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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
(Turning Points in Ancient History)
by Eric H. Cline (Andy Caploe - Narrator)
Published by Princeton University Press 2014
and Audible Studios 2014

In a turn from the usual, I decided the next book I needed to listen to during my daily commute would not be a Science Fiction or Fantasy work. I wanted something more scientific. Something I could sink my mind into. My recent post about the Yamnaya culture whetted my appetite for ancient history, so I opted for this Princeton University Press/Audible published work by Dr. Eric H. Cline, the former Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and current Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at The George Washington University. Dr. Cline is without a doubt an expert in this field. Perusing his biography on Goodreads.com will verify that fact. 

So what is this book about? Well, according to the publisher's summary it's about this:
In 1177 B.C., marauding groups known only as the "Sea Peoples" invaded Egypt. The pharaoh’s army and navy managed to defeat them, but the victory so weakened Egypt that it soon slid into decline, as did most of the surrounding civilizations. After centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end. Kingdoms fell like dominoes over the course of just a few decades. No more Minoans or Mycenaeans. No more Trojans, Hittites, or Babylonians. The thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C., which had stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, suddenly ceased to exist, along with writing systems, technology, and monumental architecture. But the Sea Peoples alone could not have caused such widespread breakdown. How did it happen?
In this major new account of the causes of this "First Dark Ages", Eric Cline tells the gripping story of how the end was brought about by multiple interconnected failures, ranging from invasion and revolt to earthquakes, drought, and the cutting of international trade routes. Bringing to life the vibrant multicultural world of these great civilizations, he draws a sweeping panorama of the empires and globalized peoples of the Late Bronze Age and shows that it was their very interdependence that hastened their dramatic collapse and ushered in a dark age that lasted centuries.
A compelling combination of narrative and the latest scholarship, 1177 B.C. sheds new light on the complex ties that gave rise to, and ultimately destroyed, the flourishing civilizations of the Late Bronze Age - and that set the stage for the emergence of classical Greece.
I must admit this time in ancient western society has always held my attention, even more so than the Roman period. This is the time of the Old Testament, the Hebrew story of how the Kingdom of Israel came to be. This is also the time of The Trojan War, of which Homer wrote about many hundreds of years afterwards in The Iliad and The Odyssey. It was the height of the western Bronze Age. Chariots were the tanks of this time, and allowed the founding of the first empires in human history. Sailing vessels plied the coasts of Greece, Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt, bringing peoples from many nations into contact with one another. And if these little tidbits of historical meat are not enough, we recently had the discovery of an early Mycenaean warrior's tomb filled with riches of bronze, silver and gold - much of which came from the Minoan civilization on Crete; Thus illustrating that even 3500 years ago wealth from across the civilized western world was already traded and ostensibly coveted for appearance's sake.

This society flourished for three hundred years, and then seemingly over night it vanished during the 12th century B.C. The great empires fell and from our perspective 3100 years later there was no reason for it. But slowly over the course of the last century and more so on the last 20 years, archaeologists have pieced together a hazy view of that long lost time. They've done so by carefully sifting through the remains of ancient cities. They've unearthed letters sent between the rulers of these ancient empires. They've discovered ship wrecks from those days - with the cargo intact! They've analyzed the climatological records buried in lake sediments. And every step of the way they have reanalyzed what happened and tried to understand why.

That's where this book comes in. It is not a book espousing one theory over another. It is a summary of all that has been discovered in the last few decades, and how those discoveries have shed light on the people living at that time. It is an overview of a golden age in human history of which we know precious little.

This is not a book that gets into the nitty-gritty of of one particular theory or another. It talks about them all: their strengths, their weaknesses and their prejudices. It gives them all fair shrift, and tries not to put one in front of another. The book is analytical, not confrontational.

This book also attempts to bring to life the people living at that time. Too often modern humans think of ancient humans as somehow less intelligent or less capable than we are today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lack of technological advancement is not a litmus of intelligence. These ancient people planned, and pleaded, and schemed with the best/worst of us modern humans. The author brings this out in the many letters he quotes. Hearing those ancient sentences that were put down in clay so long ago gives me thrills. It is our ancient ancestors speaking so we can overhear them though more than three millennial separate us from them. And they are pretty much just like us, though their manner of address is fascinating,
To NaphuVuria, King of Egypt, my brother, thus hath
spoken Burraburiash, King of Karduniash, thy brother :
With me it is well ; with thee, with thy land, thy house,
thy wives, thy children, thy nobles, thy horses, thy
chariots, may it be exceeding well ! I and my brother
have spoken friendly with one another, and thus have we
spoken : " As our fathers were, so will we also be good
friends." (full text here
These words were written more than 3000 years ago. It should be noted that these two men were probably not biological brothers. However, diplomatic correspondences from throughout the lands of the western Bronze Age often use familial associations to connote diplomatic relations. Thus a lesser king would address a more powerful king as father, kings of equal power as brother, etc. Doesn't that thrill you? Well, if it doesn't perhaps this book isn't for you.

This book is for those who don't have a well founded background in entirety of western Bronze Age history but want to. It's a starting point. Though I knew some of what was discussed about a few of these ancient civilizations, I did not have the overall picture of how these civilizations interacted. I didn't understand how they related to one another. I did not appreciate the complexity of their interdependence. And I certainly had no idea of how wide spread contact between all these civilizations were. If you wish to know this sort of information and make a start down the road on learning more, this is the book for you. It will serve as a solid foundation for anything else you may read or study later. It will provide context. 

If you are seeking specific information about specific events or empires, you will be disappointed by this book. It isn't concerned with one place, or one person, or just one event. It's concerned with everyone all over the eastern Mediterranean, and more over their interconnections and interactions. It's a holistic treatise, not a discovery announcement. Much of what is stated in this book has already been stated elsewhere; in some instances many else-wheres. But this book pulls them all together in one place at one time, and allows the reader to grasp the whole of it. It's a staggering picture to the unacquainted. To the mildly acquainted, it's a real eye opener. It may not impress others.

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