More than 3,200 years ago, the Mediterranean and the Near East were home to a thriving and interconnected Bronze Age civilization, fueled by the lucrative trade in precious metals and finished products. The great kingdoms and empires of the time, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites and more, possessed the technological know-how to build monumental palaces and employed scribes to keep records of their finances and their military exploits.
Within decades, however, this thriving culture suffered a rapid and near total collapse. After 1177 BC, the survivors of this Bronze Age collapse were plunged into a centuries-old “dark age” that saw the disappearance of some written languages and brought to their knees once powerful kingdoms.
But what kind of catastrophic event could have triggered such a sudden and drastic fall?
It is likely that the simultaneous demise of so many ancient civilizations was not caused by a single event or disaster, but by a “perfect storm” of multiple stressors – an epic drought, desperate famine, wandering marauders. , and more – who toppled these interdependents. kingdoms like dominoes, according to Eric Cline, author of 1177 BC AD: the year of the collapse of civilization.
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An ancient “globalized” world
Much like today, a truly “globalized” economy once existed in the Late Bronze Age, in which several ancient civilizations depended on each other for raw materials, especially copper and tin to produce bronze. , as well as for the trade in ceramic, ivory and gold goods.
“We are talking about a region that today would stretch from Italy in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from Turkey in the north to Egypt in the south. This whole region was completely interconnected, ”explains Cline, a classical music teacher. and Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University.
One way to grasp the extent of this interconnection is through archaeological finds like the shipwreck of Uluburun off the coast of today’s Turkey. The wreck dates from the Late Bronze Age (around 1320 BC and from the shells of ostrich eggs.
Also on board were bulk shipments of copper and tin ingots in the typical 10 to 1 ratio, the recipe for making bronze, the strongest and brightest metal of its day. Cline says copper was mined in Cyprus, tin in Afghanistan, while precious metals like silver and gold came from Greece and Egypt. Even the wood used to build the hull of the ship was cedar imported from Lebanon.
“This ship is a microcosm of the international trade taking place at the end of the Bronze Age, both in raw materials and finished products,” says Cline.
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Invasion of the “peoples of the sea”
The traditional explanation for the sudden collapse of these powerful and interdependent civilizations was the arrival at the turn of the 12th century BC. Red.
In Ugarit, a large port city of Canaan, the king spoke of unknown enemies who burned down his cities and “did evil in my land.” In Egypt, Pharaoh’s armies repelled two separate attacks from these mysterious strangers, once in 1207 BC and again in 1177 BC A stunning relief on the walls of the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu represents the second massive naval battle , in which Egypt was ultimately victorious against the swarm of the Peoples of the Sea.
While the Egyptians were able to fight the peoples of the sea, other civilizations were not so fortunate. The whole of the Mediterranean and the Near East is littered with archaeological remains of towns burned down during this period, such as Hattusa, the former capital of the Hittite Empire, and Meggido in Canaan. Some believe that the mythical destruction of Troy may have originated from the invasion of the peoples of the sea.
One of the great unsolved mysteries in history is the true origins of the peoples of the sea. One dominant theory is that they emerged from the western Mediterranean – the Aegean Sea or down to modern Spain’s Iberian Peninsula – and were pushed east by drought and other climatic disasters. Their ships invaded Mediterranean fortresses with women and children in tow, proof that the peoples of the sea were both looters and refugees.
“The people of the sea are the big buggers of the Bronze Age collapse,” says Cline. “I think they’re part of it, but not the only reason. I believe they are as much a symptom of the collapse as they were a cause of it.
“Mega drought” and “seismic storms”
In 2014, Israeli and German researchers analyzed core samples taken from the Sea of Galilee and determined, using radiocarbon dating, that the period from 1250 to 1100 BC.
“It was a huge drought,” says Cline. “Looks like it lasted at least 150 years and up to 300 years in some places.”
The Egyptians and Babylonians were spared the worst of the drought due to their proximity to mighty rivers like the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. But other civilizations have not been so lucky. Where there is drought, there is famine. And Cline doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the worst years of famine matched the invasion of the peoples of the sea, when desperate climate refugees were said to be in search of resources.
The mega-drought was not the only natural disaster that destabilized the civilizations of the Late Bronze Age. Cline conducted research with geophysicist Amos Nur which revealed that over the 50-year period from 1225 BC to 1175 BC.
“If you look at all of these events individually: drought, famine, invaders, earthquakes, maybe disease, probably none of them is enough to bring down an entire civilization, let alone eight or more civilizations,” explains Cline. “But if you get three or four of these disasters going on quickly, that’s when you have a ‘perfect storm’ and there’s no time to recover.”
After the collapse: knowledge lost
Ironically, the interdependence that strengthened these Bronze Age kingdoms may have hastened their downfall. Once the trade routes for tin and copper were disrupted and cities began to fall, Cline says it had a domino effect that resulted in a widespread “system collapse.”
Among the victims of the late Bronze Age collapse were the construction of large-scale monuments and a whole writing system called Linear B, an archaic form of Greek used by Mycenaean scribes to record economic transactions. .
“Because only the top 1% could read or write, they lost that ability after the collapse,” says Cline. “It took centuries for writing to return to Greece, only after the Phoenicians brought their alphabet.”
Not all civilizations have been affected in the same way. Some, like the Mycenaeans and Minoans, suffered complete collapse. Same thing with the Hittites, who simply ceased to exist as a civilization. The Assyrians and Egyptians were largely unaffected, while others showed resilience and transformed or redefined themselves.
One example is the rise of iron as the new metal of choice. Once copper and tin were scarce and the demand for bronze plummeted in Greece, there was an opportunity for something to take its place.
“The Cypriots went from being masters of copper to suddenly masters of this new iron technology,” says Cline. “In the end, iron was a much better cutting edge for plows, and it made much better swords at killing your enemies.”