A staple of ancient Near Eastern study is the pattern of imperial and cultural collapses. Thus, the Sumerian expansion, running through from the revolution of Uruk to the elaborate and rather extraordinary organizational achievements of “The Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad” (Ur III), eventually collapses around 2000 BCE, due to a variety of causes. To continue our sample from a large collection, in the sixteenth century a “dark age” descends upon the ANE, and then later again another such age at the close of the second millennium – the Hittites’ modest achievements also collapse, as does the Creto-Mycenaean sphere at about the same time in the thirteenth century. By the first millennium it is the turn of Assyria, the Neo-Babylonians, and then the Persians. This narrative in various forms is one of the staples of ANE history (going back to Herodotus), with a consistent pattern of fluorescence and collapse, or expansion and contraction, as one despot after another attempts a phallic-like extension of his powers, penetrating his neighbors and holding them under his seminal splurge, only to find that the rush of blood does not last forever.
We need to ask: collapse and crisis for whom? From the perspective of the ruling class it is indeed collapse and the ensuing period is a prolonged time of crisis. The sources of wealth have been removed, the palaces and temples destroyed, the estate system or patterns of tribute and exchange have been dismantled, and power has been lost. In these contexts, the archaeological record begins to show signs of “crisis architecture,” “termination rituals,” and “calamity feasts,” in which the desperate rulers use up their last reserves to appease furious gods. At times, dispossessed elites do indeed produce remarkable works – the collection of texts in the Hebrew Bible is an excellent example. Yet, from the perspective of the village-communes, of the subsistence and estate laborers, of socially determining clan households, a “collapse” actually means a blessed relief from various means of extraction. We can hardly expect the peasants, laborers, and common people to sit back and wait for such much-desired collapses to happen. From the Habiru through to archaeological signals of urban destruction by the town’s own exploited class, they were more than keen to hasten the demise. Semi-nomadic pastoralists too were ready to join in, for throughout Mesopotamian history their annual and usually “peaceful” migration “could be transformed into aggressive campaigns if the power of the centralized state was weak.” The outcome was highly desirable: no longer do the young men and women have to work periodically or permanently on the palatine estates; no longer does the despised usurer-merchant-tax-collector call with his thugs to collect a debt slave or take a portion of the herd or some of the girls for his sexual usage; no longer do the temple and palace suck away the foodstuffs needed for subsistence survival. These periods were also ones of innovation: horse and chariot in the sixteenth century “dark age,” for instance, or iron technology at the end of the second millennium.
Too many secondary works unwittingly take the perspective of the ruling classes, who produced most of the records that skew our efforts at reconstruction. A case in point is the lament in the Erra Epic. Set in Babylon and during the “crisis” of the late second millennium, it purports to reflect on general chaos and collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth, for it is a lament of a ruling class at the end of its run.
He who did not die in battle, will die in the epidemic
He who did not die in the epidemic, the enemy will rob him
He whom the enemy has not robbed, the thief will thrash him
He whom the thief did not thrash, the king’s weapon will overcome him
He whom the king’s weapon did not overcome, the prince will kill him
He whom the prince did not kill, the storm god will wash away
He whom the storm god did not wash away, the sun god will carry him away
He who has left for the countryside, the wind will sweep him away
He who has entered his own house, a demon will strike him
He who climbed up a high place, will die of thirst
He who went down to a low place, will die in the waters
You have destroyed high and low place alike!