The collapse of civilizations fascinates because the disasters of past call back the endless cycle of the development and the decline of the peoples. In this respect difficult to read Eric H. Cline’s book, professor of history and anthropology at the university G. Washington, » 1177 B.-C. The year when the civilization collapsed « ,* without thinking of the upheavals which affect the countries of the Middle East today. The author observes methodically this year of the end of the Bronze Age which lives to disappear in the smoke of the fires and the fever of the war kingdoms and empires of the oriental mediterranean sea. Return on the reasons of such an apocalypse
- The XIIIth century BC mediterranean world –and it’s a surprise for the reader- was very interconnected (gifts were sent across borders, artists from Crete worked in Egypt…). Could you elaborate on that aspect ?
EHC: The Mediterranean world was very interconnected during the Late Bronze Age, from the western Mediterranean and the Aegean to the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East as far as Afghanistan. They interacted with each other; had trade and diplomatic contacts; arranged royal marriages; sent international embassies; established economic embargoes; and so on. One of the ties between them all was the need for both copper and tin, in order to make bronze, which was the primary metal of the era. Most of the copper came from Cyprus; most of the tin came all the way from Afghanistan, as did lapis lazuli. Gold came from Egypt. Both raw materials and finished goods were sold as well as exchanged at the royal level.
Do you consider the year 1177 BC as a turning point and why ? Is there a real before and after as with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. Is the XIth century BC world totally different from the XIIIth century BC ?
EHC: It took about a century for everything to collapse, from about 1225 BC to 1125 BC, but 1177 BC is a good reference point, for it is in that year that the Sea Peoples invaded for the second time and by then many of the cities were already in decline if not already destroyed. Thus, I use that date as “shorthand” for the entire collapse, just like we use 476 AD as “shorthand” for the fall of the Roman Empire, even though it didn’t fall in exactly that year. The big difference is that the collapse of the Roman Empire was the collapse of a single civilization, just as was the collapse of the Maya and the Indus Valley civilization, when they each fell. In contrast, the end of the Late Bronze Age saw the collapse of numerous civilizations all at once, because while each was independent, they were also reliant upon each other for raw materials and other goods – in that regard, there is more of a similarity with our world today than with the world of the Roman Empire. And, yes, the world in 1200 BC was quite different from that of 1100 BC and completely different from that of 1000 BC.
Can you specify these differences ?
EHC: The world at the beginning of the 13th century BC was completely different from the world just 200 years later at the beginning of the 11th century BC – in 1300 BC, all of the great kingdoms or empires of the Late Bronze Age still existed and were flourishing: the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Hittites, Cypriots, Canaanites, Egyptians, Mitanni, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Their world at the time that the Uluburun ship sank ca. 1300 BC showed an interconnectedness that has only rarely been achieved in the history of humankind, with raw materials and finished goods traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles, from Afghanistan to Italy in some cases. In 1100 BC, on the other hand, that international world no longer existed; most of those kingdoms or empires had collapsed entirely or were a mere shadow of what they once were. Egypt had retreated from its holdings in Canaan; the Hittites were no more, with remnants existing only in the vassal kingdoms that had once been on the edge of their empire; Greece had plunged into the beginning of a Dark Age from which it would not emerge for 300 years. The palaces had been replaced by peasants in some areas, and by what had been the middle class and independent merchants in others. Now, instead of the Great Powers, were the faint beginnings of what would become the new world, with the Phoenicians just beginning to sail the Mediterranean, the Israelites starting to populate the Canaanite lands, and the Neo-Assyrians tentatively launching their efforts to retake large parts of the ancient Near East.
- As it’s difficult to give a unique explanation to this disaster, how could we have a better understanding of such a destruction ? You evoke a series of possible causes : famine, drought, invasion, climatic disturbance… Could you place them in the context of the situation ?
EHC: My main thesis is that there must have been a “perfect storm” of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions at that time. Of these, I would rank them in the following order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession? It would be difficult to survive if all, or most, of the above calamities came at the same time or nearly so, as they seem to have done between about 1225 BC and 1175 BC. That, I think, is why the Late Bronze Age civilizations were not able to weather the “perfect storm” and came crashing down.
- You wrote that this collapsing is rather complex. But is the complexity of the situation a better answer to the question ?
EHC : Yes, it is, because the answer is not a simple one – you cannot point to any one single cause and say that it alone was the reason that everything collapsed. As I just said above, people can survive one or two catastrophes, even they occur at the same time, but they cannot survive if three, four, or five types of catastrophes occur all at once or in quick succession.
- Among the several causes explaining this downfall the scholars mentioned an invasion by « the people from the sea ». Very mysterious people indeed, do we have any hint who they were and from what part of the mediterranean basin they came from ?
EHC: This is an excellent question, but we don’t know the answer for certain. I think the origin for some of them was the region of Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Italy (some of the groups are called the Shekelesh and the Shardana, which sound similar to Sicily and Sardinia), but most likely others joined in along the way, as they moved from west to east across the Mediterranean. Thus, there may have been others from Greece and Turkey among the Sea Peoples as well. But, we have yet to definitively identify a homeland for them.
- Don’t you think that this tumultuous ending of the Bronze Age in that part of the mediterranean is very similar to what is actually happening in Syria and Iraq to say the least ?
EHC: One can certainly suggest that ISIS/ISIL is our version of the Sea Peoples…and the other similarities are, to me, more than a bit disconcerting. This is how I started out the book…and nothing has changed since I wrote it : The economy of Greece is in shambles. Internal rebellions have engulfed Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with outsiders and foreign warriors fanning the flames. Turkey fears it will become involved, as does Israel. Jordan is crowded with refugees. Iran is bellicose and threatening, while Iraq is in turmoil. AD 2013? Yes. But it was also the situation in 1177 BC, more than three thousand years ago, when the Bronze Age Mediterranean civilizations collapsed one after the other, changing forever the course and the future of the Western world. It was a pivotal moment in history—a turning point for the ancient world.
- You seem rather optimistic about the aftermath of such a catastrophe ; saying that out of all bad things good things come. Could you explain why ?
EHC : I would not say « out of all bad things good things come. » Instead, I would say, as I do in the book, that if one wishes to look for « silver linings », as the old saying goes (« every cloud has a silver lining »), then there are some things that one can point to as little rays of hope, in terms of good things coming out of bad, especially since humanity has a history of resiliancy. In this case, the collapse of the great kingdoms and empires of the Late Bronze Age created a power vacuum where none had existed before. Into that vacuum stepped the Phoenicians, the Israelites, and others ; and it is from them that we get the alphabet, monotheism, and other new developments, including – eventually – the invention of democracy in Greece. However, that does not mean that I am optimistic about the aftermath if such a catastrophe were to occur to us. From my vantage point, I can see no « silver linings » in that at all.
* « 1177 B.C : The year the civilization collapsed ». Princeton University Press. 2014. French translation by Philippe Pignarre, ed. La Découverte, 2015, Paris
Questions to Eric H. CLine collected by Bertrand RAISON and published on may 6th 2015 by El Estado Mental