Monday, 7 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part III

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

In the east, the troubles appear to have less to do with famines and earthquakes and more to do with human frailties. The difficult times may have prompted the assassination of the powerful Assyrian king, Tukulti-Ninurta I, but assassination was not uncommon. The wars that followed between Assyria and Babylon were pointless and persistent and the collapse of the Kassite Dynasty in Babylon was the perfectly natural result of being under attack from Assyria and Elam. But the fall of the Egyptian and Hittite empires had put events in motion. Free from imperial control the newly independent peoples in Syria and Palestine may have provided inspiration to others, or possibly the migrations of the Sea Peoples, despite probably being small in numbers, may have pushed other tribes further inland.


“…The people ate one another's flesh to save their lives. Like a flood's ravaging water the Aramean rulers became strong, plundered the crops of Assyria, conquered and took many fortified cities of Assyria.” Inscription by Tigleth-Pileser I describing the attacks of the Arameans. The translation is taken from here.

Tiglath-Pileser III
When Assyria next has a strong military commander (Tiglath-Pileser I in the year 1114BC) the Babylonian threat has passed but a new people, the Arameans, inhabit Syria. Tiglath-Pileser reported that he devastated them in retaliation for their attacks on Assyria but the Arameans were to be a threat for several hundred years and it was not until around 732BC during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III that the Arameans were finally crushed by Assyria.

After the chaos surrounding the end of the Bronze Age, the old empires had either fallen, gone into terminal decline or been locked in perpetual conflict. This allowed the areas at the edges of civilisation to gain their independence and for new ideas, cultures and peoples to thrive. While the stability of the Bronze Age was sometimes viewed as golden the new cultures of the Iron Age would go on to irrevocably shape the world as we know it. In the temporary absence of the great empires political entities such as the Greek city states or the Israelite kingdoms were able to flourish and create cultural legacies that last to this day.

Temple at Delphi: a centre of later Greek civilisation


Hundreds of years later, as Greece emerged from the “Dark Ages” after the Bronze Age Collapse, the poet Hesiod immortalised the traditions surrounding the events of times past by describing two ages that had preceded his own. I believe that these two ages reflect a cultural memory of the old Mycenaean empire and the overall structure of the Bronze Age and Hesiod’s writing sums up the fear and the splendour that was associated with this memory in later times, as well as the wish that such splendour would have a form of immortality and never truly pass away. I conclude the post by quoting Hesiod in full and leaving the reader with a speculative timeline for the events mentioned above.

“Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.  Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron.  These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.


But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus, the son of Cronos, made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of heroes who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.  Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end enshrouded a part of them.  But to the others father Zeus, the son of Cronos, gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth.  And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds.  And these last equally have honour and glory.


And again far-seeing Zeus made yet another generation, the fifth, of men who are upon the bounteous earth. Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.  For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.” Hesiod, Works and Days, translation from here


Relief of Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu
Speculative timeline of events

1208BC: Simultaneous attack on Egypt by Nubians and Libyans with Sea Peoples allies

1207BC: Assassination of Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I

c.1200BC: Destruction of Mycenaean citadels at Tiryns, Mycenae and Pylos

c.1200BC: Destruction of Hittite capital of Hattusa

c.1200BC: Destruction of citadel at Troy

c.1192BC: Destruction of Ugarit

c.1178BC: Battle of the Delta: Ramesses III defeats Sea Peoples invasion of Egypt

c.1158BC: Sack of Babylon by Elamite king Shutruk-Nakhunte and end of Kassite Dynasty

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.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Collapse of the Bronze Age: Part I

Lion Gate of Mycenae
“…You say that you have seen the boats of the enemy at sea…. Be strong! Move your chariots and troops within the walls of the city…. The enemy is very strong. ….”
Fragments from a response to a plea for help from the king of Ugarit from around the year 1190BC, translation from The Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins

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

I previously spoke of the complexity of the late Bronze Age, of the palaces and cities, art and literature, warfare and diplomacy that comprise our knowledge of this civilised period. In this post I will speak of how it came to an end. Around the year 1200BC many cities of the Bronze Age are burned, empires fall and entire swathes of land are abandoned for hundreds of years. Some of the more stable civilisations survive but in a reduced form, cowering behind city walls; others disappear forever. Sources for the period are very poor and civilisation declined to the point that some states lost the ability to write their own languages while in other areas place names are forgotten suggesting long term abandonment. But these tumultuous events seem to have left behind echoes and some believe that works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey might be distant recollections of these chaotic times.

A much later statue of Homer
Around the year 1208 BC Egypt was attacked by a hitherto unknown coalition that the Egyptians called the “Sea Peoples”, in alliance with Egypt’s ancient tribal foes from Libya. A simultaneous revolt of the southern region of Nubia placed Egypt under strain and the Pharaoh Merneptah (son of the builder Ramesses II) was only barely able to contain the attack. In later years a much more concerted series of attacks by the Sea Peoples were repulsed by Ramesses III but Egypt’s empire in Syria was lost and never properly recovered and one group of Sea Peoples, the Philistines settled along the coast of what were previously Egyptian possessions.

Merneptah blamed the Hittites for allowing the attack suggesting that the Sea Peoples may have been from Anatolia and from the area supposedly controlled by the Hittites. But the Hittite Empire was in serious trouble as well. A civil war had divided loyalties in the population and elites and their northern capital was abandoned for a safer location further south. Texts seem to signify a great famine in the land as well. The weakened empire lost control of western Anatolia and the northern city of Wilusha (probably the city now referred to as Troy) was burnt. Around 1190 BC the old capital of Hattusa suffered a complete destruction. In Mycenaean Greece the great palaces in Mycenae and Tiryns suffer heavy damage and burning. Surviving Linear B fragments from the palace of Pylos point to invaders from the sea, although there may have been land invaders as well. The opulent trading city of Ugarit, in modern day Syria, was burned to the ground around a similar date, while their trading partners in Cyprus see their cities burned. While the Cypriot cities are quickly reoccupied, the destruction in Ugarit was so intense that the fires turned limestone building blocks to lime and the city was never rebuilt.

Assyrian Stele
The inland empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Elam are less affected. Assyria, under the strong leadership of Tukulti-Ninurta I, was expanding at Babylon’s expense around 1200BC before his assassination. After the assassination of Tukulti-Ninurta Assyria went into rapid decline, having kings with short and uncertain reigns and inconclusive wars with Babylon. These wars weakened Babylon to the point where a strong Elamite king was able to raid the city and end the Kassite Dynasty. When Assyria recovered from the dynastic strife it was forced to fight a nearly continuous series of wars against new tribes that had occupied the neighbouring territories.

By around 1150BC the Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian empires had been seriously weakened while the Hittite and Mycenaean civilisations had fallen entirely, never to rise again. The population dropped across the Near East and when records become plentiful hundreds of years later, there are new states, peoples, cities and gods. What event or series of events was able to trigger this catastrophic change?

Relief of Hittite Chariots
Firstly I should attempt to exonerate some of the usual suspects. While contemporary sources and later myths suggest mass barbarian invasions, I doubt that barbarian invaders alone could topple the advanced Bronze Age empires. The sheer organisation of these empires meant that they could field large armies and they had fended off external attacks before. Secondly, climate change is unlikely, in and of itself, to have caused the catastrophe. The world population was quite low, arguing against large scale anthropogenic climate change. Also, the civilisations were all affected differently suggesting more local factors were at work. There is no agreement on the order of many of the events described here and even less consensus on causal factors but I shall tell the story as I understand it, giving primary quotations to back up my arguments where possible. The reader should be aware that very different interpretations are possible.

Fresco of Mycenaean Woman
I have used the book, the Collapse of the Bronze Age by Manuel Robbins quite extensively, and while, not all of the ideas stated here are drawn upon his research, it was the single most valuable secondary source used in researching this piece. I would quite recommend the book.

 This is the first post in the series. Click here for the link to the second post on the collapse of the Bronze Age.