Somewhere around 1200 BC, a thriving and prosperous human civilization suddenly collapsed. The Ancient Near East civilization, which consisted of Cyprus, Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite Empire, and Egypt, had a relatively advanced society based on trade networks and diplomacy.
“Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day.” (Cline 171)
In the span of one generation, this civilization had collapsed, and almost all of these empires were gone.
International trade vanished, pottery reverted to a more primitive age, construction of temples and monuments ceased entirely, and written word became almost extinct.
Because of the destruction of these societies, and lack of records, no one really knows why this civilization collapsed, but we have a few different theories as to what happened.
“O my father! Only, the ships of the enemy came, they burned some of my cities, and practiced unpleasant deeds in the country. Father, you do not know that all my soldiers…centralize in the Hittite countries, and all my ships are anchoring in Leqipean countries, and until now they do not return to me, so the country has no protection. May father know all that! O my god! Seven ships of the enemy attacked me, and made so much damage, and now, let me, in any way, know if there are more ships of the enemy. May I know?" (letter from the King of Ugarit to the King of Cyprus)
Sometime around 1200 BC, mysterious foreign invaders showed up on the shores of the Near East civilization and brought fire and destruction. No one had seen or heard about these people before, so they called them the “Sea Peoples”, and the Sea Peoples were very good at fighting.
“When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!” (one of the last letters to come out of the city of Ugarit).
An inscription in Egypt depicts the final battle between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples. Egypt was the only kingdom in the Near East civilization that survived.
We now know that the Sea Peoples came from a variety of places including Sicily and Crete. They were all unified by their reason for coming – this was a migration. They came on boats with their families and all of their possessions.
By the time the Sea Peoples arrived in Egypt, every other empire in the Near East civilization had been overrun and destroyed.
Why did the sea people win so easily?
In late bronze age warfare, battles were all about chariots. A chariot had two horses, a chariot driver, and an archer. Chariots were extremely expensive, but gave a huge advantage on the battlefield with superior speed, range, and firepower, over everything else. In battles, large groups of soldiers would defend a small group of chariots.
The Sea Peoples fought on foot, and used longswords and javelins. They were runners, and were very mobile, unlike chariot armies that had to stay in tight groups to defend the chariot. The Sea Peoples were optimized for chariot killing. A chariot could outrun a few people, but it couldn’t outrun a crowd of people coming from different angles.
Why did the Sea Peoples do this great migration gamble in the first place?
Around this time there was a major environmental event that caused drought and famine. Fossilized pollen from the Near East region shows a dry event lasting around 300 years, beginning just before the bronze age collapse.
In Cyprus it was even worse. There was no longer enough rainfall to sustain basic agricultural activity, which is one explanation for why some cities were abandoned even before the Sea Peoples came.
“There is famine in your [i.e., our] house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.” (letter from Ugarit)
The famine may have been affecting the Sea Peoples’ civilizations as well, leading them to abandon their homeland in search of a place where the grass was hopefully greener.
This also means that the Near East civilization may have been in a crisis before the Sea Peoples arrived.
There is evidence that between 1225 BC and 1175 BC the Near East region experienced a series of earthquakes. One large earthquake can lead to a series of other large earthquakes that keep happening down the fault line for decades.
Fifty years of earthquakes could have a severe impact on the economy, and some of these cities may have been abandoned because of these earthquakes. Greece got the worst of the earthquakes, while Egypt, the only empire left standing at the end, seems to have mostly avoided the earthquakes.
Not all damage done during this time can be attributed to the sea people or natural disasters. There are also signs of cities having internal conflicts and uprisings, in which the ruling class was overthrown. These uprisings happened everywhere, though with more frequency in Greece.
In light of the other things mentioned above, it’s probably not surprising that people would rise up against their governments during such a chaotic time.
As a result of everything mentioned above, the network of trade that existed between all of the empires in this civilization began to break down, which made it harder for empires to get the resources that they needed.
In particular, it was a lot harder to get bronze without the trade network. Bronze consists of copper and tin.
Copper was mostly mined in Cyprus, which did not survive.
Tin is almost as rare as Uranium, and there was almost no tin in the Near East. The Hittite empire had a small tin mine, but mostly had to import it from the Assyrians and via European trade routes.
When one part of the bronze supply chain collapsed, the whole thing came crumbling down, and if there was one thing that bronze age civilizations needed, it was bronze.
Putting it all together, there was a major environmental emergency which caused drought and famine, as well as a series of earthquakes.
This led to internal instability and in some kingdoms there were local uprisings which overthrew the ruling classes.
At the same time, foreign invaders with a superior fighting style came in, and people were abandoning cities.
All of this led to a disruption of the trade network, which made everything else even worse, in a vicious cycle.