Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Early Iron Age and the Death of Kings: Part I


This blog post is about the aftermath of the Bronze Age Collapse. I have written fairly extensively about the Late Bronze Age in the Middle East, with articles on the period as a whole, on the Mitanni and the Pharaoh Akhenaten in particular. At some point I may write some dedicated articles on Hittite history, the Kassites, the Battle of Kadesh and other interesting topics, as there is a wealth of material on this period. But in case the reader is tired of hearing of the Late Bronze Age I’m going to try to advance the narrative in the meantime and move on to the early Iron Age, in my very slow, very haphazard, piecemeal history of the world. I will not give absolute dates, as dating in this era is not entirely agreed upon and many of the kings mentioned have multiple names. I will use the most common English names for the kings and/or call out where my usage differs.

Many of the quotations given here are taken from the very interesting reshafim.org site which can be found here. A lot of enjoyable reads have been posted on this site.

In the Bronze Age Collapse, the civilisations collapsed at a different rate and to a different extent. The collapse was the worst in the west, with Mycenaean Greece falling utterly. Its settlements were abandoned and its writing system forgotten. The Hittites were destroyed but a small remnant survived in Syria. Egypt, Assyria and Babylon survived but were weakened. Elam appears to have actually grown stronger. I will try to give the history of roughly 1200-1000BC, moving from west to east (in a geographically confused fashion).

A later Greek depiction of Heracles
Around 1200BC the Mycenaean cities and palaces were burned. Some time may have elapsed between the burnings but textual evidence is non-existent and carbon dating is unable to provide great precision. Eventually some of the citadels were reoccupied and may have even flourished briefly before the final abandonment. The relatively unimportant citadel of Athens appears to not have been destroyed. Possibly it was overlooked but it is more likely that they collaborated in the destruction. There is a legend that the sons of Heracles (Hercules) were expelled from the Peloponnese (where Mycenaean power was strongest) and stayed at Athens before returning generations later to attack the king of Mycenae.

If there is any truth to this legend it would suggest that the invaders may have been part of a civil war and that the inhabitants of Attica were on good terms with the invaders. However, this is to read a great deal into myth. Myth is fascinating but we do have to be cautious. There are so many (quite wonderful) Greek myths, that it is possible to make all sorts of theories and selectively use myth to create elaborate justifications for them.

Building from the Iron Age in Lefkandi
For whatever reason, Attica was spared the general destruction, as were the islands. There was a migration from the Peloponnese to the islands of Euboea and elsewhere in the Aegean. Greek speakers began to colonise the western coast of Asia Minor over the next few hundred years, ringing the Aegean with Greek speaking settlements. Many of these settlements spoke an Ionic dialect, which they shared with Attica but few places on the mainland. The Peloponnese spoke a Doric dialect of Greek with the notable exception of the highlands of Arcadia to the north. Again, people have made a great deal of this, treating the Ionic speakers as fugitives from the old Mycenaean kingdom and the Doric speakers as the descendants of the invaders but the situation is almost certainly more complicated. In history, things are always complicated.

Almost nothing of note would be created in Greece for the two hundred years under discussion. However, pottery styles changed from the Mycenaean styles to a variety of localised styles and iron weapons became widespread throughout the region. On the island of Euboea, a town now known as Lefkandi has some buildings dating from slightly after this period, with the main structure of the small settlement being a large ritual building with a major burial there. There were later burials in the vicinity and it is speculated that this was a “heroon”, meaning the tomb of a hero. Perhaps this was a community’s way of commemorating a great warrior leader who was reverenced by his community after his passing and whose remains were the focus of his community. The size of the structure compared to the settlement suggests that the towns of this time were quite isolated and were controlled by single rulers. Apart from this, there is not much that can really be said for Greece at this period. The fall had been total but the subsequent rise in centuries to come was to be dazzling.

And all of the cities of the land of Carchemish, Murmurik, Shipri, Mazuwati and Ĺ urun – these fortified cities– I gave to my son (Piyassili).
Detail from the Suppililiuma-Shattiwazza treaty telling of the creation of the Hittite viceroy in Carchemish

Hittite relief from Carchemish
The Hittite collapse was vicious also but not quite as complete as in Mycenae. After Suppiluliuma I had captured Carchemish (a major city on the Euphrates in Syria) from the Mitanni, there had been a powerful viceroy set up in the city to rule as a deputy and representative of the royal house. The deputy was Piyassili, a son of the king Suppiluliuma and he was treated as a de facto minor king in his own right, with his descendants succeeding to his throne. When the last king of the Hittites (Suppiluliuma II) disappears from history, Talmi-Teshub was ruling in Carchemish. His son, Kuzi-Teshub, proclaimed himself as a Great King upon his succession. The main Hittite Empire was no more but many refugees must have fled to the southern cities and for a time the empire survived in a truncated form in Carchemish. Another important state, Milid, survived. Initially it was dependent on Carchemish but soon it, like other cities, became independent and became a flourishing centre in its own right. The site is known today as Arslantepe.

Hittite reliefs from Carchemish
How Hittite these kingdoms really were is subject to interpretation. The main Hittite dialect was almost extinct and nearly all the inscriptions are in Luwian, a related Indo-European language. The native inhabitants of the region spoke Semitic tongues, particularly Aramaic; the language of the new tribesmen that had moved into the region. Carchemish had no ability to hold an empire together so a group of states that are referred to as Neo-Hittite formed a loose confederation in the north of Syria. These survived and kept the Hittite legacy alive until they were crushed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Ramesses III had stemmed the worst of the assault on Egypt. The Sea Peoples had been defeated in the Battle of the Delta and even though Egyptian influence was now minimal in its old Syro-Palestinian empire, the Egyptians still controlled Sinai. However, despite Ramesses III’s claims to have saved Egypt and his magnificent temple building, unrest seems to have grown in the later years of his reign. There are records of food shortages, workers strikes and increases in the price of bread.

The stresses of this turbulent period may have fostered dissent. Possibly the dissent had nothing to do with external pressures and was simply the result of palace intrigue but for whatever reason, a conspiracy against the Pharaoh was hatched. Tiye, a wife of the Pharaoh, appears to have wanted her son Pentawer to inherit the throne. A host of accomplices who used black magic to subvert the guards’ defences attacked the king at night while he was in Thebes in Upper Egypt to celebrate the Heb Sed ritual. According to some documents the Pharaoh may have initially survived an attack by poison before expiring later. Modern analysis of the embalmed body of the Pharaoh tells a different story. Hidden under thick bandages, analysis showed that a deep cut had been made to the throat of the king; a cut that could not have been survived for more than minutes. Perhaps it was a mercy killing, perhaps a second conspiracy or perhaps our readings of the documents were simply wrong.

He arrived at the side of the harem, this other large, deep place. He began to make people of wax, inscribed, in order that they might be taken in by the inspector, Errem, [hindering] one troop and bewitching the others, that a few words might be taken in, and others brought out. Now, when he was examined concerning them, truth was found in every crime and in every evil (deed), which his heart had devised to do. There was truth therein, he had done them all, together with the other great criminals, the abomination of every god and every goddess all together. The great punishments of death were executed upon him, of which the gods have said: "Execute them upon him.
Lee Papyrus, describing the magic rituals used by the conspirators to assist in their assassination attempt

The mummy of Ramesses III
with heavy bandaging on the neck
 The conspirators were caught by the favoured heir, Ramesses IV, who allowed judges to examine and pass judgement upon the conspirators. The high ranked Prince Pentawer, who was to have become Pharaoh, was allowed to kill himself, allowing him to enter the afterlife in disgrace. The lower ranked conspirators were probably burned alive, thus denying them entry to the afterlife in any form; a terrible punishment designed to destroy in both this life and the next. The fate of Queen Tiye, the instigator of the conspiracy, is unknown.

Ramesses IV succeeded to the throne in 1155 and reigned over a diminishing kingdom. Ramesses IV was perhaps the last Pharaoh of this dynasty to have led expeditions into the Sinai Desert (Ramesses VI may have been to Megiddo but the evidence is unclear). Beyond the Sinai Egyptian power was minimal. Monuments were built on an epic scale but the priesthood of Amun (the god of Thebes who was given prominence during the New Kingdom, when many of the dynasties were based in Thebes) was becoming a force that would rival the monarchy. The priesthood controlled large tracts of land and had considerable incomes. When the monarchy was focused on the north, on Lower Egypt, then the priesthood could act autonomously in the south. During the reign of Ramesses V there were attacks by Libyan raiders and increasing fortifications were made for the temples of Thebes, showing that the state was becoming increasingly unstable. Ramesses V may have been overthrown by his brother, who reigned as Ramesses VI. Ramesses VII and Ramesses VIII are not well known but grain prices increased during their reigns.

Ramesses IV

These are the tombs and sepulchres in which the nobles, the […], the Theban women, and the people of the land rest, on the west of the city; it was found that the thieves had broken into them all, that they had pulled out their occupants from their coverings and coffins, they (the occupants) being thrown upon the ground; and that they had stolen their articles of house-furniture, which had been given them, together with the gold, the silver, and the ornaments which were in their coverings.
The Abbot Papyrus giving an investigation into the tomb robberies in the time of Ramesses IX

During the reign of Ramesses IX it was found that there had been a spate of tomb robberies in the Valley of the Kings, with many of even the royal tombs opened and plundered. The mayor of Thebes was implicated but not convicted. It was a sign that royal authority and the rule of law itself was becoming weak. The graves were supposedly protected by curses and spells and the desperation that would lead the thieves to risk disturbing the royal dead cannot have augured well for the dynasty.

Then the High Priest of Amun, Menkheperre, triumphant, went to the great god, saying: "As for any person, of whom they shall report before thee, saying, `A slayer of living people … (is he); thou shalt destroy him, thou shalt slay him." Then the great god nodded exceedingly, exceedingly.
The Banishment Stele, telling of the High Priest of Thebes punishing rebels who had attacked the temple. In ancient Egypt statues were sometimes moved by priests to show the god assenting to the verdict.

The threat of Libyan raiders was still present during the reign of Ramesses X, with workers on the royal tombs neglecting their work for fear of attack. During the reign of Ramesses XI, the last king of the Twentieth Dynasty, the effective power seems to have been in the hands of Piankh, the High Priest of Amun. The Pharaoh died leaving no successor and was buried by Smendes, who claimed the title of Pharaoh. Smendes only really ruled Lower Egypt, with his capital being based at Tanis. However, the Pharaoh made no attempt to try and wrest back control of Upper Egypt from the priests, probably recognising that his own power base was weak.

Magnificent death mask of Psusennes I
Smendes was succeeded by Amenenmisu, who is almost invisible to history before being succeeded by Psusennes I. Psusennes reigned for over thirty years and married the daughter of the High Priest of Thebes, uniting the two ruling families of Egypt. His burial goods have been discovered and are truly spectacular despite the weak state of Egypt at the time. It has been discovered how the Pharaohs of the Twenty-First Dynasty were able to bury themselves in such splendour. Previously the robbery of tombs had been done by corrupt officials and desperate guards and workmen; now it was being carried out by kings; papering over the poverty of their state by stealing from those who had reigned before them.

This blog post is rather long so I will split the narrative here and speak of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Elamite civilisations in a following post.