16 June 2016


Eric H. Cline. 1177 B.C. The Year Civilisation Collapsed. Princeton University Press, 2015 (Paperback).

History is not what it used to be. It was my least favourite subject at school. Why did I have to remember facts and dates that were utterly boring and totally irrelevant to my life? Now, in senior years and with a bit of history of my own, it is one of my favourite subjects. I find the subject not only enjoyable but also educational and highly relevant to an understanding of the complex world we live in.
This very readable book is an excellent example of how fascinating and instructive history can be. The author, Eric H Cline, is Professor of Classics and Anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist and ancient historian by training and extensive experience. His scholarship is evident throughout this well-researched work with masses of data that would satisfy the most serious students and fellow academics among his readership. However, Cline has a particular gift in his writing style of being conversational with touches of quirky humour which make this book a gripping read from start to finish.

The author's main purpose here is to throw some light on the mystery of the sudden and violent collapse of civilisation within a few decades from about the year 1200 BC. In effect, this collapse marked the end of the Late Bronze Age. The catastrophe was of a scale and magnitude unprecedented in world history until that time, and the world would see nothing like it again until the collapse of the Roman Empire over 1500 years later.

Cline goes straight to the point in the first paragraph of his preface: "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 civilisations 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."

In other words, there are clear parallels between the ancient world and the modern world. History does repeat itself. The protagonists of the Late Bronze age, variously known to us as Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots and Egyptians all interacted with each other, by trading and cultural exchange. Thereby they created a cosmopolitan and ‘globalised’ world system. They evidently became so intertwined and interdependent that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others. So, the question we have to ask is what exactly started that collapse? The traditional answer has been, in simple terms, invasions of the ‘Sea Peoples’ as they are known to historians. Herein lies the major part of the mystery. To this day modern scholars do not know where they originated . No ancient site has yet been discovered that can be identified as their origin or place of departure. They may have come from many places and banded together for common purpose.

All that is known of the Sea Peoples comes from Egyptian records in the form of inscriptions on stone monuments. Egypt may be considered the most powerful and advanced nation of that ancient globalised world. Whereas all of the other nations and kingdoms fell or were destroyed completely, Egypt did survive these invasions, albeit in a severely weakened state. Intriguingly, the inscriptions refer to tribal groups by names that are unknown anywhere else. Also, their images on these monuments show them to be very diverse in appearance. Some wore horned helmets, others wore skullcaps, and others were bare-headed. Some had pointed beards and wore short kilts, others had no facial hair and were dressed in long garments. They came on boats, wagons, ox-carts and chariots, armed with sharp bronze swords, wooden spears with fearsome metal points, and bows and arrows. Given the entirely disparate nature of their tribal names and appearances, and the vicious manner in which they ruthlessly destroyed one city after another, the modern word ‘terrorists’ comes to mind.

An image of one of the Sea People
from the Medinet Habu Temple, Luxor.
Egypt came under two major invasions by these marauding tribes, in 1207 BC and 1177 BC. The latter date explains Professor Cline's arresting title and sub-title. While these invasions came in waves across the whole region over a period of several decades, it was the effects of the 1177 BC invasion that Cline considers to be pivotal to the entire global collapse. The Pharaoh at that time, Ramses III, claimed victory and that the enemy were "capsized and overwhelmed in their places." However, it was a Pyrrhic victory. New Kingdom Egypt was never the same again and became a second-rate power, a mere shadow of what it had once been. A modern-day analogy would be the British Empire, once the mightiest in the world but exhausted and bankrupted by fighting the two great World Wars.

With almost uncanny relevance to our modern world, that ancient world suffered a 'perfect storm' of events. The combined effects of these factors brought down its hard-won civilisation and ended what is now rightly considered to have been a golden age of world history. Cline presents detailed and forensic evidence from archaeological surveys and written records to show that climate change was a major factor in the systemic collapse of the Late Bronze Age. Severe long-lasting droughts affected a large part of the region, leading of course to famines, which goes a long way to explain the disruption of trade, internal rebellions and the mass migration of peoples. Add to that a storm of earthquakes that destroyed several of those ancient cities and you can see the 'domino effect' and the 'multiplier effect' in action.

One example of learning from history particularly appealed to me. This concerns General Allenby's military tactics that provided stupendous success in September 1918 when he was commanding the British forces in Palestine near the end of World War I. He won the battle at Megiddo and took prisoner hundreds of German and Turkish soldiers without any loss of life, except for a few of his horses. How did he achieve this master-stroke?

Allenby later admitted that he had read a translation of an account by Pharaoh Thutmose III of his campaign against the fortified city of Megiddo in 1479 BC. This was Thutmose’ first campaign and his purpose was to put down a rebellion against Egyptian rule by the Canaanite rulers of the region. After marching his men for ten days as far north as Yehem, he called a war council to decide the best route to proceed against Megiddo. There were three possible routes. The northern and southern routes were recommended by his generals as they were much wider and less susceptible to ambush. The middle way led straight to Megiddo but was extremely narrow and vulnerable to a devastating ambush. Thutmose reasoned that the Canaanites would not believe him to be so stupid as to take the central route, so he did exactly that. It took twelve hours to lead his men through the narrow pass, and they got through without a scratch. They found nobody guarding Megiddo or the temporary enemy camps surrounding it. All of the Canaanite forces were guarding both the northern and southern routes.

I once visited Megiddo. It just happened to be my 33rd birthday, when I was with a group on a two-week tour of Israel. Perhaps the birthday made it particularly memorable But also I was fully aware that I was in the place popularly known as 'Armageddon', famous for the climactic end-times prophecies found in the Bible book of Revelation. It is a stunning location on a hill overlooking the valley of Jezreel. One can easily see its strategic importance over thousands of years and why it was the site of many battles. Professor Cline is a particular expert on the site, having conducted at least ten seasons of archaeological excavations there. For those who wish to know more about his research and findings in this area I would recommend Cline's book published in 2000, "The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age". Here he details no less than 34 major battles that have been fought here, often between combatants who were foreign to the region. 

Whether another major conflict actually occurs in the location remains to be seen. The fact is that Damascus, the capital of Syria, is only approximately 90 miles to the north of Megiddo. As everyone knows, there has been a vicious civil war raging for several years in Syria which has virtually destroyed the entire country. Russia has directly intervened and other great powers are conducting operations, either directly or by proxy. For the conflict to spread further into Israel itself would signal all-out war, possibly World War Three, but the consequences of that would be too awful to contemplate. 'Armageddon' may yet happen, but it could just as well be symbolic as literal. Bible prophecy is notoriously prone to exaggerated interpretations by those with vested interests.

While mentioning the Bible, it is worth noting here that Cline usefully explains the known history regarding the story of the ‘Exodus’. The question of the Exodus is relevant because the Israelites emerged as one of groups making up the new world order from the chaos of the collapsed Late Bronze Age. Most secular archaeologists favour a date of ca 1250 BC for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, as there is no firm evidence of their presence in the land of Canaan before that date. The difficulty is that Bible chronology would give a date of ca 1450 BC, at a time when Thutmose III was Pharaoh and, as we have seen, was in firm control of that region. Surprisingly, the Bible record does not name the Pharaoh who released the Israelites from slavery after the famous ten plagues. It is all a mystery, and Cline deals with the current scholarly thinking on the subject very well.

Cline also thoroughly analyses all the available evidence for the Trojan Wars, another favourite story from the ancient world of the Late Bronze Age. The story was written by Homer, the blind Greek poet of the eighth century BC. It tells of a voyage by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, on a diplomatic mission to Menelaus, the king of Sparta. While there, he fell in love with the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus. When Paris returned to Troy, Helen followed him, either by force - according to the Greeks, or voluntarily - according to the Trojans. Enraged, Menelaus persuaded Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks, to launch an armada of a thousand ships and fifty thousand men to Troy to get Helen back. After ten years of war the Greeks were victorious. Troy was sacked and most of its inhabitants were killed.

Helen returned home to Sparta with Menelaus. We don't know if they lived happily ever after. But did it really happen? Did the city of Troy even exist? It had disappeared without trace for many centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century AD most modern scholars believed that the Trojan War was only a myth, and that Troy had never existed. Then the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove them wrong. To everyone's surprise, he succeeded. The site of ancient Troy that he discovered had nine layers, and the difficulty was determining which one was destroyed by the Greeks. Cline puts the date for that destruction at about 1300 BC to 1250 BC. It appears that the rebuilt city was destroyed again by the Sea Peoples around 1180 BC. All of this puts the events of this period into some context.

To the lay reader it is astonishing how much information can be gleaned from ancient remains using modern scientific instruments and techniques. A good example of this is the autopsy carried out on the body of the aforementioned Ramses III in 2012, as reported in the British Medical Journal. X-ray analysis allowed researchers to see through the thick cloth surrounding the body to identify the injury that killed him. Clear evidence was found that a sharp knife had been thrust into his neck immediately under the larynx, all the way down to the cervical vertebra, cutting his trachea and all of the soft tissue in the area. Death must have been instantaneous. We know from the records that this occurred in 1155 BC, therefore many years after he had defeated the Sea Peoples in the battles of 1177 BC discussed earlier. What makes this story so fascinating, as in a 'whodunit' detective murder mystery, is that the members of the assassination conspiracy can be identified from the records. The plot was hatched by a minor queen in the royal harem who wanted her son to succeed Ramses III. There were as many as forty accused conspirators, both members of the harem and court officials, who were tried in four groups. The minor queen and her son were among those sentenced to death.

It was as recently as the year 1881 when the mummy of Ramses III was found. Next to him was the body of a young man, aged about eighteen to twenty, wrapped in an impure goatskin and not properly mummified. DNA evidence indicates that he was probably Ramses III's son. Forensic evidence, including facial contortions and throat injuries suggest that he was strangled to death.

A footnote to this tragic chain of events is that with the death of Ramses III the true glory of the Egyptian New Kingdom came to an end. There would be eight more Pharaohs during the Twentieth Dynasty before it ended in 1070 BC, but none of them achieved anything noteworthy. Indeed, it would have been remarkable had they been able to do so, given that the global economy and system of trade had collapsed.

In the Afterword section added to the paperback version, Cline admits to being very pleasantly surprised, and a bit overwhelmed, at the generally positive reception of this book. In his concluding comments he again draws attention to the similarities and parallels between that ancient world and our present day one. He warns that every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed. The fact that it happened then means that it can certainly happen again. We are more susceptible than we might like to think. At the same time, we can be grateful that we are advanced enough to know what is going on. We can take steps to change things, rather than simply passively accepting events as they occur.

When ancient history is explained and made relevant to our lives in such an entertaining way as Professor Cline has done, there is only one thing left for me to say. History has a great future. – Kevin Murphy.

1 comment:

Lawrence said...

Fascinating and tragic how history repeats, yet in different ways all the time. The Sea Peoples invasions is clearly one of the most important events in ancient history, in world history, and yet one hardly hears anything about it. The history one is taught in school and even the universities is more about propping up a dubious status quo than anything, and tends to focus on more modern times. As far as civilizational collapse is concerned, I think it simply inevitable once again. If anything things are worse today than in times past when so many empires rose and fell. The inane escapisms in our society (sport as the meaning of life, facebook piffle and dumbed down TV shows), the danger of nuclear weapons, and a Western political leadership that is deeply corrupt and incompetent, the rule of commercialism everywhere as the defining value, discredited ideologies of both Left and Right remain firmly entrenched, chaotic economies, refugee crises, social and community breakdowns etc.

The question is not if the West will collapse, it is how and when.