Friday, December 09, 2016

1177 B.C. by Eric H. Cline (Book Review #73 of 2016)

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History)

This book presents Cline's research on the collapse of several societies around the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age and explores mysteries such as "Who were the Sea People?" It helps connect the dots between several peoples at the time and an attempt to recreate (with much uncertainty) what might have brought about the simultaneous collapse of these cultures.

It is not that this is a bad book, but the author has unfortunately chosen to sell it by linking the promo to the modern world and picking an arbitrary date in which "civilization collapsed." I was intrigued because Tyler Cowen seemed to like its promo: "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." This is silly as those nations as we know them today did not exist in 1177 BC and such words could be written about many time periods in history. Cline doubles down, however, by trying to draw parallels between the ancient and modern world. For example, what oil is to the modern economy tin was to the ancients. Those types of stretches are not necessary.

I was pleased to see that Cline collaborated some with Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, whose book David and Solomon I reviewed shortly before picking up 1177 BC. But like those authors, you are just as well to skip the book and read the articles the author has posted online (for Finkelstein look at This article Cline wrote in September does a decent job if you want the gist.  Another help to me was having lived in Ankara, Turkey and visited the museum of Hittite culture there and seen the relics of Hattusa and elsewhere. Jared Diamond's Collapse is also probably a must-read, as is Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail. If this part of the world doesn't interest you, you will be unlikely to enjoy it.

I study the Bible and recently spent a long time looking at Genesis to the exile, reading several books and commentaries comparing various hypotheses on the origins and possible dates of a Jewish migration from Egypt. Cline is pretty fair to all viewpoints, noting that biblical historians favor the 1400s as the time of the Exodus, whereas archaeologists favor the 1200s, and there is room for debate on either side. In some cases, Cline's work on the Sea Peoples rebuts some of what Finkelstein wrote rather confidently in his work. (Finkelstein claimed the description of Goliath's armor in 1 Samuel could only be that of a Greek hoplite of later post-exile Hebrew invention. But Cline writes that sketches found in Egypt of the Sea People from the 13th-12th centuries vary in their description and some sketches may contain either Sea People or ancient Greek warriors clad similarly to the biblical Goliath.) The book is a good reminder that archaeological theories change constantly with evidence, trends, and who gets funding or publicity. Hypotheses that solidify into theories in one century may be discarded the next, so take everything you read with a lump of salt.

Cline recounts what is known or suspected of three Sea Peoples invasions of Egypt and Palestine. Egypt was basically in decline from the 1500s until Shishak led a brief revival in the 900s. Egypt bore witness to struggles in Palestine among various peoples, some of whom Egypt had authority over during various periods. An example was the ~1480 BC battle of Megiddo in which Thutmose III fought to pacify a Canaanite people. (Gen. Edmund Allenby was conscious of this history when he fought the Battle of Megiddo in WWI.) There were also major battles between Egypt and the Sea Peoples but the various origins, tribes and distinctions named by the Egyptians are lost to us today--we can only hypothesize. Another mystery of this period is who razed several cities in the Mediterranean just before the migration of the Sea Peoples? Mycenaean cities were destroyed and their civilization was sent into decline. Was it the Sea Peoples? Earthquakes?

From Canaan, Cline shifts to the discovery and known history of the Hittite civilization in Anatolia. The Bible sometimes uses "Hittite" to describe the later descendants of these people in Canaan, the remnants of the empire. In 1595, the Hittite army sacked Babylon and apparently remarkably returned home, not expanding the empire. In 1430, there was an Anatolian uprising against the Hittites that may have some legendary connection to Homer's Trojan War. The Amarna letters showing Akkadian-written correspondence between Egypt and Canaanites give some insights into the Hittite world as well; some correspondence was between Pharoah and a Hittite king. Egypt allegedly supported the uprisings in Anatolia and perhaps supported other powers against the Hittites as well. Archaeologists have determined by looking at the range and type of artifacts originating in civilizations found in foreign cities that Hitties and Mycenaean on the island of Crete apparently did not trade with one another for centuries, they were in a deliberate state of war. The Hittites and Egyptians did fight in the 1200s, resulting in a treaty under Ramses II. The Egyptian-Hittite rivalry roughly prefigured the later Egyptian-Assyrian and Egyptian-Babylonian rivalries. THe rise of the Assyrians coincided with the decline of the Egyptian and Hittite empires, and the Assyrians began to assert their own will in places formerly under those kingdoms' influence.

So, from Anatolia to Canaan there was massive destruction around 1177BC. Cline believes there was a confluence of factors, a "perfect storm" that led to the collapse of these societies. There was widespread famine around 1250 BC that put stress on populations and led to migration. There were earthquakes in these regions that may be the cause of some of the devastation. Cline argues that the Bronze Age was a time of the first global economy and that their economies were too dependent on bronze. If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you may remember a domino effect-- when societies are dependent on one another and specialize heavily and trade, they suffer greatly when something happens to one society, which then leads to the collapse of the other. Perhaps the Mycenaean decline hastened the Hittite decline which led to the collapse of Ugarit, Lachish, and other cities separated by considerable distance. Ugarit is one example of a city lost in that period around 1177 that had previously been at the intersection of Hittite and Egyptian influence; records indicate that it was overrun by Sea Peoples. Lachish, in Palestine, was destroyed around 1150 BC. Archaeologists and biblical historians have long suggested this was done by Hebrews in occupying the land, but the fact that it happened around the time the Sea Peoples were causing destruction elsewhere raises questions. Hattusa, the Hittite capitol, was destroyed by unknown culprits but presumably the Sea Peoples and perhaps with help from locals.

Along with the question of "Who destroyed Lachish?" is the question "Who were the Philistines?" and "When did Israelites arrive in Canaan?" It is thought that the Philistines are the later descendants of the Sea Peoples, but they could be the (migrants or descendants) from SW Anatolia as well. Archaeologists and anthropologists look for clues in commonalities in language, religion, structure, etc. Much remains mystery. But the archaeology does suggest that during this period Palestinian cities began to be overtaken by a technologically-inferior people, which fits the Biblical account of Joshua. The Philistines are recorded as having the ability to make iron tools, weapons, and chariots while the Israelites are not. Egypt's New Kingdom dynasty also ends, after a long decline, around the same period. War and an apparent decades-long drought (possibly due to volcanic activity somewhere, according to some scientists) contributed to this decline.

While the book really oversells its premise that we can learn much about today's complex society by learning from the apparent simultaneous collapse of many ancient societies, it is still a decent overview of what is known or believed about that period and what is still being learned by archaeology and ever-changing timelines and hypotheses. The author stresses that it is all still a mystery. It makes one sad to think of all the treasures and undiscovered information lost in Syria and Iraq due to ISIS looting and the battles there now. Perhaps even our 20th century history is just as good a lesson at how quickly nations can go from largely peaceful cooperation and trade to being overrun and borders redrawn. In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.

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