Ancient History & Civilisation

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Frontispiece. Map of the Late Bronze Age civilizations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

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The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. AD 2013? Yes. But it was also the situation in 1177 BC, more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world. It was a pivotal moment in history—a turning point for the ancient world.

The Bronze Age in the Aegean, Egypt, and the Near East lasted nearly two thousand years, from approximately 3000 BC to just after 1200 BC. When the end came, as it did after centuries of cultural and technological evolution, most of the civilized and international world of the Mediterranean regions came to a dramatic halt in a vast area stretching from Greece and Italy in the west to Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia in the east. Large empires and small kingdoms, which had taken centuries to evolve, collapsed rapidly. With their end came a period of transition, once regarded by scholars as the world’s first Dark Age. It was not until centuries later that a new cultural renaissance emerged in Greece and the other affected areas, setting the stage for the evolution of Western society as we know it today.

Although this book is primarily concerned with the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations and the factors that led to that collapse more than three millennia ago, it may contain lessons relevant to our globalized and transnationalized societies today. Some might assume that there is no valid comparison to be made between the world of the Late Bronze Age and our current technology-driven culture. However, there are enough similarities between the two—including diplomatic embassies and economic trade embargoes; kidnappings and ransoms; murders and royal assassinations; magnificent marriages and unpleasant divorces; international intrigues and deliberate military disinformation; climate change and drought; and even a shipwreck or two—that taking a closer look at the events, peoples, and places of an era that existed more than three millennia ago is more than merely an academic exercise in studying ancient history.1 In the current global economy, and in a world recently wracked by earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and the “Arab Spring” democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the fortunes and investments of the United States and Europe are inextricably intertwined within an international system that also involves East Asia and the oil-producing nations of the Middle East. Thus, there is potentially much to be gleaned from an examination of the shattered remains of similarly intertwined civilizations that collapsed more than three thousand years ago.

Discussing “collapses” and comparing the rise and fall of empires is not a new idea; scholars have been doing it since at least the 1700s, when Edward Gibbon wrote about the fall of the Roman Empire. A more recent example is Jared Diamond’s bookCollapse.2 However, these authors were considering how a single empire or a single civilization came to an end—the Romans, the Maya, the Mongols, and so forth. Here, we are considering a globalized world system with multiple civilizations all interacting and at least partially dependent upon each other. There are only a few instances in history of such globalized world systems; the one in place during the Late Bronze Age and the one in place today are two of the most obvious examples, and the parallels—comparisons might be a better word—between them are sometimes intriguing.

To give just one illustration, Carol Bell, a British academician, has recently observed that “the strategic importance of tin in the LBA [Late Bronze Age] … was probably not far different from that of crude oil today.”3 At that time, tin was available in quantity only from specific mines in the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan and had to be brought overland all the way to sites in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and north Syria, from where it was distributed to points farther north, south, or west, including onward across the sea to the Aegean. Bell continues, “The availability of enough tin to produce … weapons grade bronze must have exercised the minds of the Great King in Hattusa and the Pharaoh in Thebes in the same way that supplying gasoline to the American SUV driver at reasonable cost preoccupies an American President today!”4

Susan Sherratt, an archaeologist formerly at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and now at the University of Sheffield, began arguing for such a comparison a decade ago. As she noted, there are some “genuinely useful analogies” between the world of 1200 BC and that of today, including an increase in political, social, and economic fragmentation, as well as the conducting of direct exchange at “unprecedented social levels and over unprecedented distances.” Most relevant is her observation that the situation at the end of the Late Bronze Age provides an analogy for our own “increasingly homogenous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture, in which … political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.”5

The historian Fernand Braudel once said, “The story of the Bronze Age could easily be written in dramatic form: it is replete with invasions, wars, pillage, political disasters and long-lasting economic collapses, ‘the first clashes between peoples.’ ” He also suggested that the history of the Bronze Age can be written “not only as a saga of drama and violence, but as a story of more benign contacts: commercial, diplomatic (even at this time), and above all cultural.”6 Braudel’s suggestions have been taken to heart, and so here I present the story (or rather, stories) of the Late Bronze Age as a play in four acts, with appropriate narrative and flashbacks to provide proper contexts for the introduction of some of the major players, as they first appeared on the world stage and then made their exits: from Tudhaliya of the Hittites and Tushratta of Mitanni to Amenhotep III of Egypt and Assur-uballit of Assyria (a glossary, “Dramatis Personae,” has been provided at the back of the book, for those wishing to keep the names and dates straight).

However, our narrative will also be something of a detective story, with twists and turns, false leads, and significant clues. To quote Hercule Poirot, the legendary Belgian detective created by Agatha Christie, who was herself married to an archaeologist,7 we will need to use our “little grey cells” in order to weave together the various strands of evidence at the end of our chronicle, as we attempt to answer the question of why a stable international system suddenly collapsed after flourishing for centuries.

Moreover, in order to truly understand what collapsed in 1177 BC and why it was such a decisive moment in ancient history, we must begin earlier, just as one might wish to go back to the eighteenth century AD and begin with the culmination of the Enlightenment period, the Industrial Revolution, and the founding of the United States, in order to really understand the origins of today’s globalized world. Although I am primarily interested in examining the possible causes of the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations in this area, I also raise the question of what it was that the world lost at this pivotal moment, when the empires and kingdoms of the second millennium BC came crashing down, and the extent to which civilization in this part of the world was set back, in some places for centuries, and altered irrevocably. The magnitude of the catastrophe was enormous; it was a loss such as the world would not see again until the Roman Empire collapsed more than fifteen hundred years later.

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