What Destroyed All of the Major Bronze Age Cities?

By Grant Piper

The apocalypse began around the year 1250BCE and would last a century. During this time period, humanity’s greatest calamity would strike the Mediterranean region. Despite bringing about the demise of nearly every major human civilization, including the destruction of dozens of large cities, the cause and details of this event are largely disputed and unknown.

What is known, is the vastness of the collapse and the absolute destruction that struck the region.

The Bronze Age produced modern and sophisticated civilizations. Their architecture was advanced, their artwork was detailed, they had multiple written languages and mastery over the region on a grand scale. Large and mythical cities such as Troy and Ugarit existed during this period and were part of the cities that showed signs of utter destruction.

So what did cause the collapse? How were dozens of cities reduced to smoking ruins?

The scale of the destruction

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A map of the states during the Bronze Age before the collapse. (Credit: Wiki Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The most remarkable thing about this event was not the rise and fall of civilizations, that had happened before and would happen again. It was how violent this collapse was in comparison to other events in human history. A scholar by the name of Robert Drews presented a list of forty-seven major cities that were destroyed during this period. Not just the subject of battle or hardship but outright vanquished, never to be inhabited again.

Drews claims that every major settlement between Pylos in Greece and Gaza in the Levant was destroyed and abandoned. Forty-seven were credibly identified as having been destroyed during this period, and the number is probably much higher in actuality.

That is a fantastically high number. For context, if the forty-seven largest cities in the United States were destroyed you would start with New York City and go all the way down to Tulsa. Cities in between would include major population centers such as Boston, Memphis, Columbus, and Las Vegas.

That is akin to what happened during this period. By the end, every major civilization in the region would fall including the mythical Mycenaeans, Egypt, and the Hittite Empire, leaving weakened rump states in their wake.

What could have caused such a massive failure of civilization in such a relatively short period of time? A hundred years is nothing to the vastness of history and humanity had never seen such a fast and decisive collapse before.

The result was the loss of entire peoples. Languages vanished. The arts were destroyed. Records gone. Trade completely halted. Literacy dropped to near zero.

There are three leading theories as to what caused these cities to fall but there is no consensus on the matter.

Natural disasters

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A sketch of Tiryns, a Mycenaean city that was destroyed during this period. (Public domain)

One of the leading theories is that these cities were destroyed by a string of powerful natural disasters. The Mediterranean is a geologically active region and it is not out of the question that there could have been a period of particular violence in terms of geologic events.

A string of powerful volcanic eruptions coupled with a string of large earthquakes could have destroyed many Bronze Age cities in the region. The result would have caused chaos for the people living in and around the cities leading to mass migrations and unrest.

The problem is, when the ruins were studied, there was no definitive evidence that showed the damage was caused by natural disasters. There are no Vesuvius moments where towns were unearthed and it was apparent what destroyed them.

Famine

Some evidence has been found to suggest that this century saw an unprecedented drought. Either due to a general shift in the Earth’s climate or just a freak period of unnaturally dry weather, the result was a dramatic loss of overall rainfall in the region.

A massive famine could have been caused by large-scale crop failure as a result of little to no rainfall. The result would have been mass migration, unrest, and violence as people slowly starved to death at unprecedented levels.

This could be used to describe the mass deaths that took place during this period but does not do a great job explaining how nearly every major city was reduced to rubble.

It is possible that the famine led to massive bread riots and that popular uprisings by hungry citizens destroyed the cities. Again, it is unclear.

The mysterious Sea People

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A terrifying depiction of the Sea People’s attacks on Egypt. (Public domain)

The most interesting theory points to a new group of people that appeared on the scene during this time. They are described as the Sea People and they arrive with unparalleled violence and military superiority seemingly out of nowhere. Historians and archeologists have no clue as to their ethnicity, place of origin, or culture.

The Sea People were raiders that would appear and terrorize cities in the region before vanishing again. They waged multiple campaigns against the Pharaohs of Egypt during this period. Multiple Egyptian tablets and inscriptions describe them as a warlike people who committed great violence. They said none could withstand their might.

Some scholars believe that these people went on a tear through the region, destroying cities and committing mass atrocities during a particularly effective period of their existence.

The destruction of enemy cities and the mass slaughter of people is a common practice during this era that is often described in the Hebrew Bible. It is possible that the chaos, confusion, and violence committed by these mysterious Sea People was too much for the civilizations of the region to bear and the destruction and violence led to the unrest that unseated the great nations of the time.