Article By Eli Eshed

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Back to the Bronze Age?

The world is currently going through radical changes, from attacks by religious fanatics, proliferation of nuclear arms to extreme regimes like North Korea and Iran, to a massive immigration from poor countries to the wealthy West, whose own populace is ageing, thus beginning a process of cultural change in the West. In addition, the global climate is changing in ways that may have profound effects on the entire human civilisation. It is clear to scientists that Israel and its region is going through a process of warming and dwindling of water resources that will last for many years.

This combination of events is strikingly similar to what happened some 3200 years ago, during one of the most important periods of the history of this region. In the 12th Century BCE, the Mediterranean basin, including the land of Canaan went through a severe crisis. Until that time, two superpowers, Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, conducted a type of a "cold war", using various parts of Syria, Lebanon and Canaan as pawns in their power game. One of the roots of their might was that these two kingdoms acquired the secrets of casting iron weapons, while other nations only had arms made of bronze, a much weaker metal. The Hittites kept iron technology as a well-guarded state secret.

Around 1200 BCE, the situation changed unexpectedly, when the region was attacked by armies of foreign nomads, who arrived from faraway places like the Balkans and the Aegean Sea. Among them were the Philistines, who probably came from the Greek Islands. Faced with this sudden change, the Hittites turned to their former Egyptian enemies with desperate appeals to help them with food and wheat supplies. The Hittite Empire gradually disintegrated and was probably defeated by the nomadic tribes. It disappeared from history, but the secrets of iron technology were now spread around the world.

Mighty Egypt succeeded with great difficulty to halt the invading tribes, including the Philistines, but the crisis had weakened the kingdom, although it remained an important regional player. Worse than the invasions was the drought that hit the entire region, causing massive famine and internal deterioration in various kingdoms. It seems that this drought was the cause for the population moves from the Balkans and the Aegean Sea to the East, where it only made the crisis worse.

What happened there? What was the reason for the drought and the invasions?

Recent studies show that the main cause was an acute climatic change that brought about intense warming in the entire Mediterranean basin. A similar change occurred at least once before, some 1000 years earlier, around 2200 BCE, completely destroying the advanced urban Canaanite civilisation of the Early Bronze Age, as well as the cultures of the Chaldeans and India's Mohenjo-Daro. It ruined many settlements in Anatolia, Crete, Europe and even in faraway America. Egypt was also badly hurt and it her many years to recover.

Canaan suffered a similar climatic problem in the Middle Bronze Age, but this time the population was well prepared. Archaeologists have found evidence that the Canaanites developed extensive irrigation systems that allowed them to survive the droughts, which were probably as bad as the previous ones.

Around 1200 BCE, the region's climate warmed up again and turned many areas into arid wastelands. Prosperous Canaan, which was ruled by the wealthy Egyptian Empire, was practically ruined, probably less by the nomadic invaders and more by the drying of its water resources that supported its agricultural economy. The Canaanite cities did not fall into the hands of Israelite tribes, whose existence is hardly proven. It is quite clear that invaders had nothing to invade at that time, since the entire Canaanite socio-economic system collapsed during the drought. They must have suffered some civil wars between groups of desperate dwellers that struggled for the few remaining precious resources. A city like Hatzor may have been burnt in such a civil war rather than by external invaders. The total chaos was probably used by some lower social elements, such as the "Habiru" (or Hebrews), low-class nomads, who resemble today's homeless tramps. These elements may have carried out violent raids on various targets.

It seems that the main reason for the decline of the urban Canaanite civilisation was an internal disintegration. The cities turned into death traps, mainly due to the shortage in supplies. Archaeological findings show that large populations "disappeared" within a single generation. This was not the result of an external invasion, but simply thousands died of thirst and hunger.

Some segments of Canaanite society wandered to the hills, far from the dying cities, and built new lives for themselves in the new environment. Groups of nomads from the desert probably joined them, including some that may have ran away from Egypt, along with groups that came from the Mediterranean islands. This whole mixture contained the molecules of what we call today the People of Israel.

The stories of the Book of Judges may reflect to some extent real events that happened in that era. The crisis led to the creation of new cultures, such as the Jewish culture, that emerged from the stories about the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, that supposedly took place around that time. The Classical Greek culture also appeared in that period, with the story of the siege on Troy that happened in this time.

Current climatic changes, similar to those that happened 3200 years ago, are also accompanied by large waves of immigration, which will only increase in the future. These threaten our civilisation, just as they intimidated the ancient Canaanites. We can ignore this trend and pay the price like the Canaanites of the Early and Later Bronze Ages, whose culture vanished from the world. Alternatively, we can properly prepare ourselves to the new reality and ensure our existence and prosperity, like the Canaanites of the Middle Bronze Age did.

Eli Eshed, 14/April/2005


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