World Fire

The point of origin of Ages in Chaos was in the realization that the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt took place amid a stupendous natural catastrophe. The question arose: Would not such a catastrophe serve as a synchronical point between the Israelite and Egyptian histories, in the case that among Egyptian literary documents reference to such a catastrophe were found? And, when such documents were properly identified as to their historical content, the next questions to arise were these:

1) at what time point did such catastrophe occur? Here was promise for a synchronization of two histories—Israelite and Egyptian. Out of this consideration arose Ages in Chaos, a reconstruction of ancient history.

2) the second problem was, of what nature was the catastophe? In answering this question I wrote Worlds in Collision, a collection of literary and oral traditions from all parts of the globe. The catastrophe was ubiquitous.

The catastrophe that ended the Middle Kingdom (the Middle Bronze Age of the ancient East) made me start on Worlds in Collision. Between 1944 and 1946 I submitted Worlds in Collision to several publishers, with Macmillan, at last accepting Worlds in Collision for publication. In 1945 I published in the form of Theses for the Reconstruction of Ancient History the entire plan of Ages in Chaos, enumerating the changes, but leaving the substantiation for later. In Ages in Chaos the fact that the Middle Kingdom terminated in a catastrophe serves only as the point of departure, and in the Theses I put it in the form:

14. The Exodus took place at the close of the Middle Kingdom: the natural catastrophe caused the end of this period in the history of Egypt. This was in the middle of the second millennium before the present era.

The rest of the 284 theses deal with the problems of synchronism, and the order of events, always political or cultural in nature. The catastrophe in nature constituted but the starting point for the inquiry in chronology and true order of succession of political events. As the reader certainly noticed, it was not my prime concern in Ages in Chaos to establish an absolute chronology; the proper sequence of events and a correct synchronization of happenings among national histories of ancient peoples was my first concern. It was of prime importance to establish that the end of the Middle Kingdom and the Exodus were simultaneous events; their simultaneity required either an extension in the length of the Israelite history or reduction in the length of the Egyptian history; the common event could not have taken place after about -1450 nor before -1500, and the exact determination of absolute chronology was of little concern, when both histories required a major readjustment in order to make the common moment synchronical. Thus not absolute but relative chronology was my concern. I was led to synchronize the Wandering in the Desert and the time of settlement in Canaan until the time of Saul with the time of the Hyksos domination in Egypt and the Near East, and the Hyksos themselves with the Amalekites. Saul, the victor over the last Amalekite king Agog, and Kamose and Ahmose, the first kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the New Kingdom, were contemporaries and also allies; David and Amenhotep I (both of them retained the nimbus of saintliness in the memories of their nations) lived at one and the same time; Thutmose I married a daughter of his to Solomon; and Hatshepsut, his other daughter and heir, visited Jerusalem of Solomon; Thutmose III, her younger brother and heir prepared the split of Solomon’s empire after the latter’s death, and Jeroboam was his instrument. In a campaign in the year of his reign he made Rehoboam, now the king of a small state, into a vassal. The exact date of this or other events I did not try to elucidate; such task is left to future researchers. The time of Asa was the time of Amenhotep II, with whom he successfully battled at Shamash-Edom; and the time of Jehoshaphat was that of Amenhotep III and IV (Akhnaton), to whom he also wrote letters, found in el-Amarna. With the age of el-Amarna the first volume was brought to its end. The time was about -825.

The task of synchronizing the Nineteenth and Twenty-second to Twenty-sixth Dynasties of Egypt with other kingdoms and dynasties is undertaken in The Assyrian Conquest, and Ramses II and His Time. In this period falls a series of great natural upheavals that shook the world in the eighth century and climaxed in the cosmic catastrophe of March 23, 687. The reader of Worlds in Collision knows how this date is arrived at on the basis of material collected from countries as far apart as China, Judea, and Italy. Therefore, should we wish to construe a timetable of absolute, not just of synchronical (relative) chronology, we are offered such a chance in that date: the event took place during the second campaign of Sennacherib against Judah, his last.

The entire scheme of so-called astronomical chronology is based on the assumption that no violent disturbances in nature have taken place that changed the relative motions of the celestial bodies and required a reform of the calendar. The solar eclipse of -763 serves, for instance, as a pivotal point for establishing Assyrian chronology. The sentence that we possess is as follows: “Insurrection in the city of Ashur. In the month of Siwan the sun was obscured.” Solar eclipse tables, calculated by Oppolzer, Ginzel, and Mahler, were used, and an eclipse calculated to have taken place in -763 was selected for the event. Upon this date the Assyrian king list of succession of kings, Assyrian chronology was composed, and the biblical chronology corrected (by several decades) to conform with the Assyrian chronology. But in -763 there was no solar eclipse in that part of the world; I would even question whether there were lunar and solar eclipses generally, because their occurrence depends on a lunar orbit that lies generally in the ecliptic. Once in a while the moon passes between the sun and the earth, causing a solar eclipse, and at other times the earth passes between the sun and the moon, causing a lunar eclipse.

Calendar reform was executed in the Old and New worlds in the seventh century. Material for this is found in Worlds in Collision, chapter 8. Before this, calendar changes followed the great upheavals of the middle of the second millennium. Then what sense does it make to trace the Sothic period or the lunar festivals, or other astronomical dates, on the assumption that there had been no changes in the celestial order, when such changes occurred at the end of the Old Kingdom and the end of the Middle Kingdom, and half a century later again, and several times during the eighth century? I have also shown that the so-called Nabonassar era, was a result of a reform following a certain new arrangement in the celestial motions.(1)

The fact that the Egyptians introduced the calendar reform under the Hyksos, increasing the number of the days in the year,(2) and another under the Libyans in the eighth century,(3) and that they possessed no less than three calendars --suffices by itself to cancel every effort to build absolute chronology on astronomical dates of lunations, eclipses, conjunctions, and the like.

* * *

Independently of my effort to construe a synchronical history starting with the common event that overwhelmed all nations of the globe--the great catastrophe that ended the Middle Kingdom, a similar effort was made by Claude F. A. Schaeffer, professor at College de France. The reader of Ages in Chaos is familiar with his work of excavating Ras-Shamra (Ugarit) from the chapter carrying this name. He observed in Ras-Shamra on the Syrian coast clear signs of great destruction that pointed to violent earthquakes and tidal waves, and other signs of a natural disaster. At the occasion of his visit to Troy, excavated by C. Blegen, he became aware that Troy was destroyed by a natural catastrophe, and repeatedly so, at the same time when Ras-Shamra was destroyed.

The distance from the Dardanelles near which the mound of Troy lies, to Ras-Shamra in Syria is about six hundred miles in a straight line. In modern annals of seismology no earthquake is known to have affected so wide an area. Schaeffer investigated the excavated places in Asia Minor, and the archaeologists’ reports, and everywhere found the same picture; he turned his attention to Persia, far to the East--and the very same signs of catastrophes were evident in each and every excavated place. Then he turned his attention to the Caucasus, and there, too, the similarity of the causes and effects was undeniable. In his own excavations on Cyprus he could establish the very same order of events and their causes. He was so impressed by what he found that during the next few years, in the time of World War II, he put into writing a voluminous work, Stratigraphie comparée et chronologie de l’Asie occidentale (IIIe et IIe millennaires), published by Oxford University Press in 1948. In over five hundred hundred pages he showed conclusively that the ancient East was several times disturbed by stupendous catastrophes during the third and second millennia before the present era; he also indicated that his acquaintance with European archaeology made him feel certain that Europe, too, was involved in that catastrophe; thus, it would be more than continental, perhaps global in character.

The Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom of Egypt ended in natural catastrophes, the catastrophes that put an end to the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Later a catastrophe ended the Late Bronze Age in Greece. Schaeffer intended to add a volume about catastrophes in the first millennium. I, however, came to the same conclusions by another route. Actually, if I was right, it could not be but that these great upheavals would leave clear marks in the archaeological sequence all over the world. Thanks to the diligent investigations of Schaeffer such signs have been identified over a wide area of the ancient East; the enumeration of the excavated sites discussed by him, just by their names alone, would fill several pages.

In the concluding chapters of his work, Schaeffer wrote:

The great perturbations which left their traces in the stratigraphy of the principal sites of the Bronze Age of Western Asia are six in number. The oldest among them shook, between 2400 and 2300, all of the land extending from the Caucasus in the north down to the valley of the Nile, where it became one of the causes, if not the principal cause, of the fall of the Egyptian Old Kingdom after the death of Pepi II. In two important sites in Asia Minor, Troy and Alaca Huyuk, the excavators reported damage due to earthquakes. Under the collapsed walls of the buildings contemporaneous with the catastrophe, the skeletons of the inhabitants surprised by the earthquake were retrieved. . .

Like myself, Schaeffer came to the conclusion that the invasion of Hyksos was in the aftermath of the great catastrophe that put an end to the Middle Kingdom:

This brilliant period of the Middle Bronze Age, during which flourished the art of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt and the industry of art so refined of the Middle Minoan, and in the course of which the great commercial centers such as Ugarit in Syria enjoyed a remarkable prosperity, was ended between 1750 and 1650 by a new catastrophe, equal in severity and in scope to the two preceding perturbations. Again Egypt is invaded by the North and loses its political unity along with its position of great power which it had enjoyed in Syria-Palestine and beyond . . .

The catastrophe was hardly of terrestrial causes, because the climate changed abruptly, too. Schaeffer intended to investigate the causes, but admitted his ignorance of them. Upon reading Earth in Upheaval he invited me to come to Cyprus to see his work there and so to become aware of the great paroxysms of nature that left their visible traces in Alasia, the capital of the isle, which he was excavating.

The work of Schaeffer gives a striking verification of the claims made in Ages in Chaos and Worlds in Collision concerning the catastrophes, their number, their destructive effects, and their at least continental spread. Not only the number and character of the catastrophes but also their timing was exactly the same in Schaeffer’s and my work: we came, moving separately, and without knowledge of the work of each other, to the same conclusion--actually to a day, namely, both of us located the catastrophe at the very end of the Middle Kingdom (as before that at the very end of the Old Kingdom). This correspondence of results, not to a century, or a year, or a month, but to a day, could not be but the result of our having each in his own way discovered the historical truth.

The presence of archaeological signs of catastrophes in every place in Asia Minor, Syria, Cyprus, Palestine, Caucasus, Persia (Schaeffer’s large volume covers only these countries, though Mesopotamia and Egypt are repeatedly referred to) created a need and an obligation to find the synchronisms between these events, and this was done by Schaeffer himself. Schaeffer used his finds to compose a comparative stratigraphy of all excavated places. He admitted that absolute chronology might be in need of revision; nevertheless, in his work he kept in rough figures to the accepted, or conventional chronology. The shortcoming of Schaeffer’s work was in not making the logical deduction: if catastrophes of such dimensions took place in historical times, where are the references to them in ancient litarary sources? More specifically, if a catastrophe of such dimensions took place at the end of the Middle Kingdom, decimated the population, but also left survivors, then some memory of the events must have also found its way to be preserved in writing; if not by survivors, turned to vagrancy and having to care for the first necessities of life, then by the descendents of survivors. Actually, the Pentateuch, as well as many portions of prophetic writings and psalms are a constant rehearsal of the events that took place when the sky, the land, and the sea contended in the work of destruction. Should not these references be compared with the signs of destruction actually found?

As soon as we enter this gate, we observe that not only was the world disturbed, but that our concept of historical sequence is wrong as wrong could be. If the Book of Exodus and the Naos of el-Arish describe the same event, and actually in the Naos of el-Arish, following the hurricane during which “nobody could leave the palace during nine days.” As in the Exodus, the pharaoh perished “in the place of the Whirlpool” near Pi-Kharoti, so the pharaoh of the days of the Exodus perished in an avalanche of water at the sea near Pi ha-Khiroth. We have here a point of synchronism; the same with the description of the plagues in the Book of Exodus, and in the Papyrus Ipuwer. They are so similar that when I sent a comparison of the two text to Garstang, the late archaeologist of Jericho, he wrote in answer that the papyrus must be a copy from the Book of Exodus. But how could it be a copy if, as the conventional chronology maintains, the events in the text preceded the Exodus by centuries?

Here the breakthrough took place. I concluded that the catastrophe that enveloped all the lands of the ancient East can serve as a synchronizing point. From there on my research did not depend on natural events—unless we shall use the catastrophes of the eighth and beginning of the seventh centuries for the similar purpose of synchronization.

These catastrophes offer a chance to synchronize events not only in Egypt or the Near East, but all over the globe. I also made such synchronization in Worlds in Collision I have lengthened the accepted ages of Mesoamerican civilizations by a full thousand years; the radiocarbon dating method later completely justified this conclusion.

In the near East we have probably in no other place as good as in Jericho the chance to compare the results of chronological research with the literary traditions of catastrophic events.


  1. It is often asserted that the Era of Nabonassar was Ptolemy’s invention; but it is a fact that one of the most important of the Babylonian historical texts, the so-called “Babylonian Chronicle” (B.M. 92502), starts with the reign of Nabonassar, or the year -747. See H. Winckler and J. N. Strassmeier, Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie, II (1887), pp. 163-168. Cf. D. J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldean Kings (London, 1956), pp. 1-2.

  2. Von Bissing, Geschichte Aegyptens (1904), pp. 31, 33; Weill, Chronologie égyptienne, p. 32.

  3. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt IV. 756. Cf. R. Caminos, The Chronicle of Prince Osorkon, Analecta Orientalia 37 (1958).