Updated: Feb 23
The Late Bronze Age Collapse, often referred to as the Mycenaean Palatial Civilization Collapse, was a period of time – roughly between the years of 1250-1000 B.C. - that was violent, and catastrophically disruptive to cultures, social systems, government institutions, languages, ethnic identities, trade routes, literacy, and technologies.
During these years, all of the large urban centers and governing systems of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and most of Southwestern Asia, collapsed – leaving behind, after a period of turmoil and mass migration, the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages. This period of time saw the end of the various Mycenaean Kingdoms of the Mediterranean, the Hittite Empire, and the New Kingdom of Egypt.
During this period, many cities were violently destroyed. Some never repopulated, such as Hattusas and Mycenae, and others walled themselves off in defensive posture. As the historian Robert Drews noted:
It was “the worst disaster in Ancient History, even more
calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.”
Many explanations of these events have been proposed, mostly focused on one state or on the Eastern Mediterranean by itself. Invasions and migrations, social revolutions, and ecological disasters have all been suggested as the main causes for the collapse of the states.
Since all these explanations have some foundation in the historical record, we may conclude that a variety of causes was probably at the root of the changes. Military clashes and social rebellions may have been the main reason for the destruction of individual sites. What made each separate cause more important was that it contributed to the unraveling of an entire system that had characterized the region and had provided its stability from 1500-1200 B.C. The states had not existed in isolation, but had been closely tied to one another. The contacts between them had been vital for maintaining their internal organizations. The interruption of those contacts had a fundamental impact on all of them.
When the Hittite state disappeared, the Syria-Palestine region underwent turmoil and Egypt was cut off from Asia. It had no other equals with whom to interact, as Babylonia and Assyria were out of reach. Trade and diplomatic exchanges ceased, leaving Egypt blind to events in the north. The country had substantial resources of its own, so it could survive, but the international system that had supported its palace elites was gone. Similarly, the eastern states of Assyria, Babylonia, and Elam were reduced to a small international system with only the three of them as participants.
The Mediterranean Sea and Egypt were no longer accessible, and trade routes were cut. The absence of this wide geographical infrastructure led to their own disintegration, which allowed new people to control the areas between them and further isolate them from one another. No one power filled the vacuum created by the decline of these states, enabling new groups and lower social strata to gain control. When we talk about collapse of the states, we should not imagine that everyone suffered. There was a rearrangement of power, and large parts of the populations of the Near Eastern states may have benefited from the newfound freedom.
Very little is known about the centuries from 1100 to 900 B.C. We can determine, however, that in that time important technological and social changes occurred, largely due to the disappearance of earlier structures.
This is well demonstrated by changes in writing practices. Throughout the Near East, the palaces of the second millennium had supported chancelleries where scribes read and wrote Akkadian. This was a foreign language for most of them, and it was recorded in a script, cuneiform, that was relatively difficult to master. With the end of the palaces, the infrastructure for these specialists disappeared, as did the rationale for their existence. No longer were letters written to other courts requiring knowledge of the diplomatic language. Trade was interrupted, fields and labor were no longer centrally administered, and private economic activity declined. In the states where the palace retained some prominence, bureaucracies were preserved to some extent. This explains the continuation of cuneiform writing practices in Assyria and Babylonia. But in other regions, that recording system was no longer in use and people reverted to local practices. Egypt, with its small relatively strong palace, used only its own hieroglyphic script and it derivatives to write the Egyptian language.
It was during this time that the linear alphabet came to be the sole system of writing in the Syro-Palestinian area. Most inscriptions known to us were from the Phoenician harbor cities that had not been destroyed during the disturbances around 1200 B.C. The alphabet used only 22 letters, and the direction of the script was fixed from right to left. In the ninth century B.C., Hebrew and Aramaic were also recorded in it, and as Aramaic spread throughout the Near East, the script spread as well. As a simpler system that rendered the language locally spoken, it was much easier to learn and the scribes did not have to be as extensively trained as those who wrote cuneiform. Thus there was no need for a palace organization to support them.
A fundamental technological change also took place in metallurgy. The most commonly used metal up to 1200 B.C. had been bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. In most countries of the Near East, both metals had to be imported from different sources. No one had access to both locally. Around 1200 B.C., several places, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, were cut off from new metal supplies and their bronze workshops were destroyed. People turned to another metal as a substitute: Iron. Iron ore was available almost everywhere, so it did not need to be imported. The technology was discovered to alloy iron with the charcoal of the furnace during the smelting process, and so steel was produced, which was much harder than bronze.
During the dark age, the domestication of the camel occurred in the Arabian Peninsula in the later second millennium and has to be related to the beginning of the overland incense trade to Mesopotamia and the Levant. Consequently, Arabs became part of the documented Near Eastern world. On the fringes of the settled societies, they were mostly seen as enemies. Anti-Assyrian coalitions in Syria often included Arab warriors and their camels. Only during the late Assyrian Empire, when it experienced its greatest expansion, did kings attempt to subdue them, but even then their warfaring techniques were not suitable for a desert environment.
During the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the Aramaeans became one of the most prominent groups to gain power. Most likely pastoralists in northern Syria for a long time before 1200 B.C., they took advantage of the weakening of the states to spread out over large parts of the Near East. By the ninth century these people politically dominated the whole of Syria, and began to occupy territories along the Tigris River.
In Babylonia, they were joined by people called the Chaldeans who settled primarily along the Euphrates and in the south. Both groups remained distinct and used separate tribal designations, but together they controlled most of the Babylonian countryside. For almost five centuries, the political situation in the region was extremely volatile. Often opposed to these groups were the inhabitants of the remains of the great cities of the past, such as Babylon, Nippur, and Ur, who held to ancient Babylonian traditions. Only rarely did a succession of men from the same family hold royal power. Chaldeans, Babylonians, Kassites, Elamites, and Assyrians fought incessantly over the throne, until the Assyrians were able to capture a world domination of the Near East in 671 B.C.
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