A representation of the mural on the northern wall of Ramesses III's mortuary temple depicting his victory over the "Sea People"
The collapse of the late Bronze Age cultures in the eastern Mediterranean, redux
Within a few decades around 1200 BCE most of the thriving cities around the eastern Mediterranean had been burnt to the ground, abandoned or reduced to a shadow of their former selves, including Mycenae, Thebes and Tiryns on the Grecian peninsula, Knossos on Crete,(*) and Troy in western Anatolia, to mention only names which are widely known. The worst of this Catastrophe, as Robert Drews termed it, appears to have taken place in Anatolia, Syria and the Levant, leading to the collapse of the Hittite Empire and the smaller kingdoms located in that region. Mesopotamia was not affected (apparently it was too far inland), but the Egyptians had to fight for their lives multiple times between 1208 and 1176 BCE and managed to defeat the marauders we have come to call the "Sea People" (as well as the Libyans twice), following the formula of a 19th century French historian. Nonetheless, the Egyptians were sufficiently weakened that their empire began to contract markedly: the victories over the Sea People were the swan song of the New Kingdom. Moreover, a Dark Age lasting as long as 400 years commenced on the Greek peninsula and the Aegean isles, where populations decreased and often moved to more easily defended fastnesses. The light finally began to shine there again in the age of the Homeric poets, which I discuss in my review of Moses Finley's The World of Odysseus.
Last summer I wrote about Robert Drews' The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe CA. 1200 B.C. (1993), which reviewed the many extant theories about the causes of the Catastrophe and then proposed another. But many questions remained unanswered and the yet hypothetical nature of all the explanations was painfully obvious. Inaugurating a new series in ancient history, Princeton University Press has recently released 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), by Eric H. Cline, which I've read in the expectation that some improvement in our grasp of those distant events had been made in the intervening two decades. Such is indeed the case.
Three of the five chapters of this book present a fascinating picture of the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean in the three centuries preceding the Catastrophe, employing archaeological and written evidence, the latter primarily inscriptions found in Egypt and the wonderful baked clay tablets of the Middle East.(**) It is now known that prior to the Catastrophe there was a flourishing trade and active diplomacy all across the eastern Mediterranean.(***) As one example of many, I learned about the remarkable Uluburun shipwreck of a 50 foot long, Bronze Age trading vessel off the coast of Turkey which has been dated to about 1300 BCE using multiple methods and was discovered in 1982 at a depth of 150 feet.
The wreck in situ
A museum's cross section of the ship's hold, which contained hippopotamus and elephant ivory, raw glass, storage jars full of barley, resin, spices and wine, and, most precious of all, a ton of tin and ten tons of copper to make bronze. The goods came from as far away as Afghanistan, Nubia, Italy and the Balkans.
Cline takes the opportunity to rehearse his suggestion that the Homeric "Trojan War" was a vague memory of Mycenaean warriors taking part in a great rebellion in Asia Minor against the Hittites around 1430 BCE. Whatever one may think of that particular idea, the splendid shade of the past he summons up in these chapters and the extensive bibliography have added an entire new wing to my groaning TBR list.
After setting the stage, he comes to the evidence for and the theories about the Catastrophe, which some scholars prefer to call the Collapse. Cline provides a site-by-site description of some of the destruction (he and Drews have surprisingly little overlap here), as well as the dating results and attendant controversies. He also briefly reviews the various theories proposed to explain the Catastrophe, though here Drews' discussion is both more extensive and detailed.(4*) Both indicate objections to each of the theories and establish convincingly that no one of the "causes," including the "Sea People" can explain all of the observed destruction and consequent decline and re-making of the cultures of the region. Both suggest the possibility that all of the proposed "causes" could have contributed cumulatively to the observed phenomena - Cline calls it a "perfect storm" of calamities. Drews suggested his own theory but admitted it is only a hypothesis. And Cline concludes that though the causes of the Catastrophe must have been complex, we neither know all of them, nor do we know which were critical. So, the up-to-date conclusion is "We don't know." That is, in any case, better than believing in an incorrect hypothesis.
What we have now is a somewhat clearer picture of what happened, where and when; that picture is still evolving. Before reading this book I had not appreciated that the late Bronze Age was a kind of Golden Age in the eastern Mediterranean, both economically and culturally. Just the kind of thing that draws my further attention.
(*) This is under debate by the experts, since they are not certain when Knossos was burnt to the ground. But whenever Knossos itself may have been destroyed, violence and a complete change of settlement patterns at the beginning of the 12th century have been verified archaeologically all over Crete.
(**) As part of this series' evident goal to interest modern readers in those ancient times, Cline throws in many intriguing tidbits. For example, aware of the Pharoah Thutmose III's successful tactics in the battle of Megiddo in 1479 BCE (apparently the first battle in history recorded - on a temple wall - for the edification of persons not present), General Edmund Allenby repeated them in 1918 at Megiddo against the Germans and Turks with the same positive results.
An excerpt from the inscriptions on Ramesses III's mortuary temple gives a taste of ancient Egyptian imperial rhetoric:
Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not; their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. Those who came forward together on the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the river mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore. They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed and made into heaps from tail to head. Their ships and their goods were as if fallen into the water. I have made the lands turn back from even mentioning Egypt; for when they pronounce my name in their land, then they are burned up.
I wouldn't want to get on his bad side.
(***) The exchange of goods and ideas was so thoroughly developed that historians of art now speak of an "International Style" present at the end of the Bronze Age! Cline calls the era "this cosmopolitan age."
(4*) With an important exception: Since the appearance of Drews' book, environmental scientists have established by multiple means that towards the end of the Bronze Age there was a climactic change in the eastern Mediterranean which entailed a 300 year period of relative drought. There is written evidence of the resulting famine, at least until the civilizations collapsed. In Egypt, of course, due to the exceptional nature of the Nile River, this period of famine did not occur, but it might have contributed to the weakening of the Hittite Empire and partially explained why so many Mycenaean Greeks left the mainland for the western coast of the Near East.