As we’ll see in other rigid, stratified civilizations, Sumer began to fall apart after about 1,900 BC, and was taken over by nearby rulers by 1,750 BC. The Sumerian people had remained where they were, and lived as they had lived, through many changes of rulership. This time, however, the “reason to obey” promoted by the rulers changed, and the farmers didn’t take to the change.
The Eridu formulation came apart once the Sumerian gods were no longer supported. The “successor empires” to the Sumerians (and there were many) brought their own gods with them, imposing them on the farmers.
And so, with the old religion gone… and with the new religion not respected… the rulers had to resort to the older, Nimrodic ways: ruling by fear, along with as much inertia from the Sumerian time as they could get. (“Keep doing what you’ve always done.”)
It’s hard to say exactly how people’s lives changed during this time, but certainly they became worse. And we can be certain about that because a large percentage of the populace moved away, and because moving away wasn’t easy to do in ancient times.
The map at the end of this lesson shows what we call “the collapse of the Bronze Age.” (Archaeologists like to separate times by the kinds of artifacts they find, and so they call the time that produced a lot of bronze artifacts the Bronze Age. They call the times before it the Stone Age and the Copper Age; they call the time after it the Iron Age.)
What happened was this:
In the years surrounding 1,200 BC, every major city in the eastern Mediterranean region was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again. Every ruling group in the area was destroyed. The one exception was Egypt, but even with their subjects imprisoned by the desert, they were so badly damaged that they never regained their strength.
The Near Eastern civilizations of that time were simply erased. Archaeologists have found dozens of destroyed cities with a thick ash layer, showing that they were burned. It appears that the small towns were abandoned and the cities were looted (massively robbed) and burned.
By digging through the ruins of these cities and examining them very carefully, we have gathered quite a bit of evidence from this event. Here are just a few pieces:
- A city in Southeastern Cyprus called Kokkinokremos was abandoned suddenly. The bronze-smith hid large pieces (ingots) of copper and tools in a pit in the courtyard, the silversmith hid two silver ingots and some scrap metal between two stones of a bench, and the goldsmith carefully buried all his jewelry and sheets of gold in a pit. Obviously, they hoped to return and recover their goods. They never did; the archaeologists found them.
- Another city on Cyprus was burned, but rebuilt and occupied for about a generation after the destruction, then abandoned permanently.
- After about 1,180 BC, the people of Crete suddenly left their previous settlements, fled to the mountains and rebuilt there.
We even have written records from this moment. One of them is a clay tablet that was found in a city named Ugarit, abandoned in an oven, seemingly from the moment of destruction. In it, a man named Ydn writes to “the king, his master,” that they are being attacked and asks the king to send 150 ships. In an earlier tablet from the same place, the king of Ugarit writes to the king of Alashia, saying:
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 Lycia? … Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here have inflicted much damage upon us.
There remains a great mystery to these events: Who were these “enemies” that destroyed all the previous ruling groups? In the few records that remain, they are called “Sea Peoples,” and we do know who at least some of them were (including the Philistines who frequently appear in the Bible), but we know little more, and historians have debated this question at great length.
What’s fairly certain is that the old rulers adapted very little to the Sea Peoples and their new types of attacks, which featured simple weapons like javelins, light armor, small shields and long swords.
Since 3000 BC, a ruler’s strength had been measured in horses and chariots. Charioteers would ride in circles around walking soldiers, firing arrows until they fled. The war methods of the the Sea Peoples took advantage of that model.
It appears that the military (war) efforts of the rulers had become rigid… that the people who profited from them defended them. We don’t know this for sure, but it seems that the problem went about like this:
The chariot maker’s guild defended any change that would require fewer chariots. (Usually by bribing the king’s advisors.) The bow-makers and arrow-makers did the same. And so new ways weren’t seriously considered.
It’s also interesting that chariot warfare began to disappear at just this time.
So, within a short time the Sea Peoples destroyed a model of rulership that had lasted for four thousand years. And then they dispersed; they did not stay and set themselves up as new overlords.
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