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|
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.
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|
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.
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|
“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.
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.
“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|
|Sea Peoples depicted as prisoners|
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.