In recent decades a theory emerges that link the chaotic period in Egyptian history during the end of Old Kingdom and beginning of first Intermediate Period to climate change and climate-induced catastrophes (Bell, 1971; Bernhardt et. al, 2012). This essay aims at reviewing evidences of social unrest and a major climatic event that caused severe aridity throughout the African continent during the period. The latter half of the essay aims at assessing climatic impact on Egyptian society and examining the climate as a possible driving force behind social changes during this period.
Period of Examination
The practice of dividing Egyptian history into distinguishable phases originated from 19th century historian (Shaw, 2000) and is a common practice in studying ancient near-Eastern civilizations (Bryce, 1998). Historians conveniently divide Pharaonic Egyptian history into three kingdoms namely Old, Middle and New kingdom, alternated by periods with major decline, namely the first and second intermediate periods (Bryce, 1998; Shaw, 2000). The Old Kingdom of Egypt is an important period in ancient Egyptian history which flourished from 27th to 22nd century BCE. During the Old Kingdom, Egypt saw a significant increase in monumental construction projects, with the most well-known example being the Great Pyramid on the Giza plateau built during Khufu’s reign. Its end is marked by major decline of centralized government and is traditionally dated by Egyptologists to around 2,160BCE (4,160yBP) and is associated with political and economic instability (Shaw, 2000). This essay will examine social changes and climate evidences during the late third millennium BCE.
Written record and archaeological evidences
Towards the end of Old Kingdom and the beginning of first Intermediate period, we have historical evidences showing it is a time of systemic collapse of centralized governmental administration, political and economic instability, internal war among provincial leaders and external troubles such as invasion of nomadic tribes in Egypt. Whether it is a rapid collapse or a more gradual decline is still subjected to debate, and many social-political factors have been proposed as possible causes of the decline. They include decline of economic power of the king due to ideological factors, collapse of fiscal system and ambitious local leaders. Scholars have yet to conclusively pin-point a single most important factor in the collapse and disagreements remain. However, the generally accepted base-line is that the first Intermediate Period is accompanied by crisis (Shaw, 2000; Hassan, 2007). Textual evidence of a major social unrest can be found in tomb inscriptions. According to the autobiographic inscription on Ankhify’s tomb, which is dated to the first Intermediate period, it recorded a dramatic chapter of famine and massive population migration. The hieroglyphic text recorded widespread hunger in Upper Egypt and contained description of people even reverted to cannibalism (Laurent, 2008). Other literary sources dates to the same period also revealed the phenomenon of consistent low Nile inundation and grain shortage. However, written records are criticized to be vulnerable to biases and unreliable, precise dating of these records is also troublesome (Hassan, 2007).
In order to further confirm the major social upheaval recorded by text during the late Old Kingdom and early Intermediate Period, archaeological evidences are of critical importance. There are indeed archaeological excavations suggesting widespread armed conflicts during the same period (Hassan, 2007). When textual accounts are read in combination with archaeological evidences, the case sounds convincing that the fall of Old Kingdom and the Intermediate Period are temporarily correlated with a time of bad harvest, food shortage and social unrest. However, food shortage can be due to many reasons; it could be that political instability and war that leads to farmland abandonment or climate-induced crop failure resulting in economic turmoil, reduction in tax revenue and state failure. Correlation does not automatically imply causation and geological evidences of low Nile at that time is necessary to establish the causation relation. Textual references give us little insight apart from descriptions of Nile inundation, and since reliability of such sources are subjected to question and debate (Hassan, 2007), more circumstantial evidences are needed. In order to further investigate the case and establish the link between climate, agriculture and the demise of Old Kingdom, reconstructed past climate proxies are used for further analysis.
Reconstructing past climate
Oxygen-18 content in the ice core obtained from Greenland ice sheet is a useful proxy in approximating past temperature fluctuations in a hemispheric scale. When the raw data available from the NOAA database is examined and plotted on a graph, it clearly shows a period of hemispheric cooling which peaked at around 4,700yBP (Bintanja et al., 2005). However we must be careful not to draw premature conclusion based on the reconstructed temperature data only because of resolution and dating issues, and also the location where the core is obtained may not reflect local climate variability which can affect the climate condition in the area under investigation. Furthermore, the time period of cooling does not match the Old Kingdom collapse and the two events deviate by centuries. Drilling of sediment core in the Nile Delta region revealed a possible dry-up of the delta, confirming decrease in Nile flow recorded the ancient texts. Investigation on sediment samples obtained Memphis near modern day Cairo revealed increased desert sand deposition, indicating possible expansion of desert area and even engulfment of human settlements (Hassan, 2007). One of the most important pieces of evidence for a severe drought in the Nile delta area came from Burullus Lagoon, Egypt. A 27.5m long sediment core collected in the lagoon shows a significant decline in Cyperaceae pollen and elevated level of deposited microscopic charcoal at around 5m depth, which its deposition can be calibrated to around 4,000yBP. The reduction of Cyperaceae pollen indicated arid climate and elevation in charcoal particle indicated increase occurrence of fire in proximity (Bernhardt, 2012). Evidences found in Israel and Jordan also revealed widespread aridity and desertification affecting the Middle Eastern region (Hassan, 2007). These reconstructions of past climate echo with the written records of ancient Egypt and demonstrated that the references to low Nile described in these texts during the first Intermediate Period are well supported by available geological evidences.
Reconstructions of precipitation pattern and lake levels in different parts of Africa revealed reduction in rainfall and resulting in dry climate in those regions, providing possible explanations for consistent low Nile during the time period (Gasse and Champo, 1994). Furthermore, Bernhardt (2012) suggested that Southward shift of Inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a line where wind originated from the North and South hemisphere met can result in the decline in precipitation in the upstream region of the Nile. Reasons proposed for the shift in ITCZ include influence from solar radiation and ocean conditions (Gasse and Champo, 1994). Since the precipitation pattern in the area directly determines the amount of water going into the river flow, this in turn affected the Nile inundation.
Climate and Egyptian Society
In order to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between climate and Egyptian society, we need to investigate the basic: Egyptian agricultural system. The Egyptian agricultural was and still is heavily concentrated at proximity of the Nile River. The Nile was regularly flooded and this provided fertile soil for cultivation, and the whole Egypt depend on it to survive. Since the Egyptians practice irrigation to expand the area of cultivated farmland, agricultural production in ancient Egypt is expected to be more sensitive to Nile flood than to local precipitation condition (Shaw, 2000). If there was insufficient rainfall in a particular year, the Egyptians can often mitigate the problem by diverting more water from the river flow to compensate. On another hand, upstream precipitation which affected the regular flooding of the Nile and the amount of water flow in the Nile itself, are expected to be of critical importance to the harvest in the river valley because the Nile both supported the irrigation system and brought fertile soil, these two factors are important factors that determine the carrying capacity of the Nile valley. When the climate changed and the level of Nile receded to a low level, the area of land that can be cultivated declined as the available amount of water extractable from the river decreased. Prolonged failure of inundation also makes the soil less fertile. These would have been a double blow to the Egyptian agriculture and economy. When grain shortage became a serious problem and the basic needs of the population can no longer be satisfied, these would have resulted in collapse of civil society (Shaw, 2000; Hassan, 2007). As the previous discussions have demonstrated, currently there are multiple evidences showing climate catastrophes indeed occurred approximately at the same time as the Old Kingdom collapsed, the Nile provided the necessary link between changes in climate and influences on Egyptian agriculture. The availability of multiple independent evidences are so convincing that even if climate is not the sole factor that contributes to the collapse, it is among one of the most important factors that destabilize the society.
Although various climatic reconstructions support the hypothesis that around 4000yBP there was a widespread aridity in Eastern Africa, questions still remain because not all evidences fit into the picture nicely. According to Bernhardt (2012) the reconstructed drought period began long before the Old Kingdom collapse and lasted well into the early 2nd millennium BCE. It peaked at 3,800yBP and this is already centuries after the collapse of Old Kingdom. However, political unity in Egypt was re-established under the Middle Kingdom around 4055yBP (Shaw, 2000), this means the onset of severe aridity overlaps with the restoration of political order in Egypt. This centuries-long-gap between late Old Kingdom collapse and the peak of the drought period remain unexplained. Although it could be partially attributed to dating error using different methods, this still serve as a reminder that researches attempting to explain Old Kingdom collapse from the perspective of climate change is still ongoing.
Human Adaptations and speculations
Climate change can bring miseries to societies such as famine and poverty; however it can also be a catalyst to changes because humans are capable of adjustments and adaptations. By examining the social and political changes during the late Old Kingdom and the early first Intermediate Period, many of these developments in fact make sense and can be seen as adaptations to climate change.
First and most important of all, there are evidences suggesting that the Egyptian society did not enter into a total collapse and there existed “Striving culture among the population of lower economic status” during the period (Shaw, 2000). Therefore, the downfall of a strong centralized state can also be viewed as a shift of power balance away from the court of Pharaoh towards provincial, local communities and towns. This represented a drastic change in social institution. When facing environmental disasters, provincial leaders adopted loss reduction strategies and devised innovative solutions to survive. Nomarchs could keep local irrigation canals and infrastructures in good shape to extract the maximum they could get from the river (Hassan, 2007). The rationale behind their decision to break away from the central government, and replace it with self-autonomous governance, might also be to avoid taxation and surplus redistribution by the central authority. During these difficult times, local leaders must keep whatever they could keep to ensure maximum security of food supply. These are reasonable speculations given the situation they were facing.
Apart from the dissolution of a strong central government, the elevation of armed conflict and civil wars can also be explained because bad time could promote mutually hostile behavior between groups of people due to intensified competition for resources. Towns and provinces endowed with less fertile land might have resorted to location changes for survival, and the process might not be always peaceful. Provinces fought each other in order to take possession of other’s surplus grain and cultivated land. Widespread aridity in the African continent can also explain nomadic incursion of more fertile Nile valley (Shaw, 2000). When nomadic tribes living in proximity with Egypt were hit by environmental catastrophes, they might turn to the Nile valley itself where land productivity was still much higher than surrounding desert and semi-arid areas.
Another adjustment of the Egyptian society could be associated with the decline of monumental constructions during that period. It is generally accepted that the labor force that construct the Great pyramids were not slave labors but rather Egyptians farmers. This means in order to satisfy the labor demand for the construction of the Great pyramids, a significant number of people must be diverted away from agricultural production. A large amount of surplus grain is necessary to support those people who are engaging in construction activities, and this involved redirecting surplus grains and could put great pressure on the agricultural system (Shaw, 2000). This might be an affordable luxury when the harvest was good. However when climate changed and the land carrying capacity shrank, one adjustment is that the Egyptian authorities turn away from constructing epic-scale monuments to conserve labor for agricultural activity. This explains the drastic reduction in scale of construction during this period when compared with earlier buildings erected during the golden age of the Old Kingdom.
Despite the environmental catastrophes and the daunting task of mitigation, Egyptian civilization survived the crisis and was reunified under a central government before the turn of the century. Chaos probably lasted for only decades (Hassan, 2007). The Middle Kingdom was established around 2,055BCE and it strived for some 400 years before the onset of another Intermediate period (Shaw, 2000). Nevertheless, this chapter in Egyptian history served as a witness to the flexibility of human civilizations and the capability of men to adjust and adapt to changes.
To conclude, paleo-climatology studies have shed light on the climate change event during the end of 3rd millennium and beginning of 2nd millennium BCE and contributed to a plausible explanation to the Old Kingdom collapse. Researches provided strong evidence that climate is a likely factor that caused social instability during the end of Egyptian Old Kingdom and many social-political changes documented during these periods can possibly be attributed to human adaptations to reduction in land carrying capacity. Although the theory has gradually gained mainstream acceptance in the field of Egyptology, reflected by its mentioning in standard textbook of Egyptian history (Shaw, 2000), unexplained mysteries remained and more works remained to be done by historians, anthropologists and paleo-climatologists.
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