- 1077 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
The southern rim of the Mediterranean was set ablaze by the Arab Awakening in 2011. Early hopes of a transition to democracy and more accountable government have largely been dashed, and the region continues to be dominated by violence and turbulence with uncertain outcomes. The current conflagration could ultimately remake the map of North Africa and the Middle East; many of the nations and states currently in the Middle East may not be there in the coming decades, due to war, migration, and state collapse. Indeed, this is the ultimate objective of the Islamic State (ISIS), which seeks to establish a caliphate that stretches across current state borders. As ISIS entered Iraq in 2014, its sleek propaganda machine even called the move “Smashing Sykes-Picot,” referring to the 1916 Anglo-French treaty that established the French and British spheres of influence in the Middle East.
It is arguable that the upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East was a long time in coming, considering regional megatrends such as youth bulges, low economic growth, water stress, failure to meet rising expectations, and government mismanagement, along with incessant wars from Iraq to Lebanon. Indeed, fifteen years ago the US intelligence community coined the phrase “the arc of crisis” to explain the long-term trajectory of political and social development in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. It now seems that that arc of crisis has indeed descended and spread rapidly across the region.
But this is not the first time that the broader Middle East has undergone vast and violent change that brought with it the fall of rulers and the disappearance of cultures, [End Page 135] communities, and societies. In his new book, 1077 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, DC, highlights one of the less-well-known periods of tumultuous change in the eastern Mediterranean.
During the late Bronze Age the well-established and solid civilizations of, among others, the Mycenaeans, Minoans, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Egyptians all came under pressure from the so-called Sea Peoples, who wreaked havoc on trade networks, communities, political relationships, and power structures across the eastern Mediterranean region. And while the Sea Peoples, their origins still a mystery to this day, were ultimately defeated by the Egyptians, the civilizations that were touched by the marauding Sea Peoples never recovered their former standing and began to decline and eventually left the scene open for other emerging civilizations such as the Greeks and, later, the Romans.
Traditional scholarship on the late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean region has very much focused on the coming of the Sea Peoples as the reason for the decline and fall of the great civilizations of the region during that time, and the year 1077 BC has served as a convenient marker for that event as it was the year that the Sea Peoples clashed with the Egyptians, much as the year 476 AD has been used to define the fall of Rome. Indeed, warfare between the Sea Peoples and the people of the eastern Mediterranean had been going on for more than two decades by the time of the battles in 1077 BC.
Of course, in both instances the processes related to decline were much longer and more complicated, and the years provided for convenient reference unhelpfully shroud that fact. In his book, Cline also adds an important corrective to the traditional narrative by pointing to the many forces at work that contributed to the decline and eventual fall of the civilizations touched by the Sea Peoples.
Cline shows that the empires of the period where remarkably connected, in a fashion that in some ways resemble our own globalized world. Trade, for example, brought Egyptians and Hittites close together, and the rulers communicated with each other through the trade routes. The book includes a number of examples of these communications between the rulers of the...