What Happened to the Original 1 Percent? ~ NYT

Modern cities can learn from the fate of the collapsed civilizations at Ugarit and Mycenae.



Contributing Opinion Writer

About 3,190 years ago, a merchant in Emar, a trading outpost in what is now northern Syria, sent a desperate letter to his boss, Urtenu, who lived in the rich metropolis of Ugarit, a city-state on the coast of Syria. “There is famine,” he wrote. “If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger.”

A long drought had left the hinterlands around Ugarit in a state of famine, wars were brewing, and there were likely plagues as well. Urtenu may not have realized it, but he was living through the last years of two wealthy cities, Ugarit and Mycenae, that dominated the eastern Mediterranean Sea during what historians call the Bronze Age, from roughly 3000 to 1200 B.C.E.

More than a thousand years before the Greeks invented democracy and the Romans undermined it with imperialism, these city-states of the Bronze Age laid the foundations for what is often called Western civilization. Homer recorded the myths of the Bronze Age in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and carved stone inscriptions of the pharaohs Hatshepsut and Thutmose III record the machinations of the Bronze Age elites. Although the rulers of the Bronze Age sometimes went to war, the true source of their power, like that of today’s biggest cities, was economic power secured through trade. The final decades of Ugarit and Mycenae tell us a lot about why cities fail — and who survives amid the ashes.

Ugarit and the Greek city-state of Mycenae were two of the most prosperous kingdoms in a thriving international economy that grew along coastal trade routes linking today’s Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Their markets sold everything from imported olive oil to local grain, while artisans crafted sculptures and weapons from the metal alloy that gave this period its name. Made with tin from Afghanistan and copper from Crete, bronze was the ultimate achievement of long-distance trade as well as technical know-how.

But the Bronze Age was also a time of extreme inequality. Cities were ruled by wealthy urban aristocrats who controlled trade, relied on various kinds of forced labor, and placed heavy tax burdens on their client states and agricultural villages. When times got hard, the commoners in Ugarit and Mycenae felt the squeeze.

Historians and archaeologists don’t know all the reasons these cities collapsed. But there is evidence that both burned to the ground in the 1100s B.C.E., their sumptuous palaces toppled and abandoned. There are signs of earthquakes, too. For centuries after these events, there are almost no written records. It was as if literacy and culture evaporated along with the kingdoms themselves.

Until recently, historians blamed this collapse on marauders known as the Sea People. Supposedly these Sea People sacked the cities, leaving the once-great kingdoms of the Mediterranean to be menaced by pirates or worse.

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