At the end of the third and the beginning of the second millennia b.c.e. Egypt was beset by a series of invasions. Diverse groups whom the Egyptians associated with "the north" and the Mediterranean Sea carried out these invasions. The most distinguishable groups were the Denyen, Ekwesh, Lukka, Peleset, Shardana, Shekelesh, Teresh, and Weshesh.
It is from Egyptian records that these ethnic groups have come to be designated as Sea Peoples. All came to Egypt from the Aegean region or Cyprus, though individual origins of the separate peoples have been ascribed to regions extending from Sardinia to Syria.
The main sources for information about the Sea Peoples are inscriptions of the Egyptian kings Merneptah and Ramses III, who defeated respectively a Libyan invasion in which some of the Sea Peoples served as mercenaries (1220 b.c.e.) and a direct assault of Sea Peoples on Egypt (1186 b.c.e.). Reliefs at Medinet Habu illustrate the victory of Ramses III over all enemies including the Sea Peoples in highly symbolic representation.
For the Philistine community, major sources consist of Assyrian inscriptions, biblical narratives, and archaeological excavations. Numerous minor references associated with the Sea Peoples have been proposed from throughout the Mediterranean.
In the 13th century b.c.e. the most influential civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean (the Egyptian, the Hittites, the culture of Mycenae) collapsed. The Sea Peoples, already existing as raiders, traders, and pirates in the region of the Aegean Sea, became major threats to the coasts of these former political powers. The Hittite and Mycenaean Empires disappeared as much due to internal conflict as to the incursion of Sea Peoples, but Egypt survived.
Reconstructions of the demise of these powers all include Sea Peoples, but the extent to which these seafarers influenced the actual collapse varies from the catastrophic theory of mass invasion with military conquest, to the opportunistic theory with settlement following the rise of political vacuums.
Successful at colonizing the southern coast of Asia Minor, some Sea Peoples moved down the Levantine coast to form settlements stretching from Asia Minor to Egypt. Established cities that attempted to slow or stop this activity, such as Ugarit, might have been overrun by these invaders; however, most settlement may well have come about by infiltration from other communities.
Skilled at sailing and fighting, many of the Sea Peoples turned to mercenary service. Egypt itself had made use of mercenary Shardana even as the Hittite Empire had employed the Lukka when these two empires fought each other.
When the Libyans and Meshwesh allied to attack Egypt, they hired Shardana, Shekelesh, and Ekwesh for their unsuccessful invasion. Under their own command 34 years later the massed Sea Peoples attacked Egypt from the Mediterranean Sea by ship and from their communities to the northeast by land.
Entire families came with the invaders intending to settle the Nile Delta in line with the Levant. Instead, the invaders were decisively defeated by the Egyptians, resulting in large numbers of both dead and captured, which ends the story of the Sea Peoples.
In the Egyptian inscriptions and reliefs the Sea Peoples are depicted with unique features and costumes reflecting the diverse cultures now included in the blanket term Sea People. However, the ships associated with the invasion are all of a kind, with prows and sterns shaped into the form of a stylized bird’s head. Square sails provide the propulsion, and there is a crow’s nest for observation.
The vessels resemble ships of the early Phoenician trading variety, save that no oars are represented. The warriors wear various styles of short kilts, neckbands, and some form of breast covering. Headdresses are of two major kinds: horned helmets and feathered, flanged "top hats".
Spears, swords, and shields are the standard weapons displayed. In the Egyptian depiction the Sea Peoples are both chaotic in their attack before the orderly Egyptian archers and defeated and captured even as they fight; these depictions are a form of Egyptian propaganda.
At the conclusion of Ramses III’s defeat of the Sea Peoples, the Peleset and their allies were driven from Egypt proper into the Mediterranean coastal area northeast of the Egyptian border where they were thenceforth known as Philistines. Their warrior culture settled down to a sedentary life around five central cities: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza.
After expanding their territorial control westward to the hill country, the Philistines took up agriculture, modest manufacturing, metallurgy, and trade, for which their location was ideal. Egypt to the south, the Phoenician cities to the north, and the Mediterranean to the west allowed them to become the market center for the state of Judah to their east.
The cities remained autonomous and independent until the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, who invaded Philistia in 734 b.c.e. and subjugated the region. The end of the Philistines is generally accepted to come with the disappearance of the region in 604 b.c.e. into Nebuchadnezzar II’s Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Archaeological excavations at Philistine sites confirm material and religious connections to the Aegean and to Cyprus. Pottery resembling Mycenaean ware continued to be manufactured along with the distinctive Philistine "beer mugs" even as pottery construction adapted from the indigenous population was produced.
Evidence of trade or migration related to Anatolia and Syria also appears at the sites. By the time of the incorporation of the Philistine cities into the Neo-Babylonian Empire the culture had been assimilated into regional traditions.