Prelude to a Crisis or Precursors of Collapse?

The Sea Peoples as a heuristic device, like earthquakes, epitomize the tendency in historical studies to individualise and synchronise archaeological patterns and the human condition for scapegoating: somebody has to be blamed! Rather than a priori assuming that specific ethnic groups were responsible for the collapse, we aim to investigate the soundness of traditional historical reconstructions in various Eastern Mediterranean regions at various temporal and spatial scales: to what degree were local communities affected and are there events that marked larger areas? Can we show the synchronicity as well as diachronicity of certain processes? We must return to the basic data, both archaeological and epigraphical, to examine and assess the idea of a generalised crisis situation in the 13th c. B.C.

For reasons of available expertise, we concentrate on three specific regions – others are considered within the frame of an international forum (COST – see below): Crete, Anatolia (and its satellite Ugarit) and Egypt. These regions were variously marked by the events under consideration: the Hittite empire collapsed, Ugarit was destroyed, Crete became a backwater and Pharaonic Egypt had to fight for its survival. It may be instructive to describe historical conditions within these different regions briefly.

The island of Crete was home to one of the most surprising insular societies of the Bronze Age. Twice during its history, around 2000 B.C. and again during the 17th c. B.C., it witnessed the construction of major architectural complexes around central courts in various regions of agricultural exploitation. These palaces were destroyed violently during the 15th c. B.C., after which time only the palace of Knossos survived, with a Mycenaean type of centralised administration and state apparatus. When this palace was in its turn destroyed at the end of the 14th c. B.C., during the mature Late Minoan IIIA2 period, Crete lost its political and cultural integration, reflected by the Linear B tablets and other signs of complexity, visible especially at sites such as Hagia Triada, Tylissos and Kommos. This de-urbanisation, loss of political integration and disappearance of a central authority already in the 13th c. B.C. contrasts with the other Eastern Mediterranean regions studied in the framework of this project since Anatolia and Egypt – as far as written sources suggest – were both characterised by a centralised state throughout this period. The destruction of Knossos is hence a major historical watershed in the Late Bronze Age history of the island, the impact of which still merits closer study, which is why it is at the core of our concerns.

During the first half of the 13th c. B.C., there is evidence for increased regionalism. In this context, West Crete appears particularly active with respect to pottery production and limited literacy and administration. Other Cretan sites seem to develop towards a more discrete provincialism, and whereas at the beginning of the 13th c. B.C. sites still show a relatively uniform culture and illustrate various degrees of island-wide interconnections, this gradually changes. Many sites are destroyed at the end of the early IIIB period and Hallager (2010: 157) notes the scarcity of mature Late Minoan IIIB occupation. The few sites where this occurs (e.g. Sissi, Knossos and Palaikastro) still require further characterisation building on earlier work (Kanta 1980). These sites – all coastal – were abandoned before the end of the 13th c. B.C., not destroyed. Moreover, many of the later so-called ‘refuge’ settlements in the mountainous hinterland (including Kastrokephali, Karphi, Kavousi-Kastro and Palaikastro-Kastri) were already founded by the very end of the 13th c. B.C. rather than during the 12th c. B.C. (Kanta & Kontopodi 2011).

Even from a superficial analysis, it is clear that societal structure, settlement patterns and land use changed drastically during 13th and 12th c. B.C., preparing the island for its absorption in a different, Greek sphere. Less complex, more kin-related structures and corporate organisations seem to have survived or emerged (Wallace 2010). Some explain these transformations by adaptations within the economic system (Haggis 1993) but most still see them as reflecting the demise of the Late Bronze Age social system on the island, caused by economic factors, climate change, internal social upheaval, invasion from outside the Aegean world, and changes in the nature of warfare – or a combination of these (Nowicki 2000; Middleton 2010; Wallace 2010).

Within the Anatolian heartland, the Hittite Empire, founded by king Labarna around 1650 B.C., was the major political force since the middle of the 17th c. B.C. It soon succeeded in controlling central and southern Anatolia, as well as Northern Syria under rulers such as Hattusili I (c. 1625-1605 B.C.) and Mursili I (1605-1590 B.C.). After a period of instability, during which the Empire lost control over Syria, it reached its greatest extension during the reign of Suppiluliuma I (c. 1353-1322 B.C.), who succeeded in adding territories in Western Anatolia as well as taking up a dominant position in Northern Syria, where various smaller kingdoms, such as Ugarit and Amurru, chose to be its vassals. By establishing two vice-kingdoms in Syria (Aleppo and Karkamish), ruled by two sons of the king, Suppiluliuma and his successors could maintain control over Syria, despite Egypt’s attempts to regain its former influence in the region. The rivalry between Egypt and the Hittite Empire would eventually lead to the famous battle of Qadesh (c. 1274 B.C.), in which Ramses II and Muwatalli II stood against each other. Muwatalli’s successor Hattusili III (c. 1265-1238 B.C.) concluded a peace treaty with Egypt. The following generation, under Hattusili III and Tudhaliya IV (c. 1238-1209 B.C.) was seemingly one of relative prosperity when the Empire remained internationally significant. Very soon afterwards, however, this Empire would disappear, during the reign of its last king, Suppiluliuma II (c. 1204-1190 B.C.), who was still able to organise a military expedition against Cyprus but during whose reign all written records stop. Seeher (2001) has proposed the orderly abandonment of the capital Hattusas, without however, explaining why the city was left. After its collapse, the Hittite Empire would be replaced by various smaller political entities in Anatolia: the Phrygian realm in Central Anatolia, Tarhuntassa, the Neo-Hittite-Luwian states in Southeast Anatolia and the Neo-Aramaic states in Northern Syria. Hitherto research on the disappearance of the Hittite Empire has focussed on the end of the 13th c. and the beginning of the 12th c. B.C. Yet it is the history of the 13th c. that may provide us with more insights on the fall of the Empire since it was never a very coherent state and the very creation of the vice-kingdom of Karkamish led to a decentralisation and potential political fragmentation. The same may be true for Tarhuntassa. Eventually, the late Hittite empire was more a tripartite state (Hatti, Tarhuntassa, Karkamish), both at a political and economic level (Klengel 2002). Moreover, the role of Western Anatolian people during the 13th century needs re-investigation: population groups such as the Ahhiyawa (whose identification with the Achaean Mycenaeans, proposed by Forrer in 1924, is still under debate), the Lukka, as well as cities/states such as Troy (probably to be identified with Wilusa in the Hittite texts) and Arzawa may have played a role in the weakening of the Hittite state. This is reflected by a series of treaties these entities concluded with the Hittites. The well-known Tawagalawa Letter, for example, recognises the Ahhiyawan king as equal to Hattusili III and the other powerful Late Bronze powers, including the pharaoh of Egypt (Bryce 2003). At the other side of the Empire, the Assyrians continuously posed problems for the Hittite kings. In particular kings Salmanazar I (1263-1234 B.C.) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1233-1197 B.C.) pursued an aggressive Anatolian policy, as a consequence of which the diplomatic relations between both states were strained. This is clearly reflected in letters sent by the Hittite kings to their Assyrian counterparts (cf. Freu 2003). The city of Ugarit, already an important Mediterranean port in the Old Babylonian period, would be of major political and economic importance during the Late Bronze Age. Originally an ally of Egypt, the king of Ugarit, Niqmaddu II would shift his alliance and conclude a treaty with the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I (c. 1353-1322 B.C.). This alliance would remain intact until the disappearance of the Hittite Empire and the destruction of Ugarit in the beginning of the 12th c. B.C. In the 13th c., Ugarit belonged to the administrative district of Karkamish and seemingly enjoyed a calm, peaceful period, certainly after the peace treaty between Hattusili III and Ramses II (1258 B.C.), when it resumed its role as most important port of the Eastern Mediterranean and became the main stage for the trade between Egypt and the Hittite Empire. Nevertheless the many sources found in Ugarit make it possible to study possible ‘pessimistic tendencies’.

In Pharaonic Egypt, the 13th c. B.C. was the century of Ramses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 B.C. (Obsomer 2012) and a renaissance period after the Amarna debacle. Soldiers took control and attempted to maintain territorial integrity, threatened by population movements from Asia and the Mediterranean. In earlier times, actions by Horemheb, Ramses I and Sethi I allowed Egypt to retain its possessions in Asia at a time when Hittite kings struggled against certain vassal states. As third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, Ramses II continued the work of his father, investing time and energy in major works to honour the gods and engaging his military forces to retain possessions in the Near East. His reign is marked by the battle of Qadesh in his 5th year. Although he won the battle in avoiding the enemy’s trap, he still had to retreat without capturing the city. The state of war would continue for another 15 years till, in the 21st year of his reign, a peace treaty was concluded with Hattusili III. Egypt regained some of the lost territories and a longer period of peace followed which reinforced political stability and prosperity. In the reign of his son Merenptah, however, new population movements troubled the Egyptian borders as shown by the Israel Stele and the Karnak inscription. The same populations would increase their attempts at the beginning of the 12th c. B.C., during the reign of Ramses III.