books book reviews

Books about civilizational collapse

reviewed by T. Nelson


1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed

by Eric H. Cline

I n 1177 B.C., the thriving Bronze Age civilization that extended from Greece to Egypt suddenly collapsed, destroying a sophisticated system of international trade and ending the glory of Egypt's New Kingdom. Entire cultures, along with all their achievements, were lost forever and civilization there regressed into a dark age that lasted hundreds of years.

Many of the names and events from that period are still familiar to us: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, the Exodus of the Jews, and the Caananites, Hittites, Mycenaeans, Assyrians, and Mittanni, for example. Others are less so, like the Battle of Qadesh of 1274 B.C. between the Egyptians under Ramses (Ramesses) II and the Hittites of Anatolia. It was a time of thriving trade, international treaties, and occasional conflict as powerful civilizations competed for survival. The stakes were high, and miscalculation could lead to disaster.

But those great civilizations did collapse, some disappearing completely, and dozens of cities were destroyed, starting with Ugarit in Syria in 1190 B.C., followed by many others including Iolkos and Mycenae in Greece, Knossos in Crete, Troy and Hattusa (the Hittite capital) in Anatolia, and Megiddo and Ashkelon in the Levant. The tipping point was a colossal battle between Pharaoh Ramses III in Egypt and the enigmatic Sea People in 1177 B.C, the year Eric Cline marks as the definitive end of the Late Bronze Age.

Until recently this devastation was blamed entirely on the Sea People, a group of seafarers of Philistine or Aegean origin. But later archaeologists blamed earthquakes, climate change (formerly known as “drought”), or even, believe it or not, “capitalism.” Cline has no answer, other than to say it could have been a systems collapse. He invokes complexity theory, but this too is an unsatisfying explanation. Nevertheless Cline takes a scientific approach throughout the book, carefully weighing the archaeological evidence; his writing is engaging and the story is fascinating.

Despite its antiquity, understanding why the Bronze Age ended so suddenly and violently is of immense importance because of the possibility it could happen again. Some people today seem strangely sanguine about the prospect, comparing it, as Cline does, to a forest fire that clears away the old for the new. But those who were there, watching their culture turn to ash and their relatives exterminated, would not have seen it that way. Neither will we.

nov 30 2014