Artist’s depiction of an Ancient Egyptian girl kneeling by the Nile River.

Volcanic Eruptions and Climate Change Incited Upheaval in Ancient Egypt - and Historians Warn of Repetition

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The Nile river was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. When the waterway flooded nearby lands things were good, but a lack of that precious water caused serious issues. Now, historians have found that the famous waterway could have been negatively impacted at key moments in the Ptolemaic period – inciting social, political, and economic upheavals. Most surprisingly, it seems that the lack of Nile flooding could have been set off by volcanic eruptions altering the climate.

The results of research on the link between the climatic impact in ancient Egypt by volcanoes was recently published in Nature Communications . In the paper, the authors explain that “Explosive eruptions can perturb climate by injecting sulfurous gases into the stratosphere; these gases react to form reflective sulfate aerosols that remain aloft in decreasing concentrations for approximately one to two years.” Through a chain of events, those sulfurous gases cool the atmosphere, and if that takes place in the Northern Hemisphere, monsoon rains may not move as far as they usually do.

Merapi volcano, eruption at night. (1865) Raden Saleh.

Merapi volcano, eruption at night. (1865) Raden Saleh. ( Public Domain )

Francis Ludlow, a climate historian at Trinity College in Dublin and a co-author of the study, explained to EurekAlert! how those climatic events impacted the Nile River, “When the monsoon rains don't move far enough north, you don't have as much rain falling over Ethiopia. And that's what feeds the summer flood of the Nile in Egypt that was so critical to agriculture.”

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Scene: Plowing farmer.

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Scene: Plowing farmer. ( Public Domain )

Science Alert reports that the researchers have linked at least three major events in ancient Egypt’s declining years to volcanic eruptions and the subsequent suppression of the Nile. An eruption in 245 BC has been used as a partial explanation for Ptolemy III's exit from the area now Syria and Iraq, as the Roman historian Justinus wrote , if Ptolemy III “had not been recalled to Egypt by disturbances at home, [he] would have made himself master of all Seleucus's dominions.”

The 20-year Theban revolt (starting in 207 BC) has been connected to another volcanic eruption. And finally, eruptions during the reign of Cleopatra VII in 46 and 44 BC led to serious famines and the release of state-reserved grain. This may have been the so-called “straw that broke the camel’s back” – climatic, social, political, and economic upheaval combined and brought down the famous ancient Egyptian civilization.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887)

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887). ( Public Domain )

Ludlow says that the connection between the eruptions, Nile failure, and problematic events in Egypt are “highly unlikely to have occurred by chance, such is the level of overlap.”

The historians determined the impact of the eruptions on the Nile and Egyptian society by examining a monument known as al-Miqyas, or the Nilometer, which has preserved a record of the Nile's summer peaks since the early 7th century. They combined that data with events prior to that time by piecing together information from previous research providing a timeline of major volcanic eruptions around the world and historical records.

Measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo. Nilometers measured how high or low the flood would be.

Measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo. Nilometers measured how high or low the flood would be. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Yale University researcher Joseph Manning told EurekAlert! “That's the beauty of these climate records. For the first time, you can actually see a dynamic society in Egypt, not just a static description of a bunch of texts in chronological order.”

The Nile River from a boat between Luxor and Aswan.

The Nile River from a boat between Luxor and Aswan. (Public Domain )

But this is not just a story of past issues, the researchers stressed to EurekAlert! that we should take note. Ludlow says :

“The 21st century has been lacking in explosive eruptions of the kind that can severely affect monsoon patterns. But that could change at any time. The potential for this needs to be taken into account in trying to agree on how the valuable waters of the Blue Nile are going to be managed between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”

This study is part of the Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society working group of Past Global Changes (PAGES) , a global research project of Future Earth.

Fragment of a temple relief with Nile god Hapi. The inscription on the frieze reads "all luck, all life" which is what was hoped for; Medinet (Egypt); 746-655 BC.

Fragment of a temple relief with Nile god Hapi. The inscription on the frieze reads "all luck, all life" which is what was hoped for; Medinet (Egypt); 746-655 BC. ( Public Domain )

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