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Collapse of the Bronze Age: Destruction of the Eastern Mediterranean

Updated on October 31, 2014
Ruins of the Royal Palace in Hattusa (capital of the Hittite Empire)
Ruins of the Royal Palace in Hattusa (capital of the Hittite Empire) | Source

What started around 3300 BC along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and a hundred years later in Greece was a period of time when people started combining copper and tin to create bronze. It was also a time when civilizations began creating their own systems of writing, trading between cultures and creating kingdoms. In approximately 1206 BC however, all that had been created in many areas around the Mediterranean Sea was destroyed leaving empty cities in ruin.

What could have possibly happened to destroy cities like Mycenae, Thebes and Pylos in Greece; Hattusa and Troy in Anatolia; as well as Gaza and Bethel in the Levant? Once strong civilizations like the Egyptian empire were also overtaken and, though not destroyed, brought to their knees.

Exactly what happened is not entirely clear. Some historians believe the collapse of these once great civilizations was the result of natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanoes while others believe an unknown foreign invasion force conquered much of the known world. With so little recorded history, we are left to try to piece the story together.

The Fall of Troy
The Fall of Troy | Source

Troy

Some of the destruction has been well documented, though for thousands of years no one believe the story was true. The destruction of Troy in about 1184 BC, fitting squarely in the timeframe of the collapse, was caused by the Achaeans (the ancient Greeks) because a prince of Troy stole the wife of the King of Sparta, if you believe Homer. For the entire story of the Trojan War see The Trojan War: All From a Single Apple.

For most of the territories involved in the collapse, however, we do not have a story that has been handed down for generations or turned into numerous books and movies. Nor do their stories involved a combined Greek force attacking for the love of a beautiful woman. To get the entire picture, we have to look at what each territory faced.

The Hittite Empire at the height of its Power
The Hittite Empire at the height of its Power | Source

The Hittites

The Hittites had, at one time, controlled most of Anatolia and the Levant. They engaged in several battles against the Egyptians, which eventually resulted in a peace treaty with Ramesses II because they were up against a bigger foe, the Babylonians and Assyrians.

The Assyrians started out as a small group from the upper Tigris River area of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. Eventually they joined with other city-states under the rule of Sargon the Great. Babylon, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar I, had been attempting to move on the Hittites when the Assyrians overtook them. Now a combined Assyrian/Babylonian force was ready to push into Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. If it had only been the Assyrians, the Hittites might have been able to push them back. They might have even gotten the Egyptians to help them, since they would not want the Assyrians closing in on their own borders, but the constant fighting with other empires in Anatolia left the Hittites open to attack from new foes.

Pontus in Northern Anatolia
Pontus in Northern Anatolia | Source
Midas, king of Phrygia, turning his daughter to gold
Midas, king of Phrygia, turning his daughter to gold | Source
Bryges in Epirus
Bryges in Epirus | Source

The Hittites were attacked by two other groups. One was Kaska and the other was the combined people of Phrygia and Bryges. The Kaskians were people from the Pontus region of northern Anatolia along the Black Sea. While Greek legend made Pontus the home of the Amazons, a nation of women warriors who were daughters of the war god Ares, there is no evidence that it was a group of fierce women who defeated the Hittites, so we can only assume it was the men.

The Phrygians were a civilization that developed in the west central region of Anatolia. Phrygia was famous for a couple of their kings. Tantalus, a demigod son of Zeus, was king when he became angry with is father and served up his son, Pelops, to the Olympians for dinner. You can check out the entire story at King Tantalus Watch What You Serve Your Family. Another famous king of the Phrygians was King Midas. He and his father rode into the capital, Gordium, on an onion cart. By prophecy, this ordained Gordias, Midas's father, king. It was later that Midas became king and wished for the power to turn everything he touched to gold.

The Phrygians were originally from the Thrace and Epirus territories of Greece, where the Bryges still lived. Other than their part in the Bronze Age Collapse, the Bryges were later known for their involvement in the Roman Civil War with Brutus and Cassius against Pompey and Marc Antony following the death of Julius Caesar.

The Kaskians had long been involved with the Hittites. Their close proximity led to a few minor disputes over borders, but more often Kaskians served as members of the Hittite's military. Famine eventually led the people of Kaska to attack the Hittites. Seeing the Kaskians having some success, the Phrygians decided it was time to act as well. Together, Hattusa's enemies burned the city to the ground never to be rebuilt. The Hittites had fought the Egyptians and Assyrians for yeas without winning or losing much, but the Kaskians and Phrygians destroyed the once great empire.

The island of Cyprus
The island of Cyprus | Source

Cyprus

Cyprus fared no better than the Hittites. Archeologists say that there are two levels of complete destruction at the remains of several cities in the region. In approximately 1230 BC and again in 1190, the cities of Enkomi, Kition and Sinda were destroyed, but there is no proof of who caused the destruction. While surely the Sea People were involved with at least one attack, there is no way we will ever really know. Some historians think that refugees from Mycenae may have contributed to the fall. Some even suspect that the Sea People were responsible for both instances of destruction first against the people of Cyprus then again against the refugees. In addition to the cities that were destroyed, many others were simply abandoned.

Greek Dark Ages

What we now consider Greece, suffered large spread destruction over that four hundred years. Even cities once as strong as Athens were nearly abandoned. Greek history refers to this time as the Dorian invasion, but who were the Dorians?

Heracles and Deianira
Heracles and Deianira | Source
Dark Ages of Greece Map
Dark Ages of Greece Map | Source

As with most things related to ancient Greece, there is mythology to answer this question. Heracles, the son of Zeus, would have ruled Mycenae if not for the meddling of Hera who placed his cousin Eurystheus on the throne. Hera and Eurystheus then caused Heracles to suffer through twelve labors as punishment for actions Hera caused. Near the end of the hero's mortal life, however, he had four sons with his last wife, Deianira. The sons were known as the Heracleidae with the oldest of these being Hyllus. After Heracles's death, Eurystheus hunted the living children of his enemy, Heracles, forcing them to wander from place to place. The boys ended up in Athens, which Eurystheus attacked when the Athenians refused to hand the fugitives over. Eurystheus was killed and the boys returned to Mycenae to claim their birthright to rule, but a terrible plague forced them to leave the city. Hyllus ended up in Thessaly. The king of the Dorians warmly welcomed him, as Heracles had saved the kingdom from an earlier attack. Following the death of the king, his sons gave rule to Hyllus instead of taking it for themselves. Hyllus then went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask about returning to Mycenae. He was told to wait for "the third fruit" and enter by "a narrow passage by sea."

As with many oracle prophecies, the meaning was not crystal clear, and Hyllus misinterpreted. He waited three years then attacked through Corinth. Hyllus was killed in the battle, which was a major defeat. Hyllus's son Cleodaeus and grandson Aristomachus also made attempts to reclaim Mycenae but failed. Aristomachus's sons then returned to the Oracle at Delphi to complain about the shoddy advice. Pythia, the oracle, in defending herself, told them that three fruit meant three generations and the narrow passage was the strait of Rhion.

Now the great-great grandsons of Heracles, sons of Aristomachus, once again set out to reclaim what rightfully belonged to the ancestors of Heracles. Being the third generation since Hyllus, they were, of course, successful in leading an army of Dorians into the Peloponnesus and destroyed Mycenae causing many people to flee to the east. Being extremely successful there, they proceeded to take most of the peninsula including Sparta and Corinth. Their success was dated some eighty years following the Trojan War.

While the Dorians destroyed much of Greece on their way to claim the Peloponnesus, they left behind a trail of their own culture which eventually led to what we call the Classical Age of Greece. Though the Dorian people came by sea, their starting location appears to make them different from the "Sea People" who attacked the Hittites.

The Levant
The Levant | Source

The Levant

In the southern portion of the Levant, many cities were burned to the ground including Gaza, Ascelon, Akko and Hasor, but according to the Egyptians, who controlled much of the territory, the invaders did not come from the sea. Though much of the world was now civilized, there were still nomadic tribes wondering the Mediterranean territory. The Egyptians called these groups of nomads, people who wonder from place to place looking for food, the Shasu. They were recorded as early as the reign of Amenhotep III, the father of Akhenaten. Ramesses II also successfully drove a group of Shasu out of his territory, but during the reign of his successor and thirteenth son, Merneptah, the nomads were back threatening the trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia known as the Way of Horus. Many of the destroyed cities were left in ruin for decades.

Kush/Nubian Empire
Kush/Nubian Empire | Source
The Assyrian Empire
The Assyrian Empire | Source
The Achaemenid Empire of Darius I of Persia
The Achaemenid Empire of Darius I of Persia | Source

Egypt

For the Egyptians, the recorded invasion by "Sea People" seems to include groups that would never have been working together at the time. Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II, recorded that the Libyans tried to invade, but their companions included Greeks, various people from different parts of Anatolia, Etruscans and Trojans.

The reign of Ramesses III at the beginning of the Twentieth dynasty, also saw invasions from Sea People, but this time they were believed to be Canaanites, Philistines and people known as Denyen who the Hittites associated with Cilicia. One interesting note is that had the first group, including Greeks and Trojans, tried to invade during the reign of Ramesses III, it would have coincided with Menelaus and Helen returning to Sparta after the Trojan War. According to Homer, they were carried to Egypt where they spent several years roaming. There is, however, only one group associated with both attempted invasions, and they remain a mystery. The Shardana have been linked to everyone from the Sardinians to the Etruscans, but we will most likely never know for sure who they were.

In the end, however, it would not be invading Sea People that brought down the Egyptians. Throughout the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period, the groups who controlled Egypt came by land. After the Priests of Amun seized power, which had been feared since the time of Amenhotep III in the Eighteenth dynasty, Upper and Lower Egypt divided leaving it vulnerable to foreigners. The Libyans came into power followed by the Nubians/Kushites who were removed by the Assyrians. The Achaemenid dynasty saw the Persians oust the Assyrians only to be defeated by Alexander the Great.

Aramean states
Aramean states | Source

Syria

The territory we know as Syria, because of its location, was ground zero for many of the battles between the Bronze Age empires. During the collapse, things were no different. Syria also came under the attack of Sea People, but through all of the fighting, a local group of people known as the Arameans gained control.

Exactly who the Arameans were is not clear. It is possible that they were descendents of Aram who, according to the book of Genesis, is the grandson of Noah. It is believed that they were nomadic until late in the Bronze Age. They remained a dominant force in Syria until the Assyrians, who suffered setbacks during the collapse but managed to retain power, started to regroup around 858 BC.

When Ashurnasirpal II came to power in 883 BC, he continued to expand what is known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire taking control not only of the Arameans, Phrygia and the former Hittite lands.

Source

Conclusion

It is clear that the entire eastern area of the Mediterranean suffered major setbacks at the end of the Bronze Age, but it cannot all be blamed on the mysterious Sea People. In fact, each time the Sea People were named, their numbers were made up of different groups of people. The only thing similar about the Sea People, was that they were not the same old combatants that just kept changing their names and battling it out with their neighbors. The Greeks, Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians had new enemies, and after years of fighting one another, they were not strong enough to fight off these new foes.

The Assyrians were the first to regroup and eventually take control of nearly all the territory from Mesopotamia to Egypt and into Anatolia. They would dominate the region until Cyprus the Great, in the 553 BC, began creating the first great empire of the Iron Age, the Persian Empire.

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