W.P. 3: Reflection of Crisis Situations in the written records of the Eastern Mediterranean


From the outset, it needs to be underlined that nearly all texts that inform on the 13th c. stem from the large palatial centres (Hattusa, Pylos, Thebes, Ugarit, Memphis, Pi-Ramesses etc.) and especially from palatial archives and storage rooms (Mycenae, Hattusa, Ugarit), temple rooms (Hattusa, Ugarit, Egypt). As a consequence, we do not have a view from outside the socio-economic centres of power, a condition which will certainly have a bearing on the character of the recorded information. Still, some additional sources such as temple iconography (Egypt), texts from private houses (Ugarit), private tombs (Egypt) monumental rock inscriptions (Yazilikaya, Egypt) and texts written on papyri and ostraca (Egypt) help to remedy this bias. The geographical context of the various written sources must also be taken into account since, in contrast with the Anatolian written sources (Hittite and Akkadian texts), which were all discovered at a single site (Hattusa), the Mycenean texts were found at various palaces in mainland Greece and Crete. Moreover, Ugaritic texts were found at different places in Ugarit itself, except for a single fragment recently discovered in Tiryns. In Egypt, there is a more widespread distribution of texts, especially those completing the iconographic scenes showing relations between Egypt and other countries. In addition, the geographical position of Greece, Crete, Anatolia, Ugarit and Egypt also has its importance. Whereas Greece and Crete rather belong, from the eastern point of view, to the Western periphery, Egypt and the Hittite Empire were two pillars of power and balance in the Eastern Mediterranean, which had intense diplomatic relations as well as contacts with their vassal states on the Syro-Levantine coast. Against this background, Ugarit was located on a socio-economic, cultural and diplomatic crossroad: its written sources show the presence of eight languages (Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hurrian, Sumerian, Hittite, Cypro-Minoan, Egyptian, Luwian) and four different writing systems, also illustrating the enormous diversity of the textual source material.

Within the work package, the written sources will be divided in two large categories: literary texts and documentary texts. This division is not unusual in the field of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, because of the simple fact that there is a difference of interpretation between the two grand categories. Literary texts are not conceived as reflections of daily life and thus have more interpretational levels (including their tense relation with the bare facts), whereas documentary texts are witnesses of the daily life, even if some of them are found within a palatial economic context. The differences between both categories are also situated on the level of the public, intention and distribution.

Among the literary texts we distinguish between:

  • Royal inscriptions and annals: Royal inscriptions, one of the most important ways to display royal ideology and to provide us historical data, are attested in Egypt and Anatolia. The relations of Egypt with Asia and Anatolia, as well as the Aegean civilizations, are well attested since the beginning of the 18th dynasty (c. 1525 B.C.) and during the 13th century (19th dynasty: Seti I, Ramesses II, Merenptah). The Egyptian kings aimed to control some Levantine countries to avoid troubles for their own country. Therefore they also built many fortresses alongside the Mediterranean coast, most of them in North Sinai. On the other hand, non-Egyptian people tried to settle in Egypt, a situation which regularly could lead to conflicts. The names of different people, e.g. Sherden, Eqwesh, Tursha, Tjekker and the Peleset are well known by the written Egyptian sources. The political history of the Hittite Empire is largely described in two types of sources: royal Hittite inscriptions on the one hand and treaties between Hittite kings and their vassals on the other hand. Traces of possible destabilisation of the Empire may be found in the so-called Apology of Hattusili III, in which the new king wants to justify his coup d’état against Mursili III (Urkhi-Teshup). However, the conflict between both kings may have had heavier consequences for the Empire than nowadays thought. In this sense the role and history of Tarhuntassa, a possibly autonomous region within the Empire should be reinvestigated. Interestingly, royal inscriptions from the time of Tudhaliya IV and Suppiluliuma II are partly written in Hieroglyphic Luwian (e.g. the Yalburt and Südburg inscriptions). The Luwian cultural element would also be one of the surviving elements in Anatolia after the disappearance of the Hittite Empire. The interaction between Hittites and Luwians remains to be evaluated in order to see how this interaction may have determined the character of the Hittite Empire. The Egyptian and Hittite royal inscriptions are not the only royal inscriptions that may help us to study the possible pre-crisis situation in the 13th century, for there are also the Middle Assyrian royal annals, which inform us on the international situation of the Hittite Empire in general and on its problems in the East in particular. Especially relevant are the inscriptions of Salmanazar I (1263-1234 B.C.) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1208 B.C.), contemporary to the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV.
  • Treaties represent another category of texts, examples of which have been discovered at Ugarit, Hattusa and Egypt. These treaties not only inform on the international context of the Hittite Empire and the smaller kingdoms in the north of Syria (e.g. Amurru and Ugarit), but also give some clues to the internal structure and stability of the Hittite Empire. Treaties between Hittite kings and Anatolian or foreign rulers, reflecting the international political scene of the 13th c. B.C., have been concluded many times during the 13th c. and various examples have been (partially) preserved. One of the most important treaties is, of course, the peace treaty between Hattusili III and Ramses II, which was concluded during the 21st year of the king of Egypt after a long period of crisis. After the campaign of Sethi I in Asia (conquest of Qadesh and Amurru areas), these countries became the main source of conflict between both empires, culminating in the battle of Qadesh (year 5 of Ramses II, against Muwatalli II). The wish of Hattusili III to be legitimatised at an international level has led him to conclude such a treaty, which gave back to Egypt some territories lost by Ramses after Qadesh.
  • Diplomatic letters, i.e. letters belonging to the correspondence between kings or higher officials and dealing with state matters, can be very revealing with regard to the proposed research project. Especially important is the correspondence between the Hittite Empire and Egypt, Egypt and the Levantine area, and the Hittite Empire and Ugarit. In the latter city various letters (e.g. the Lunadusu Letter) dating from around 1200 B.C. have been discovered in a courtyard of the so-called ‘small palace’. They tell us more on the attacks themselves but also give us information on what happened before, e.g. on food shortage in the Hittite Empire. The correspondence between the Egyptian and the Hittite Empires may also be of relevance since they provide insight into the international situation, but with another perspective than the treaties. Letters, even if diplomatic, are not really official documents.
  • Religious and mythological texts. All religious texts that can function as a source for the proposed research project were found in Hattusa, Ugarit and Egypt and the aim will be to restudy the extant religious texts and to reorganize this 13th century religious textual corpus. Various types of religious texts may be distinguished. First of all there are hymns and prayers, the way “par excellence” to enter into direct communication with the gods, by kings as well as priests. Most of the prayers found in Hattusa were compiled and written in the 13th century and should be examined as potential crisis situation reflections. A good example is the widespread pest epidemic that ravaged Anatolia at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 13th c. B.C. and to which various prayers were consecrated. The so-called ‘Marriage Stele’, from year 34 of Ramses II, emphasizes the importance of praying to the Storm God (Seth or Teshub) in order to provide rain to the Hittite land, which was at the time devastated by drought. Rituals are a second type worth while studying. In 13th c. Hattusa, many rituals were performed, some specifically meant to protect against natural disasters. Fragments of such rituals continue to be discovered in Hattusa and must therefore be studied in depth. As to mythological texts, we should investigate why, when and how the major mythological texts were reorganized and written down both in the Hittite Empire from the reign of Hattusili III onwards and during the second half of the 13th c. B.C., and in Ugarit, where the same scribe Ilumilku had written down the entire Baal Cycle as well as the Heroic Cycles, probably at the end of the 13th c. B.C. in the reign of the penultimate king of Ugarit (Niqmaddu III). In general, the intense scribal activity in 13th century Anatolia may also provide us with data concerning the sentiments during this century. The copying of “pessimistic” religious texts, such as the rituals discussed above and myths concerning the disappearance of gods (with the consequence that the world stopped functioning) may be revealing as to the way people sometimes felt in these times.

Among the documentary texts, there are especially two categories:

  • Economic records. Unlike the written sources of the Hittite Empire, the kingdom of Ugarit and the Egyptian Empire, the records of the Mycenaean palaces at Knossos, Pylos, Mycenae, Thebes and Tiryns are limited to economic bookkeeping records, noting down what enters and leaves the palace stores. Since these documents also date to a time period preceding the destruction of their palaces by little, they also present an essential source of information to study the last moments of palatial society in the Aegean. Tablet PY Tn 316, for example, records different processions as well as the offering of gold vases and humans to the principal divinities of the Pylian kingdom and has long been considered as an exceptional religious ceremony, involving human sacrifice, organized to face off the dangers posed by the invasions of the Sea Peoples. New study makes it more likely that the tablet records a normal ceremony within the liturgical calendar of the Pylian kingdom and did not involve human sacrifice. The o-ka tablets, on the other hand (PY An series) describe the deployment of military contingents (o-ka, orkhai) along the coasts and are interpreted as a reinforcing of military defences, something which can be linked to the reinforcing of the citadel walls at Mycenae and Tiryns during the same period. The economic documents found in Ugarit allow a comparative study with the Mycenaean palaces, as far as these contemporary structures have a similar size and a comparable internal organization. Taking a more diachronic perspective, the tablets should be studied to see whether they reflect a general weakening of the palatial system which was built upon the exploitation of a peasant class and the maintenance of a parasitic bureaucracy. Such a phenomenon is largely illustrated by archaeological sources (decline of material culture, decrease of commercial exchanges, depopulation, etc.). Invasions by foreign people are, in this context, considered as a final blow given to a palatial system which was already undermined. With the identification of temporal differences amongst the tablets, we can now study the tablets from a prolonged period (entire 13th c. B.C.) and thus identify changes in the system. As such, a comparison between the tablets of different periods may show whether these kingdoms reproduced in essence the same socio-economic pattern or whether changes can be identified, suggestive of a more prolonged period of crisis. On the other hand, they may reflect last minute adaptations to new social, economic and military situations which were in any case ‘too little and too late’.
  • Finally, some documentary texts, other than economic, can be valuable for research into pre-crisis-situations in the 13th c. B.C. Recent discoveries of administrative and legal texts from Ugarit and Egypt should be included (as, e.g. a cuneiform tablet found in 2004 at Pi-Ramesses).


This WP proposes a detailed study of all available textual sources dating to the 13th c. B.C. (especially from Anatolia, Ugarit, the Greek mainland and Egypt, but Mesopotamian texts will also be considered) in order to find possible reflections of a situation that can be explained as stress induced and to trace what can be termed “pessimistic tendencies” that allow the recognition of long-term crisis situations in the course of the 13th c. B.C in one or more regions.

As such it aims at:

  • Finding reflections of a situation that can be explained as stress induced and trace back what may be termed “pessimistic tendencies” (‘Fin de siècle’ feeling).
  • Determining the geographical context of the written sources and its implications for the study of the texts.
  • Construct a single textual corpus (edition, translation, commentary) of all written sources of all concerned regions (Anatolia, Egypt, Mycenaean World, Ugarit and the Levantine Coast) that reflect a crisis situation in the 13th c. B.C.
  • Improving our knowledge of the political, social and economic relations within the Eastern Mediterranean from a regional point of view.
  • Defining the complementarity between archaeological and textual sources.


  • Perform heuristics: Compose a list of all textual sources by browsing the scientific literature and various publications of written sources from the 18th century till now. In recent years, many new texts have been discovered and/or published. These texts must be taken into consideration.
  • Study the find place of the written sources in order to determine the dates of the texts (archaeological context).
  • Critically (re-)edit texts with special attention for the palaeographical aspects of the various texts (scribal hands).
  • (Re-)translate the texts (into English) taking into account drastic recent developments in the linguistics of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean languages.
  • Provide a grammatical commentary through a philological study of the written sources.
  • Comparatively study the various text corpora (Anatolia, Egypt, Mycenaean world, Ugarit and the Levantine Coast).
  • Provide a historical commentary via an interpretation of the texts within the global context of the 13th century B.C. and the relations and contacts between the various regions and peoples. What implications do the texts have for the historical research of the 13th century and what is the complementarity of the texts and the archaeological sources?

Planning and Deliverables

  • 2015: Organisation of two workshops concentrating on regional issues (Mycenaean and Anatolian worlds; Egyptian and Levantine worlds) and publication.
  • 2016: Organisation of a major international conference on textual sources and publication.
  • Engage a doctoral researcher (4 years; 01/09/2013-31/08/2017), specialized in Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern languages (Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic), to study the various textual sources and to compose the textual corpus; PhD to be defended before the end of the project.