Sherden “mercenaries”

Noteworthy is the presence of Sherden “mercenaries” within the Egyptian army at Kadesh. Ramesses II marched out of Egypt on the ninth day of the second month of summer, stopping at Tjel, an Egyptian outpost. He had the Regiment of Amun, as well as three other major units with him, and the Sherden infantry, composing a force of 20,000 men. Sherden are present acting as a guard around Ramesses on the occasion when he ordered the Hittite scouts to be beaten. Clearly, these men served as an elite guard whose duty was primarily to their liege lord. There was a raid by Sherden pirates in the second year of Ramesses II’s reign; these pirates were not only defeated, but were also incorporated into the Egyptian military as mercenaries.

Sea Peoples by Johnny Shumate. The Sea Peoples wore different types of helmets. The Sherden, for example, wore bronze helmets with horns sticking out from the sides, while the Peleset helmet was probably a circle of reeds, stiffened hair, horsehair, linen, or leather strips held in place by a fillet and chin strap.


A term applied to a number of ethnic groups who were involved in conflict with Egypt in the 19th and 20th Dynasties. The Sea Peoples have also been associated with mass movement of population and major destruction of sites throughout Anatolia and western Asia at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200–1150 BC). The peoples involved were the Peleset, Lukki, Shekelesh, Weshesh, Shardana, Tjekker, Teresh, and Ekwesh. Some of these peoples are known independently from a variety of Egyptian sources from the late 18th Dynasty onward. Some of the names can certainly be associated with specific places (such as the Peleset and Palestine), others have generated more controversy (and are noted in the appropriate entries here). How we choose to understand the geographical associations of the names is fundamental to our interpretation of the nature of the Sea Peoples episodes. For example, the name Shardana (or Sherden) is generally accepted as being connected with Sardinia: but whether the Shardana came from the island we call Sardinia or whether they went there from the eastern Mediterranean after these events is central to the problem.

The temple reliefs show that the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand, notwithstanding the presence of Egyptian archers on land and in the ships. Many of the Sherden and other enemies are carved in the position of captives. Their hands are constrained within wooden shackles. Some Egyptians have spears whereas others brandish swords. The Peleshet, Sherden, and other sea enemies mainly depended upon spears, swords, and protective shields. The reliefs depict one enemy ship captured by Sherden “mercenaries,” and we can see their round shields, medium but thick swords, and distinctive helmets. (Note that the Sherden do not appear to have been part of the archer contingent of the Egyptian army.) Here, an Egyptian with shield is about to climb into an enemy ship. In another location one vessel has already been seized. Avner Raban, after subjecting the scenes of warfare, concluded that Ramesses’ flotilla may have been built upon the lines of the Sea Peoples’ fleet. We can add that it is equally possible that the Egyptians, with the Sherden for instance, may have reorganized their ships along more up-to-date military lines. Whether or not this was a contemporary innovation must remain open, especially because the encounter between Ramesses II and the Sea Peoples early in his reign could have provided such an impetus.

As with the Sherden pirates discussed above, the Sea Peoples were apparently also assimilated into ancient Egyptian empire after Ramesses III’s victory, although in the long-term this solitary victory was only putting-off the unavoidable as the region of Canaan was lost to the Sea Peoples by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.

Sherden Mercenaries Marching to Kadesh, 1274 BC. 1: Regular infantryman, 2: ‘Sea Shardana’, 3: Royal guardsman. GIUSEPPE RAVA. Of interest is the sword used by the Sherden, one of the Sea Peoples that attacked Egypt in the eleventh century b. c. e ., only to be defeated and settled in Palestine, where they became known to history as the Philistines. Th e Sherden, however, entered Egyptian military service as elite guards to Pharaoh. One reason for their military value may have been their use of the long, straight sword. Th e sword was thirty-eight inches long and very narrow, its raised spine blade ending in a very sharp, needle-like point. Th e sword’s design suggests that it was used for a very specific purpose, which appears to have been killing charioteers in close combat. Th e sword’s length gave the Sherden warrior superior “reach” to get at his target while on foot and below the enemy charioteer. The sharp point could easily penetrate leather, lamellar, and, perhaps, even thin (two millimeters) bronze scale armor. Striking from below, the needle-like point could find a seam or slide under the overlapping scales of the charioteer’s armor coat. Used as “chariot runners,” supporting infantry surrounding Pharaoh in a chariot fight, the Sherden served as an elite battle guard, using their long swords to strike down any charioteer who tried to attack the king.

Military settlement in a portion of the Nile valley in Middle Egypt in the Twentieth Dynasty. The agricultural land is divided into four sections or zones, and against each one a pie-chart shows the relative proportions of four different categories of person renting land from institutions. The three shaded portions of each chart represent people connected with the military: stable-masters, soldiers and Sherden; the unshaded portion represents several groups who can broadly be regarded as civilians. The flanking figures are Sherden warriors, wearing their distinctive helmets and forming a bodyguard for Rameses II.

The Sherden

The Sherden, first mentioned in Egyptian records in the reign of Amenhotep III, were described as pirates; they served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army from Dynasty 18 onward and were rewarded by gifts of land for their service. In the conflicts with Ramesses III they fought both for and against the Egyptians, and later they were numbered among the pharaoh’s bodyguard. Egyptian temple reliefs show them with distinctive helmets with a large knob or disk at the apex and projecting bull’s horns. They carried round shields and two-edged swords.

They had a history as seafarers or pirates but were also probably associated with particular locations. Cyprus was perhaps their original homeland where bronze working was well established, but they may have moved on to Sardinia (according to the earliest Phoenician inscription found on the island, the name of Sardinia was “Shardan”). One theory identifies the Sherden with the bronze-working people who apparently arrived suddenly on the island between 1400 and 1200 BC and are known to have constructed the local nuraghi (stone towers). Bronze statuettes found on the island depict figures with round shields and horned helmets (but without disks) similar to the appearance of the Sherden. Also, on the neighboring island of Corsica, tombstone scenes depict warriors with banded corselets, daggers, and helmets.

Later, in Dynasties XIX and XX (the Ramesside Period), the Sherden, originally sea raiders in the eastern Mediterranean, performed similar duty. These foreigners appear both in texts as well as in battle reliefs serving the Pharaoh. They also owned plots of land in Egypt, small to be sure, but this must indicate that they had become settled within the Nile Valley. In other words, the Sherden were inhabitants of the land that they served. The males appear to have been organized into separate contingents within the Egyptian army. Indeed, they are connected with various “strongholds,” presumably set up by the Ramesside kings in order to continue their separate way of life. The Sherden are also known to have been organized along different military lines than the Egyptians. But they did not remain loyal to their monarchs only for pay. They actually lived in Egypt and belonged to the economic structure of the land.

The introduction of the Sherdens to the Egyptian army could possibly signify a major change in military thinking at the time. For a few centuries, the dominant arm of the Middle Eastern armies were the chariots, so much so that by the late thirteenth century BC, they were practically the sole arm, with infantry being used merely for policing, guard duty, and the occasional punitive expedition into rugged terrain where chariots could not go. Because chariots and the horses needed to pull them were expensive, the social elite became the military elite, while the masses remained unarmed and untrained for the most part. The Sherdens, however, introduced a new element to chariot warfare. Prior to this time, a support group of infantry, called runners, followed after the chariots in battle in order to finish off wounded enemy soldiers and gather loot. The Sherdens, using newly introduced long swords and hunting javelins, became light infantry that moved quickly through the battlefields, disabling enemy horses and attacking enemy charioteers and archers. This proved effective enough to mark the end of the chariot as a fighting machine.

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