When it comes to cyclical, apparently impossible-to-solve conflicts in the world, the Middle East (also the Near East) never disappoints in entangled complexity. Ehud Barak, the tenth prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, summed up some time ago the area’s endemic instability: “They say in the Middle East a pessimist is simply an optimist with experience.”
Upon the surprise, vicious attack by Hamas on Israel, which targeted anybody they encountered without much regard for any ethics or conventions, we face once again the overwhelming pouring of impact images about what’s happening, from killings of civilians (including several activists helping Palestinians) to the kidnapping people of all ages.
These acts don’t come only out of desperation—and as a byproduct of an existing oppressive reality against Palestinians—but seem clearly directed to maximize pain.
Such images, sometimes arriving in our feeds with little concern about the cruelty they may depict, offer little to no context and seem only to seek a shock reaction and perhaps a sentiment contagion. If the intention is to shock and anger audiences, they may be serving their purpose.
Supported by the international community after the attack, Israel will have to demonstrate that it can overcome internal pressures to overreact in Gaza and possibly Southern Lebanon, making the conflict more gruesome for everyone involved. It will be tough to target Hamas in overcrowded Gaza surgically.
Sociologists who have studied the phenomenon of the “siege mentality,” a collective state of mind in which one or more groups of people rally behind their own sense of existence after feeling constantly attacked or oppressed, should focus their fieldwork on the small stretch of land between Anatolia to the North, the Fertile Crescent to the West, Arabia and the Sinai to the South, and the Eastern Mediterranean shore.
Israel won’t benefit from perpetuating a collective siege mentality.
Land where the past weighs as the present
The Levant is a small geographical area that Western newspapers and diplomats call the Near East (a term preferred by Europeans) or Middle East (more used in American media), encompassing Southeast Europe, West Asia, and Northern Africa, the historical heritage of the ancient civilizations, migrations and conflicts that forged the three main Abrahamic religions, which today play an active symbolic part in the conflict.
From the Neolithic onwards, the Near East hosted influential players in competition against each other, with Bronze Age powers appearing in the first literary texts and sacred books that would derive from the three monotheistic religions still trying to coexist in the area.
Peter Frankopan and others have written extensively about the region’s fluidity over the centuries, from the Central Asian conquests to Persian, Byzantine, or Ottoman dominance. Western colonialism and the Euro-American oil extraction interests added instability to the area where the State of Israel was established in 1948, after decades of zionist immigration into Palestine and building tensions with the Arab population.
The region comprised between the Fertile Crescent and the Eastern Mediterranean has played a key role in the world since Antiquity for many reasons. Still, one of them isn’t long periods of tranquility and harmony between neighbors.
Those having the temptation to blame the endemic instability in the Near East on either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the deeply entrenched sectarianism that has affected the region since time immemorial due to Religious intolerance, should take a look at the work of American archeologist Eric H. Cline, author of the nonfiction bestseller 1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed.
The Near East in the Late Bronze Age
At the end of the Bronze Age, that is, before the emergence of the Abrahamic religions that would shape the region (and the world), the Near East was already an essential geopolitical enclave that had thrived for centuries but came to a rapid collapse due to a series of shocks, including climate change across the Mediterranean basin, major earthquakes, epidemics, and the mysterious attack by forces coming by sea from the west that archeologists named the “Sea Peoples.”
Cline explains why he chose the date 1177 BC in the Late Bronze Age among others he could have considered to represent the end of a Golden Era of wealth, population growth, and flourishing cultures across the region: it’s the year Egyptian texts show as the invasion of the Nile Delta by the Sea Peoples, which also had arguably destroyed nearby cultures.
The attack represented the beginning of a decline in a region that had reached a profound commercial and cultural interdependence in the first deep regional integration ever experienced. Though this thriving world of international commerce and healthy cultural competition between powers across Southwestern Europe and the Near East came to a sudden halt, which set the ancient world to the Dark Ages, from which it only reemerged (and only partially) centuries after.
But the attack of the Sea Peoples can’t explain the widespread civilizational collapse of the Late Bronze Age world, in which flourishing cities and harbors hosted goods made by Mycenaeans, Minoans, Hittites, Assyrians, Kassites, Babylonians, Cypriots, Mitannians, Canaanites, and Egyptians (the superpower of the time and breadbasket of the Ancient World, with a gigantic wheat production sustained for millennia).
The year 1177 BC and us
Eric Cline’s style is more scientific and lacks the literary page-turning qualities of, say, books by Charles C. Mann or Jared Diamond. However, the abundant notes, carefully backing any argument with studies and archeological finds, make 1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed not only an enticing and quick read but also transform it right away into a reference book that talks as much about the distant past as it talks about the future.
It’s not clear where the Sea Peoples were coming from, though Cline carefully explains the different records from the attacks (including letters from cities asking for help from allies, only to find that their allies had been attacked as well), as well as archeological findings. They were arriving from the Mediterranean, perhaps the Aegean, Southern Italy, the Mediterranean shore of the Iberian Peninsula, or a combination of such places, escaping from worsening living conditions in their areas.
“Among the many scenarios suggested to explain the final days of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, the proposal made by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University a decade ago still seems most likely. He argues that the migration of the Sea Peoples was not a single event but a long process involving several phases, with the first phase starting in the early years of Ramses III, ca. 1177 BC, and the last phase ending during the time of Ramses VI, ca. 1130 BC.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 147
Whatever happened, the shock sent back entire centralized kingdoms with several cities, buildings, and carefully written administrative accounts (mainly in clay, using cuneiform on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean, linear B in the Aegean, and Egyptian hieroglyphs) back to smaller subsistence villages of herders living a Stone Age existence.
The powerful Hittites and their satellites (including the Homeric Troy) in Anatolia, as well as powerful port cities such as Ugarit in modern coastal Syria, were eventually abandoned due to attacks.
The last Bronze Age Hittite king we know interchanged letters with the last Bronze Age king of Ugarit Ammurapi. He demanded assistance from a commercial ally, the king of Alashiya (Bronze Age Cyprus), and his desperate tone sounds prescient:
“My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? … Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.”
Hammurapi didn’t find any help from Alashiya, but his letter to the kingdom of Carchemish, a satellite kingdom of the Hittites but also influenced by the Aegean kingdoms and Egypt, was successful. The ruler of Carchemish sent troops to Ugarit, but they arrived too late:
“When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!”
But the deadly incursions of the Sea Peoples didn’t happen overnight, and Near East peoples like the Biblical Philistines were in part descendants of such waves of migrants. Eric Cline explains how the genetic study of infant remains in Canaan, as well as the evolution of building techniques, pottery, and other objects in the area, which shows the influx of population coming from Southern Europe into the area:
“It turns out that all four infants have mixed DNA, with somewhere between one-quarter and more than one-half identifiable as ‘Southern European,’ reflecting ancestors who had come most likely from Bronze Age Crete or, less likely, from Sardinia or Spain, according to the geneticists.”
The Sea Peoples and other marauders
More than one or several related events causing the demise of Bronze Age civilizations and international order, findings by scholars point to a complex systems collapse due to several stressors inflicting instability over decades. But what caused the total collapse of this Golden Era and not in previous periods of famine, earthquakes, and attacks (included by the Sea Peoples or similar tribes)? What was different around 1177 BC that caused a transformation of the Ancient World from the centralized politico-economic systems of the Bronze Age to the decentralized, proto-Mad Max, smaller and poorer city-states of the Iron Age?
The case for “a perfect storm of calamities” inflicting the region in a linear, predictable way, which could yield a causal explanation of the collapse of the Bronze Age’s Golden Era, is studied carefully. Earthquakes, internal rebellions, unrest, invaders, the collapse of international trade, decentralization, disease, climate change, drought, and famine might all have played their roles. However, like in today’s Near East—and today’s international relations in general—things are more complicated from the perspective of people experiencing them at the time they are happening.
Pollen samples from the Nile Delta and evidence of a sharp increase in the Northern Hemisphere temperatures immediately before the collapse of Ugarit or the Mycenaean palatial centers in Bronze Age Greece point to changes in weather patterns that made it more difficult for centralized kingdoms to grow their food, with signs of severe drought in the Sea of Galilee in the time.
Other coastal changes appear in the archeological record, like “a dramatic demise in wooded ecosystems”:
“(…)Some scholars have suggested that deforestation may also have contributed to the decline at the end of the Bronze Age, in part because of the use of wood during the process of smelting copper to make bronze.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 160
When a megadrought may have tilted the demise of Mycenae
Growing aridity in places like Mycenae coincides with reduced crops in the worst possible moment, just when commerce was turning unreliable because of attacks and disasters, and the food production system was running close to its limits:
“Gradually developing aridity after 3150 years before present, i.e., subsequent to the destruction, probably reduced crop yields and helped to erode the basis of reinstitution of a central authority and the Palace itself.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 161-162
Mainland Greece fell in the Dark Ages, with their cities partially or totally abandoned and a cultural and material regression that was still present in the memory of pre-Classical Greeks during the times of Homer five centuries later, as his (or “their”) recompilation of the Iliad story (the oral poems of the sacking of Troy on the 13th or 12th centuries BC). The Iliad accounts were considered fantastic by some scholars until the discovery of Troy (a vassal city of the Hittite Empire called Wilusa, which suspiciously resembles “Ilios,” derived from “Wilios,” the other Greek name for the city) by Heinrich Schliemann at the end of the 19th century.
Eric Cline ends the revised edition of his book by weighing in the web of events that may have triggered the end of an era. The systems collapse theory defended by some scholars states that, in a moment of weakness and instability, one or several minor elements could have triggered a chain reaction that reverberated at a greater scale until the eventual collapse:
“A potentially useful metaphor that comes to mind is the so-called butterfly effect, whereby the initial flapping of a butterfly’s wings may eventually result in a tornado or hurricane some weeks later on the other side of the world.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 167
“Not only does the concept of a systems collapse fit the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean region ca. 1200 BC, but, as Renfrew pointed out, it also describes the collapse of the Maya, Old Kingdom Egypt, and the Indus Valley civilization at various points in time. As mentioned, such topics and discussions of ‘collapses’ throughout history, and of the possibility of cyclical rise and fall of empires, have been taken up by other scholars as well, most popularly and recently by Jared Diamond.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 168
A book that should be a bestseller in today’s troubled Lebanon
When talking about systems collapse, Cline mentions Colin Renfrew from Cambridge University, but also Nassim Nicholas Taleb (who is actually from the area and takes pleasure in finding etymological quizzes buried in the Near East’s deep history) and his success in vulgarizing the concept of Black Swan events for the masses.
What’s clear is that instability and administrative, commercial and food systems prone to disruption due to their intensive use led to the demise of the traditional elite class and the collapse of central administrations, which in turn triggered a population decline and a loss in trust.
Sociopolitical integration could have been rapidly forgotten, and a more atomized reality represented perhaps the opportunity for private merchants and adventurers to develop their own high-risk networks as local warlords. As commerce and food production dwindled, with no central authority acting as a peace warrant, societal unrest spread in formerly rich civilizations:
“Rebellions may well have spread, with lower classes storming the palaces and storerooms of their rulers. We know that people began deserting the larger cities, seeking safe haven in less populated areas, perhaps with more fertile soil, and possibly away from roving gangs of bandits and invaders who had left their own homelands.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 169
From that point of no return onwards, it didn’t take long for “the globalized, interconnected world of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean to grind to a halt, with economies disrupted and cities destroyed.
The other era of globalization
The ripple effects of the Bronze Age in the Near East (Western Eurasia’s most dynamic region at that moment in history) and most of the stressors that caused them, from a loss of trust to megadroughts, rising temperatures, attacks from marauders, and urban unrest, played out in ways that should concern us today.
If “collapse” is, according to Joseph Tainter, a sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity that can shape a place for generations, our moment in time seems to be arriving at the limit of the capabilities of several stressors.
Let’s consider, for example, the way scholar Christopher Monroe read the collapse of the Bronze Age Golden Era, according to Eric Cline:
“(…)The economy of the Bronze Age became unstable because of its increasing dependency on bronze and other prestige goods. Specifically, he saw “capitalist enterprise”—in which he included long-distance trade, and which dominated the palatial system present in the Late Bronze Age—as having transformed traditional Bronze Age modes of exchange, production, and consumption to such an extent that when external invasions and natural catastrophes combined in a multiplier effect, the system was unable to survive.”“1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed,” p. 171
Why read poorly-written science fiction to understand how the future may play out if one can do prospective by reading about how a thriving and globalized world in the past just regressed to the Stone Age by testing its own limits with no resilience plan in the pipeline?
Niall Fergusson published an article in Foreign Policy about “complexity and collapse” in which he elaborates how perfectly functioning even “good” systems go bad and eventually can trigger civilizational collapse.
A professor from the University of Sheffield, E.S. Sherratt, has described the similarities between the Late Bronze Age world and our own, with its “increasingly homogeneous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture, in which… political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.”
Prospective and resilience
In the new century, persistent instability in Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, geopolitical tensions between the Western world (NATO ally Turkey included), Russia, Israel, the Arabian monarchies, and Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are stressors in a world already running at its limit in many aspects.
Ongoing trouble in Ukraine, an overreaction by Israel in Gaza, and signs of internal stress in American and European politics are an opportunity for chaos that experts in resilience and systems collapse should consider. The situation may not be desperate, but we’d better recommend the widespread reading of books such as “1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed.”
That said, there’s also a case for creative destruction, and the collapse of unstable structures can help other models to emerge. It’s the case in Greece. After the Mycenaeans, which had already strained their economy and resources to their limits for the technology of the times, the collapse “provided the window of opportunity needed to ‘escape’ from an unsustainable socio-political structure.”
In other words, the Athenians, Spartans, and others may not have emerged and flourished as they did after the Dark Ages hadn’t the previous Golden Age come to a sudden halt centuries before, nurturing an era of Romanticism followed by another of a strong reemergence of the Aegean world, marked by the transition from Linear B to the Greek alphabet.
Conversely, something similar may have happened nearby after places like Ugarit collapsed. As a result, city-states in the Levant, like the Israelites, Arameans, and Phoenicians, had their chance in history.
And the story still resonates with us, mainly through traditions and texts considered sacred by most of the human population. It all came out of a tiny geographical spot punching above its weight.