Famine and Upheaval in the Late Bronze Age PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur

From Egyptian, Hittite and Canaanite documents, it is clear that famine struck throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin beginning in the 13th century BC. Theories vary as to why this happened. Maybe there was a change in climate, maybe there were demographic factors or social disruptions linked to changes in military tactics. Whatever the reasons, we find large groups of hungry people on the move.

When the famine began, there were three main centers of civilization in this part of the world: Mycenean (my-s'-neean) civilization in Greece, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia (Turkey today), and Egypt. All three came under attack by groups of have-nots. Mycenae and other Greek strongholds, centers of literacy with elaborate bureaucracies, thicken their fortifications about 1250 BC. A hundred years later they are gone, burned, and nothing remains in Greece but poor villages. (The destruction is sometimes attributed to Dorians invading from the north.) The population of Greece and Crete declines drastically. Knowledge of writing is lost. Greece enters its "Dark Age."

The so-called
Sea Peoples – displaced groups from the area of the Aegean and/or western Anatolia – invade the Hittite Empire and Egypt . Rulers and vassals write each other demanding grain and military aid. As the Hittite Empire crumbles, more hungry peoples begin to migrate. For example, in a letter from the last years of the city of Emar on the upper Euphrates , around 1175 BC, we read: "In the year that the umman-gayu (army of people) besieged the city, one qa of barley was sold for one shekel of silver."

This provides a context for the Exodus. Mass migrations were going on throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin at the same time. In the midst of the turmoil, 254 small settlements appear in the highlands of Canaan .

Around 1100 BC, Tiglath-Pileser I, king of Ass yria, mentions fighting 20,000 people who had wandered from the Balkans as far as the Tigris, destroying and plundering everything on their route. He also says he crossed the Euphrates 28 times in pursuit of another large group, the
Arameans. It is the first mention of this people. (Remember Deuteronomy 26:5, "A wandering Aramean was my father.") Neither the Assyrians nor the Babylonians managed to subdue the Arameans, and they formed kingdoms through much of Mesopotamia. One such was at the oasis of Damascus. Later the Israelite kings would fight the Arameans of Damascus.

The Sea Peoples, as said above, invaded the Hittite Empire as well as Egypt. (The destruction of Troy , in the Hittite sphere, is usually put around 1200 BC.) They included a people called the Tjekel or Shkl, who would give their name to Sicily, and the Teresh, who may have been the forebears of the Etruscans in pre-Roman Italy, and a people called the Pleshet, the
Philistines, who (scholars judge from the pottery) were related to the Achaeans known from the Iliad.

"In no other period in the history of the Ancient Near East was the disruption of urban culture in Anatolia and S yro-Palestine so all-inclusive and complete as in the 12th century BC. …All the kingdoms (except Carchemish and Melid) were utterly sacked with no recovery. The wave of destruction reached as far as the Aegean and Balkan regions." (Na'aman, pp. 238-9.)

The Sea Peoples and the Libyans converged on the Egyptian delta. The Dorians swooped down into southern Greece . More significant for the present discussion are the movements of the Aramaeans out of the Syrian steppe lands into Syria and into central and southern Mesopotamia . The pastoralists from the steppe lands all around the fertile crescent were driven into the more settled areas. The movement of the Shasu into the hills of Cisjordan [the reference is to the 254 settlements mentioned above – SL] was the southern wing of that movement" (Rainey, p. 68).

Pharaoh Merneptah fought the Sea Peoples, and a few decades after his death, Pharaoh Rameses III had to fight them again. The battles are depicted in words and pictures on the walls of his mortuary temple, called Medinet Habu. Rameses claimed victory, but in fact he seems to have reached an arrangement with these peoples, allowing them to take over his cities on the southern coast of Canaan. He hoped, no doubt, that they would stave off further invasions, as well as hold the fertile lowlands against the large migrant groups that had been settling in the mountains, including one that his predecessor had called " Israel." The Philistines got the southern coast, and for a time they did cooperate with Egypt . They lived in city-states like the Canaanites, but they took over Egyptian methods of military organization.

Migrant groups kept pouring into Canaan, however, and Egypt could no longer afford to stem the tide. Around
1150 BC it began to retreat, and its client-cities in the Canaanite lowlands were destroyed. Except for a few brief forays, Egypt would stay out of the picture for centuries. Local leaders would get a chance to assert themselves – e.g., the Philistines, Saul, David, Solomon, Ahab…Much of Biblical history takes place in the rare interval when no great empire was dominating Canaan from Egypt, Asia Minor or Mesopotamia.