This book examines in detail the events surrounding the transition from Bronze Age to Early Iron Age societies in the eastern Mediterranean. For Drews this was “one of history’s most frightful turning points”; in his view, “for those who experienced it, it was a calamity” (p. 3). The aim of this book is to explain the widespread destruction of cities ca. 1200 B.C. (“the Catastrophe”). The scale of the problem is this: “Within a period of forty or fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city or palace in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again” (p. 4).
In order to gain an eastern Mediterranean perspective on the Catastrophe, a chronological scheme is presented (Ch. 1: “The Catastrophe and its Chronology”). In particular a “low” chronology for Egypt is followed, i.e., Ramesses the Great ruled from 1279 to 1212 (rather than 1304 or 1290) (p. 5). This allows events in Egypt to be linked to the destruction of cities in the Near East. The Catastrophe is then surveyed (Ch. 2) by looking at the evidence from Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, the Southern Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, the Aegean Islands, and finally Crete.
Chapters 3 to 8 form Part 2 (“Alternative Explanations of the Catastrophe”) and they discuss the ways that the Catastrophe has been explained since it was first recognized. Earthquakes (Ch. 3) provide the first explanation, “an ‘act of God’ of proportions unparalleled in all of history” (p. 33). Ugarit’s enmity with Egypt (attested by a tablet from the Rap’anu Archive) was taken to mean that it was on good terms with “the Sea Peoples”, and therefore a natural explanation for the destruction had to be found (p. 34). Similar theories have been suggested for Knossos, Troy VIh, Mycenae and Tiryns (pp. 35-36). Drews points out that few cities in antiquity are known for certain to have been destroyed by an “act of God” (p. 38). Indeed Egyptian records show that the raiders who attacked Egypt in 1179 had previously sacked cities. Drews notes that the widespread burning of cities (in days before gas and electricity could assist with the total devastation), the relative absence of skeletons, the lack of items of value buried in the debris (rather than being secreted away in holes and pits), and the unscathed masonry at sites in the Argolid point away from natural causes and towards human intervention.
The evidence for Migrations (Ch. 4) is based in part on the interpretation of Egyptian monuments, and in part on nineteenth century emphases on the movement of peoples. The great Libyan invasion of the Delta in 1208 has been seen by some as a Volkswanderung, although the foreigners within the Libyan host would now appear to be barbarian auxiliaries rather than whole nations on the move. Drews then goes on (in Ch. 5) to challenge V. Gordon Childe’s view—expressed in What Happened in History (1942) and