The suicide of Cleopatra and the fall of ancient Egypt are counted continuously as legends. However, leaving the drama aside, there is often much more to take into account in the collapse of this magnificent ancient empire.
Researchers have now traced a possible cause of social unrest and the devastating climate change to an erupting volcano, possibly located on the other side of the globe.
A team of historians has linked evidence of volcanic events found in ice cores with seasonal patterns of Nile flooding, arguing that this disruption of Egypt’s lifeblood may have precipitated events that led to the decline of the ancient civilization.
Climate change and social unrest often go hand in hand, leading to dramatic changes in politics and economics that can cause the collapse of entire civilizations.
So the idea is not strange. But even reasonable assumptions need solid proof.
“That’s the beauty of these weather records,” says researcher Joseph Manning from Yale University.
“For the first time, you can see a dynamic society in Egypt, not just a static description of a group of texts in chronological order.”
The team relied on previous research detailing the calendar of significant volcanic eruptions over the past 2,500 years.
Volcanoes do not have to shed lava on their backyard to be a problem.
Ash and sulfur particles can form aerosols that disperse through the stratosphere, reflecting sunlight in ways that can affect temperature and rain away from the site of the eruption.
To determine how Egypt’s seasonal climate might have been affected by any timely eruption, researchers resorted to a monument known as al-Miqyas or the Islamic Nilometer.
This impressive piece of architecture is a mix of art, water fountain and historical records.
The structure had retained a record of Nile summer peaks since the early seventh century, allowing researchers to model a relationship between the flow of the river and the years when there was an eruption somewhere on the planet.
For details on the Nile cycle before this period of history, the team had to dig a little deeper and interpret the historical writings.
The results obtained by experts were an image of the state of the river in the course of Egyptian history, which also reflected the planet’s tectonic activity.
“When the flood of the Nile was abundant, the Nile valley was one of the most productive places in the ancient world,” says climate historian Francis Ludlow of Trinity College in Dublin.
“But the river was famous for having a high level of variation.”
The Nile is famous today for being one of the longest rivers in the world, but for the ancient Egyptians, it was the center of everything. Each summer, the monsoons of the equator extended over the upper reaches of the Nile, providing a source of water that would wash silt down the river.
Without this annual supply of fertile land and water, Egypt’s crops would simply die, leading to food shortages. Not to mention many disgruntled customers.
Historical records indicate that one of these periods occurred during the rule of the Ptolemy dynasty, which started with the passing of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.
In about 44 BC, during the reign of Queen Cleopatra VII, a particularly severe volcanic eruption elsewhere in the world cast a cloud of ash and hot gases into the atmosphere, suppressing the monsoons and leading to serious famine.
But Cleopatra’s government was in no way aided by a food shortage that upset the economy and helped pave the way for a plague or two, while rural people were venturing into the cities.
Eventually, this social crisis made it much easier for Rome to pick up the fragments that Cleopatra death left in once tragically left in the 30 BC, possibly poisoned if not bitten by an asp.
Volcanoes could also help explain another Ptolemaic mystery. The Roman historian Justin wrote of the war monger Ptolemy III that: if “he had not been called into Egypt due to riots in his homeland, he would have owned all the dominions of Seleucus.”
But…what problems were so significant that one of the most successful rulers of the dynasty renounced his conquest and expansion beyond modern day Iraq and Syria, and head back home?
It seems that a volcano is to blame, for kicking up a massive social unrest in ancient Egypt.
We are yet to see any volcanic disruption to the monsoons of this century.
“But that could change at any time,” Manning says.
“The potential for this should be taken into account in trying to agree on how the valuable waters of the Blue Nile will be managed between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.”
This research was published in Nature Communications.