The book I am reading has the title 1177 BC: the Year Civilization Collapsed. It is by Eric H. Cline.
His choice of 1177 as the crucial year could be contested. But in the 8th year of the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, which he reckons as 1177, the Sea Peoples attacked Egypt. Actually this was just one of several waves of such attacks. But it is the one written down with the most detail in Egyptian records. These documents include pictorial representations of the Sea Peoples as tribes with different attire and weapons. So they probably represented a military alliance of several groups. Their transport included boats, but also chariots and oxcarts. So they came by both sea and land.
The 1177 attack seems to have come after the Sea Peoples had successfully defeated all other eastern Mediterranean powers. Ramses III claims to have decisively defeated them. This is probably true in the sense that his forces prevented them from overrunning the Nile Delta.
Cline is more accepting of the proud claims of Ramses III than I would be. Egypt apparently lost control of the trading routes to the north. Ramses III tried to put the best face on this by claiming to have deliberately settled the defeated Sea Peoples in strongholds and imposed taxes on them. However, the settlement of his enemies in Gaza (the biblical Philistines) and elsewhere was likely more an acknowledgement of reality than something he imposed. Perhaps he made an arrangement whereby some of the Sea Peoples formed buffer states shielding the Delta.
At any rate, Cline agrees that the Egyptian victory was hollow. Although only Egypt of all the powers was able to resist the onslaught, it was weakened and became a second-rate empire.
Thus the geopolitical situation was much changed after 1177. Egypt declined and other powers, like the Hittite empire, dried up and disappeared. It was as if civilization had just collapsed and all the advances in trade and culture of the previous centuries had been wiped out.
Some have taken this as a straight up military disaster. Scholars are divided about just who the Sea Peoples were. There are several theories. But the fact that we have such a hard time identifying them makes it especially surprising that they were able to just knock out big empires and powerful city states. Cline says that the tide of scholarship is now turning away from making military exploits the main cause of the Bronze Age collapse.
This is partly because doubts have been raised about whether all the destructions previously attributed to the Sea Peoples were really caused by them. The destructions attributed to them took place over as much as a century. So, although there were waves of attacks over many years, we can’t be sure that all the cities destroyed were destroyed by the same group. Digging up an ancient city can tell you that it was destroyed. But it often can’t tell you who or what did it.
Another newer theory is that the Sea Peoples themselves were victims of the forces at work in that age. They may have migrated because of factors that made their original homelands unsuitable.
So Cline tends toward the general systems theory of the late Bronze Age collapse. He says it is more likely that complex factors including climate change, natural disasters, and the outbreak of civil wars brought about a “perfect storm” that plunged civilization into darkness.
Cline’s idea is to make this study of ancient history relevant. He notes that many studies of ancient collapses, such as Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, get taken as warnings for modern society. So he thinks that we may learn something from the Bronze Age collapse that casts light on trends in this century.
In the current global economy, and in a world recently wracked by earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and the “Arab Spring” democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the fortunes and investments of the United States and Europe are inextricably intertwined within an international system that also involves East Asia and the oil-producing nations of the Middle East. Thus, there is potentially much to be gleaned from an examination of the shattered remains of similarly intertwined civilizations that collapsed more than three thousand years ago.