A new and exciting book fell into my lap the other day, adding an archaic flavor to the current stew of apprehension and awe about where the world is going, and what we might find when it gets there. The book, by Eric H. Cline, an archeologist and anthropologist, is called “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.” It adds that remote date, previously inauspicious to all but scholars of the Late Bronze Age, to other, later ones—476 A.D., when Rome got sacked for good; 1348, the first year of the Black Plague; and that grim centennial favorite, 1914—as one more marker showing how a thriving civilization can gasp, fall over, and give up.
Cline is concerned with figuring out all the ingredients in the “ ‘perfect storm’ that brought down the flourishing cultures and peoples of the Bronze Age—from the Mycenaeans and Minoans to the Hittites, Assyrians, Kassites, Cypriots, Mitannians, Canaanites, and even Egyptians.” That’s some roll call of collapse, one that used to be ascribed to the invasions of mysterious “Sea Peoples”—the Bronze Age version of the Vikings, in the Dark Ages. Cline, like many modern historians, is inclined to believe that legendary battles were actually screen memories of much longer processes, internally lit, in which the civilizations were undermined as much as invaded. They leaked away, like water under a sink, and weren’t simply shut off, like a faucet. (It is the aim of all academic historians in our time to drain as much drama from history as is consistent with the facts; and it is the goal of popular historians to add as much drama to history as is consistent with the facts, or can be made to seem so.)
But the memorable thing about Cline’s book is the strangely recognizable picture he paints of this very faraway time. The silent conspiracy of stones—the obvious fact that architecture survives best and longest, showing us the vast, the Cyclopean, the cool, the pyramidal—makes the Bronze Age look strangely monolithic and remote: all those burned-out palaces, all that broken pottery, all those Egyptians in profile procession. In truth, as Cline explains, it was as globalized and cosmopolitan a time as any on record, albeit within a much smaller cosmos. The degree of interpenetration and of cultural sharing is astonishing. Minoan painters (or what we call Minoans, anyway; no one knows what they called themselves) were employed in Egyptian halls and palaces to decorate them with their pet imagery of diving women and dancing bulls, utterly exotic in Egyptian royal circles, while King Hammurabi, of Babylon—the big guy with the Code—seems to have ordered a pair of stylish leather shoes all the way from Crete, “which were returned.” (“Perhaps they simply didn’t fit, “ Cline speculates.) One has the sense that the Minoans were, in the period, rather like the French at the end of the nineteenth century, the go-to guys for refinement and style all around the known world.
Indeed, the likeness of Minoan art to Art Nouveau used to be put down to the fantasy reconstructions of the British archeologist Arthur Evans, but as Minoan stuff pops up elsewhere, including in Egypt, the recaptured artistic gestures now seem true—just the way they painted—and the resemblance meaningful: a stylish style for a stylish time.
Minoans from Crete painted for Egyptians; Mycenaeans in turn colonized Crete; Hittites, defeated in battle in their native Anatolia, became Neo-Hittites, who survived, like Anglo-Indians in post-Independence India. The human impulses of trade and exchange, of cultural piggybacking, were, for all the difficulties of travel and time, strong enough to blend tribes and groups and peoples as varied as any we know now. The globalized world—that is, one where cosmopolitan permeability of peoples is the rule, rather than the special exception—seems the old and hardy fact about human existence, while the idea of the walled-off, unique nation, with its singular spirit, is the newcomer.
And then it all ended. Who the Sea Peoples, who executed that ending, actually were seems hard to know for sure. Indeed, Cline, reviewing the scholarly literature, suggests that, as with the Vandals in Rome, or Sarajevo in 1914, the fracture lines were already inscribed on the surface of the civilizations. The collapse was, he says, with eerie relevance, probably best explained by “complexity theory”:
If the late Bronze Age civilizations were truly globalized and dependent upon each other for goods and services, even just to a certain extent, then change to any one of the relevant kingdoms, such as the Mycenaeans or the Hittites, would potentially affect and destabilize them all…. The trading networks, that were both interdependent and complicated in their relationships, thus were open to instability the minute there was a change in one of the integral parts.
A double dose of truth about civilizations, bronze, iron, and digital, hits home: they have far more appetite for interchange and exchange, export and import, imitation and emulation, than we recognize in our pessimistic moments. Even societies that were, by our standards, entirely “closed,” like absolute monarchies, are almost always open at the seams and the edges, if only to other people’s shoes and styles. Closed states like Sparta and North Korea, are the great exception to human communities—or they try to be; more people walk across borders, and tell one another stories, than leaders would like to believe. And the other truth is that those states come apart, destroy one another, over what begin as small slights and differences and then become magnified before anyone quite sees the consequences—the human appetite for destruction and reinvention are both extreme, and coexist easily, or in quick succession.
And so the funniest tale Cline tells of the long-gone time is also the saddest and, in a way, the most telling: it involves the quarrel of two Egyptian kings, Apophis and Seknere. It seems that the Hyksos king, Apophis, was infuriated—in a way that any New Yorker will understand—because Seknere was keeping his pet hippopotamus in a moat, and it made too much noise. (The Hyksos were an outside group who invaded Egypt and briefly ruled.) “Turn down the damn hippo!” one king wrote, in effect, to the other. “It’s my Hippo, and he’ll cry if he wants to!” the other seems to have said back. And so Apophis turned to arms and killed Seknere.
The whole thing is so preposterous and absurd that one would think, as Cline writes, that it is surely apocryphal. But now the mummy of Seknere has been found—and the inarguable truth is that he did indeed die in battle, his head hacked open with an axe. No one knows if the cause was truly the noisy hippopotamus, though that seems as credible as any other provocation. Great city-destroying quarrels begin with what turn out, to be, in retrospect, absurdly flimsy reasons. Modern historians will doubtless try to attach deeper causes to the quarrels—just as Hammurabi may have returned his shoes in a symbolic gesture of refusal, perhaps the braying hippo was a conventional cultural code for some other, economic quarrel. But our own experience suggests the reverse: people with money and power are annoyed when their shoes don’t quite fit; great powers come to grief over the noise a hippo makes, or is thought to make, even when the moat is nowhere near the palace. That sound—the hippos barking first, the women mourning later—seems to be the permanent sound of civilization, and its noisier discontents.