Libyan armies were largely of somewhat extrovert shieldless javelinmen, but their traditional weapons were supplemented first by an increase in bow use, then by the import of limited quantities of chariots from Egypt and the adoption of long “sea people” swords. They were a perennial nuisance, escalating to a severe threat when combined with the attacks of the Sea Peoples from 1208 BC to 1176 BC. By this time they had differentiated into the more traditionalist Libu, and the bow, sword and chariot using Meshwesh, but even the former used archers, swordsmen and foreign troops against Merenptah. The process is partly concealed, as it is suspected that Egyptian representations of Libyans after the Old Kingdom are symbolic and may not represent their contemporary appearance. Large scale invasions involved confederate armies commanded by either a Meshwesh or a Libu paramount chief. Two-horse chariots were Egyptian-pattern.
Throughout his long sixty-seven-year reign (1279–1213), Ramesses II gave a high priority to securing Egypt’s imperial possessions in the Near East and neutralizing the Hittite threat. At the same time, his security apparatus was alert to another growing danger, not from the north but from the west. The seminomadic tribes of the Libyan desert and their settled kinsmen along the coast had been a persistant irritant since the earliest days of the First Dynasty. A punitive raid or two had always been sufficient to keep them in check and prevent large-scale infiltration of the western delta. But things had changed. Almost nothing is known about the history and archaeology of Libya before the arrival of the Phoenicians in the eighth century B.C., but from references in Egyptian sources it is clear that an advanced civilization had developed by Ramesside times, at least along the North African coast. Imported artifacts point to close trade links across the Mediterranean with the Mycenaeans, who some two centuries earlier had displaced the Minoans as the main Aegean power. The ships that docked at Libyan coastal harbors brought with them great wealth, boosting the local economy and providing the chiefs with unprecedented resources. From long service as mercenaries in the Egyptian army, the Libyans had also learned a thing or two about modern warfare, acquiring the chariot and gaining considerable skill with the bow and arrow. By late in the reign of Ramesses II, the Libyan tribal rulers had gathered both the financial means and the technology to confront Egypt on equal terms. For the pharaoh, it was a deeply unwelcome prospect.
Ramesses’s instinctive response was to fortify the entire Libyan frontier. His defensive system comprised a series of massive fortresses, built at roughly fifty-mile intervals the length of the western delta border. Each fort was within a day’s chariot ride of its neighbor, and only a couple of days’ ride from Per-Ramesses. Not only did the forts guard the coastal approaches to the delta, but they also enclosed all the major wells in the area, thus denying fresh water to any hostile force. One of the larger forts was even provided with its own temple, to inspire the garrison to feats of courage. In a typically Ramesside gesture, the temple was dedicated to the cult of the deified king.
The pharaoh’s western wall did its job for a time, and the Libyans failed to break through the line while Ramesses was on the throne. But in the aftermath of his death and the unexpected succession of his thirteenth son, Merenptah (the twelve older sons having predeceased their octogenarian father), the impatient tribal rulers saw their chance. In 1209, the fifth year of the new king’s reign,
one came to say to His Majesty … that the vile chief of the Libyan enemies, Mery, son of Dedy, has descended …
And the vile enemy had done his homework. Utilizing a wide range of strategic alliances, he had contrived a simultaneous revolt in Nubia, to distract Egypt’s southern garrisons, and had augmented his own Libyan army with a large detachment of mercenaries from the Aegean and beyond, “northerners who came from all lands.” These Sea Peoples—pirates and raiders in search of plunder and conquest—brought with them an entirely new type of warfare, based upon heavy infantry deploying close combat weapons, small round shields, and body armor. Massed ranks of such well-armed opponents rendered ineffective the chariotry upon which Egypt and the other great powers of the Near East had depended for their military supremacy. Like the Libyans, some of the Sea Peoples had previously served in the Egyptian army—Aegean mercenaries had made up Ramesses II’s bodyguard at the Battle of Kadesh—and so knew their enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.
Mery’s battle strategy was based on the simple expedient of divide and rule. If he could attack Egypt on several fronts simultaneously, causing confusion and disrupting lines of communication, he and his forces might hope to prevail. So, after sending a small raiding party along the coast to keep the border garrisons busy, he and the main assault force set off toward Egypt via the oases of the Western Desert: Siwa, Bahariya, and Farafra. The last oasis commanded a network of desert routes that joined the Nile Valley at different points, so by basing his army here, Mery kept the Egyptians guessing about his ultimate intentions. When he was ready, and sure that the Nubian attack was proceeding as planned, the Libyan chief marched on Egypt in a pincer movement, to prevent a unified counterattack. He led the main force from Farafra, back to Bahariya, and thence to the Fayum, entering the Nile Valley near the pyramids of Dahshur. From there, they headed due north, to the fringes of the western delta. A second detachment left the main army at Bahariya to cross the Nile in Middle Egypt and infiltrate the eastern delta, distracting the Egyptian garrisons at Per-Ramesses and Memphis.
Just a month after receiving the first news of the Libyan invasion, the pharaoh Merenptah arrived with his army near the town of Perirer to engage the foe. It was midsummer, 1208. Just as Ramesses had fought his toughest battle in the fifth year of his reign, so now his son and successor faced the same challenge. This time, however, the Egyptians were leaving nothing to chance. If the Libyans and Sea Peoples understood the Egyptians’ tactics, the reverse was also true. Merenptah knew that his archers and chariots could not overcome the massed ranks of the enemy infantry in a head-on fight. Instead, he cleverly drew the opposing forces toward the Egyptian lines while archers positioned on either flank directed volley after volley of raking fire against the advancing soldiers. After six hours of carnage, the Libyan coalition was finished. Then came the Egyptian chariot charge, turning defeat into rout and pursuing the fleeing enemy until all were either dead or captured. The booty was considerable: thousands of metal vessels, livestock, and advanced weaponry. To press home his victory and send a powerful message to other would-be attackers, Merenptah ordered a grim piece of psychological warfare. The defeated Libyans who had survived the battle soon wished they had perished at Perirer, for they were herded together and impaled alive on stakes. By the end of the day, flyblown corpses, their entrails sticky and putrid in the summer heat, lined the main desert route south of Memphis—in full view of any retreating Libyans and of the local populace.
It was a grim warning, but even so barbarous a display could not keep Egypt safe for long. Merenptah knew the Libyans would attack again (as they surely did, just three years later). He knew, too, that their co-conspirators, the Sea Peoples, might arrive at any time, and from almost any direction. So he pursued his own grand strategy, reinforcing Ugarit, sending grain to the Hittites to bolster the northern defenses, and even integrating Hittite infantry into the Egyptian army. (The soldiers were supplied with their own distinctive weaponry from the bronze furnaces of Per-Ramesses.) The old enmities of Kadesh were but a distant memory. In the unsettling new world of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt needed all the friends it could muster.
The commemorative inscription commissioned by Merenptah to celebrate his second victory over the Libyans, three years after Perirer, is famous today not for the details of the battle, nor for the other elements of his defensive strategy, but for a single, fleeting reference in the penultimate line. After defeating the western invaders, the Egyptian army marched straight across the delta and into Palestine, recapturing the key towns of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yenoam. To complete the job and impose security over this key buffer zone, Merenptah’s forces proceeded to massacre a previously unknown rebel tribe in the hill country of Canaan. The tribe called itself Israel. It is the only reference to Israel in any ancient Egyptian inscription, and it reflects the rise of well-armed bands that, despite being unable to defeat the Egyptians in a pitched battle, could nonetheless pose a serious threat to stability. Israel should have been a headline, not a footnote.
The whole of the Near East was in flux. The old certainties were crumbling, new peoples and polities were in the ascendant, new forms of warfare were tipping the balance of power. Despite its glorious military history and its dynasty of warrior pharaohs, Egypt faced a deeply uncertain future.