The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations

Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna...
Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna period (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I did a short post on the collapse of civilizations, noting that history pretty much shows that all civilizations, sooner or later, end.  (I also expressed skepticism that ours is necessarily anywhere near this point.)

The quintessential example of a civilization collapse is the fall of the Roman Empire.  But it is by far not the first or only collapse in history.  The fall of the Roman Empire was a major event in the history of western civilization, and there is an entire genre of theories on exactly why it declined and fell.  (Being the opinionated person I am, I naturally have my own theories, but I’ll save them for another post.)

1177CoverBut there was an earlier collapse that was just as consequential for world history, and that was the collapse of the Bronze Age kingdoms at the end of the Bronze Age, c. 1200-1100 BC.  I recently finished reading Eric Cline’s ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed‘, which covers this topic in some detail and which is the source of most of this post.

At the end of the Bronze Age, over three thousand years ago, there existed an international community of kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.  The superpowers of this time were Egypt, which was already ancient by then, and Hattusa, the Hittite Empire.  There was also the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, along with Alashiya in Cyprus, Babylonia in Mesopotamia, and a range of other smaller kingdoms such as the Canaanite city states.  It was a time of extensive trade and international relations.

And then, starting around 1200 BC, these kingdoms all collapsed or suffered decline.  In Greece, this led to a dark age that lasted for centuries before giving rise to classical Greece.  It led to the decline of Egypt from the world power it had been for millennia.  Many of the Canaanite city states, vassals of Egypt, collapsed and were eventually replaced by the iron age kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Hattusa and many of the other kingdoms and empires disappeared.  (Although some of them later came back in “neo” phases such as the neo-Hittites and neo-Assyrians.)

Unlike in the later classical period, we don’t have much in the way of historical writings from this period.  In early modern times, history was thought to have effectively started with Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century BC.  Everything before that was largely based on legends and myths.  But the development of archaeology has allowed us to construct the history of earlier civilizations.  (And of prehistory for that matter.)

It’s mostly through archaeology that we know what we do about the Bronze Age.  By studying the remnants of cities, their pottery and other artifacts, and scrutinizing the few examples of letters we have from the period (mostly written in cuneiform on clay tablets), a picture of that world, and its collapse, can be constructed.  Using forensic techniques, archaeologists can tell when cities were destroyed, and often gain insight into whether the destruction was from a natural disaster like an earthquake, or from war.

The letters provide some of the most interesting pieces of information, such as the cache found at Amarna.  Often these were dispatches between kings about alliances, negotiations, and other state matters.  They were sometimes written in contemporary languages like Egyptian, but often in Akkadian, a language from an earlier empire that was to the period as Latin was to the middle ages.  Much of what we know about the politics of the times comes from these letters.

That being said, our information is limited.  The exact reason for the Bronze Age collapse remains a mystery.  For decades, the blame has fallen on the Sea Peoples, a confederation of invaders who attacked the various kingdoms, and are mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions.  But continued investigation is starting to show that the Sea Peoples were more of a symptom than a cause.

A number of things appear to have happened before the Sea Peoples attacked.  There were repeated earthquakes throughout the region in what is referred to as an earthquake storm.  For us today, an earthquake can be terrifying, but for most of us it is only a physical event.  For the ancients, each quake was probably seen as punishment from the gods.  We can only imagine what effect decades of repeated earthquakes might have had on people’s psychology and outlook at the time, on their confidence in the existing social orders.

Alongside the earthquakes are references in some of the letters of famine and requests for grain shipments.  Climate change, leading to generations of droughts, might also have been a hugely destabilizing influence.  Indeed, many historians and archaeologists theorize that such climate change might have been at the root of the decline of these civilizations.

These events lead to a decline in international trade, resulting in economic stagnation.  This would have had a powerfully negative effect on centers of trade like the city of Ugarit, the archaeological source of many letters from the period.

But Cline in his book, points out that these factors had all happened individually in other periods without necessarily leading to a collapse.  Instead, Cline argues that it was the “perfect storm” of all of these factors that led to the collapse.  Perhaps it started with the drought, was intensified by the earthquakes, and the depredations of the Sea Peoples were the final straw that pushed many of the kingdoms over the brink.

Exactly who the Sea Peoples were is another mystery, although there appear to be good reasons to think they came from a variety of areas in the eastern Mediterranean, and were in fact, just as much victims of the drought and earthquakes as the kingdoms they attacked.  They may have been opportunistic raiders, or desperate but militaristic refugees.

The Philistines mentioned in the Bible are thought to have been one group of these Sea Peoples, probably originating from Crete.  And there are indications that the Philistines may have been settled in Canaan by the Egyptians after the Egyptians had defeated them, which almost sounds like a resolution for refugees rather than a defeated enemy.

There are two purported events that are hard to ignore when discussing this period: the Trojan War and the Exodus.  Cline addresses them in his book, although of course both subjects have extensively been covered elsewhere.

For a long time, historians thought that the city of Troy was mythical, until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its ruins in the late 19th century.  In turns out that Troy was part of the Assuwa league, an alliance of cities in western Turkey, who, aside from eventually giving their name to the continent of Asia, was a group of cities in periodic rebellion against the Hittite Empire.  Warfare was likely an ongoing reality.

In addition, it appears that Troy was attacked by the Sea Peoples, some of which might well have been Mycenaeans from Greece.  The fact that Mycenae was apparently also under attack during this period would seem to make this less likely, but it’s always possible that Mycenae was under attack because of the opportunity opened up by so many of the Mycenaeans being in Turkey.

So the possibility exists that the Trojan War was actually based on real events.  Of course, after centuries of evolving oral traditions before the composition of the Iliad and similar works, it’s impossible to know how closely the classical stories are to those historical events.

While there is some evidence for something like the Trojan War, the archaeological evidence for the Exodus is pretty much nonexistent.  The earliest archaeological evidence for Israel is its mention on the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, dated to 1208 BC.  Israel is mentioned as a people in Canaan who had been defeated by Egypt.  If the Exodus happened, it would need to have been before this, before the collapse began.  But there is no archaeological evidence of a large population wandering in any of the relevant desserts at the relevant times.

There is also the issue that the Canaanite city states at the time were vassals of Egypt and had been for centuries.  It’s unlikely that a large population of escaped Egyptian slaves would have gone back into Egyptian controlled territory, or been permitted to conquer Canaan, at least before Egypt’s decline.  Indeed, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, in his book, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘, argued that the Israelites arose from within Canaanite populations, with their population later growing from refugees from the collapsing city states.

Of course, it’s still possible that an Exodus of some type could have happened, but it would likely have been a much smaller scale event than what is described in the Bible, and most of the Israelites would likely not have been descended from this small group.  Or the Exodus story may actually be a distorted memory of the conflict, referenced on the Merneptah Stele, that early Israelites had with Egypt when it had a presence in Canaan.  The withdrawal of Egypt during the collapse might have been seen as the result of divine intervention, evolving into the story we know today.

The Bronze Age collapse set the stage for the development of many key civilizations.  From the remnants of the Mycenaean collapse, after a dark age of several centuries, classical Greek civilization arose, with all the influence its culture would have throughout the world.  Israel arose after the collapse of the Canaanite city states, eventually producing a religion that would affect most of the world’s current population.  Some of the Canaanite cities that did survive would eventually evolve into Phoenicia, which would go on to spread its alphabet writing system throughout the ancient world and found Carthage, a major rival to Rome in its early centuries.

How different the current world would be today if the Bronze Age collapse had not happened is impossible to say, except to note that it definitely would be different.  Like the later fall of the Roman Empire, it had a profound effect on history.  And like all collapses, it pays to study it.  Was the Bronze Age collapse anything that could have been avoided by the societies at that time?  Probably not, particularly if the root causes were climate change and earthquakes.  Still, understanding what happened might give us crucial insights into the health of our own civilization.