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Volcanic Eruptions Linked to Social Unrest in Ancient Egypt

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Around 245 BCE Ptolemy III, ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, made a decision that still puzzles many historians: After pursuing a successful military campaign against the kingdom’s nemesis, the Seleucid Empire, centred mainly in present-day Syria and Iraq, the king suddenly decided to return home. This about-face “changed everything about Near-East history,” says Joseph Manning, a historian at Yale University.

Around 245 BCE Ptolemy III, ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, made a decision that still puzzles many historians: After pursuing a successful military campaign against the kingdom’s nemesis, the Seleucid Empire, centred mainly in present-day Syria and Iraq, the king suddenly decided to return home. This about-face “changed everything about Near-East history,” says Joseph Manning, a historian at Yale University.

Now, Manning and his colleagues have identified a possible reason for Ptolemy III’s trek back to Egypt: volcanoes. It’s a strange link, but one borne out by evidence. Massive eruptions, a new study suggests, can disrupt the normal flow of the Nile River by cooling the planet’s atmosphere. In Ancient Times, that may have led to food shortages and heightened existing tensions in the region. The research, which will be published 17 October in Nature Communications, links eruptions not just to the end of Ptolemy III’s war, but to a series of violent uprisings and other upheavals that rocked Ptolemaic Egypt – an empire that extended over large portions of Northeast Africa and the Middle East.

The study creates a strong case that sudden shifts in climate can have big impacts on human society. And it’s remarkable, Manning says, for doing so by drawing on a wide range of methods and evidence – from ice core records to Egyptian papyri.

Read more at Future Earth

Image: A researcher inspects an ice core collected from Greenland. These records can give scientists a precise date of when volcanic eruptions occurred around the world over the last 2500 years. (Credit: M. Sigl)