Climate Change Fueled The Rise And Demise Of The Neo-Assyrian Empire, Superpower Of The Ancient World

Climate Change Fueled The Rise And Demise Of The Neo-Assyrian Empire, Superpower Of The Ancient World Ashurbanipal, last major ruler of the Assyrian Empire, couldn’t outrun the effects of climate change. British Museum, CC BY-ND

Ancient Mesopotamia, the fabled land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, was the command and control center of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This ancient superpower was the largest empire of its time, lasting from 912 BC to 609 BC in what is now modern Iraq and Syria. At its height, the Assyrian state stretched from the Mediterranean and Egypt in the west to the Persian Gulf and western Iran in the east.

Then, in an astonishing reversal of fortune, the Neo-Assyrian Empire plummeted from its zenith (circa 650 BC) to complete political collapse within the span of just a few decades. What happened?

Numerous theories attempt to explain the Assyrian collapse. Most researchers attribute it to imperial overexpansion, civil wars, political unrest and Assyrian military defeat by a coalition of Babylonian and Median forces in 612 BC. But exactly how these two small armies were able to annihilate what was then the most powerful military force in the world has mystified historians and archaeologists for more than a hundred years.

Our new research published in the journal Science Advances sheds light on these mysteries. We show that climate change was the proverbial double-edged sword that first contributed to the meteoric rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and then to its precipitous collapse.

Climate Change Fueled The Rise And Demise Of The Neo-Assyrian Empire, Superpower Of The Ancient World An artist’s vision of the interior of an Assyrian palace, based on drawings made in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard on the site of 19th century excavations. New York Public library digital collections, CC BY-ND

Booming right up to an unexpected bust

The Neo-Assyrian state was an economic powerhouse. Its formidable war machine boasted a large standing army with cavalry, chariots and iron weaponry. For over two centuries, the mighty Assyrians waged relentless military campaigns with ruthless efficiency. They conquered, plundered and subjugated major regional powers across the Near and Middle East, as each Assyrian king tried to outshine his predecessor.

Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria, ruled this vast empire from the ancient city of Nineveh, the ruins of which lie across the Tigris River from modern Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was a sprawling metropolis of unprecedented size and grandeur filled with temples and palace complexes, with exotic gardens that were watered by an extensive system of canals and aqueducts.

And then it all ended within just a few years. Why?

Our research group wanted to investigate climate conditions over the few centuries when the Neo-Assyrian Empire took hold and then eventually collapsed.

Building a picture of climate 2,600 years ago

For clues about rainfall patterns over northern Mesopotamia, we turned to Kuna Ba cave, located near Nineveh.

Our colleagues collected samples from the cave’s stalagmites. These are the cone-like structures that point upward from the cave floor. They grow slowly, from the ground up, as rainwater drips down from the cave ceiling, depositing dissolved minerals.

Climate Change Fueled The Rise And Demise Of The Neo-Assyrian Empire, Superpower Of The Ancient World The layers of a stalagmite record the climate conditions of the time when they were created. Ashish Sinha, CC BY-ND

The rainwater naturally contains heavy and light isotopes of oxygen – that is, atoms of oxygen that have different numbers of neutrons. Subtle variations in the oxygen isotope ratios can be sensitive indicators of climatic conditions at the time the rainwater originally fell. As stalagmites grow, they lock into their structure the oxygen isotope ratios of the percolating rainwater that seeps into the cave.

We painstakingly pieced together the climatic history of northern Mesopotamia by carefully drilling into stalagmites, across their growth rings, which are similar to those of trees. In each sample, we measured the oxygen isotope ratios to build a timeline of how conditions changed. That told us the order of events but didn’t tell us the amount of time that elapsed between them.

Luckily, the stalagmites also trap uranium, an element that’s ever-present in trace amounts in the infiltrating water. Over time, uranium decays into thorium at a predictable pace. So the dating experts on our research team made scores of high-precision uranium-thorium measurements on stalagmite growth layers.

Together these two kinds of measurements let us anchor our climate record to precise calendar years.

Unusual wet period, then massive drought

Now a direct comparison of the stalagmite climate record with the historical and archaeological records from the region was possible. We wanted to place the key events of Neo-Assyrian history into the long-term context of our climate reconstruction.

We found that the most significant expansion phase of the Neo-Assyrian state occurred during a two-centuries-long interval of anomalously wet climate, as compared with the previous 4,000 years. Called a megapluvial period, this time of unusually high rainfall was immediately followed by megadroughts during the early-to-mid-seventh century BC. These ancient dry conditions were as severe as recent droughts in Iraq and Syria but lasted for decades. The period marking the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire occurred well within this time frame.

Climate Change Fueled The Rise And Demise Of The Neo-Assyrian Empire, Superpower Of The Ancient World The Neo-Assyrian Empire rose during an unusual time of wet climate and collapsed soon after conditions swung to unusual dryness. Ashish Sinha, CC BY-ND

Mindful of the caveat that correlation doesn’t imply causation, we were interested in how this wild climate swing – an unusually rainy period that ended in drought – could have influenced an empire.

While the Neo-Assyrian state was huge in its final few decades, its economic core was always confined to a rather small region. This relatively small area in northern Mesopotamia served as a primary source of agricultural revenues and powered Assyrian military campaigns.

We argue that nearly two centuries of unusually wet conditions in this otherwise semi-arid region allowed for agriculture to flourish and energized the Assyrian economy. The climate acted as a catalyst for the creation of a dense network of urban and rural settlements in the unsettled zones that previously hadn’t been able to support farming.

Our data show the wet period abruptly ended and the pendulum swung the other way. In the grips of recurring megadroughts, the Assyrian core and its hinterlands would have been engulfed within a “zone of uncertainty” – a corridor of land where the rainfall is highly erratic and any rain-fed agriculture comes with a large risk of crop failure.

Repeated crop failures likely exacerbated the political unrest in Assyria, crippled its economy and empowered the adjacent rival states.

Uncertain climate, unsustainable growth

Our findings have current-day implications.

In modern times, the same region that once constituted the Assyrian core has been repeatedly struck by multiyear droughts. The catastrophic drought of 2007–2008 in northern Iraq and Syria, the most severe in the past 50 years, led to cereal crop failures across the region.

Droughts like this one offer a glimpse of what Assyrians endured during the mid-seventh century BC. And the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire offers a warning to today’s societies.

Climate change is here to stay. In the 21st century, people have what Neo-Assyrians did not: the benefit of hindsight and plenty of observational data. Unsustainable growth in politically volatile and water-stressed regions is a time-tested recipe for disaster.

About The Author

Ashish Sinha, Professor of Earth and Climate Sciences, California State University, Dominguez Hills and Gayatri Kathayat, Associate Professor of Global Environmental Change, Xi'an Jiaotong University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
by MSNBC
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…
Stanford Climate Solutions
by Stanford
Climate change has brought us to a defining moment in human history.
Buying Renewable Energy From Your Neighbor
by NBC News
Brooklyn Microgrid, a project of parent company LO3 Energy, is looking to disrupt the more than 100-year-old energy…

LATEST ARTICLES

Why Our Children And Grandchildren Await A Radioactive Legacy
Why Our Children And Grandchildren Await A Radioactive Legacy
by Paul Brown
We are leaving our children a radioactive legacy, the lethal waste that current governments still cannot make safe.
UN Report Warns Only Rapid and Transformational Action Can Stave Off Global Climate Disaster
UN Report Warns Only Rapid and Transformational Action Can Stave Off Global Climate Disaster
by Jake Johnson
Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly…
How The Low-carbon Transition Is Disrupting Fossil Fuel Politics
How The Low-carbon Transition Is Disrupting Fossil Fuel Politics
by Cara Daggett
As the Trump administration works to weaken regulations on fossil fuel production and use, a larger struggle is playing…
Why Fossil Fuel Divestment Will Increase Carbon Emissions, Not Lower Them
Why Fossil Fuel Divestment Will Increase Carbon Emissions, Not Lower Them
by Stefan Andreasson
A global campaign encouraging individuals, organisations and institutional investors to sell off investments in fossil…
Hothouse Earth: Here's What The Science Actually Says
Hothouse Earth: Here's What The Science Actually Says
by Richard Betts
A new scientific paper proposing a scenario of unstoppable climate change has gone viral, thanks to its evocative…
Were Other Humans The First Victims Of This Sixth Mass Extinction?
Were Other Humans The First Victims Of This Sixth Mass Extinction?
by Nick Longrich
Nine human species walked the Earth 300,000 years ago. Now there is just one. The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis,…
One Of Many Ways To Achieve Cheap Stored Power
One Of Many Ways To Achieve Cheap Stored Power
by Paul Brown
New ways to generate renewable electricity will offer cheap stored power and a solution to balancing supply and demand.
'4°C Of Global Warming Is Optimal' – Even Nobel Prize Winners Are Getting Things Catastrophically Wrong
'4°C Of Global Warming Is Optimal' – Even Nobel Prize Winners Are Getting Things Catastrophically Wrong
by Steve Keen
William Nordhaus was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics for “integrating climate change into long-run…