The Late Bronze Age collapse involved a Dark Age transition period in the Near East, Asia Minor, the Aegean region, North Africa, Caucasus, Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, a transition which historians believe was violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean region and Anatolia that characterised the Late Bronze Age disintegrated, transforming into the small isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages. The half-century between c. 1200 and 1150 BC saw the cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms, of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and the Levant, and of the Egyptian Empire; the destruction of Ugarit and the Amorite states in the Levant, the fragmentation of the Luwian states of western Asia Minor, and a period of chaos in Canaan. The deterioration of these governments interrupted trade routes and severely reduced literacy in much of this area. In the first phase of this period, almost every city between Pylos and Gaza was violently destroyed, and many abandoned, including Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit. According to Robert Drews:
Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.
Only a few powerful states, particularly Assyria, Egypt (albeit badly weakened), and Elam, survived the Bronze Age collapse - but by the end of the 12th century BC, Elam waned after its defeat by Nebuchadnezzar I, who briefly revived Babylonian fortunes before suffering a series of defeats by the Assyrians. Upon the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria went into a comparative decline for the next 100 or so years, its empire shrinking significantly. By 1020 BC Assyria appears to have controlled only the areas in its immediate vicinity; the well-defended Assyria itself was not threatened during the collapse.
Gradually, by the end of the ensuing Dark Age, remnants of the Hittites coalesced into small Syro-Hittite states in Cilicia and the Levant, the latter states being composed of mixed Hittite and Aramean polities. Beginning in the mid-10th century BC, a series of small Aramaean kingdoms formed in the Levant and the Philistines settled in southern Canaan where the Canaanite-speaking Semites had coalesced into a number of defined polities such as Israel, Moab, Edom and Ammon. From 935 BC Assyria began to reorganise and once more expand outwards, leading to the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), which came to control a vast area from the Caucasus to Egypt, and from Greek Cyprus to Persia. Phrygians, Cimmerians and Lydians arrived in Asia Minor, and a new Hurrian polity of Urartu formed in eastern Asia Minor and the southern Caucasus, where the Colchians (Georgians) also emerged. Iranian peoples such as the Persians, Medes, Parthians and Sargatians first appeared in Ancient Iran soon after 1000 BC, displacing earlier non-Indo-European Kassites, Hurrians and Gutians in the northwest of the region, although the indigenous language isolate-speaking Elamites and Manneans continued to dominate the southwest and Caspian Sea regions respectively. After the Orientalising period in the Aegean, Classical Greece emerged.
A range of explanations for the collapse have been proposed, without any achieving consensus; several factors probably played a part. These include climatic changes (including the results of volcanic eruptions), invasions by the Sea Peoples and others, the effects of the spread of iron-based metallurgy, developments in military weapons and tactics, and a variety of failures of political, social and economic systems.
Before the Bronze Age collapse, Anatolia (Asia Minor) was dominated by a number of peoples of varying ethno-linguistic origins, including: Semitic Assyrians and Amorites, language isolate-speaking Hurrians, Kaskians and Hattians, and later-arriving Indo-European peoples such as Luwians, Hittites, Mitanni, and Mycenaean Greeks. From the 16th century BC, the Mitanni (a migratory minority speaking an Indo-Aryan language) formed a ruling class over the Hurrians, an ancient indigenous Caucasian people who spoke a Hurro-Urartian language, a language isolate. Similarly, the Indo-Anatolian-speaking Hittites absorbed the Hattians, a people speaking a language that may have been of the non-Indo-European North Caucasian language group or a language isolate.
Every Anatolian site, apart from integral Assyrian regions in the south east, and regions in eastern, central and southern Anatolia under the control of the powerful Middle Assyrian Empire (1392-1050 BC) that was important during the preceding Late Bronze Age, shows a destruction layer and it appears that in these regions civilisation did not recover to the level of the Assyrians and Hittites for another thousand years or so. The Hittites, already weakened by a series of military defeats and annexations of their territory by the Middle Assyrian Empire (which had already destroyed the Hurrian-Mitanni Empire) then suffered a coup de grâce when Hattusas, the Hittite capital, was burned, probably by the language isolate-speaking Kaskians, long indigenous to the southern shores of the Black Sea, and possibly aided by the incoming Indo-European-speaking Phrygians. The city was abandoned and never reoccupied.
Karao?lan[a] (near present-day Ankara) was burned and the corpses left unburied. Many other sites that were not destroyed were abandoned. The Luwian city of Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times (Trojan War).
The Phrygians had arrived (probably over the Bosphorus or Caucasus) in the 13th century BC, before being first checked by the Assyrians and then conquered by them in the Early Iron Age of the 12th century BC. Other groups of Indo-European peoples followed the Phrygians into the region, most prominently the Doric Greeks and Lydians, and in the centuries after the period of Bronze Age Collapse, the Cimmerians, and Scythians also appeared. The Semitic Arameans, Kartvelian-speaking Colchians (Georgians), and revived Hurrian polities, particularly Urartu, Nairi and Shupria also emerged in parts of the region and southern Caucasus. The Assyrians simply continued their already extant policies, by conquering any of these new peoples and polities they came into contact with, as they had with the preceding polities of the region. However Assyria gradually withdrew from much of the region for a time in the second half of the 11th century BC, although they continued to campaign militarily at times, in order to protect their borders and keep trade routes open, until a renewed vigorous period of expansion in the late 10th century BC.
These sites in Anatolia show evidence of the collapse:
The catastrophe separates Late Cypriot II (LCII) from the LCIII period, with the sacking and burning of Enkomi, Kition, and Sinda, which may have occurred twice before those sites were abandoned. During the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (reigned c. 1237-1209 BC), the island was briefly invaded by the Hittites, either to secure the copper resource or as a way of preventing piracy.
Shortly afterwards, the island was reconquered by his son around 1200 BC. Some towns (Enkomi, Kition, Palaeokastro and Sinda) show traces of destruction at the end of LCII. Whether or not this is really an indication of a Mycenean invasion is contested. Originally, two waves of destruction in c. 1230 BC by the Sea Peoples and c. 1190 BC by Aegean refugees have been proposed.[who?][clarification needed]
Alashiya was plundered by the Sea Peoples and ceased to exist in 1085.
The smaller settlements of Ayios Dhimitrios and Kokkinokremnos, as well as a number of other sites, were abandoned but do not show traces of destruction. Kokkinokremos was a short-lived settlement, where various caches concealed by smiths have been found. That no one ever returned to reclaim the treasures suggests that they were killed or enslaved. Recovery occurred only in the Early Iron Age with Phoenician and Greek settlement.
These sites in Cyprus show evidence of the collapse:
Ancient Syria had been initially dominated by a number of indigenous Semitic-speaking peoples. The East Semitic-speaking Eblaites, Akkadians and Assyrians and the Northwest Semitic-speaking Ugarites and Amorites prominent among them. Syria during this time was known as "The land of the Amurru".
Before and during the Bronze Age Collapse, Syria became a battle ground between the empires of the Hittites, Assyrians, Mitanni and Egyptians between the 15th and late 13th centuries BC, with the Assyrians destroying the Hurri-Mitanni empire and annexing much of the Hittite empire. The Egyptian empire had withdrawn from the region after failing to overcome the Hittites and being fearful of the ever-growing Assyrian might, leaving much of the region under Assyrian control until the late 11th century BC. Later the coastal regions came under attack from the Sea Peoples. During this period, from the 12th century BC, the incoming Northwest Semitic-speaking Arameans came to demographic prominence in Syria, the region outside of the Canaanite-speaking Phoenician coastal areas eventually came to speak Aramaic and the region came to be known as Aramea and Eber Nari. The Babylonians belatedly attempted to gain a foothold in the region during their brief revival under Nebuchadnezzar I in the 12th century BC, however they too were overcome by their Assyrian neighbours. The modern term 'Syria' is a later Indo-European corruption of 'Assyria' which only became formally applied to the Levant during the Seleucid Empire (323-150 BC) (see Etymology of Syria).
Levantine sites previously showed evidence of trade links with Mesopotamia (Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia), Anatolia (Hattia, Hurria, Luwia and later the Hittites), Egypt and the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age. Evidence at Ugarit shows that the destruction there occurred after the reign of Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BC) and even the fall of Chancellor Bay (d. 1192 BC). The last Bronze Age king of the Semitic state of Ugarit, Ammurapi, was a contemporary of the last known Hittite king, Suppiluliuma II. The exact dates of his reign are unknown.
A letter by the king is preserved on one of the clay tablets found baked in the conflagration of the destruction of the city. Ammurapi stresses the seriousness of the crisis faced by many Levantine states due to attacks. In response to a plea for assistance from the king of Alasiya, Ammurapi highlights the desperate situation Ugarit faced in letter RS 18.147:
My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?... Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
Eshuwara, the senior governor of Cyprus, responded in letter RS 20.18:
As for the matter concerning those enemies: (it was) the people from your country (and) your own ships (who) did this! And (it was) the people from your country (who) committed these transgression(s)...I am writing to inform you and protect you. Be aware!
The ruler of Carchemish sent troops to assist Ugarit, but Ugarit was sacked. A letter sent after the destruction said:
When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!
The destruction levels of Ugarit contained Late Helladic IIIB ware, but no LH IIIC (see Mycenaean period). Therefore, the date of the destruction is important for the dating of the LH IIIC phase. Since an Egyptian sword bearing the name of Pharaoh Merneptah was found in the destruction levels, 1190 BC was taken as the date for the beginning of the LH IIIC. A cuneiform tablet found in 1986 shows that Ugarit was destroyed after the death of Merneptah. It is generally agreed that Ugarit had already been destroyed by the 8th year of Ramesses III, 1178 BC. Letters on clay tablets that were baked in the conflagration caused by the destruction of the city speak of attack from the sea, and a letter from Alashiya (Cyprus) speaks of cities already being destroyed by attackers who came by sea.
The West Semitic Arameans eventually superseded the earlier Semitic Amorites, Canaanites and people of Ugarit. The Arameans, together with the Phoenician Canaanites and Neo-Hittites came to dominate most of the region demographically, however these people, and the Levant in general, were also conquered and dominated politically and militarily by the Middle Assyrian Empire until Assyria's withdrawal in the late 11th century BC, although the Assyrians continued to conduct military campaigns in the region. However, with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the late 10th century BC, the entire region once again fell to Assyria.
These sites in Syria show evidence of the collapse:
Egyptian evidence shows that from the reign of Horemheb (ruled either 1319 or 1306 to 1292 BC), wandering Shasu were more problematic than the earlier Apiru. Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 BC) campaigned against them, pursuing them as far as Moab, where he established a fortress, after a near defeat at the Battle of Kadesh. During the reign of Merneptah, the Shasu threatened the "Way of Horus" north from Gaza. Evidence shows that Deir Alla (Succoth) was destroyed after the reign of Queen Twosret (r. 1191-1189 BC).
The destroyed site of Lachish was briefly reoccupied by squatters and an Egyptian garrison, during the reign of Ramesses III (r. 1186-1155 BC). All centres along a coastal route from Gaza northward were destroyed, and evidence shows Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Acre, and Jaffa were burned and not reoccupied for up to thirty years. Inland Hazor, Bethel, Beit Shemesh, Eglon, Debir, and other sites were destroyed. Refugees escaping the collapse of coastal centres may have fused with incoming nomadic and Anatolian elements to begin the growth of terraced hillside hamlets in the highlands region that was associated with the later development of the Hebrews.
During the reign of Rameses III, Philistines were allowed to resettle the coastal strip from Gaza to Joppa, Denyen (possibly the tribe of Dan in the Bible, or more likely the people of Adana, also known as Danuna, part of the Hittite Empire) settled from Joppa to Acre, and Tjekker in Acre. The sites quickly achieved independence, as the Tale of Wenamun shows.
These sites in the Southern Levant show evidence of the collapse:
None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived (with the possible exception of the Cyclopean fortifications on the Acropolis of Athens), with destruction being heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Thebes was one of the earliest examples of this, having its palace sacked repeatedly between 1300 and 1200 BC and eventually being completely destroyed by fire. The extent of this destruction is highlighted by Robert Drews who reasons that the destruction was such that Thebes did not resume a significant position in Greece until at least the late 12th century. Many other sites offer less conclusive causes; for example it is entirely unclear what happened at Athens, although it is clear that the settlement saw a significant decline during the Bronze Age Collapse. While there is no evidence of any significant destruction at this site, lacking the remnants of a destroyed palace or central structure, the change in locations of living quarters and burial sites demonstrates a significant recession clearly. Furthermore, an increase in fortification at this site is suggestive of a much fear of the decline in Athens to the extent that Vincent Desborough makes an assertion that this is evidence of later migrations away from the city in reaction to its initial decline, although a significant population did remain. It is possible though that this emigration from Athens was not a violent affair and other causes have been suggested. Nancy Demand posits that environmental changes could well have played a significant role in the collapse of Athens. In particular Demand notes in the presence of "enclosed and protected means of access to water sources at Athens" as evidence of persistent droughts in the region that could have resulted in a fragile reliance on imports.
Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting a major depopulation. Again, as with many of the sites of destruction in Greece, it is unclear how a lot of this destruction came about. The city of Mycenae for example was initially destroyed in an earthquake in 1250 BC as evidenced by the presence of crushed bodies buried in collapsed buildings. However, the site was rebuilt only to face destruction in 1190 BC as the result of a series of major fires. There is a suggestion by Robert Drews that the fires could have been the result of an attack on the site and its palace; however, Eric Cline points out the lack of archaeological evidence for an attack. Thus, while fire was definitely the cause of the destruction, it is unclear what or who caused it. We see a similar situation concurring in Tiryns in 1200 BC when an earthquake destroyed much of the city including its palace. It is likely however that the city continued to be inhabited for some time following the earthquake. As a result, there is a general agreement that earthquakes did not permanently destroy Mycenae or Tiryns because, as is highlighted by Guy Middleton, "Physical destruction then cannot fully explain the collapse". Drews points out that there was continued occupation and attempts to rebuild at these sites demonstrating the continuation of Tiryns as a settlement. Demand suggests instead that the cause could again be environmental, particularly the lack of homegrown food and the important role of palaces in managing and storing food imports, implying that their destruction only stood to exacerbate the more crucial factor of food shortage. The importance of trade as a factor is supported by Spyros Iakovidis, who points out the lack of evidence for violent or sudden decline in Mycenae.
Pylos offers some more clues as to its destruction as the intensive and extensive destruction by fire around 1180 is reflective of a violent destruction of the city. There is some evidence of Pylos expecting a seaborne attack with tablets at Pylos discussing "Watchers guarding the coast". Eric Cline refutes the idea that this is evidence of an attack by Sea People pointing out that the tablet does give any context as to what is being watched for and why, as such Cline does not see naval attacks as playing a role in Pylos' decline. Demand however argues that regardless of what the threat from the sea was it likely played a role in the decline at least in hindering trade and perhaps vital food imports.
The Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted roughly 400 years and ended with the establishment of Archaic Greece. Other cities like Athens continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade and an impoverished culture, from which it took centuries to recover.
The Middle Assyrian Empire (1392-1056 BC) had destroyed the Hurrian-Mitanni Empire, annexed much of the Hittite Empire and eclipsed the Egyptian Empire, and at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age collapse controlled an empire stretching from the Caucasus mountains in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south, and from Ancient Iran in the east to Cyprus in the west. However, in the 12th century BC, Assyrian satrapies in Anatolia came under attack from the Mushki (who may have been Phrygians), and those in the Levant from Arameans, but Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114-1076 BC) was able to defeat and repel these attacks, conquering the incomers. The Middle Assyrian Empire survived intact throughout much of this period, with Assyria dominating and often ruling Babylonia directly, controlling south east and south western Anatolia, north western Iran and much of northern and central Syria and Canaan, as far as the Mediterranean and Cyprus.
The Arameans and Phrygians were subjected, and Assyria and its colonies were not threatened by the Sea Peoples who had ravaged Egypt and much of the East Mediterranean, and the Assyrians often conquered as far as Phoenicia and the East Mediterranean. However, after the death of Ashur-bel-kala in 1056 BC, Assyria withdrew to areas close to its natural borders, encompassing what is today northern Iraq, north east Syria, the fringes of north west Iran, and south eastern Turkey. Assyria still retained a stable monarchy, the best army in the world, and an efficient civil administration, enabling it to survive the Bronze Age Collapse intact. Assyrian written records remained numerous and the most consistent in the world during the period, and the Assyrians were still able to mount long range military campaigns in all directions when necessary. From the late 10th century BC, it once more began to assert itself internationally, with the Neo-Assyrian Empire growing to be the largest the world had yet seen.
The situation in Babylonia was very different. After the Assyrian withdrawal, it was still subject to periodic Assyrian (and Elamite) subjugation, and new groups of Semites, such as the Aramaeans, Suteans (and in the period after the Bronze Age Collapse, Chaldeans also), spread unchecked into Babylonia from the Levant, and the power of its weak kings barely extended beyond the city limits of Babylon. Babylon was sacked by the Elamites under Shutruk-Nahhunte (c. 1185-1155 BC), and lost control of the Diyala River valley to Assyria.
After apparently surviving for a while, the Egyptian Empire collapsed in the mid-twelfth century BC (during the reign of Ramesses VI, 1145 to 1137 BC). Previously, the Merneptah Stele (c. 1200 BC) spoke of attacks (Libyan War) from Putrians (from modern Libya), with associated people of Ekwesh, Shekelesh, Lukka, Shardana and Teresh (possibly Troas), and a Canaanite revolt, in the cities of Ashkelon, Yenoam and among the people of Israel. A second attack (Battle of the Delta and Battle of Djahy) during the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BC) involved Peleset, Tjeker, Shardana and Denyen.
The Nubian War, The First Libyan War, The Northern War and The Second Libyan War were all victories for Ramses. Due to this however, the economy of the Egyptians was becoming bankrupt but not collapsing, at least not yet. By beating the Libyans, Sea People, and Nubians, the territory around Egypt was safe during the collapse of the Bronze Age. Moreover, his campaigns in Asia also destroyed the economy. With the win over the Syrians as documented, Ramses states, "My sword is great and mighty like that of Montu. No land can stand fast before my arms. I am a king rejoicing in slaughter. My reign is calmed in peace." With this claim, Ramses implicated that his reign is safe in the wake of fallout from the Bronze Age.
Robert Drews describes the collapse as "the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire." Cultural memories of the disaster told of a "lost golden age": for example, Hesiod spoke of Ages of Gold, Silver, and Bronze, separated from the cruel modern Age of Iron by the Age of Heroes. Rodney Castledon suggests that memories of the Bronze Age collapse influenced Plato's story of Atlantis in Timaeus and the Critias.
Various theories have been put forward as possible contributors to the collapse, many of them mutually compatible.
Some Egyptologists have dated the Hekla 3 volcanic eruption in Iceland to 1159 BC, and blamed it for famines under Ramesses III during the wider Bronze Age collapse. Other estimated dates for the Hekla 3 eruption range from 1021 BC (±130) to 1135 BC (±130) and 929 BC (±34). Other scholars have held off on this dispute, preferring the neutral and vague "3000 BP".
Speculation of drought as a cause in the collapse of the Late Bronze Age has been targeted in research studies.
In acquaintance to the driest event of the Late Bronze Age, tree cover around the Mediterranean forest dwindled. Reports show of migration during the end of the Late Bronze Age. Scientists state that the contraction of the Mediterranean forest was because of drought and not of domestication.
In the Dead Sea region (Israel and Jordan), levels of water height dropped by more than 50 meters. According to the geography of that region, for water levels to drop so drastically the amount of rain the surrounding mountains got were dismal.
On top of the affected regions, drought in the Nile has been thought to be a contributing factor to the rise of the Sea People. It was suspected that from this crop failure, famine and population reduction from the lackluster flow of the Nile and migration of Sea People that New Kingdom Egypt went into political instability at the end of the Late Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age.
Using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern weather stations, it was shown that a drought of the kind that persisted from January 1972 AD would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse. Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socioeconomic problems and led to wars.
More recently, it has been claimed that the diversion of midwinter storms from the Atlantic to north of the Pyrenees and the Alps, bringing wetter conditions to Central Europe but drought to the Eastern Mediterranean, was associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.
The Bronze Age collapse may be seen in the context of a technological history that saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of ironworking technology in the region, beginning with precocious iron-working in present-day Bulgaria and Romania in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
Leonard R. Palmer suggested that iron, superior to bronze for weapons manufacturing, was in more plentiful supply and so allowed larger armies of iron users to overwhelm the smaller bronze-equipped armies that consisted largely of Maryannu chariotry.
Robert Drews argues for the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armour, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionising cut-and-thrust weapon, and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests "that mass production of bronze artefacts was suddenly important in the Aegean". For example, Homer uses "spears" as a virtual synonym for "warriors".
Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of "running skirmishers", who could swarm and cut down a chariot army, would destabilise states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class. That would precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.
A general systems collapse has been put forward as an explanation for the reversals in culture that occurred between the Urnfield culture of the 12th and 13th centuries BC and the rise of the Celtic Hallstatt culture in the 9th and 10th centuries BC. General systems collapse theory, pioneered by Joseph Tainter, hypothesises how social declines in response to complexity may lead to a collapse resulting in simpler forms of society.
In the specific context of the Middle East, a variety of factors - including population growth, soil degradation, drought, cast bronze weapon and iron production technologies - could have combined to push the relative price of weaponry (compared to arable land) to a level unsustainable for traditional warrior aristocracies. In complex societies that were increasingly fragile and less resilient, the combination of factors may have contributed to the collapse.
The growing complexity and specialisation of the Late Bronze Age political, economic, and social organisation in Carol Thomas and Craig Conant's phrase together made the organisation of civilisation too intricate to reestablish piecewise when disrupted. That could explain why the collapse was so widespread and able to render the Bronze Age civilizations incapable of recovery. The critical flaws of the Late Bronze Age are its centralisation, specialisation, complexity, and top-heavy political structure. These flaws then were exposed by sociopolitical events (revolt of peasantry and defection of mercenaries), fragility of all kingdoms (Mycenaean, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egyptian), demographic crises (overpopulation), and wars between states. Other factors that could have placed increasing pressure on the fragile kingdoms include piracy by the Sea Peoples interrupting maritime trade, as well as drought, crop failure, famine, or the Dorian migration or invasion.