Top 8 Bronze Age Civilizations (in the Mediterranean and Near East)

The Bronze Age was a golden era in the Mediterranean and Near East. The most successful cultures used a range of tools to wield their influence across geography and time.

Mar 23, 2024By Jared Krebsbach, PhD History, MA Art History, BA History
bronze age civilizations top


The Bronze Age (c. 3100-1200 BCE) was an exciting time in the eastern Mediterranean Basin and the Near East for a number of reasons. It was then and there that some of the world’s first and greatest empires were forged. The Bronze Age was also the setting for the world’s first written scripts and developments in languages that can still be seen today. Art and architecture made tremendous strides during the Bronze Age, which was often utilized to articulate complex religious ideas. The first extensive trade networks also developed, and along with them, the world’s first geopolitical systems.


Below are eight of the most influential cultures of the Bronze Age Near East and Mediterranean. People may argue about the ordering of the list, but none will deny that each of these cultures contributed to the Bronze Age and beyond.


1. The Mycenaeans

mycenean drinking cup
Mycenaean Terracotta Drinking Cup, Mycenaean, Late Bronze Age (1300-1225 BCE). Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Mycenaeans are an often overlooked ancient people but their impact on the Bronze Age and beyond is immense. Usually referring to themselves as Achaeans, the Mycenaeans became masters of the eastern Mediterranean islands and mainland Greece by 1300 BCE. The Mycenaeans were the direct ancestors of the Classical Era Greeks. As such, the Greeks inherited many attributes from the Mycenaeans, including their language, religion, literary motifs, and their prowess in war.


The Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek that was written in what is known as the Linear B script. Linear B was a syllabic script based on the earlier Linear A script that was developed by their neighbors, the Minoans. Although the Linear B script disappeared at the end of the Bronze Age in about 1200 BCE, the spoken Greek language survived.


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The classical Greeks also received their religious pantheon from the Bronze Age Mycenaeans. A number of Late Bronze Age Linear B tablets from the Greek city of Pylos mention Zeus, while Poseidon is mentioned in tablets from Pylos and the Cretan city of Knossos. These were the earliest written accounts of the familiar Greek gods, but they were not the only influence the Mycenaeans had on Greek legends and religion.


bronze mycenean sword
Bronze Mycenaean Sword, Mycenaean, Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age (1400-1060 BCE). Source: British Museum, London


The legendary Trojan War was recounted by Homer, the eighth-century BCE Greek poet, in the Iliad. The war also played a central role in the Aeneid of Virgil, the first-century BCE Roman poet. Both ancient authors referred to the attackers of Troy as “Greeks” but they were likely a band of Mycenaeans who took advantage of the Sea Peoples invasions during the late Bronze Age. Today, scholars believe the destruction of Troy likely took place about 1200 BCE. This demonstrates that the Mycenaeans left not just a physical mark on the Bronze Age but also influenced the heroic literature of the Greeks and Romans.


The Mycenaeans’ aptitude for war led to the destruction of Troy and engulfed the older Minoan culture that was based on the island of Crete. When the Greeks emerged from their dark age in the eighth century BCE, they continued their ancestors’ martial traditions against each other and also against outsiders. Eventually, it was that military tradition that saved the Greeks from the Persians.


2.  The Egyptians

egyptian adze tools
An Egyptian Adze and Other Construction Tools, Egyptian New Kingdom, Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1200 BCE). Source: British Museum, London


No list of the most important Bronze Age cultures would be complete without the Egyptians being somewhere near the top. The Egyptians created what was perhaps the world’s most resilient ancient culture, lasting from about 3100 BCE well into the Christian era. Along with Mesopotamia, Egypt has the distinction of being one of the world’s first civilizations. A large part of what drove Egyptian culture to success was its record keeping, literature, and religious texts, which were the result of the discovery of writing in about 3100 BCE. Along these lines, the Egyptians were the first people to articulate the idea of an afterlife in writing, leading to elaborate rituals and the preservation of corpses.


The most obvious legacy the Egyptians left for posterity was in the form of their art and architecture. Today, travelers from around the world visit hundreds of Egyptian pyramids and temples that were built from the Old Kingdom through the Late Period (c. 3000-341 BCE). These monuments have survived the ravages of time partly due to the materials used, but also because of the construction methods Egyptian engineers and workers employed. The enduring nature of Egyptian monuments was good enough for the Greeks to make Khufu’s Pyramid in Giza one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is the only ancient Wonder still standing.


coptic egyptian papyrus
Coptic Language Papyrus, Egyptian, Seventh Century CE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The ancient Egyptians were also among the first people to produce statuary that would stand the test of time. Although other people before the Egyptians produced three-dimensional sculpture, the Egyptians did so in greater numbers and were the first to produce colossal statuary. Egyptian statuary would influence Greek statuary, as can be seen in kouros statues.


Finally, Egypt was also politically and culturally resilient. The Egyptian state collapsed several times, even being conquered by foreigners, but it always rose from the dead. In fact, pharaonic culture never really died. The ancient Egyptian language evolved and was spoken for hundreds of years after the last pharaoh ruled the Nile in the form of the Coptic language. Today, the Coptic language is spoken in church by millions of members of the Egyptian Orthodox Church.


3.  The Canaanites 

bronze canaanite deity
Bronze Image of a Canaanite Deity, Canaanite, fourteenth to thirteenth century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Most people do not think of the Canaanites as a particularly powerful Bronze Age people because they were divided into several different city-states in the Levant/Syria-Palestine. The truth is that the Canaanites played an extremely important role in the development of Near Eastern culture through their language, religion, and geographical location.


Perhaps the most important contribution the Canaanites made to the Bronze Age and beyond was in language. The Canaanites are broadly considered a linguistic-ethnic group that was a subgroup of the Northwest Semitic languages. Often considered dialects more than separate languages, the Canaanite dialects included Phoenician, Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite. The Hebrews and Phoenicians would later be two of the most important peoples in the Iron Age Near East. The Hebrews laid the foundation for the Abrahamic religions and the Phoenicians developed the world’s first alphabetic script.


The Phoenicians’ alphabetic script was the culmination of centuries of development that began during the Bronze Age with local alphabetic scripts used by the Canaanites. The Canaanites also contributed to the Bronze Age geopolitical system linguistically. Many of the Amarna Letters, which were cuneiform documents exchanged by the Great Powers of the Late Bronze Age, were written in Canaano-Akkadian.


4.  The Minoans 

bull leaping fresco knossos
The Bull-Jumping/Taureador Fresco from the Palace of Knossos, Minoan, 1450-1400 BCE. Source: Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete


The Minoans were almost as vital to the creation of classical Greek culture as the Mycenaeans. Although not directly related to the Greeks, the Minoans, who were named for the legendary King Minos, passed on their love of art, sports, and the concept of writing. The background of the Minoans is mysterious, but they are often considered Europe’s first true civilization.


The Minoans built their culture on the island of Crete, which was marked by impressive palace cities such as Knossos. These palaces were multifunctional, combining economic, political, religious, and manufacturing elements, but they are best remembered for their art. Knossos in particular, is known for its frescoes that depict beautiful scenes of nature, including dolphins swimming. Minoan art likely influenced later Greek art, but perhaps even more influential was the Minoan love of sports.


boxer minoan vase copy
The Boxer Vase/Boxer Rhyton, Minoan, 1600-1450 BCE. Source: Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete


Art from Crete demonstrates that the Minoans participated in boxing, wrestling, pankration, and bull jumping, which are all competitive sports to this day. A vase from the Minoan city of Hagia Triada, dated to about 1550 BCE, depicts Minoan men engaging in sports in four separate registers. The men are shown wearing belts, codpieces, and leg wrappings as they engage in boxing, bull-leaping, and possibly pankration. The Greeks later adopted boxing and pankration, while bullfighting became a popular sport in southern Europe. Bull-leaping was particularly important to the Minoans, as it was depicted on many of their frescoes, including on the west and north entrances to the Knossos palace.


5.  The Sumerians 

sumerian cueniform tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet from Sumer, Sumerian, 2700-2600 BCE. Source: Louvre Museum, Paris


Along with the Egyptians, the Sumerians were the first people to bring civilization to the ancient Near East. The Sumerians developed civilization between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and established many of the cultural hallmarks of Mesopotamian Civilization, which in many ways lasted into the common era. Among the greatest contributions of the Sumerians were writing, religion, and architecture.


standard of ur
Scene from the standard of Ur, ca 2500 BCE. Source: British Museum


The Sumerians developed the cuneiform script around 3100 BCE, which was about the same time the Egyptians developed writing. Although the Sumerians’ linguistic-ethnic origins remain a mystery, it is known that the language was not Semitic or Indo-European. This did not stop the Semitic-speaking Akkadians from using the script and making it, along with their language, the most widely used in the Late Bronze Age Near East. Despite Akkadian eclipsing Sumerian, later Mesopotamian peoples continued to learn Sumerian. The Babylonians and Assyrians studied Sumerian as a revered dead language and translated classic Sumerian texts into Akkadian. Some of these early Sumerian texts include the world’s first legal documents, king lists, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.


standing male worshipper
Standing Male Worshipper from Eshnunna, Sumerian, 2900-2600 BCE. Source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Other notable contributions the Sumerians made to the history of the Bronze Age were the world’s first city — Uruk — and the religious ideas and kingship ideology that later Mesopotamian peoples followed. The Sumerians’ contribution to Mesopotamian religion was most visibly articulated in the creation of the temple complex known as the ziggurat. The early Sumerians built proto-ziggurats, but the first ziggurats were built during the Neo-Sumerian era of the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2112-2004 BCE). It was during this period that the Ziggurat of Ur, which was the prototype for all later ziggurats, was built.


6.  The Hittites

hittite cuneiform tablet
Hittite/Arzawan Language Cuneiform Tablet, Hittite, 1400-1200 BCE. Source: British Museum, London


Located in central Anatolia (modern day Turkey), was the Kingdom of Hatti, which was ruled by the Hittites. The Hittites became known for their language, warfare, and diplomacy, eventually becoming one of the Great Powers of the Late Bronze Age Near East. Unfortunately, Hatti was destroyed during the Sea Peoples migrations in about 1200 BCE, but their influence continued in the region for centuries.


hittite figurine teshub
Hittite Figurine of the God Teshub, Hittite, Late Bronze Age (1200-1150 BCE). Source: Louvre, Paris


The Hittites were one of several Indo-European peoples who occupied Anatolia during the Bronze Age, and they were the first Indo-Europeans to develop writing. The Hittites used the cuneiform script to write religious, administrative, and historical texts in their native language of Hittite/Arzawan. After the Hittites’ empire collapsed, several small kingdoms formed in Anatolia and the northern Levant that modern scholars now refer to as the “Neo-Hittites.” The Neo-Hittites were the Hittites often mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.


neo hittite sphinx
Basalt Relief of a Human and Lion Headed Sphinx, Neo-Hittite, Tenth Century BCE. Source: British Museum, London


Today, the Hittites are best known for challenging the Egyptians for control of the Levant. This conflict culminated in the well-documented Battle of Kadesh (c. 1286 BCE), near the Canaanite city of Kadesh. Muwatalli II (ruled c. 1295-1272 BCE) personally led the Hittites against Ramesses II (ruled c. 1290-1224 BCE) and the Egyptians. Although the Egyptians claimed victory, it was a stalemate and eventually led to peace between the two kingdoms. The Hittites retained their hold over Anatolia and membership as one of the Great Powers of the Near East until their empire collapsed.


7. The Amorites

mesopotamian cylinder seal
Hematite Cylinder Seal from Mesopotamia, Early Babylonian, Early Second Millennium BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Amorites were a West Semitic ethnic group that established many Bronze Age states, most notably the First Dynasty of Babylon. After entering Mesopotamia as seminomadic people in the late third millennium BCE, the Amorites created several Middle Bronze Age Kingdoms (c. 210-1550 BCE) in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant. The Amorites established the states of Mari, Yamhad, and Qatna and possibly Isin, Larsa, and Eshununna. But the most influential state the Amorites established was in Babylon.


The first two rulers of the First Dynasty of Babylon (c. 1894-1595 BCE) had Amorite, non-Akkadian names, but were followed by three kings with Akkadian names. Hammurabi (ruled c. 1792-1750 BCE) then revived the tradition of using Amorite names. Hammurabi became known for his law code as well as for conquering most of Mesopotamia, assuring the importance of the Amorite people in the Middle Bronze Age.


8.  Ugarit 

terra cotta lion ugarit
Terracotta Figurine of a Lion, Ugarit, Late Bronze Age (1400-1200 BCE). Source: Louvre Museum, Paris.


The city-state of Ugarit was a coastal and economic power that was located on the Mediterranean near the modern city of Latakia, Syria. Although Ugarit was relatively small and usually a Hittite vassal, the city-state was very influential in trade and diplomacy. Ugarit was also a cosmopolitan state where people from around the Mediterranean and Near East mingled and traded.


In most Bronze Age societies, priests and warriors were among the most important people, but in Ugarit merchants were the most respected. The king would grant trading permits to Ugarit merchants, who then would lead both overland caravans and sea routes. Ugarit played a vital role in the Great Powers system by facilitating trade between the primary members of Egypt, Alashiya, Babylon, Hatti, Assyria, and Mitanni. As the city grew in size and relevance during the Late Bronze Age, Ugarit became an early multicultural and multilingual state.


baal figure ugarit
Figurine of the God Baal, Ugarit, Late Bronze Age. Source: the Louvre Museum, Paris


Egyptian, Hurrian, Hittite, Minoan, Cypriote, Mycenaean, Assyrian, and Babylonian merchants lived and worked in Ugarit, giving the city a global vibe.  Foreign diplomats were also common in Ugarit, as the city played a not-so-minor role in Late Bronze Age geopolitics. Although Ugarit was a Hittite vassal, its kings used that position as leverage against its many Canaanite neighbors. The kings of Ugarit also used the city-state’s wealth to send gold to the Hittites instead of its men for the Hittite army. Ugarit attempted to use its navy to save the Hittites from the Sea Peoples attack, but both kingdoms were completely destroyed.

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By Jared KrebsbachPhD History, MA Art History, BA HistoryJared is a fulltime freelancer with a background in history. His work has been published in academic journals as well as popular magazines, blogs, and websites. Historical interests include cyclical history, religious history, and economics.