sa/ A-qi-wa-sa/ Ekwesh


2. Ta-ru-sa (Tw-rw-s'/ Tw-ry-s') Tursha

3. Rw-ku (Rw-kw)

4. Sa-ra-d-n/ Sa-ar-di-na (S'-r'd-n) Sherden

5. Sa-k(a)-ru-su (s'-r'-rw-s') Sheklesh

Not all scholars agree about the relationships that exist between these names and known sociopolitical groups or places, but let us focus on the more popular, probable, and accepted associations. The first name is generally linked to the Homeric Achaeans, the second to the Trojans, the third to the Lukka/Lycians of southwest Anatolia, the fourth to settlers from Sardis in western Anatolia who moved to the area of Akko north of Mount Carmel and eventually to Sardinia in Italy, and the fifth to the Sheklesh who may have moved later to Sicily. This Karnak list does not include the Philistines, who are named some forty years later in a record of a second attack on Egypt.2

This second attack of the Sea Peoples by land and sea occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses III, years five and eight, around 1175 B.C. The battle scenes and names of the invaders are recorded at Medinet Habu, near Thebes in Upper Egypt (Pritchard 1969, hereafter ANET, 262):

Other spelling/


1. Pe-ra-sa-ta/ Peleset (Pw-r-s-ty) Philistine

2. Tjikar (T-k-k[-r]) Tjekker

3. Sa-k(a)-ru-su Sheklesh

4. Danuna (D-y-n-yw-n) Danaoi

5. Wasasa (W-s-s) Weshesh

The first on the list are the Philistines; the second are the Tjekker, who may have settled on Cyprus at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. and who later settled in Dor, south of Mount Carmel on the Palestinian coast, according to a late twelfth- and an eleventh-century b.c. Egyptian document; the third are also in the Merneptah list and are the only ones to be mentioned in two records; the fourth are the Homeric Danaans; and the fifth possibly are Carians of western Anatolia.3 All the Sea Peoples, according to Albright, came from the Aegean orbit (1975, 508). At Medinet Habu the Philistines and the names of the other Sea Peoples occur together, probably because the Egyptians knew them to be related geographically. The following words on the walls at Medinet Habu attest to the Sea People alliance:

. . . 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, Arzawa, and Alashiya on. . . . They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denye(n), and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: "Our plans will succeed!" [ANET, 262]

The reliefs on the temple walls at Medinet Habu give us excellent portrayals of civilian and combatant dress, weaponry, ships, chariots, wagons to move people and supplies, and military tactics. This depiction of the Sea Peoples has much in common with descriptions of the Aegean peoples from other sources. For example, the Philistines at Medinet Habu are pictured wearing "feathered headdresses" very similar to those pictured on the Phaistos Disk, a round, baked clay disk discovered on Crete at Phaistos and dated to the Middle Minoan IIIB period, circa 1600 B.C. The disk was found with a tablet inscribed with Linear A, which is the earliest form of writing found on Crete and is not yet deciphered. The clay and firing of the disk are not similar to what is generally found on Crete; it is possibly an import from Caria or Lycia in southwest Anatolia (Barnett 1975, 362-63; Pendlebury 1965, 170).

The feathered headdresses, according to Herodotus and a late Assyrian text, are typical of Caria and Lycia during the Bronze Age. Later, the same style of headdress is also worn by "Ionian and Karian warriors in an Assyrian relief, and by a Lycian contingent in Xerxes' fleet" (Burn 1930, 143). Herodotus states that "the Greeks are indebted to them [Carians] for three inventions: fitting crests on helmets, putting devices on shields, and making shields with handles" (Rieu 1954, 82). The Iliad, however, does not describe a feathered helmet similar to that of the Sea Peoples, though it describes various other types of helmets.

The feathered headdress also appears on a ceramic, anthropoid coffin uncovered at Beth-shean in Israel. The coffin may date to approximately 1040 B.C., roughly the time of King Saul's reign and his death in the area by Philistine hands (T. Dothan 1982a, 274-76). According to 1 Samuel 31:10, Saul's body was hung by the Philistines at Beth-shean. Anthropoid coffins have been found at other sites associated with Egyptian rule in both Egypt and Canaan. In addition, feathered headdresses appear on Sea People warriors pictured on a twelfth-century ivory game box and on a conical seal from Cyprus. The distinctive feathered headdress clearly seems to belong to the Sea Peoples, the Philistines in particular.

In addition to showing feathered headdresses, the Phaistos Disk links Crete and Anatolia in other ways. The disk also pictures beehive-type structures (probably huts), which have features similar to those of Lycian architecture in southwest Anatolia. As well as mentioning the huts, Pendlebury cites the type of bow pictured on the disk as having an Asiatic origin (1965, 170). He believes that Anatolia played an important role on Crete in both the Early Minoan (before 2000 B.C.) and Middle Minoan (ca. 1800 B.C.) periods (1965, 53, 121-22). Nearly five hundred years separate the Phaistos Disk and the Egyptian reliefs at Medinet Habu (T. Dothan 1982a, 13), pointing to long-standing ties between Crete and Anatolia.

Other arms pictured at Medinet Habu, such as long, tapered swords, spears, javelins, shields, and corselets, are similar to those described in the Iliad (Wainwright 1956, 203). "It will be noted that in spite of differences in detail, the general resemblance of the Achaean equipment to that of the Shardena and Pulesati [Philistines] is marked" (Lorimer 1950, 201). Further, the ships of the Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu and on the Phaistos Disk are similar to those shown on a Mycenaean Greek vase found on Skyros, an island in the Aegean between Athens and Anatolia (Raban and Stieglitz 1991, 38-39; T. Dothan 1982a, 7, 11; Barnett 1975, 373). The kilts worn by the Philistines at Medinet Habu also have Anatolian affinities: "such a tasselled kilt is worn by a Southern Anatolian god on a stele from near Cagdin" (Barnett 1975, 372). In addition, the chariots of the Sea Peoples contain three men with spears, following the Hittite, rather than the Egyptian custom of only two men with bows. Also, the wagons and hump oxen of the Sea Peoples pictured on the reliefs are strictly Anatolian (T. Dothan 1982a, 5-13; A. Mazar 1990, 302-6; Sandars 1978, 121-31; Yadin 1963, 2:249-51).

The scholars referred to above make numerous other comparisons between the Sea Peoples pictured on the Medinet Habu reliefs and the Greeks from the Mycenaean and Anatolian world. These comparisons of modes of dress, weapons, and means of travel cannot be considered as conclusive evidence that the Sea Peoples, of which the Philistines were a part, were from the Aegean and from Anatolia, since these various modes could have been adopted through travel and trade. However, any study of these characteristics will reveal that the Sea People, including the Philistines, have much in common with the Mycenaean world and with Anatolia, especially the west and southwest sector.

As Ramesses III prepared for battle, according to the reliefs at Medinet Habu, he stated, "the Peleset (Pw-[r']-s'-t) are hung up, [ -- ] in their towns . . ." (Breasted 1906, 4:41). It would appear that some of the Peleset/Philistines were in Palestine even before Ramesses III defeated them. Perhaps some of the Sea Peoples had settled at a few sites in Canaan as conquerors or as Egyptian mercenaries, and due to a problem with them, Ramesses III put down their towns (Albright 1975, 511; Stiebing 1980, 14). It is possible that there was a pre-Ramesses III settlement of Sea Peoples at Ekron, according to T. Dothan, but not at Ashkelon, according to Stager (see pp. 97-101). Ramesses III used his warships, troops, and chariotry to overpower the invasion on both land and sea:

Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them. . . . They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed, and made into heaps. . . . [ANET, 262-63]

. . . The northern countries quivered in their bodies, the Philistines, Tjekk[er, and . . .]. They cut off their (own) land and were coming . . . on land; another (group) was on the sea. [ANET, 263]

Ramesses III boasted that he not only defeated the Peoples of the Sea, but also forced them to settle in citadels in what today we call Palestine or Israel (see also B. Wood 1991, 44-52, 89-90).

I extended all the frontiers of Egypt and overthrew those who had attacked them from their (lxxvi 7) lands. I slew the Denyen in their islands, while the Tjeker and the Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Weshesh of the Sea were made nonexistent, captured all together and brought in captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore. I settled them in strongholds, bound in my name. Their military classes were as numerous as hundred-thousands. I assigned portions for them all with clothing and provisions from the treasuries and granaries every year. [ANET, 262]

Ramesses even recorded that the vanquished Peleset/Philistines said to him, "Give us the breath for our nostrils thou King, son of Amon" (Sandars 1978, 132). That is to say that, according to Ramesses, the Philistines recognized him as a god, for the gods give life, give breath.

The reign of Ramesses III at the beginning of the twelfth century coincided with the period of the judges in the Bible. Ramesses boasted that he settled the Peoples of the Sea in Palestine, and their presence there is also noted in another Egyptian document, the Onomasticon of Amenope, which dates to the end of the twelfth century. This document lists the Sea Peoples living in Canaan within the Egyptian sphere of influence: the Sherden, the Tjekker, and the Philistines. It also mentions the Philistine cities on the coast: Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza. These cities were on the Egyptian line of defense, according to the Egyptian record. As will be detailed in later chapters, the material culture of the Philistines at Ashdod, Ekron, and other sites clearly displays Egyptian influence, corroborating the written evidence (A. Mazar 1990, 305; T. Dothan 1982a, 3-4; 1982b, 26).

Two earlier lists, which have not yet been mentioned, are also significant to our study: first, the list from Pharaoh Ramesses II of the Hittite allies that fought against him and, second, the Hittite list of the Assuwa League of allies (in western Anatolia) who struggled against them.

Pharaoh Ramesses II fought against the Hittite king Hattusili III at Kadesh of the Orontes in northern Syria around 1285 B.C. He recorded the names of the Hittite allies who opposed him; among them are the following: 1) Pi-da-sa, 2) Da-ar-d(a)-an-ya, 3) Ma-sa, 4) Qa-r(a)-qi-sa, 5) Ru-ka, and 6) Arzawa. The first name has been associated with Pedasos in Mysia of the Troad south of Troy, the second with the Dardanoi of the Troad, the third with southwest Anatolia, the fourth with Caria, the fifth with Lukka/Lycia, and the sixth with Arzawa in western Anatolia (Barnett 1975, 359-62; Breasted 1906, 3:123ff.; Gardiner 1961, 262ff.).

The Assuwa League was defeated by the Hittites around 1250 B.C. It had been formed to fight against the collapsing Hittite empire. The list of its members contains the names of twenty-two allies from western Anatolia. Three of these names are immediately familiar: Luqqa (Lycia), Ta-ru-i-sa (Troy), and Karkija (Caria). Also mentioned are Wilusiya (Ilios) and Warsiya (Lycia) (Albright 1950, 169; Gurney 1952, 56-58; Stubbings 1975, 349-50). A few years after the defeat of the Assuwa League by the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV, Lycia, Caria, and possibly a few others showed up among the Trojan allies fighting against the Achaeans, according to the Iliad.

There is some disagreement among scholars about the identities of the members of the Assuwa League. Garstang and Gurney agree that Wilusiya is probably Ilios (Troy) and that Warsiya may be associated with Lukka (Lycia). However, they do not equate Luqqa with Lukka (Lycia), for that would put the Assuwa League both north and south of Arzawa, in west central Anatolia. For them, the Assuwa League was strictly in northwest Anatolia, stretching north of Arzawa to the Troad (1959, 105-7). It should also be noted that Homer in the Iliad seems to refer to two Lycias. In book 2.876-77 and book 5.479, Sarpedon is a leader of the Lycians from "distant Lycia" by the river Xanthus in southwest Anatolia. Pandarus is another leader of Lycians, but they are from the region of the Anatolian Mount Ida near Troy (2.824ff. and 5.105, Rieu 1950, 61, 95). Lycians are also mentioned in the royal Egyptian Amarna letters of the fourteenth century B.C. as raiders of Alashiya (Cyprus or parts of it) and Egypt; the king of Alashiya is said to have sent out ships to watch for their approach.

The chart on page 64 demonstrates how names on the Egyptian and Hittite lists just described compare with the Trojan and the Achaean groups and allies named in the Iliad. Note especially the similarities between the names of the Sea Peoples, on Ramesses III's and Merneptah's lists, and of the allies of the Trojans. Most Near Eastern scholars agree that the Sea Peoples came from the Aegean-Anatolian orbit (Stiebing 1980, 14). As can be seen from the list of Ramesses III, the Egyptians considered the Philistines to be one of these invading Sea Peoples. It appears then that the Philistines can be associated with the Trojans of western Anatolia and with the Achaeans. The best areas to search for the specific point of origin of the Philistines seem to be western Anatolia, Crete, and the Greek peninsula in the locale of Athens and Mycenae.

The Near East of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C. witnessed the decline and near collapse of the Egyptian and Hittite empires. The Aegean world was also in turmoil. Countless cities besides Troy were sacked, and the Sea Peoples migrated as a result of the economic, environmental, social, and political upheaval in the Aegean at this time (Stiebing 1980, 15). Greek writers such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Herodotus, and Thucydides spoke along with Homer of the revolutions and ferment of the thirteenth century B.C., which, as we have seen, seem to have provided the momentum for the Sea Peoples' attacks on Egypt.

The late return of the Greeks from Troy caused many revolutions, and factions ensued almost everywhere; and it was the citizens thus driven into exile who founded the cities. [He cites examples in Greece, Ionia, the islands, and Italy] . . . many years had to elapse before Greece could attain to a durable tranquillity undisturbed by migrations [emphasis mine]. . . . All these places were founded subsequent to the war with Troy. [Thuc. 1.12 (Livingstone 1972, 40)]