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Was volcanic activity the impetus for uprisings in ancient Egypt?

ByDuncan Brown

Oct 26, 2017

Cleopatra lived during a truly remarkable period in human history. As the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, she is best known for her close relation with Rome and, consequently, her ‘dalliances’ with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. She was an immensely important historical figure and now new scientific evidence has suggested that she may have ruled during a time of great geographical turmoil.

The Ptolemaic dynasty was a Greek family that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Over time, dissent grew among the Egyptians; during the course of Cleopatra’s life, there were many Egyptian riots and revolts against the Ptolemaics. The masses dissenting against the elite ruling classes is a common theme throughout history, but it is possible that one of the reasons for these revolts was due to food shortages caused by volcanic eruptions.

In regions of great aridity such as Egypt, water is often scarce and the people of the area are left constantly wondering how they will tend to their crops and feed their families if there is no water to grow anything. Luckily, monsoons often flooded the river Nile and provided more than enough water. Recent research by a team of scientists, however, has found new evidence that monsoons could have been suppressed by volcanic eruptions during the reign of Cleopatra, thereby leading to food shortages and riots.

According to Dr Francis Ludlow, climate historian at Trinity College Dublin, the Nile was especially variable during the Ptolemaic period, and water was not always as available. The science behind this is that when volcanoes erupt, they spew ash and sulphur into the stratosphere. There, the sulphur oxidises into sulphate aerosols which reflect sunlight back to space, reducing evaporation on the planet’s surface. This, in turn, means that less water is absorbed by clouds and rain becomes scarce.

According to Dr Ludlow, there was a definite link between the eruptions and the revolts and, while increased volcanic activity was not the sole reason for the revolts, it was a factor. It also seems likely that Cleopatra’s food allocation policies may have prevented further uprisings.

According to Michael McCormick, a professor of history at Harvard, this study may also be a warning lesson in this current period of rapid climate change.

“It really gives us pause for the future because volcanic eruptions will continue, and they will come at unpredictable times,” Professor McCormick said: “It is sobering to see how this may have had an effect on a very productive economy in the ancient world, and we need to reflect on how it may affect us.”

Professor McCormick’s words ring true. Climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed.

The world needs to both continue trying to find ways to prevent and reverse climate change as well as come up with contingency plans of how to cope in times of geographic turmoil like those faced by the Egyptians so long ago. This issue is not going to go away on its own.

Image: OSU Special Collections & Archives : Commons

By Duncan Brown

Science and tech editor and teen heartthrob

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