The mortuary temple of Ramesses III on whose northern wall is a huge mural depicting the victory of Ramses III and the Egyptians over the "Sea People" around 1190 (or 1179, depending upon the expert) BCE.
A little after 1200 BCE most of the thriving cities around the eastern Mediterranean were burnt to the ground or abandoned, 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 terms it, appears to have taken place in eastern Anatolia, Syria and the southern Levant. Mesopotamia was not affected (apparently it was too far inland), but the Egyptians had to fight for their lives repeatedly between 1208 and 1176 BCE and managed to defeat the marauders they called the "Sea People". Nonetheless, the Egyptians were sufficiently weakened that their empire began to contract; the victories over the Sea People were the swan song of the New Kingdom.
Above is a photo of the very well preserved mortuary temple of Ramesses III, on whose northern wall is a mural depicting one of the battles between the Egyptians and the Sea People, including a very brief description of the event in which the term "Sea People" appears. Much longer descriptions have been found on papyri. Directly below is an artistic reconstruction of that wall mural.
But see also
for a larger, clearer version of this image.
The result was a Dark Age which lasted as long as 400 years on the Grecian peninsula, where the light began to shine again in the age of the Homeric poets, but was shorter lived elsewhere.
Who did all this destruction, and how could they have been so powerful that only the greatest imperial power in the region could defeat them in open combat? This is the question posed in Robert Drews' The End of the Bronze Age (1993), which I read in order to get a clearer picture of what is known currently about the Catastrophe itself, since what I know dates back to books written in the 60's and 70's. Drews' answer to these questions - the introduction of innovations in military technology and tactics- is the primary focus of this book, hence the subtitle Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C., but first he reviews alternate explanations and reveals some of the more recent knowledge about the Catastrophe I was looking for.
Drews' discussion of earlier conjectures offered by other archaeologists and historians - earthquakes, migrations, ironworking, droughts and "systems collapse" - is scholarly and not polemic. He does not discount the possibility that any of these may have made a (very) small contribution to the Catastrophe, but he argues compellingly that none could have accounted for the Catastrophe by itself. This portion of the book I found to be particularly interesting, since Drews reviews the evidence and arguments for and against all the major "explanations" and, in the process, digs out of monographs and articles from the specialist literature what one actually knows about the Catastrophe.
In the second half of the book Drews turns to his own proposal. On the basis of relatively recent research by specialists, he had already discussed in detail the nature of warfare in the ancient Near East and the Aegean in The Coming of the Greeks: Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East (1988). It had already been known for a good while that land war in that time and place was carried out primarily by fleets of chariots (mentioned already in Moses I. Finley's The World of Odysseus (1954))(**) carrying bowmen armed with composite bows. There he proposed that the war chariot became militarily significant in the 17th century BCE, dominating warfare from Greece and Crete to northwestern India.
Although the infantry of the time was very nearly helpless against the chariot, both the chariot and the composite bow were intricate objects, requiring specialist knowledge to construct, and hence expensive. In addition, the charioteer and bowman needed a great deal of training to function well together. So only rulers with extensive resources could mount large fleets of war chariots. In the 13th century a Hittite king fielded 3,500 chariots in a battle against the Egyptians. Then, when the role of the infantry declined to the point of negligibility and the chariots had only the enemy chariots as their targets, the crew and horses needed armor, and later also a third crewman carrying a shield to protect driver and bowman - the well known escalation of the cost of warfare.
Drews' primary thesis in this book is that 1200 BCE marked the end of dominance of the war chariot, when a simultaneous advance in both tactics and battle weaponry returned the advantage to the infantry, who were significantly less expensive that the war chariots. Hence were the smaller polities now at an advantage with respect to the larger, and all over the eastern Mediterranean palaces fell and cities burned.
He amasses much evidence that the chariot and composite bow, prevalent everywhere before 1200 BCE became scarce in the region in question, while the long sword, available nowhere before 1200 BCE except in the Balkans, was found everywhere afterwards. That these changes occurred at the same time as the Catastrophe is suggestive.
The new weapon was the bronze long sword; though it is a formidable weapon, this alone could not stop the chariot armies. A long range weapon was needed, and that would be the javelin or the bow, both of which were in use before. So what was the new element? Drews doesn't know, though he suggests on the basis of Egyptian records that overwhelming numbers of skirmishing infantrymen were the key... Drews admits explicitly that he is guessing here.
One may well doubt that the adventurers in the hinterlands could come together in sufficient numbers, but according to Egyptian records precisely that occurred on at least two different occasions. Summoning adventurers from all over the Aegean, the king of Libya brought an army numbering at least 20,000 into the Egyptian delta. Drews thinks that elsewhere, where the obstacles were not so great to the invaders as in Egypt, encouraged by news of similar successes elsewhere, the peoples driven into the mountains by the polities in the plains descended upon the cities and sacked them. Maybe...
Drews has left open many questions, and this can hardly be a surprise given the distance in time of the events one is attempting to understand. But in this book he provides insight into what specialists have learned about the Catastrophe, and it is certainly much more than was known 50 years ago.
The End of the Bronze Age, published by the Princeton University Press, is a heavily footnoted academic book in which the author does not provide translations for his quotes from German, French and Italian authors.
(*) This is under debate by the experts, since they are not certain when Knossos was burnt to the ground. Drews gives an argument why the old date of early 14th century BCE is wrong. But whenever Knossos was burnt, violence and a complete change of settlement patterns changed on all of Crete at the beginning of the 12th century.
(**) As an aside, Drews confirms with further details how un-Mycenaean the warfare in the Iliad was. During the Dark Age the Greek oral tradition had forgotten most of the Mycenaean period.