More than 3,200 years ago, the Mediterranean and Near East were home to a flourishing and interconnected Bronze Age civilization fueled by lucrative trade in valuable metals and finished goods. The great kingdoms and empires of the day—including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites and more—had the technological know-how to build monumental palaces and employed scribes to keep records of their finances and military exploits.
In a matter of decades, though, that thriving culture underwent a rapid and near-total collapse. After 1177 B.C., the survivors of this Bronze Age collapse were plunged into a centuries-long "Dark Ages" that saw the disappearance of some written languages and brought once-mighty kingdoms to their knees.
But what kind of catastrophic event could have triggered such a sudden and sweeping downfall?
It's likely that the simultaneous demise of so many ancient civilizations wasn't caused by a single event or disaster, but by a "perfect storm" of multiple stressors—an epic drought, desperate famine, roving marauders, and more—that toppled these interdependent kingdoms like dominos, according to Eric Cline, author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.
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A 'Globalized' Ancient World
Not unlike today, a truly "globalized" economy once existed in the Late Bronze Age in which multiple ancient civilizations depended on each other for raw materials—especially copper and tin to produce bronze—and also trade goods made from ceramic, ivory and gold.
"We're 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. That whole area was completely interconnected," says Cline, a professor of classical and ancient Near Eastern studies and anthropology at George Washington University.
One way to grasp the extent of this interconnectedness is through archeological finds like the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of modern-day Turkey. The wreckage dates from the Late Bronze Age (roughly 1320 B.C.) and its contents, strewn across the Mediterranean floor, include a dazzling array of luxury goods: carved ivory trinkets, gold and agate jewelry, and expensive raw materials from distant ports like elephant tusks and ostrich eggshells.
Also on board were bulk shipments of copper and tin ingots in the typical ratio of 10 to 1, the recipe for making bronze, the strongest and most brilliant metal of its day. Cline says the copper was mined in Cyprus, the tin in Afghanistan, while precious metals like silver and gold came from Greece and Egypt. Even the wood used to build the ship's hull was imported cedar from Lebanon.
"That one ship is a microcosm of the international trade that was going on in the Late Bronze Age, both in raw materials and finished products," says Cline.
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Invasion of the 'Sea Peoples'
The traditional explanation for the sudden collapse of these powerful and interdependent civilizations was the arrival, at the turn of the 12th century B.C., of marauding invaders known collectively as the "Sea Peoples," a term first coined by the 19th-century Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougé.
At Ugarit, a major port city in Canaan, the king wrote of unknown enemies who burned his cities and “did evil things in my country.” In Egypt, the pharaoh's armies fought off two separate attacks from these mysterious foreigners, once in 1207 B.C. and again in 1177 B.C. A stunning relief on the walls of Ramses III’s temple at Medinet Habu depicts the second massive sea battle, in which Egypt was finally victorious against the swarm of Sea Peoples.
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While the Egyptians were able to fight off the Sea Peoples, other civilizations weren’t so lucky. The entire Mediterranean and Near East is littered with archeological remains of cities burned to the ground during this time period, like Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire, and Meggido in Canaan. Some believe that the mythical destruction of Troy may have originated with the Sea Peoples invasion.
The true origins of the Sea Peoples is one of history’s great unsolved mysteries. One leading theory is that they emerged from the western Mediterranean—the Aegean Sea or as far as the Iberian Peninsula of modern Spain—and were driven East by drought and other climate disasters. Their ships invaded Mediterranean strongholds with women and children in tow, evidence that the Sea Peoples were both raiders and refugees.
“The Sea Peoples are the big boogeymen of the Bronze Age collapse,” says Cline. “I do think they're part of it, but not the sole reason. I believe they're as much a symptom of the collapse as they were a cause.”
'Megadrought' and 'Earthquake Storms'
In 2014, researchers from Israel and Germany analyzed core samples taken from the Sea of Galilee and determined, using radiocarbon dating, that the period from 1250 to 1100 B.C. was the driest of the entire Bronze Age, what some scholars call a “megadrought.”
“This was a huge drought event,” says Cline. “It 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 because of their proximity to mighty rivers like the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. But other civilizations weren’t so lucky. Where there's drought, there's famine. And Cline doesn’t believe it's a coincidence that the worst famine years correspond with the invasion of the Sea Peoples, when desperate climate refugees would have been on the hunt for resources.
The megadrought wasn't the only natural disaster that destabilized Late Bronze Age civilizations. Cline conducted research with the geophysicist Amos Nur which revealed that during the 50-year period from 1225 to 1175 B.C. the Mediterranean region was hit with a rapid-fire series of major earthquakes known as an "earthquake storm."
"If you look at all of these events individually: drought, famine, invaders, earthquakes, maybe disease—any one of them is probably not enough to bring down an entire civilization, let alone eight civilizations or more," says Cline. "But if you get three or four of these catastrophes all happening in quick succession, that's when you have a 'perfect storm' and there's no time to recover."
After the Collapse: Knowledge Lost
Ironically, the interconnectedness that had strengthened these Bronze Age kingdoms may have hastened their downfall. Once 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 casualties of the Late Bronze Age collapse was large-scale monument building and an entire system of writing called Linear B, an archaic form of Greek used by Mycenaean scribes to record economic transactions.
“Since only the top 1 percent 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 were impacted equally. Some, like the Mycenaeans and Minoans, suffered a complete collapse. Same with the Hittites, who simply ceased to exist as a civilization. The Assyrians and the Egyptians were largely unaffected, while others showed resilience and either transformed or redefined themselves.
One example is the rise of iron as the new metal of choice. Once copper and tin were in short supply and demand for bronze dropped off in Greece, there was an opportunity for something to take its place.
“The Cypriots pivoted from being the masters of copper to suddenly being the masters of this new iron technology,” says Cline. “As it turned out, iron was a far better cutting edge for ploughs, and it made swords that were far better at killing your enemies.”