1177 BC: The year civilization collapsed
by Eric Cline
Princeton University Press // Buy on Amazon
“Modern scholars refer to them collectively as the “Sea Peoples,” but the Egyptians who recorded their attack on Egypt never used that term,” Eric Cline poignantly writes in the beginning of his book on what he calls “the most interesting year in history.
We’re over 3,000 years in the past, and the Eastern Mediterranean is riddled with thriving civilizations. The Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Minoans, and Mycenaeans are all vying for progress and power, establishing refined trade routes that build on intermingled and surprisingly advanced civilizations. We’re 3,000 years in the past, and yet the people of the time are surprisingly like us.
Nowadays, we often talk about Ancient Greece and Rome, but a millennium before that, several Mediterranean civilizations had established a Golden Age. They traded with each other, they gave gifts and called on each other for help, and of course, at times, they waged war with each other. Yes, at a time when the Roman Empire was centuries away, these civilizations (including the likes of the mythical Troy) ruled the land with stunning prowess.
They were, argues Cline, much like us. For starters, they had many of the same problems we have today: environmental issues (serious drought), pestilence (COVID-19), a struggle for resources. They were also intertwined in many of the ways that we are today, especially through trade. The Mediterranean Sea made for the perfect place to trade your goods, from gold and silver to more practical aspects like wood and tin. They built monumental architecture so impressive that centuries later, people would believe it was mythical. They had advanced writing systems and wrote their adventures, woes, and plans on pieces of papyrus or clay tablets.
Yet despite all this, they disappeared one after the other almost simultaneously, leaving archaeologists thousands of years later wondering what had happened.
The Sea Peoples
Picture this: in this mosaic of civilizations, a group of mysterious sea marauders enter the stage. We don’t know where they came from, what they did, or even who they were. We just know that they came, in great numbers, and they attacked — and even this, we only know because the Egyptians described it in great detail.
The Egyptians didn’t consider the Sea Peoples a unitary group, instead considering them a sort of marine confederation, but the proof is so scarce that we can’t really be sure who they were. The Egyptians claimed they defeated the Sea Peoples, but it must have been a Pyrrhic victory, because after one war, the Egyptian civilization collapsed into a dark age it took centuries to recover from.
It wasn’t just the Egyptians: one after the other, all civilizations in the area collapsed, for no clear reason. It was like the fall of Rome — an end of civilization and the beginning of a long Dark Age. It’s not clear that 1177 is the year when this happened, but sometime around that year, this transition took place — and it’s as good a placeholder as any.
Could it be that these Sea Peoples, who we don’t even know who they are, could have single-handedly collapsed Bronze Age civilization? For a long time, this is what many archaeologists thought — and some still do. But in Cline’s book, he presents a different hypothesis: it wasn’t just one factor, it was a “perfect storm” of different factors, and the Sea Peoples were just one of them.
For instance, other civilizations don’t really mention the Sea Peoples, but that doesn’t mean they never fought them — it’s possible that we just haven’t found their writings, or they got lost or destroyed. But they do mention other problems, like droughts, diseases, or earthquakes. In the period leading to 1177, they all seemed to suffer from some big problem that brought their demise.
1177 is their story — to the extent that we know it.
A story of times past and present
Cline does an excellent job at setting the stage for these events, not just in terms of integrating archaeological and historic evidence, but also in terms of storytelling. The story features different people (some familiar, like Nefertiti or Tutankhamun, and others unknown), different areas, and many intriguing episodes, and yet despite all this information, it flows effortlessly. It’s not just interesting, it’s enthralling. Reading the book, I found myself wanting to learn more about these people in this period. I was surprised by how much we know about them, and saddened to see how much there’s still to discover.
For instance, one such episode features a king that ruled some 3750 years ago and organized expeditions to bring ice from high in the mountains during the cold season. He also built a special ice house where the ice was kept in a solid state until summertime, where he would enjoy his cooled beverage. Another episode features a military strategy recreated with success by a World War I general, who said he learned it from an ancient Egyptian ruler.
Then, of course, there is the intertwining of myth and history. Troy, the legendary city over which gods and men fought, was a real place, and the boundary between myth and reality is not always clear. Then, there’s the biblical Exodus and how it ties (or doesn’t) with archaeological evidence. The Christian myth of the Flood, copied almost exactly from the Babylonians who had described it a thousand years prior.
It all makes for a gripping reading, where you learn while enjoying the story of one of history’s greatest mysteries. Was it the unknown invaders that shattered these bustling civilizations? Was it a sum of factors? Was it something else entirely? Some parts of the puzzle are still missing, but Cline does a great job of walking through the available evidence, presenting it in an easy-to-follow fashion, and drawing what conclusions can be drawn.
The book does at times feel vague or indeterminate, maybe because that’s just the nature of archaeological evidence. Cline also spends a lot of time building a beautiful picture of the world during the Late Bronze Age, looking at what may have caused this collapse, yet at one point he seems to dismiss it as an inevitable collapse of a complex system, leaving the reader wanting more. Still, it’s a thought-provoking read, and a timely second edition as well. With the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen just how much our lives can change in a moment. Humans often like to think themselves as invincible. Just like these ancient people, we think our society can bend, but nothing can truly break it. The pandemic is just one aspect — researchers have warned for decades that climate change is looming and it could soon cause catastrophic damage.
1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed, is a remarkable book that brings forth not just a piece of history, but also lessons from the past. It may very well be that drought or war brought an end to their society, and there is a warning there for us as well. Unlike these ancient people, however, we are generally aware of what’s going on in the world and what’s happening to us, though whether or not we’ll act on it is a different thing.