Krethi and Plethi — invasion by the “Sea Peoples” — the great trek from the Aegean — triumphal progress with ox-wagons and ships — the Hittite empire disappears — seaports in flames on the coast of Canaan — general mobilization on the Nile — Pharaoh harnesses HI saves Egypt — the great land and sea engagement — interrogation in P.O.W. camps — life-size portraits of the Philistines.
“Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor...?” (Amos 9:7). The fabulous tales of the redoubtable Samson, that great bear of a man full of pranks and derring-do, herald the beginning of the great tussle.
Philistines! — This name has become common currency in so many ways. We talk of someone being “a proper Philistine,” or of someone else as a veritable “Goliath.” He also was one of them. We speak disparagingly of the “Cherithites and Pelethites” without realizing that these terms designate “Cretans and Philistines.” Who does not know the tragic love story of Samson and Delilah, the woman who betrayed him to the Philistines? Who does not remember the superhuman strength of Samson, who could strangle lions with his bare hands, who slew 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and in the end, blind and deserted by the woman he loved, brought a Philistine temple crashing down about his head in the fury of his anger? Yet very few of us ever really think how little we know of these Philistines whom we talk so much about.
The Philistine people, who played a decisive role in the life of Israel, were for a long time wrapped in mystery. It is only quite recently that it has been possible to find out something about them. Bit by bit, as a result of careful examination of the fruits of scientific research, the picture has become clearer. Fragments of pottery, inscriptions in temples and traces of burnt-out cities give us a mosaic depicting the first appearance of these Philistines, which is unrivalled in its dramatic effect.
Terrifying reports heralded the approach of these alien people. Messengers brought evil tidings of these unknown strangers who appeared on the edge of the civilized ancient world, on the coast of Greece. Ox-wagons, heavy carts with solid wheels, drawn by hump-backed bullocks, piled high with household utensils and furniture, accompanied by women and children, made their steady advance. In front marched armed men. They carried round shields and bronze swords. A thick cloud of dust enveloped them, for there were masses of them. Nobody knew where they came from. The enormous trek was first sighted at the Sea of Marmora. From there it made its way southwards along the Mediterranean coast. On its green waters sailed a proud fleet in the same direction, a host of ships with high prows and a cargo of armed men.
Wherever this terrifying procession halted it left behind a trail of burning houses, ruined cities and devastated crops. No man could stop these foreigners; they smashed all resistance. In Asia Minor towns and settlements fell before them. The mighty fortress of Chattusas on the Halys was destroyed. The magnificent stud horses of Cilicia were seized as, plunder. The treasures of the silver mines of Tarsus were looted. The carefully guarded secret of the manufacture of iron, the most valuable metal of the times, was wrested from the foundries beside the ore deposits. Under the impact of these shocks one of the three great powers of the second millennium B.C. collapsed. The Hittite Empire was obliterated.
A fleet of the foreign conquerors arrived off Cyprus and occupied the island. By land the trek continued, pressed on into northern Syria, reached Carchemish on the Euphrates and moved on up the valley of the Orontes. Caught in a pincer movement from sea and land the rich seaports of the Phoenicians fell before them. First Ugarit, then Byblos, Tyre and Sidon. Flames leapt from the cities of the fertile coastal plain of Palestine. The Israelites must have seen this wave of destruction, as they looked down from their highland fields and pastures, although the Bible tells us nothing about that. For Israel was not affected. What went up in flames down there in the plains were the strongholds of the hated Canaanites.
On and on rolled this human avalanche by sea and by land, forcing its way all the time towards the Nile, towards Egypt....
In Medinet Habu west of Thebes on the Nile stands the imposing ruin of the splendid temple of Amun, dating from the reign of Ramesses III (1195-1164 B.C.). Its turreted gateway, its lofty columns, and the walls of its halls and courts are crammed with carved reliefs and inscriptions. Thousands upon thousands of square feet filled with historical documents carved in stone. The temple is one vast literary and pictorial record of the campaigns of the Pharaohs and is the principal witness to events on the Nile at that time.
It is more than plain from these records that Egypt was then in a state of acute panic and only too conscious of the danger in which it stood. One of the texts rings with a note of anxious foreboding: “In the eighth year of the reign of Ramesses III.... No country has been able to withstand their might. The land of the Hittites, Kode22, Carchemish... and Cyprus have been destroyed at one stroke.... They have crushed their peoples, and their lands are as if they had never been. They marched against Egypt.... They laid hands on every land to the farthest ends of the earth. Their hearts were high and their confidence in themselves was supreme: 'Our plans will succeed'.”
Ramesses III made feverish preparations for battle and decreed a general mobilisation: “I manned my borders... and drew up my armies before them: princes, garrison commanders and warriors. I turned the river mouths into a strong defensive wall, with warships, galleys and coastal vessels ... fully manned from stem to stern with brave warriors armed to the teeth. The troops were the best that Egypt could muster. They were as ready for battle as lions roaring on the mountains. The chariot detachments consisted of the swiftest runners, and every first class charioteer available. The horses flew like the wind ready to crush foreign lands under their feet....”
With an enormous fighting force and every able bodied warrior that Egypt could call on, Ramesses III advanced to engage in a great battle on land against the foreign hordes. The inscriptions have nothing very definite to say about this battle. As usual, the Egyptian war reports confine themselves in this case to singing the praises of the victor. “His troops,” it is recorded of Ramesses III, “were like bulls ready for battle: his horses were like falcons amid a flock of tiny birds....” But a huge relief still portrays this terrible battle after 3,000 years: the Egyptian commandos have scurried in among the armed enemy trekkers. Fearful slaughter rages among the ponderous ox-wagons carrying the women and children. Under the hooves of the bullocks and horses the bodies of the slain lie in heaps. Victory seems to have been won already, since Egyptian soldiers are seen plundering the ox-wagons.
Egypt had won a battle of prime significance in world history. The enemy land forces had been annihilated. Ramesses III hastened to the coast in a swift chariot, since “they had entered the mouths of the river” with their ships.
This great naval battle is likewise perpetuated on a stone relief in the temple at Medinet Habu: the fleets of the two opposing forces have approached each other. Shortly before their encounter the wind must have suddenly died down, since the sails are reefed. That meant a severe handicap for the foreigners. Their ships could no longer be maneuvered. The warriors are standing there, ready for the fray but helpless. Their swords and spears were useless except in hand to hand fighting when the ships were close enough together. The calm let the Egyptians have it all their own way. Their vessels, manned by oarsmen, approach the enemy ships at a safe distance, then the archers are given the order to fire. A murderous hail of arrows pour down upon the foreigners who provide a mass target and fall overboard in vast numbers. The bodies of badly wounded and dead men cover the water. When the enemy had been decimated and was in complete disorder, the Egyptians rowed towards them and capsized their boats. Those who escaped death by the hail of arrows or by drowning were killed or captured by Egyptian soldiers on the nearby shore.
Ramesses III had been able to ward off this deadly threat to Egypt on land and sea in these two decisive battles. There had been no victory like it in all the past history of the Nile.
After the victory a gruesome reckoning was made of dead and wounded by hacking off their hands and piling them in heaps. This was the method of counting the numbers of a defeated enemy. About what happened to the women and children of the foreigners the inscriptions tell us nothing. The reliefs show the first P.O.W. camps in history. The defeated soldiers are herded together.
The treatment which the mass of prisoners received was in principle the same as happens today. Drawn up in rank and file they squat on the ground awaiting checking. Even the much maligned questionnaire was included: Egyptian officers dictate to scribes the statements made by the prisoners. Only one matter was differently dealt with in those days. Nowadays prisoners of war have P.O.W. or K.G. painted on their tunics; the Egyptians branded Pharaoh's name on their prisoners' skins. It lasted longer.
It is to the hieroglyphics of these oldest questionnaires in the world that we owe the first historical information about the famous Philistines in the Bible.
Among these “Sea People” as the Egyptians called the foreign conquerors, one racial group assumed special importance, the Peleste or PRST. These are the Philistines of the Old Testament.
Egyptian artists were masters at depicting the physiognomy of foreign races and had an extraordinary ability to distinguish characteristic features. The reliefs at Medinet Habu indicate with this wonted accuracy the faces of the Biblical Philistines. They look like photographs carved in stone 3,000 years ago. The tall slim figures are about a head higher than the Egyptians. We can recognize the special type of dress, and weapons, and their tactics in battle. If we substitute the men of Israel for the Egyptian mercenaries we have a true-to-life picture of the battles which took place years later in Palestine and which reached the height of their fury in the reigns of Saul and David about 1000 B.C.