I just finished reading 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and enjoyed it a lot. You might not though, unless you’re interested in the ancient Near East (from Greece to Egypt inclusive), or the practice of archaeology. Well, or the large-scale systemic collapse of great empires.
It turns out that in the centuries leading up to 1200 B.C., this part of the world was mostly occupied by biggish Bronze-Age nations: Egyptian, Hittite, Mittani, Babylonian & Assyrian, Mycenaean. Trade was brisk and multipolar. Culture mashups happened; you can find Cretan frescoes in Egyptian palaces of the day. But by 1130 it was all over; most great cities had burned, commerce had collapsed, and alphabets were starting to replace the cuneiform, hieroglyphic, and linear scripts.
For a long time, it was popularly believed that those Sea Peoples were the knife in the heart of the Bronze Age. After all, Ramses said so:
The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands, All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray. No land could stand before their arms: from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward toward Egypt, while the flame was prepared before them. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”
Archaeologists these days mostly don’t buy that theory. So, what brought everything down? [Spoiler alert! Stop reading now if you don’t want the reveal.]
The short answer is, we don’t really know. The long answer is this book, more or less. Author Eric H. Cline has fun with it, giving an overview of what we know about the Bronze Age’s good times, and then diving deep on the bad ones. Yes, the “Sea Peoples” quite likely contributed. But then, there was also climate change, and plagues, and a lot of earthquakes. Cline considers each of these carefully, and you may find yourself developing your own theory of the catastrophe’s cause.
The amount of written-at-the-time records that remain is surprisingly large, but obviously full of holes, and ignores issues that would seem important to us. But there is still a whole lot of character and color: You get to meet lots of different royal personages (both genders), and a few merchants, and read what they wrote to each other.
The names are wonderful; of the people I mean, and the names the nations called each other. The only that you might have heard are those of a pharaoh or two.
This patch of history notably includes the Hebrew Exodus, if the consensus on biblical dates is correct. Cline takes a look through the archaeology, but there’s no there there. I guess that in science, a negative result is still a result: independent supporting evidence for the Exodus legend just isn’t there.
Anyhow, the book has lots of interesting pictures. In the Kindle edition, the resolutions aren’t very good; when I enlarge them to fill my Nexus-7 screen, they get pixellated. That’s really a pity.
I would prefer to avoid living through an empire’s end-times. But reading about them is good fun.