Chapter 3: Catastrophe and Advance

The period between 1500 and 1200 BC was the high point of the Bronze-Age civilization in the Middle East. It ended in catastrophe for almost all the states concerned.

A double blow fell on them. From the west came the “Sea Peoples”, a group of tribes set in motion by population movements in Europe[1] and swarming along the coasts of Asia Minor, Syria, Canaan[2] and Egypt.[3] The Hittites were overwhelmed by them, their empire completely vanishing. The Egyptians, already weakened by internal struggles, only narrowly escaped complete defeat.

Meanwhile, another group of nomadic tribes called the Aramaeans, who had replaced the Amorites in the deserts and grasslands between Mesopotamia and Syria sometime in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, now expanded violently outwards, capturing cities in northern Syria and attacking deep into Mesopotamia.


This period of upheaval was accompanied by two major cultural and technological advances. Iron had been used in small quantities since the dawn of metallurgy, but only as a precious metal. Sometime in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, a new way of smelting and manufacturing iron objects had been developed, probably somewhere in Asia Minor. These developments made iron suitable for use in weapons and other artefacts.

At this stage, iron was no stronger than bronze, but the upheavals in the Middle East after 1200 BC probably disrupted the long-distance trade routes which made large-scale bronze production possible. Between 1200 and 1000 BC, therefore, iron, which is a commonly occurring mineral throughout the world, became used in making weapons. Being plentiful and cheap, iron also began to be used for making agricultural implements. In this, it is vastly more suitable than stone and wood, which, because of the expense of Bronze, had been the chief material for agricultural tools up to now. The spread of iron farming tools was to greatly raise agricultural productivity.

Gradual improvements in iron-smelting techniques increased its strength and flexibility, making it more suitable in armour and weaponry than bronze, and further increasing its use in agriculture.

The alphabet

The second major cultural advance was the alphabet. Like iron, this had also been developed sometime in later 2nd millennium BC, probably in Canaan.[4] It is possible that its distribution was held back by opposition from the ruling elites. The cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing systems in use in the Bronze Age were highly complex and took a long time to master. As a result, literacy was restricted to a small class of priests, scribes and rulers, who could afford to put their children through long years of training. Literacy, in fact, was a mysterious craft belonging to those of elite status.

Alphabetic scripts, on the other hand, can be learnt quickly, and had the potential to spread to much larger sections of the population as reading and writing could now be mastered without a long, specialised education. The prospect of the masses becoming literate would have appalled the old elites.

The disruption of the late 2nd millennium, however, greatly slackened these elites’ hold on power, at least for a time, and use of the alphabet began to spread.

New peoples to the fore

With the great powers of the late Bronze Age gone or weakened, new peoples were able to come to the fore. In Syria, the Phoenician[5] cities adopted the early alphabet as their writing system. Being a trading people, having literate merchants and craftsmen was a valuable asset. When more stable conditions returned to the Mediterranean, after about 1100 BC, they pioneered long-distance trade routes as far as Spain, and even into the Atlantic, eventually reaching southern Britain. They grew rich on the proceeds of trade, but they would also transmit the use of the alphabet to the peoples of the Mediterranean.

Two other peoples emerged into the light of history at this time of upheaval. The Philistines had come to the region as part of the Sea Peoples, and settled in a confederacy of five city-states on the coast of Canaan. In fact, the country of Canaan came to be called after them, Palestine.

The Israelites

The other people were the Israelites.[6] These had invaded Palestine sometime in the troubled times around 1200 BC, when the grip of the great powers of the area had been withdrawn. They had formed a loose coalition of tribes before being united under one king (the ill-fated Saul), around 1050 BC.

The Israelites had brought with them the first (as far as we know) monotheistic religion in world history, centred on the worship of the One God, Yahweh. This fact would have profound effects on later history.

Meanwhile the Kingdom of Israel flourished for a brief period after 1000 BC under its kings, David and Solomon, before splitting into two halves.

The surrounding peoples who had come under Israelite control, the Moabites, Edomites, Philistines and Aramaeans, soon shook themselves free.

The Camel tamed

A final development to mention is the domestication of the camel at about this time.

This allowed the desert fastnesses of the Arabian peninsula[7] to be crossed by trade routes, and the way of life of the nomadic Bedouin tribes dates from this time. Probably connected to this development was the rise of an urban civilization in southern Arabia, beginning in 1000 BC.

Link: map of the Middle East in 1000 BC



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