Monday, 7 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part II

Hittite Deities
“They spent their time going about the land, fighting, to fill their bodies daily. They came to the land of Egypt, to seek the necessities of their mouths.” Inscription by the Pharaoh Merneptah on the Libyan invasion, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

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

Firstly, I believe that there around 1200BC there was a major food shortage in what is now Greece and Turkey. This was not unprecedented and the empires (the Mycenaeans and Hittites) responded as they always did, by coercing the peripheral states to send food to the impoverished heartlands. The food shortage may or may not have been accompanied by a plague of some type. The evidence for plague is almost non-existent, however, famine and plague have often been closely associated in other historical periods. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride close together. The central states were weakened but not fatally so by any means. There appears to have been a food shortage in Libya at the time as well so it is unclear whether or not the famine stretched across the Middle East.

Later Greek vase with a scene of the Trojan War
“He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrows in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.” Iliad I.7, describing Apollo in his role of god of plague attacking the Greek army at Troy.

Faced with these demands and having endured years of meddling in their affairs by the two empires, the peoples of the western seacoast of Turkey began to forsake their towns and take to the sea as pirates. History knows these pirates as the Sea Peoples (mainly because this is what the Egyptians called them). The Mycenaeans and Hittites had fleets but the west coast of Turkey was at the edge of their striking range and they struggled to contain the rebellion. The rebellion meant that no food was sent to Hattusa from the west, further weakening the Hittites and the pirates began to seize food shipments for Hattusa en route from Syria and Egypt.

Hittite Relief
An Assyrian army had defeated the Hittites earlier and the Hittite king had proved unable to respond. The Hittites had had a civil war several generations previously and, with the signs of weakness in the royal house, this conflict appears to have flared up again. To make matters worse, some of the raiders joined forces with the Libyans against the Pharaoh Merneptah, who fought off the invasion but then seemed to blame the Hittites for allowing their subjects to attack Egypt, subsequently cutting off grain shipments. The northern tribes of Kaska appear to have attacked as well, doubtless feeling the strain of the famine and hoping to raid Hittite food supplies. A new king took the name of Suppiluliuma II (the previous king of that name had saved the Hittites at a time of crisis) and attempted to fend off the attacks.

Mycenaean Dagger
The Mycenaeans, who were probably never a unified people except in war, (the number of fortified citadels suggest a highly independent nobility at the very least) struggled to contain the threat. In times of crisis neighbours often attack each other and only a common enemy can force people to work together. The Mycenaean leaders may have attempted to solve their problems by going to war against a far off foe. Around this time Troy, on the north western coast of Turkey, was burnt to the ground. It is unknown if this was done by the Greeks, the Sea Peoples or others but the strength of the legend of the Trojan War suggests that the Mycenaeans attacked the western coast of Turkey around that date. If this was intended to stave off the crisis, it failed. Greek legend speaks of the absolute chaos that ensued after returning from the war. The legends of Aegisthus and Orestes may recall power struggles and civil wars at that time. The countryside was rapidly depopulating and without the food provided by these farmers, the nobility probably turned on each other.

A fragment from the citadel of Pylos speaks of posting guards to warn of sea raiders from the south (from a direction that speaks of attackers from Crete or other Greek islands) and the citadel is burned shortly afterwards. The palaces show signs of a faltering recovery but are subsequently abandoned for a final time. Legends speak of a Greek speaking barbarian tribe from the north (the Dorians) that subsequently inhabited the Mycenaean heartlands. These new immigrants were unfamiliar with the Bronze Age order of things and the remains of citadels such as the ones at Tiryns were left alone and believed to be the work of Cyclops and giants. Settlement evidence indicates major abandonment of settlements and it is possible that many Mycenaeans left Greece for more distant shores.

“Thus the watchers are guarding the coasts : command of Maleus at Owitono... 50 men of Owitono to go to Oikhalia, command of Nedwatas.... 20 men of Kyparssia at Aruwote, 10 Kyparissia men at Aithalewes...” Tablet from Pylos describing guards on the southern coast, the translation is taken from here.

It should also be noted that some of the cities destroyed at this time show signs of earthquake damage. The eastern Mediterranean is a seismically active area and a major series of earthquakes could damage city walls enough to allow small groups of raiders (or pirates) to sack cities that were caught unprepared. The activities of the empires probably helped in this, as the empires would concentrate their forces at a single point, allowing small groups of raiders to strike undefended peripheral cities with impunity.

Ruins of the city of Ugarit in Syria
“The city and the king (of Ugarit) have been annihilated by fire, half of it has been burned, and the other half is no longer there.” Abi-Milku of Tyre describing an earlier earthquake in Ugarit, , translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

Egypt and Mesopotamia, with their high population densities and irrigation networks were probably less affected by food shortages and less susceptible to earthquakes but the chaos in the Mediterranean would have affected their trade networks. The effects of this would only be felt gradually but it would have eventually affected their economies. To remedy their deficits they, like the Hittites and Mycenaeans, would have attempted to go to war. Numerous wars between the Assyrians and Kassites occurred and Assyria might well have capitalised on the situation, were it not for the assassination of their king. As it was however, the assassination forced Assyria into civil war and the armies of Babylon, previously defeated by the Assyrians, were no match for the invading Elamites. As the empires each came under threat (each in their own way) they would have ceased correspondence with each other and the intricate diplomacy of the Bronze Age disappeared. An empire under attack could only send the most minimal aid to its allies and each empire faced their threats on their own.

Suppiluliuma II
“I mobilised and I Suppiluliuma, the Great King, immediately crossed the sea. The ships of Alashia (Cyprus) met me in the sea three times for battle, and I smote them; and I seized the ships and set fire to them in the sea. But when I arrived on dry land, the enemy from Alashia came in multitude against me for battles…” Last known inscription by Suppiluliuma II of the Hittites, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

As the central empires weakened, the previously weak sea raiders became comparatively stronger. Their acts of piracy had temporarily saved them from starvation and the earthquakes would only have aided their attacks. They appear to have switched from simple raiding and attempted to migrate en masse to new lands. But now they faced a backlash. The last known inscription of the last Hittite king speaks of a great sea victory near Cyprus and Suppiluliuma II may have attempted to capitalise on the victory (if it happened) by attacking the bases of the pirates on the south-western coasts.

“… My cities were burned and evil things were done in my country. Does my father (respectful title for a king) know that my troops are stationed in Hittite land and my ships in Lukka (western coast of Turkey) country? Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know this. Seven ships of the enemy have come here and did us much damage. Be on the lookout for other enemy ships and send me warning.” Message from Ugarit to a king in Cyprus, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

If this is what happened, the venture failed. Around the year 1192BC the armies and navies of Hittite allies are sent westwards and do not return. Possibly there was a great battle that destroyed the Hittite force or, more likely, the raiders had already abandoned their bases and slipped past the Hittite fleets but the result of the expedition was that the coastal cities of Cyprus and Syria were attacked and burned. The final messages found in the ruins of Ugarit reveal the danger that the cities had been left in and one extraordinary message has a neighbouring king pleading for Ugarit to launch one hundred and fifty ships against the threat (bear in mind that the grain ships of Ugarit appear to have been able to transport 250 tons of grain so presumably their warships were of a reasonable size). But there were no ships.

Twenty enemy ships slipped away into the mountain region and we don’t know where they have gone…” Message from king of Ugarit to ally in Cyprus, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

Gates of Hattusa, the Hittite Capital
The loss of the west and the famine in the north meant that the Hittites had abandoned their ancient capital Hattusa and the formidable walls were undefended. The Kaska tribes probably swept south to attack their ancestral foes and the empty cities were totally destroyed but it is clear that the invaders simply torched the city and made no attempt to settle. The famine stricken land of the Hittites, with their farms abandoned and granaries emptied, was now a death trap.

“Since there is famine in your house we will starve to death… The living soul of your country is no more...” Letter from a diplomat of Ugarit to a Hittite diplomat, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

The fate of the last king of the Hittites, Suppiluliama II, is unknown but with the capital burned, the people starving and the empire lost, it is doubtful that the remaining subjects, who looked to the king to placate the gods, treated him kindly. Small Hittite kingdoms in Tarhuntassa and Carchemish (tributary states to the south that were formerly subordinate to the Great King in Hattusa) survived but the empire never revived.

Hittite Chariots
The Mycenaeans appear to have weathered the initial destruction, as some of their citadels show signs of rebuilding, but the population that had supported the old order was no longer there and the citadels were abandoned. The skilled craftsmen fled to islands less affected by the wars. The nobility now faced a new threat, a flaw in their system of ruling that the changing times had exposed.

The Bronze Age empires had all depended on chariot elites to form the core of their armies. These armies were equipped with bronze weapons and depended on the trade routes to give them copper from Cyprus and tin from the west to form the alloy. The collapse of the trade routes (and the sudden exodus of skilled Hittite craftsmen from Anatolia) allowed iron-working to begin across the Near East, lessening the dependence on central organisation for weapons manufacturing.

More significantly, the desperation of peripheral peoples allowed them to fight back against the major armies of the day. Bronze Age warfare had seen swift chariot battles on the plains followed by long sieges of fortresses or mountain strongholds that resisted. The major armies would still have been able to win chariot battles but the weakened empires could no longer afford to allow their armies to waste years besieging fortresses. In other words, at a time of crisis, if a barbarian tribe could hold mountainous ground it could be difficult to defeat them without losing other areas of the empire for years and the subject kings would have been unwilling to allow their troops to be away for so long. For embattled empires like the Hittites or Mycenaeans (whose terrains were littered with mountain ranges) the weakness of over-reliance on chariots would have been fatal.

“A camp was set up in one place in Amurru (southern Syria). They (the Sea Peoples) desolated its peoples and its land was like that which had never come into being.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

“As for the countries who came from the land in isles in the midst of the sea, as they were coming forward toward Egypt, their hearts relying on their hands, a net was prepared for them.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

Drawing of the relief showing Battle of the Delta
After the fall of Ugarit and the collapse of the Hittites the Sea Peoples moved down the coast of Syria. The cities of Tyre and Sidon were spared assault and may in fact have joined forces with the invaders. Around 1178BC the Pharaoh Ramesses III faced a Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt itself. There had previously been a battle somewhere in Syria and the Egyptians depict loaded carts with women and children, suggesting that the invaders were searching for new lands. Ramesses claimed the battle in Syria as a victory but if so it was a hollow one as the enemy was now at the mouth of the Nile, threatening Egypt itself. The Sea Peoples were using new weapons, a long slashing sword based on a design from the Balkans, that had a longer reach that the Egyptian scimitar. Ramesses’ generals cunningly surprised the invaders in the marshes of the Nile Delta and used the firepower of their archers to destroy the invading armies in what is known as the Battle of the Delta. The invasion of Egypt had been halted but the Egyptian empire in Syria was no more and a group of Sea Peoples were to settle permanently along the coast in southern Syria. The name of one of their tribes, the Philistines, is the origin of our word Palestine.

Sea Peoples depicted as prisoners
“I caused the Nile mouth to be prepared like a strong wall with warships, galleys and coasters equipped, for they were manned completely from bow to stern with valiant warriors with their weapons.” Inscription of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

Ramesses III had saved Egypt but it was a hollow victory. The loss of its empire and its isolation from other empires led Egypt to a decline. A further eight pharaohs were to claim the name Ramesses in an attempt to rekindle the glories of their predecessors but when Ramesses XI died Egypt split into two kingdoms before being temporarily taken over by Libyans.

This is the second post in this series. Please click here for the third post about the collapse of the Bronze Age.


  1. Uhm, your picture of "Ramesses II" is actually the god Amun. The non-human skin color might have been a tip, even if you cannot read the Egyptian right above his shoulder.

  2. Thanks for the heads up! Offending text removed. The skin colour is an interesting one however, as I have read that a variety of skin tones were used in Egyptian artwork (for the record, I'm colour-blind so find it difficult to see many of them). Thanks again for the heads up on that.