Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part I

Lion Gate of Mycenae
“…You say that you have seen the boats of the enemy at sea…. Be strong! Move your chariots and troops within the walls of the city…. The enemy is very strong. ….”
Fragments from a response to a plea for help from the king of Ugarit from around the year 1190BC, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

This is the first post of a series about the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Click here for the links to the second and third posts.

I previously spoke of the complexity of the late Bronze Age, of the palaces and cities, art and literature, warfare and diplomacy that comprise our knowledge of this civilised period. In this post I will speak of how it came to an end. Around the year 1200BC many cities of the Bronze Age are burned, empires fall and entire swathes of land are abandoned for hundreds of years. Some of the more stable civilisations survive but in a reduced form, cowering behind city walls; others disappear forever. Sources for the period are very poor and civilisation declined to the point that some states lost the ability to write their own languages while in other areas place names are forgotten suggesting long term abandonment. But these tumultuous events seem to have left behind echoes and some believe that works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey might be distant recollections of these chaotic times.

A much later statue of Homer
Around the year 1208 BC Egypt was attacked by a hitherto unknown coalition that the Egyptians called the “Sea Peoples”, in alliance with Egypt’s ancient tribal foes from Libya. A simultaneous revolt of the southern region of Nubia placed Egypt under strain and the Pharaoh Merneptah (son of the builder Ramesses II) was only barely able to contain the attack. In later years a much more concerted series of attacks by the Sea Peoples were repulsed by Ramesses III but Egypt’s empire in Syria was lost and never properly recovered and one group of Sea Peoples, the Philistines settled along the coast of what were previously Egyptian possessions.

Merneptah blamed the Hittites for allowing the attack suggesting that the Sea Peoples may have been from Anatolia and from the area supposedly controlled by the Hittites. But the Hittite Empire was in serious trouble as well. A civil war had divided loyalties in the population and elites and their northern capital was abandoned for a safer location further south. Texts seem to signify a great famine in the land as well. The weakened empire lost control of western Anatolia and the northern city of Wilusha (probably the city now referred to as Troy) was burnt. Around 1190 BC the old capital of Hattusa suffered a complete destruction. In Mycenaean Greece the great palaces in Mycenae and Tiryns suffer heavy damage and burning. Surviving Linear B fragments from the palace of Pylos point to invaders from the sea, although there may have been land invaders as well. The opulent trading city of Ugarit, in modern day Syria, was burned to the ground around a similar date, while their trading partners in Cyprus see their cities burned. While the Cypriot cities are quickly reoccupied, the destruction in Ugarit was so intense that the fires turned limestone building blocks to lime and the city was never rebuilt.

Assyrian Stele
The inland empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Elam are less affected. Assyria, under the strong leadership of Tukulti-Ninurta I, was expanding at Babylon’s expense around 1200BC before his assassination. After the assassination of Tukulti-Ninurta Assyria went into rapid decline, having kings with short and uncertain reigns and inconclusive wars with Babylon. These wars weakened Babylon to the point where a strong Elamite king was able to raid the city and end the Kassite Dynasty. When Assyria recovered from the dynastic strife it was forced to fight a nearly continuous series of wars against new tribes that had occupied the neighbouring territories.

By around 1150BC the Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian empires had been seriously weakened while the Hittite and Mycenaean civilisations had fallen entirely, never to rise again. The population dropped across the Near East and when records become plentiful hundreds of years later, there are new states, peoples, cities and gods. What event or series of events was able to trigger this catastrophic change?

Relief of Hittite Chariots
Firstly I should attempt to exonerate some of the usual suspects. While contemporary sources and later myths suggest mass barbarian invasions, I doubt that barbarian invaders alone could topple the advanced Bronze Age empires. The sheer organisation of these empires meant that they could field large armies and they had fended off external attacks before. Secondly, climate change is unlikely, in and of itself, to have caused the catastrophe. The world population was quite low, arguing against large scale anthropogenic climate change. Also, the civilisations were all affected differently suggesting more local factors were at work. There is no agreement on the order of many of the events described here and even less consensus on causal factors but I shall tell the story as I understand it, giving primary quotations to back up my arguments where possible. The reader should be aware that very different interpretations are possible.

Fresco of Mycenaean Woman
I have used the book, the Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins quite extensively, and while, not all of the ideas stated here are drawn upon his research, it was the single most valuable secondary source used in researching this piece. I would quite recommend the book.

 This is the first post in the series. Click here for the link to the second post on the collapse of the Bronze Age.

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