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The first collapse of civilization had a lot to do with migrants

Pharaoh presented himself as a great victor: “The northern lands trembled.

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The first collapse of civilization had a lot to do with migrants

Pharaoh presented himself as a great victor: “The northern lands trembled... I protected Egypt... Those who came to land were cast down and killed... Those who entered the mouths of the Nile were caught like birds in a net ; so they were destroyed... their chiefs were taken away and killed.” This is how the Egyptian ruler Ramses III described. (reigned 1180–1156 BC) at his mortuary temple in Medinet Habu his victories over an enemy “from the north” who had previously overthrown “all lands”: the so-called “Sea Peoples”.

But so glorious was Pharaoh's victory in 1177 B.C. probably not. Because some attackers then set about settling down permanently in the foreland of the Nile, in the southern Levant. There they established an impressive rule, which brought them numerous mentions in the Old Testament. The best known is the story of David and the mighty Goliath, a hero of the Philistines. That these with the "Peleset" in the enemy list of Ramses III. are identical has been the scientific consensus since the 19th century.

This made the "Sea Peoples" one of the great mysteries of classical studies: Who were the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Danuna and Wevesh of the Egyptian sources, where did they come from and what did they do on their way to the Nile? Did they really destroy the Mycenaean palaces of Greece, the Hittite empire of Asia Minor, and the principalities of Syria, or was it a conglomeration of the underprivileged on the fringes of Bronze Age civilizations trying to escape famine, climate change, or natural disasters?

"We can imagine the Sea Peoples as pirates similar to the Vikings," says Dieter Vieweger, "or as migrants, like those who attacked the Roman Empire in late antiquity." Vieweger knows what he's talking about, because the director of the German Evangelical Institute for Classical Studies of the Holy Land (DEI), based in Jerusalem and Amman, belongs to the elite of biblical archaeologists. One of his projects is the Tall Zirāʿa in Jordan not far from the Sea of ​​Galilee, on which he has been excavating since 2003 together with his colleague Katja Soennecken. These open up amazing perspectives on the “Sea Peoples”.

Numerous traces on the Tall Zirāʿa indicate "the arrival of non-indigenous people," says Katja Soennecken, who analyzes the finds in her habilitation thesis. For example, the numerous bones of pigs, which account for up to 70 percent of the animal remains in the strata examined. Apparently the animals lost their lives in sacrifices or communal meals. "Unlike sheep or goats, domesticated pigs cannot cover large distances in herds, that would kill them," explains Soennecken: "The animals belong to a culture of sedentary farmers who apparently settled on the Tall."

This clearly distinguishes the inhabitants of the hill from the nomadic people who tended their flocks in the West Bank mountains all the way to Jerusalem. It doesn't stop there. The pottery also differs in style and purpose, says Soennecken. “On the Tall Zirāʿa one also finds cookware with a flat bottom. This allowed the jars to be placed on a stationary hearth. The neighbors, on the other hand, traditionally shaped their vessels with a dished bottom, suitable for cooking in open fires.”

The contents of the dishes also separated the residents of the hill from their neighbors. Soennecken and Vieweger found traces of new spices that archaeobotanical analyzes have identified as cumin, opium poppy, coriander, or bay leaf. What is surprising about this finding is its chronological classification. Apparently, the owners of pigs and cookware had lived in the northern Jordan Valley since the 14th century.

In search of their identity, archaeologists find what they are looking for in Egyptian texts. Ever since Pharaoh Amenhotep III. (ruled ca. 1388–1351) reports of the so-called Scherden or Schadarna, a tribe from which powerful mercenaries were recruited. When the Egyptian New Kingdom empire ruled large parts of the southern Levant in the Late Bronze Age, such a garrison could have been stationed in the northern Jordan Valley to protect the trade routes, the two scientists suspect.

Vieweger and Soennecken were all the more astonished when they compared their finds with the legacy from the Philistine region on the southern coastal plain. Both pottery, metalwork and plants showed an amazing resemblance. The Philistines also consumed pigs in extraordinary quantities. The agreement is so great that Vieweger dares a bold conclusion: "If the Tall Zirāʿa were not in the Jordan Valley but on the coast, we would address its inhabitants as Philistines."

A spectacular interpretation. Because in later Egyptian sources after Ramses III. were recorded, the Scherden are also counted among the mysterious Sea Peoples, whose invasion in 1177 B.C. Chr. could only be fought back with great effort. The people who subsequently settled in the fertile coastal plain between Gaza and Ashkelon apparently had the same cultural background as the mercenaries or auxiliaries who had entered Egyptian service generations before the "storm of the sea peoples".

The fact that the mysterious “Sea Peoples” obviously came “from the north” was already apparent to the authors of the reports written in the troubled times of the 12th century BC. were written down. At that time, the power system that had brought the Middle East an unusual degree of stability in the late Bronze Age collapsed within a few years. Palaces that had been centers of administration, business, and crafts went up in flames. In Greece and Crete people even forgot the use of writing.

The American archaeologist Eric H. Cline coined the term system collapse for this. A vicious circle of wars, rebellions combined with the dwindling resources of food and raw materials and the cutting off of long-distance trade routes caused the great powers' complicated administration and distribution systems to collapse. It was a "domino effect, with the collapse of one civilization causing the demise of the next," writes Cline.

Answers to the question of what role the Sea Peoples played in this crisis scenario cannot escape the spirit of the times. For a long time there was the idea of ​​whole peoples roaming the Levant, plundering and murdering. More recently they have been described as people seeking help who, as subjects or neighbors of the old powers, have themselves fallen into the maelstrom of collapse. In their distress, these starving people tried to get their share from the ruins of their tottering masters.

Vieweger and Soennecken do not necessarily want to agree with the thesis that the “Sea Peoples” were migrants seeking protection in search of a new home. They point to new investigations by Israeli scientists into skeletons recovered from graves in Philistine territory. The DNA of the dead makes an origin from the Aegean Sea and the southern Balkans likely. Genetic evidence would also explain why the Philistines kept pigs that were apparently descended from European domestic pigs.

So migrants from southern Europe played a crucial role in the system collapse of the Bronze Age. Vieweger considers it significant that they were able to navigate the Mediterranean Sea with ships: “In Greece, in Dalmatia or in Sardinia there were people who knew about seafaring.” Groups from the destroyed dominions of the Levant could join them to have encountered The Mycenaean Greeks or the Cretans, for example, were experienced seafarers who mastered both technology and navigation on the high seas. It is quite possible that parts of their fleets survived the system collapse and were available for transport.

Like the Vikings of the early Middle Ages, these "sea peoples" engaged in raids that we should think of as quick raids, says Vieweger. Ultimately, however, they looked for new settlements. That Pharaoh Ramses III. these various forays into a dramatic invasion attempt in 1177 B.C. the archaeologist explains with the royal propaganda. "A great victory should be celebrated, it took a great enemy."

Parallels to the fall of the Western Roman Empire come to mind. Even since the late 4th century AD it was not peoples who sought salvation in the Roman Empire, but rather loosely connected groups of warriors whose composition changed frequently. Despite all the symptoms of the crisis, the teetering world empire appeared to them to be a shining paradise, which in the end could no longer cope with the onslaught of the newcomers.

1,500 years earlier, the “Sea Peoples” found a new home in the southern Levant. There they became neighbors of the Judeans, whom they described in their Bible as brutal strangers because they worshiped not Yahweh but many gods. However, the archaeological legacy proves that the Philistines assimilated after just a few generations and became absorbed in their neighborhood.

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