The Hunger Claims

If we want proof of how extreme weather conditions can effect political change, Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum says we just need to look to the Mediterranean Basin a thousand or so years ago.

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Nothing like it had been seen in Egypt for centuries. “The city is paralyzed, there are no buyers and no sellers,” an 11th-century Jewish merchant wrote describing Fustat, near Cairo. “All eyes are on the Nile. May God in his mercy raise the river waters.”

Beginning in the late 10th century and continuing throughout the 11th century, Nile Valley residents documented a long series of droughts, the worst of which reduced the population to hunger. At their height, these periods of drought were on a biblical scale there were five, six and sometimes even seven consecutive years in which rainfall all but ceased. The worst and most devastating period was from 1052 to 1073 when, on average, a drought year was recorded every two years.

The Nile River’s decreased flow during these recurrent drought periods dealt a blow to the entire region, forcing the population beyond Egypt’s borders. The reason for this was the reliance of people living in the Eastern Mediterranean basin on two main water sources, enabling them to develop the agricultural lifestyle that sustained them: winter rains in the Levant, and rains that originated in areas south of the Sahara, which feed the Nile. The likelihood of both these sources faltering at the same time is small. But in the 11th century that exact scenario came to pass. It was not only the populace of Egypt that suffered from lengthy droughts but also their Levant neighbors in Syria and Palestine.

The plight of the region’s residents did not end with that double whammy. Written testimony from the area north of the Levant shows that the Eastern Mediterranean basin suffered a third climatic blow that century that was no less harsh. Between 1027 and 1060, the steppes of Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Armenia and the Balkans endured especially cold winters. The severe cold also caused drought in many areas, the flocks belonging to the nomadic pastoralist tribes froze, for many years winter snow fell on Baghdad and the Tigris partially froze over.

Between one bad weather period and another, there were also good years when comfortable climatic conditions and timely rains enabled economic and cultural growth. But when drought and cold pummeled the region successively, or in tandem, they led to a significant reduction in the crops on which the populace depended.

The damage to agricultural yield had far-reaching social and political consequences: “A rise in food prices, turmoil and riots, hunger, plagues, mass death, urban flight, population movements, persecution of minorities, persecution of anyone who was alien and different, and forcible religious conversion resulted,” explains Prof. Ronnie Ellenblum, a geographer and historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In his book “The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072,” which was published last month (Cambridge University Press), Ellenblum describes what he calls “the anatomy of collapse.” He says the roots of this collapse go back to a series of extreme climatic events that occurred in the 11th century. He draws a connection between the extreme climatic phenomena in Egypt, the Levant and Central Asia, and social and political upheavals that brought about the decline of major cities and mass migration, altering the face of the Eastern Mediterranean basin substantially.

Shrinking cities

Ellenblum had not intended to conduct such a wide-ranging study. At the start, he was focused on the history of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages.

“I discovered that even before Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders, the size of its territory and population had shrunk,” he says. “When the Crusaders arrived there was no aqueduct, and the water supply was based entirely on rainwater. I once lectured on this and explained that the aqueducts had broken down over the generations and the technological skills required to fix them, which were known in the Roman era, had been lost. A student came up to me and said, ‘What’s the big deal about fixing a canal or building a bridge? I don’t buy that.’ I replied that it was the standard explanation. The moment I said that it hit me, and I promised that I would look into the phenomenon of shrinking cities in the 11th century.”

As he delved into documents of that period, it became apparent to Ellenblum that the decline of the cities in our region was a widespread phenomenon: “Tiberias, which had reached its biggest size ever in the 1030s, went into decline before the century’s end. Ramle, which was quadruple the size of Jerusalem at the start of the century, was practically empty of residents when the Crusaders arrived in the year 1099. Something had happened there. Nearly all the cities that were built in the Land of Israel in the Classical and Early Muslim periods, and some of the land’s agricultural areas, declined in the 11th century.”

Ellenblum ascribes that decline to consecutive drought years, which dried up many springs that provided water to farming communities (a similar phenomenon has been taking place in recent years in the Jerusalem Hills) and to the aqueducts. He soon learned that a similar phenomenon occurred throughout the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

“During this period,” he explains, “something happened to all of Roman urban culture, which had continued to exist for another thousand years in the East. Jerusalem, Fustat, Tiberias, Constantinople, Kairouan in North Africa and Muslim Baghdad all these cities declined.”

The 1030s were a particularly difficult time in Baghdad, the capital of the Muslim Empire. The winters during that decade were especially severe, and during more than half of them it snowed in the city. (“In 1038 heavy snows fell twice on Baghdad and did not melt for many days, and the cold in December was so fierce the water completely froze for six days,” a chronicler of the time wrote). The extreme weather conditions prompted loss of crops, a series of droughts, a rise in food prices, hunger and plagues that caused a substantial reduction in the population. The violence between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims increased, persecution of the Jews worsened, and street gangs that attacked people and looted property grew more powerful.

According to Ellenblum, this explains why the academies of Sura and Pumbedita which operated in Baghdad at the time and were the most important centers for Jewish study in the east ceased to exist in the late 1030s, and their closure brought an end to the period of the Geonim (heads of the academies).

“Some have claimed that the academies in Baghdad lost their eminence gradually,” he says, “but not too many years earlier, the head of the Jerusalem academy sent his son to study at the academy of Baghdad.” In other words, the Babylonian academy was still in its prime a few years before it closed down.

The closure of the Baghdad academies and later on also the academy in Jerusalem had significant consequences for the Jewish world. “In the wake of this, the centers of study ceased to exist in the east and moved to Spain, France, and the lands of Ashkenaz,” Ellenblum says. “This is a good example of processes that take place simultaneously, but those who wrote about the history of the Jews did not deal with the history of Baghdad itself or with the social history of the region, and therefore did not make the connection between the phenomena.”

According to Ellenblum, the weakening of Baghdad created the conditions for an even graver blow to the Muslim Empire’s capital a few years later, in the 1050s.

“That is when nomads from the north conquered Baghdad the largest and most important city in the western hemisphere, an enormous city, the center of government, the center of study. Today it is hard to imagine the importance of that city, and the importance of the scholars who were active there and in Iran,” he notes. “Those were the people who developed algebra, geography, medicine, and who were familiar with all of the Greek philosophical writings and the commentaries on them. They were conquered by nomads who did not know how to read and write, who came from the Asian Steppes, entered Baghdad, encountering no resistance, and became its rulers.”

Those nomads were the Seljuks, tribes of Turcoman cattle herders that in the 11th century migrated to the Middle East and gained control of large areas of the Muslim Empire, including Baghdad. Later on, the Seljuks defeated Byzantium and wrested control of Asia Minor.

Ellenblum cites written sources that attest that the Turcoman tribes were forced to migrate southward because of the fierce cold spells that swept their habitats. Their flocks froze in the harsh cold, and they went in search of other areas where they could make a living.

Ellenblum points out that the climatic events severe droughts in the Levant and the Nile Valley, and cold spells in the north reached their apex in the 1050s. During that decade, the cold spells and droughts simultaneously pummeled the whole Eastern Mediterranean basin.

“The entire region, from Baghdad all the way to Constantinople, filled up with nomads some of whom had migrated 1,500-2,000 kilometers. They conquered and looted everything they came across, and caused a cultural collapse,” he says.

Byzantium, too, was also contending with an invasion of tribes of Turcoman origin the Pechenegs and the Uzes. These tribes came to the region from the direction of Ukraine via the Balkans. According to Ellenblum, these tribes too went southward following a series of harsh winters.

‘Economic crisis’

In the years 1045-1080, the invasion of the nomads who had penetrated Byzantium from the north led to a reduction of its territory to a tenth of what it had been until then. The nomadic tribes conquered broad areas in the Balkans and Asia Minor, “which never went back to being part of the Byzantine Empire,” Ellenblum says.

While Byzantium battled the invaders from the north, nomadic tribes from the Arabian Peninsula arrived in North Africa. During the previous millennium, there were extensive and fertile farmlands in North Africa, which at their height provided a large share of Rome’s food. The nomads destroyed Kairouan, a key city in North Africa (now part of Tunisia). “The whole agricultural province of North Africa was abandoned in that period,” Ellenblum says. As early as the 14th century, the Muslim historian and social scholar Ibn Khaldun accused the nomads of destroying the rich region of North Africa. Many modern historians followed suit, Ellenblum notes, but he also says the nomads who reached North Africa were themselves victims of the Middle East shortages in the 1050s. He adds that similar phenomena occurred in the Negev as well. “I and some of my colleagues think that agriculture had been practiced in the Negev up until that time, but then it stopped.”

In that decade, the populace of Egypt suffered droughts and terrible hunger. The phenomenon recurred later on, between 1065 and 1072. “Fustat, which had been the capital of Egypt and whose population had numbered hundreds of thousands, was almost completely abandoned during the famines of 1052-1059 and 1065-1072,” Ellenblum says. The rule of the Caliph, who prior to the famine was one of the strongest rulers in the region, deteriorated then. For the first time in the history of Egypt which in the past had served as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean the government had to turn to Byzantium for help and ask for wheat shipments. But the rulers of Byzantium were in serious crisis at the time and unable to provide the food support they promised to send. Ultimately, the ruler’s palace in Egypt was looted of its treasures by soldiers who had not been paid.

In contrast to Baghdad, Byzantium and North Africa, the economic crisis in Egypt during the 1050s did not lead to a change of government, but the small Christian population and the nomadic population in the region grew significantly.

Even if the climatic aspects are central to Ellenblum’s study, he has based his thesis solely on historical documents. “According to climate studies, around the years 1000-1100 there were relatively hot temperatures in Europe and the northern Atlantic Ocean. The data also hint at low average temperatures in western Asia,” he observes. “However, every such measurement of short-term catastrophes contains an inaccuracy that does not permit us to establish when an extreme climate event occurred, how powerful it was and which area it affected, and usually the inaccuracy is longer than the catastrophe itself.”

Ellenblum relied on 11th-century documents, letters, bureaucratic papers and chronicles from various areas of the Eastern Mediterranean basin, in 12 languages. “There isn’t a single scholar who can read all 12 languages in which they wrote in the region in that era,” he says. “Some of the documents I read on my own, and in decoding some of the texts I availed myself of translations and colleagues with the appropriate background. Ultimately, I took all the information I could get thousands of texts, all of which describe in a consistent and analogous manner the same extreme events.”

One of his main conclusions is that “the strongest factor in all of these upheavals is food prices. That is the great engine through which climate impacts the population. The moment that food prices go up, agitation begins. In the past two years the food prices in the world have gone up steeply, and they are continuing to go up. The reasons for this are economic, but extreme events such as drought in the Midwestern United States or floods in Australia play a part in the rise of food prices.”

According to Prof. Ellenblum, “this is an important part of the explanation for what is happening around us today.”

Drought years dried up many springs that provided water to farming communities.Credit: AP
A new book ties climate change to the decline of the Middle East.Credit: AP

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