Around 1200 B.C.E. there took place a series of events that we call the late Bronze Age collapse. All around the east end of the Mediterranean city states and empires fell or got pushed back. Previously the Hittite Empire held sway over Anatolia and northern Syria. Egypt held sway over Canaan, Lebanon and southern Syria. This world order fell apart. The Hittite empire ended. Egypt withdrew into Egypt proper and no longer exercised dominance in the Levant. Also the Mycenaean cities on the Greek islands and the cities on Cyprus fell. Ugarit fell. A kind of dark ages ensued.
For students of the Bible, this has two major consequences. First, it created a power-vacuum in Canaan that seems to coincide with the rise of Israel or Israel’s movement into Canaan. Second, the Philistine settlement of Gaza, prominent in stories from Judges and Samuel, relates to the mysterious Sea Peoples whose sea and land raids seem to have finished the Hittites and weakened the Egyptians.
What caused this?
There have been a variety of theories.
Natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, famine and plague may have played a role. Climate change is being explored as a possible explanation.
The very fact that this marked the change from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age hints that technology may have figured in. Iron weapons were not as good as bronze, but more of them could be made. So perhaps troops armed with the new iron spears overwhelmed the elite chariot corps of Hatti and Egypt.
Military historian, Robert Drews, thought that iron working and advances in bronze production were paired with new military tactics. Foot soldiers with shields, javelins and long swords no longer had to avoid facing chariots on the plains. There is a short summary of his conclusions here.
A newer proposal comes from systems theory and does not see a single cause-and-effect reason for the collapse. Possibly the military defeat of the empires and city states involved the interplay of demographics, political instability and unwieldy institutions. It could be as much true that the military disasters resulted from the collapse as that lost wars caused the collapse. This perspective is called the general systems collapse theory.
Another mystery involves the Sea Peoples, among whom were the Philistines. We still do not know their background and motives. Sea Peoples is partly a mistaken name. Some of them were like pirates or Viking sea raiders. But many of them seem to have migrated by land. So they were Sea and Land Peoples.
This leads me to the next book I want to make a reading project, Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I’ll start next week.