Once upon a time, the Negev Desert had actually been very populous. Towns sprouted and grew by the oases, agriculture flourished and a major city even arose, the mysterious Elusa. In the Byzantine period of control over the Holy Land between the fourth and seventh centuries, tens of thousands of people lived in these towns, and Elusa even sported a school of rhetoric.
One of the fiercest debates among archaeologists is what happened next. Why did these towns empty out? Why did the Negev almost disappear from the map of civilization for the next thousand years?
The conventional wisdom until recently had been that the collapse of these communities was a result of the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century. But in recent years, researchers have shown that most of these communities continued to exist after the conquest. Early Christians and Muslims clearly lived there together, though the nature of their relations is still being eludicated.
It now seems that the final collapse of the Negev towns happened in the 11th century and it was because of climate change. Farming had been possible chiefly thanks to clever water management, but as the rainfall dwindled even more, it became outright impossible.
Still, the question was when the flight from the Negev began — and now a new study published on Sunday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science proposes a new – and much earlier – date for the beginning of the fall: the middle of the sixth century, about 100 years before the Islamic conquest.
The reason for the collapse in the newest theory is still unclear, but the researchers suspect the culprit to have been climate change, which undermined the foundations of the economy in the Negev towns. Their conclusion was reached after spending four years studying trash heaps from antiquity, chiefly around the city of Elusa, called Halutza in Hebrew.
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Elusa wasn't a town, but a true city in the Negev, housing tens of thousands of people at its heyday. The trash heaps were dated using carbon-14 dating on the organic materials they found, such as seeds, olive pits, animal and fish bones and charred wood.
"Our findings, taken together with other evidence for Byzantine urban dysfunction, the Justinianic Plague, and recent research on the Late Antique Little Ice Age, flesh out the impact of the sixth century on broad historical trajectories," write Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of archaeozoology at Haifa University, and the team of researchers, from Haifa University, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, in PNAS.
Throwing out the trash
Dating the detritus enabled the archaeologists to precisely determine — something rather rare in ancient archaeology – the stage where the residents of Elusa stopped throwing out their garbage outside the city walls. This was around 540 C.E. “Nothing goes beyond 540, said Bar-Oz, the study’s lead author. And that was a century before the end of Byzantine hegemony in the region.
“If you accept the assumption that they removed the garbage for as long as the community was functioning, and they didn’t when it wasn’t, then the picture is clear,” said Bar-Oz. This means that Elusa’s decline from a flourishing and important city began about began about 100 years before the Muslim conquest and hundreds of years before the towns completely disappeared from the Negev.
Starting in 540, the population of the city and the amount of garbage it generated shrunk greatly, said the researchers. It seems this was the year that the local government stopped collecting the trash in an organized fashion, too. Instead of throwing the trash out from inside the walls, the residents began throwing out their reduced amounts of trash inside the city – most likely in areas of abandoned and ruined homes. The city never returned to its original greatness, say the scientists.
Bar-Oz rejects the possibility that the garbage was simply disposed of somewhere else: “For four years we went to every place [around Elusa] which had garbage... It seems the community continue to exist, but shrunk,” he said.
What happened? One possible cause for the crisis is the Late Antique Little Ice Age, a cold snap believed to have been caused by "volcanic winter" — eruptions belching out ash clouds so massive that they blocked sunlight over the Northern Hemisphere, leading to cold weather that is suspected of being behind a host of destructive economic and political events. During this period, Europe suffered a pandemic of bubonic plague, one of the most destructive ever recorded and known as the Plague of Justinian, which spread in the Levant, too.
There is one snag: Europe may have shivered and moaned, but according to all the evidence, the Negev did not suffer from climate crisis during this period. So the researchers suspect that the influence of the global crisis on the Negev was indirect – but still disastrous.
The economies of the Negev cities were based on exports, wine in particular, sold under the brand name “Gaza wine” for the main port city serving the desert at the time. The international trade system began to implode because of the plague and climate change, and the Negev’s exports could no longer support the population. As a result, the residents of Elusa began to abandon their homes and never returned; and later, rainfall in the Negev would diminish anyway.
One sign of how great the city of Elusa had been came to light just this year, with the discovery of a rare inscription, in Greek, naming the place. It seems to date to Emperor Diocletian’s reign, around 1,700 years ago, when the great 10th Roman Legion was being moved from inside modern Israel to Aqaba.
Elusa today, by the way, lies within a military firing zone and cannot be visited.