Egypt and neighbouring lands
The Ancient Egyptians used multiple names for their country. The most common ones were Kemet (“The Black Land”) and Ta-merat (“The Land of Inundation”) which referred to the fertile dark soil deposited by the annual flood of the Nile. The great majority of the population lived in close proximity to the river where the only arable land of Egypt were to be found. The Nile provided abundant food through flood plain farming and fishing, as well as means of transport for people and goods. Seaworthy ships could venture beyond the river delta into the Mediterranean Sea, known as Wadj-wer (“The Great Green”).
Another ancient name for Egypt was Tawy (“The Two Lands”) representing Lower and Upper Egypt. In predynastic times they had been independent territories, until the First Dynasty pharaoh Narmer united them through military conquest in the late 4th millenium BCE.
- Lower Egypt designated the lush lands of the Nile Delta, on the Mediterranean coast. Its capital city was Mennefer (Memphis) and its patron goddess was Wadjet, depicted as a cobra. The rich delta represented a tempting target and was repeatedly attacked by Lybians, Canaanites and Sea Peoples. It was even conquered and governed by the Hyksos (“rulers of foreign lands”), a dynasty of Syrian origin, in the 17th and 16th centuries BCE.
- Upper Egypt encompassed the Nile River valley up to the First or Second Cataract depending on the times. Its main administrative center was Wasret (Thebes) and its tutelary goddess was Nekhbet, represented as a vulture.
These two lands used distinct symbols of pharaonical authority: the red crown Deshret for Lower Egypt and the white crown Hedjet for Upper Egypt. A pharaoh ruling both regions was entitled to combine the two crowns into a single item of high prestige: Pschent, the double crown of unified Egypt.
Set between the Cataracts of the Nile, Nubia was an independant state ruled from its capital Kerma until its annexation by the Egyptian Empire about 1504 BCE. Known to its conquerors as Kush or Ta-Seti (“The Land of the Bow”), it was famous for its skilled archers and its gold mines.
The Nubian people were gradually assimilated into the Egyptian society during the late Bronze Age. Their royal dynasty married members of the pharaonic lines. Nomads of the Medja region in Lower Nubia were recruited by the Egyptian army into what would become an elite corps known as the Medjay.
West of Egypt laid the land of Lybia, populated by tribes of Berber culture living on the Mediterranean coastline or in oases. These tribues included the Libu, the Meshwesh, the Tehenu and the Seli. In times of famine they would occasionally launch raids onto Egyptian lands.
In 1208 BCE the Libu king Meryey, son of Ded, led a confederated army of Lybians and mercenaries from the ‘Sea Peoples’ against Lower Egypt. They captured Siwa Oasis and moved further west to attack Lower Egypt, but were defeated by an army commanded by Pharaoh Merneptah. Meryey was killed in the field.
In the South West, the sprawling Sahara desert was uninhabited and near impassable. Ancient Egyptians called it Deshret (“The Red Land”) as opposed to Kemet (“The Black Land”) of the fertile Nile valley.
Bronze Age Egyptians called the Sinai peninsula Biau (“Mining Country”) and Khetiu Mafkat (“Ladders of Turquoise”) as it was rich in gemstones and copper. Egypt built mines and kilns to extract and smelt copper into carriable ingots. Copper was then sent to Egypt and mixed with tin to produce bronze for weaponsmithing.
Northern Sinai was crossed by the Way of Horus, a road linking Lower Egypt to Canaan. Given its key role in trade and warfare, it was protected by a series of Egyptian forts and supplied with water wells and warehouses. One of these forts was Tjaru in western Sinai, which also served as a place of banishment for criminals.
All dates are BCE (before current era).
- 1292–1290: Pharaoh Ramesses I, general, vizier and heir of the last ruler of the 18th dynasty, Pharaoh Horemheb, founded the 19th Dynasty. During his brief reign he sent his son Seti on a campaign in Syria.
- 1290–1279: Pharaoh Seti I, son of Ramesses I, expanded the borders of the Egyptian Empire through offensives in all directions: Lybia, Nubia and Cannan up to Kadesh and Amurru included.
- 1279–1213: Pharaoh Ramesses II, son of Seti I, fought off a raid of Sea Peoples in 1278 and campaigned extensively in Canaan, conquering Moab and Ammon and fighting the Hittites at Kadesh in the largest chariot battle in history. He also suppressed a Nubian rebellion and built a series of forts in Lybia.
- 1213–1203: Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, defeated a coalition of Sea Peoples and Lybians.
- 1203–1197: Pharaoh Seti II, son of Merneptah, saw his claim to the throne contested by his half-brother Amenmesse who took control of Upper Egypt and Nubia before being defeated. Bay, a Syrian serving as administrator or priest in Egypt, was appointed Chancellor by Seti II.
- 1201–1198: Pharaoh Amenmesse, son of Merneptah, attempted to usurpe the throne, causing a five-year civil war which he eventually lost.
- 1197–1191: Pharaoh Siptah, possibly another son of Merneptah, was a child with a medical condition who died at the age of 16. Tausret ruled as Queen Regent and Bay as Chancellor. The later fell out of favor and was publicly executed in 1192.
- 1191–1189: Pharaoh Tausret, daughter of Merneptah, half-sister and widow of Seti II, assumed the throne after the early eath of Siptah. She wasn’t the first or the last female pharaoh. She lost a civil war against Setnakhte.
- 1189–1186: Pharaoh Setnakhte, possibly a grandson of Ramesses II, overthrew Tausret and founded the Twentieth Dynasty. He defeated the rebellion of Irsu and and re-established Egyptian control over Canaan
- 1186–1155: Pharaoh Ramesses III, son of Setnakhte, repelled Sea People invasions in 1178 and 1175, as well as Lybian raids in 1181 and 1175.
Called Retjenu by the Egyptians, the Levant designates the coastal region set between the Mediterranean Sea in the west, the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia in the north, the Syrian desert and the Arabian desert in the east, and the Sinai Peninsula in the south.
Bronze Age Levant was divided in a multitude of petty kingdoms using Western Semitic languages. The Egyptian and Hittite empires competed for supremacy over the region. They requested their client states to provide tribute and troops. Given the frequent armed clashes, Canaanite cities were protected by fortifications and regiments of professional soldiers called sabu nagib.
Being in close proximity to the Hittite Empire, most of Syria was controlled by Hattusa.
- The land of Carchemish was ruled by a vice-roy appointed by the Hittite Great King.
- The coastal city-state of Ugarit maintained close ties with Hattusa, Carcemish and Alashiya. It would eventually be destroyed by ‘Sea peoples’ around 1191 BCE under the reign of its king Ammurapi.
- The ancient Amorite kingdom of Amurru was a vassal of the Egyptians or the Hittites depending on the times
- The city-state of Kadesh was the objective of a large battle between Ramesses II and Muwatalli II in 1274 BCE. It was destroyed by ‘Sea Peoples’ around 1178 BCE.
- Phoenician cities like Gubla (Byblos), Sidun (Sidon), Tzor (Tyre) and Hazor were trading partners of Egypt
- Meggido was a vassal of Egypt since its conquest by Thutmose III in the 15th century. It was set in a strategic location, controlling a narrow pass on the main trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
- Urushalim (Jerusalem), meaning “City of Shalem” after a Canaanite deity, was a loyal vassal in the Late Bronze Age.
- The city-state of Ashkelon tried to rebel against Egyptian domination during the time of Merneptah, but its rebellion was crushed.
- The southern kingdom of Moab was an Egyptian vassal since its conquest by Ramesses II
Away from the coastal cities, multiple groups lived as nomads or semi-nomads in the Canaanite hinterland. They were mostly shepherds, hunters and caravaneers, but occasionally turned to brigandage or mercenary work from the surrounding empires. These peoples included:
- the Ahlamu, active in the Syrian desert
- the Habiru, a nonethnic designation for groups active in Eastern Canaan
- the Shasu (Egyptian for “wanderers”), clanic shepherds active in the hills of Southern Levant. During the Egyptian civil war between the 19th and 20th dynasties, a Shasu chief known as Irsu (Egyptian for “self-made man”) took control of large tracts of Canaan. His rebellion was defeated by Setnakhte.
In the late Bronze Age, this large island was divided in smaller states. Two of them are known to us thanks to the archives of their long-distance trade partners.
The kingdom of Alashiya, in the east, was a major producer of copper, which was sold to Canaan and Egypt. It maintained a close relationship with the Syrian city of Ugarit.
The kingdom of Kourion, in the south, was marked by the Mycenaean culture. It was either a colony of the Greek city of Argos or a trading partner of that city. It also traded with Egypt.
This state was a pluriethnic construction led by a Hittite dynasty ruling over Hattians, Hurrians, Hittites and Luwians.
- The ancient Hattian culture emerged during the Early Bronze Age in what they called the land of Hatti, in Central Anatolia. They were progressively absorbed into the Hittite Empire during the Middle Bronze Age.
- The Hurrians originated from northern Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age and later expanded into Syria and southern Anatolia, leading or empowering the states of Yamhad, Mitanni and Kizzuwatna.
- The Hittites arrived in the peninsulia in the 4th millenium and founded the kingdom of Kussara in Northern-central Anatolia in the early 2nd millenium BCE. The Hattian, Hurrian and Luwian populations were gradually assimilated in the growing Hittite empire.
Both Hattian and Hurrian cultures remain largely unknown. Their languages have eluded classification efforts so far, though linguists have determined that there were neither Semitic nor Indo-European.
The Hittite and Luwian languages however belonged the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. Their common religion, which referred to “a thousand gods” according to the Hittites, also bears similitudes with myths of other Indo-European civilisations. For instance the struggle between the Hittite storm god Tarhunt and the great serpent Illuyanka has close equivalents in Egyptian mythology (Re versus Apophis), Vedic mythology (Indra versus Vritra) and Norse mythology (Thor versus Jormungandr).
The Luwian-speaking people represented a large group living mostly in southern and western Anatolia, which they called Luwiya. Like Hittite, their language belonged to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Luwians intermixed with Hittites, Hattians and Hurrians in the various kingdoms of the peninsula.
- South of Hattusa, the ancient kingdom of Kizzuwatna was rich in silver and wood. His rulers were subordinated to the Hittte Great King and provided him with troops, weapons and horses. Suppiluliuma II’s grandmother was a princess of Kizzuwatna.
- In southwestern Anatolia, the kingdom of Arzawa was conquered by the Hittites in the late 14th century BCE. It had cultural and political ties with Ahhiyawa (Greece).
- In the West, Seha represented a recalcitrant vassal of the Hittites. During the late 14th century, it rebelled at least twice and failed to provide requested troops to the Great King Mursili II.
- In the Northwest, the city-state of Wilusa (Troy) was located at the end of the Hellespont. Its political stance regarding the Hittites evolved through the 14th and 13th centuries from hostility to alliance and then vassalage. It sent troops to support the campaigns of the empire, including the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptians in 1274 BCE.
While bent on expanding their empire to the south, the Hittittes had to deal with bellicose neighbours in the North and the west.
The semi-nomadic Kaskians, a non-Indo-European people, lived between the northern border of the Hittite lands and the Black Sea. They provided combative mercenaries to the Empire, however they were defiant of the authority of the Great King and would raid or take any undefended Hittite lands and towns, from the holy city of Nerik to the capital of Hattusa.
In central-western Anatolia lived the Phrygians, an Indo-European speaking people who had migrated from Thrace in the early 12th century BCE. Reliable information on the Phrygians is very limited, though it seems that their arrival in Anatolia coincided with the collapse of the Hittite Empire.
The Sea Peoples
The expression ‘Sea Peoples’ was been invented by French Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé in 1855. The few Bronze Age sources which mentioned them, such as clay tablets and inscriptions on monuments, used a variety of expressions where the seaborne aspect wasn’t always present: ‘Northerners from all lands’, ‘on their isles’, ‘from the seas to the North’ or ‘of the countries of the sea’.
Ancient Egyptians divided these peoples in nine ethnic groups: the Denyen, Ekwesh, Lukka, Peleset, Shekelesh, Sherden, Teresh, Tjeker and Weshesh. Historians are divided regarding the identity of most of these groups. Here are four examples:
- The Lukka have been solidly identified as Lycians from Western Anatolia.
- The Ekwesh were once classified as Mycenaeans due to the etymological proximity between Ekwesh and Achaea. However Pharaoh Merneptah who vanquished them in 1208 BCE noted that they were circumcised, a fact which affected the customary collection of flesh trophies from the dead. Circumcision was unknown to Bronze Age Greece, which rules out the Greek origin theory.
- Multiple cultural links have been established between the Sherden (or Shardana) and the Sardinians of the Nuragic culture. However it isn’t clear if the Sherden originated from Sardinia, or if they came from another location and only moved to Sardinia after raiding the Eastern Mediterranean.
- Peleset are identified as the Philistines of southern Canaan, but this is due to the fact that Ramesses III assigned them to this area after submitting them around 1175 BCE. Reliefs from his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu show the Peleset warriors moving to Palestine accompanied by their families in ox-carts. This identification doesn’t shine any light on their origins.
Beyond the question of their origins, the motivation of these peoples remain unknown. Were they migrants fleeing from disasters, warriors looking for rich lands to conquer, or both?
There’s an opportunistic aspect visible in the actions of some of these groups, especially the Sherden and the Lukka:
- 14th century BCE: the first record of the Sherden, on a clay tablet sent from Byblos to Egypt, describes them as pirates and mercenaries looking for work in Canaan.
- 1278 BCE: “the unruly Sherden […] came boldly in their warships from the midst of the sea” to raid the Nile Delta but were defeated by Pharaoh Ramesses II.
- 1274 BCE: Sherden soldiers served Egypt as mercenaries. At the Battle of Kadesh, Ramesses II commanded Sherden troops while Muwatalli II, father of Kurunta, fielded Lukka mercenaries.
- 1208 BCE: Sherden were hostile again. Sherden and Lukka troops banded with other ‘Sea Peoples’ and a Lybian king to attack western Lower Egypt. They were defeated by Pharaoh Merneptah.
East and West
In Northeast Syria was once the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni, called Naharina in Egyptian. It had long been a rival of Egypt for the control of Canaan, until the two states allied against a common foe: Hattusa. Weakened by internal conflicts, Mitanni was eventually absorbed by the Hittite and Assyrian Empires in the 13th century.
East of Syria, in northern Mesopotamia, was the heartland of Assyria. The city-state of Assur had grown into a regional empire representing a direct rival to Mitanni, Hattusa and Babylonia. At the time of the events of TW Pharaoh, this empire was locked in an internal power struggle following the loss of Babylonia and the murder of king Tukulti-Ninurta by his sons in 1207 BCE.
In central Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Babylonia was ruled by a dynasty of Kassite origin. King Adad-shuma-usur rebelled against the Assyrian domination in 1193 BCE.
Further east around the city of Susa was the Empire of Elam, at the height of its power under the Shutrukid dynasty. They took advantage of the disastrous wars between Assyria and Babylonia to launch raiding expeditions against their lands.
The Greek mainland was called Tinayu by the Egyptians and Ahhiyawa by the Hitttes. In the Late Bronze Age, the coastal cities of the Western Aegean were trading partners of Arzawa, Cyprus, Canaan and Egypt. They exported silver and pottery and imported various manufactured goods.