The Drought That Led to the Death of a Whole Civilization

The Drought That Led to the Death of a Whole Civilization

Why you should care

Because drought’s a modern problem too.

Empire has its advantages. Rewind nearly 4,000 years, back to one of the very first empires ruled by the lost city of Akkad, which crisscrossed Mesopotamia with roads and a functioning postal service. The Babylonians and Assyrians would come along later, inventing geometry and numbering the stars. But for 200 years, the Akkadian empire was the only game between the Tigris and the Euphrates, stretching through parts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Iran in its conquest of the region, imperializing both trade and agricultural production.

Akkadian ruler Sargon I established his empire by running rampant over neighboring Sumerian cities around 2340 B.C. He would take on the cities’ former leaders as governors and then simply roll over them with his 5,400-strong army while unifying the empire under a religion led by his daughter. That is, until around 2150 B.C., when Sargon’s descendants lost power and the region collapsed into a patchwork of independent states.

Conventional wisdom blamed the Akkadians’ downfall on its unsustainable conquest strategy — each Akkadian king, upon inheriting the throne, had to fight off internal rebellion by conquering neighboring tribes instead, steadily depleting the empire’s resources while adding to the number of potentially hostile forces within. In his 1964 book Ancient Iraq, French scholar Georges Roux called the cycle of expansion and rebellion that toppled Akkad as “a perfect preview of the rise and fall of all subsequent Mesopotamian empires.”

Or it could have been the curse. “The Curse of Akkad,” a poem most likely penned within a century of the empire’s demise, tells the story of Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, plundering the temple of a weather god and finding out the hard way why it was a bad idea. “For the first time since cities were built and founded/The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,” the poem reads. It refers to clouds that refused to rain and to people weakened by hunger. For centuries, nobody realized the poem could be historical; it belongs to a Mesopotamian tradition of stories about famous leaders that are considered semi-true at best. But in the early 1990s, archaeologist Harvey Weiss published his theory that drought and ensuing famine, as the poem said, had killed the empire, rather than military unrest — though we can’t comment on the veracity of a wind god’s rage.

Mesopotamia’s first unifying empire, as it turns out, may have been undone by climate change. “Since 3000 B.C., all rise and demise of major empires and dynasties in the Mesopotamia and Iranian Plateau coincides with [an] abrupt shift in climate conditions,” says Orash Sharifi, lead author of a recent study on sediment cores in modern-day Iran. The climate shifts caused drought and famine, which has brought down empires throughout history, including the Akkadian — roads, postal service and all. Its main city, Agade, is lost to history — nobody even knows whether it was on the Tigris or Euphrates River.

We’re not talking man-made climate change. While the Akkadians had roads, there were certainly no diesel-belching trucks, and industrialization wasn’t exactly around the corner. But droughts, whether caused by humans or vagaries of the season, did topple once-secure civilizations. The Akkadians aren’t alone: Several studies have found that severe droughts coincided with the fall of various Mayan civilizations, and many paleoclimatologists believe a dry spell ushered in the decline of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom.

Sharifi’s data doesn’t come out of the blue. Academics studying local soils since the 1970s have indicated that Mesopotamian drought coincided with the empire’s collapse — citing “The Curse of Akkad” as a guide, backed up by scientific data. Studies of Akkadian-era Syrian trade have found that society shifted shortly thereafter; as empire-wide trade fell into disarray, big agriculture stopped functioning and people relied more on local trade while contending with food shortages.

But Sharifi’s research provides a more comprehensive picture of the region’s past climate than ever before by analyzing organic compounds in the sediment to determine climate conditions. They just happen to match up with the long-presumed dates in which empires fell apart. Perhaps the drought made conquest and internal rebellion more likely, or perhaps it strained loyalties to a dynasty of kings who seemed unable to provide for their massive empire. So no matter how big your army, it might not save you if you anger the weather gods.


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