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Before the Bible (6) When Civilization Collapsed

Original Date
April 27, 2009

When Civilization Collapsed

In the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400–1200 BCE), Mycenaean civilization flourished in Greece and Crete. The Hittites controlled most of Anatolia and northern Syria from their capital at Hattusa. The Egyptian New Kingdom ruled not only in the Nile Valley but also in Palestine and southern Syria. Commerce flowed over trade routes that crisscrossed both land and sea. A late-14th-century BCE ship excavated off the Uluburun promontory in southern Turkey, for example, carried cargo from Cyprus, Canaan, Egypt, Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece. A century later, all these civilizations had begun to unravel. Cities burned, trade became almost nonexistent, and large groups of people migrated from one place to another.

When calm returned, a new world had dawned. In the wake of the magnificent Late Bronze Age civilizations, new peoples eventually arose, including the classical Greeks and biblical Israelites—two of the most significant precursors of modern Western civilization.

Mycenae and the Mycenaeans.  Around 1500 BCE, Mycenaeans from the Greek Peloponnesus invaded Crete, destroyed the Minoan palaces, and took control of the island. For the next three centuries, the Mycenaeans were the dominant power in the Aegean. They ruled Crete from Knossos into the 13th century BCE  and set up settlements on the island of Rhodes and at Miletus in Anatolia.

Signs of the disaster to come first appeared in the 13th century BCE Although Mycenaean products such as perfumed oils and unguents continued to be in great demand throughout the eastern Mediterranean, matters were not so peaceful at home. By the mid-13th century BCE, the rulers of Mycenae, Athens, Gla and Tiryns found it necessary to strengthen their fortification walls, and the palace at Thebes in Boeotia was burned. The palace at Knossos in Crete, taken over from the Minoans, may have been destroyed about the same time.

Then came the widespread disasters of the early 12th century BCE  Around 1200 BCE Pylos was destroyed and Thebes was burned again, along with Gla, Iolkos, Midea, Tiryns and the Menelaion (a site near Sparta associated with the Homeric king Menelaus, the younger brother of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon and the husband of Helen). Portions of Mycenae were burned (possibly twice) in the early 12th century BCE, but this great citadel survived the fires. Then, around 1150 BCE, Mycenae, Tiryns and the nearby sites of Asine and Iria were razed. Many sites in Greece were simply abandoned, with refugees settling as far off as Cyprus. The population of Greece seems to have declined by about 75 percent. The literate, highly centralized Mycenaean kingdoms with their elaborate bureaucracies disappeared—and small, poor agricultural villages took their place.

Similarly, Crete seems to have suffered a major decline in population. People abandoned the coastal areas and built new villages in the hills or in other easily defensible positions.  Without the palace bureaucracies to maintain it, knowledge of writing was lost both here as well as in Greece. A “Dark Age” descended over the entire Aegean region

Hattusa and the Hittites.  Texts surviving from the reign of the last Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II (c. 1205 -1177?), refer to general discontent among the Hittite people. The population’s displeasure may well have been due to food shortages. Not long before the destruction of Canaanite Ugarit around 1185 BCE, the city’s king received three letters mentioning famine in the Hittite Empire. One demanded that Ugarit furnish a ship to transport 2,000 measures of grain to Cilicia, in southern Anatolia. It is, the letter says, a matter of life or death!  [Michael C. Astour, “New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit” ]

With the Hittite Empire severely weakened, Hittite vassals in western Anatolia and elsewhere rebelled. Egyptian annals record that the so-called Sea Peoples (see the note to this article) were marauding in Anatolia at this time. The Hittites raised an army and navy from their citizens and their loyal vassals and deployed them to meet these threats. However, this left the Hittites’ loyal allies like Alashiya (Cyprus) and Ugarit defenseless. The king of Alashiya appealed to the last king of Ugarit, Ammurapi, for help in defending the island. Ammurapi regrets that he is unable to help:

My father behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country [Ugarit]. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Hittite country, and all my ships are in the land of Lycia [Lukka]? … Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us. [ Astour, “New Evidence,” p. 255. Words in brackets were added by the author]

Hittite and Ugaritic records then become silent, so we do not know what happened to the Hittite forces to which King Ammurapi had committed troops and ships. It is likely that the Hittite forces were defeated, for a wave of destruction swept over the Hittite Empire. Hattusa was violently sacked and burned—as was Troy, Miletus, Alaca Hüyük, Alisar, Tarsus, Alalakh, Ugarit, Qatna, Qadesh and numerous other cities either ruled by the Hittites or associated with the empire.

The Hittite Empire was gone, but Hittite culture did not disappear. In Syria during the 12th century BCE, several small kingdoms arose whose rulers bore Hittite royal names and whose religious, artistic and epigraphic traditions derived from the Hittite Empire. The Assyrians called these kingdoms “Hatti,” the old name for the Hittite Empire. However, the language of these “Neo-Hittites” was not the Hittite of the former rulers of Hattusa. It was a dialect of Luwian, a related Indo-European language that had been spoken by groups in western and southern Anatolia during the Bronze Age. Peoples from Cilicia or western Anatolia, it seems, migrated to Syria during the upheavals of the early 12th century BCE and filled in the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the once-great Hittite Empire.

Egypt and the New Kingdom.  Although many Egyptian vassal states in Syria and Palestine were destroyed, Egypt itself weathered the 12th-century BCE tumult better than the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt also prevented groups of Libyans and Sea Peoples from occupying the Nile Delta. But not even Egypt could maintain her former grandeur in the face of widespread calamities.

From the time of Ramesses III (Usermaatremeryamun / c. 1186-1155 BCE) through that of Ramesses VII (Usermaatresetepenre / c. 1137-1130 BCE), the price of Emmer (hard red wheat wheat) in Egypt gradually rose to eight (or, for a time, 24) times its earlier price. Not until the reign of Ramesses X (Khepermaatresetepenre / c. 1111-1107 BCE) did the price drop, but even then it remained twice what it had been at the beginning of the 12th century. During this period, the government also sometimes failed to pay grain and other food rations owed to artisans who cut and decorated the royal tombs. The craftsmen staged strikes at least six times between about 1154 BCE and 1106 BCE because their grain allotments were months in arrears.

Corruption among public officials was rampant. Royal tombs were robbed, often by the very craftsmen who had worked on them. During the reign of Ramesses IX (Neferkaresetepenre / c. 1129-1111 BCE), eight tomb robbers were caught and forced to confess. It is interesting that the thieves most often confessed to purchasing food with their loot.

Several times during the latter half of the 12th century BCE, marauding groups of Egyptians and Libyan mercenaries terrorized the area around Thebes, looting and killing. On one occasion they destroyed an entire town. Anarchy broke out in Thebes, and looters stripped the gold and copper from the walls, doors and statues of the city’s temples. By the time Ramesses XI died in 1077 BCE, Egypt was being ruled by an army commander of Libyan descent. The New Kingdom (1550–1077 BCE), the last of the great Egyptian dynasties, was now defunct.

Assyria and Babylonia.  During the late 14th and early 13th centuries BCE, Assyria had grown into a major power. Asshur-Uballit I (c. 1365–1330 BCE) established Assyria’s independence from Kassite Babylonia, claimed the status of “Great King” and initiated correspondence with Egypt. The kings Adad-Nirari I (c. 1307 – 1275 BCE) and Shalmaneser I (c. 1274 – 1245 BCE) extended Assyrian power into eastern Syria. Shalmaneser’s successor, Tukulti-Ninurta I (c. 1244–1208 BCE), wrested territory from the Hittites in the north and then campaigned in the south, conquering Babylon and making it an Assyrian vassal. When he died, Assyria controlled all of Mesopotamia, including the portion of Syria east of the Euphrates River.

Tukulti-Ninurta was then murdered by one of his sons, and the Assyrian Empire went into decline. Babylon reestablished its independence and Assyria seems to have lost much of her Syrian territory. Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1115–1076 BCE) arrested the decline for a time, but most of his campaigns seem to have been essentially defensive. An Assyrian letter from this time complains about “rains which have been so scanty this year that no harvests were reaped.”  An Assyrian chronicle records that “a famine (so severe) occurred (that) [peop]le ate one another’s flesh.” 

By the end of the 11th century BCE, Assyrian rulers controlled only a small territory in northeastern Mesopotamia. Drought, famine and hunger are mentioned at least 14 times in texts dating between the 11th and the first half of the tenth century BCE At the end of the 11th century, the situation was so bad that food and drink offerings for many of the gods had to be canceled. Considering the importance that ancient Near Eastern peoples placed on maintaining the rites of their gods, especially when divine help was needed, this could only have been prompted by an extreme emergency.
Rival Babylon was unable to take advantage of Assyrian weakness. Elam, the kingdom just to the east, began sending her armies into Babylonia, destroying Babylonian towns. In one invasion, the Elamites sacked Babylon and carried Hammurabi’s law stela off to Susa, capital of Elam, where French archaeologists found it in the mid-19th century CE

Mesopotamia’s political chaos was accompanied by—and perhaps caused by—severe food shortages. For instance, the normal price of barley in Mesopotamia had been about one silver shekel for 30 seahs (approximately two bushels). An inscription from the mid-tenth century BCE, however, records that in Babylon a gold shekel purchased only two seahs of barley.  Now, one gold shekel was usually worth ten silver ones—meaning that grain was selling for 150 times its price at the earlier time!

The turmoil in Babylonia from the 12th to the tenth centuries BCE is probably reflected in the Epic of Erra, apparently written in the early first millennium BCE to celebrate the return to normalcy. In this poem, the principal Babylonian god, Marduk, abandons Babylon, and Erra, the god of pestilence, war and the underworld, gains control. Erra destroys everyone—just and unjust, strong and weak—through fighting, plague, famine and natural disasters. Pleased with the devastation he has wrought, Erra reflects on how he has eliminated all social bonds and bred a “dog-eat-dog” sense of desperation:

Sea-land [the area at the head of the
Persian Gulf] shall not spare Sea-land … nor Assyrian Assyrian,
Nor shall Elamite spare Elamite, nor
Kassite Kassite …
Nor country country, nor city city,
Nor shall tribe spare tribe, nor man
man, nor brother, brother, and they
shall slay one another.
[ Amèlie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East (New York: Routledge, 1995), vol. 1, p. 380. ]

Bibliography and citations:

1 - The destruction of the palace at Knossos has been dated c. 1400–1380 BCE by Sir Arthur Evans. A review of the evidence from Knossos, however, makes it likely that the palace continued to exist under Mycenaean rule into the 13th century BCE

2- For a survey of sites, see R. Hope Simpson and O.T.P.K. Dickinson, A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol. 1: The Mainland and Islands (Göteborg: Âström, 1979); and Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 21–26.

3- See V.R. d’A. Desborough, “The End of the Mycenaean Civilization and the Dark Age: (a) The Archaeological Background,” in I.E.S. Edwards et al., eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd ed., vol. II, part 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 658–671.

4-  R.W. Hutchinson, Prehistoric Crete (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962), pp. 320–325; d’A. Desborough, “Mycenaean Civilization,” pp. 675–677; Drews, End of the Bronze Age, pp. 26–29.

5 - Michael C. Astour, “New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit,” American Journal of Archaeology 69 (1965), p. 255. For a different interpretation of this letter, see Harry A. Hoffner, “The Last Days of Khattusha” in William A. Ward and Martha S. Joukowsky, eds., The Crisis Years: The 12th Century BC: From the Danube to the Tigris (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1992), p. 49

 6 -  Astour, “New Evidence,” p. 255. Words in brackets were added by the author J. Neumann and Simo Parpola, “Climatic Change and the Eleventh-Tenth-Century Eclipse of Assyria and Babylonia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46:3 (July 1987), p. 178. See also D.J. Wiseman, “Assyria and Babylonia c. 1200–1000 BC,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, p. 465.

7 - Neumann and Parpola, “Climatic Change,” p. 178.

8 - Neumann and Parpola, “Climatic Change,” p. 181
9 -  Amèlie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East (New York: Routledge, 1995), vol. 1, p. 380. For the entire epic see Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993), vol. 2, pp. 771–801.


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