Ancient Egypt

Volcanoes Caused Egyptian Revolts

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The Ptolemaic Kingdom ruled over one of the most prosperous periods in Egyptian history — it opened with the construction of the Great Library of Alexandria, and ended with the death of the world's first superstar queen, Cleopatra. But it was also marked by multiple rebellions against the Greece-controlled throne. A new study suggests that those rebellions had less to do with tyrannical rulers and more to do with unfortunate volcano eruptions.

Wouldn't You Volca-know It

Let's say you live in the shadow of a giant mountain, and the year after a new king comes into power, the mountain explodes. It kind of makes sense to assume that the gods hated the new guy, right? Except, that's not what was going on in Egypt — the volcanoes that were wreaking havoc on their sense of security weren't anywhere near the country.

According to a report in Nature, the period from about 300 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E. was during a particularly eventful stretch of volcanic activity all over the globe. And that level of smoke and ash pushed into the atmosphere can set off changes far, far away from where the volcano actually was.

All of the material in the air had one major effect: it drastically lowered the amount of precipitation worldwide. No rain means no flooding. And for the people of the Nile, no flooding means no food. So even if they didn't know why the floods weren't coming, they still had plenty to get upset about.

Here's one interesting tidbit from the period. Cleopatra herself wasn't immune to calamities caused by distant volcanoes. But she also had a brilliant plan: she saved food. So when famine hit after the drought, she was prepared to allocate resources to the people most in need. The result? No revolt.

The Nile River

Putting It Together

So how'd they figure this whole situation out? It all came down to pinpointing when the major volcano eruptions were in history. And in order to do that, they had to go to Greenland. By examining ice cores, researchers are able to find exactly when the atmosphere was filled with trapped sulfur. Then it's just a matter of comparing those years with the records of revolutions on Egyptian papyrus. And there you have it: big plumes of smoke can lead to big political flare-ups.

For more about life on the Nile, check out Toby Wilkinson's "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt", which starts with the Old Kingdom and goes all the way to Egypt's absorption into the Roman Empire. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas November 26, 2017

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