Ancient Egypt was one of the greatest and most powerful civilizations the world has ever seen. On the banks of the mighty Nile, pharaohs built wonderful monuments and palaces, created dazzling treasures of gold and jewels. An empire that withstood war diseases and famine for thousands of years. But 30 years before the birth of Jesus, this empire came to an abrupt and tragic end. 4000 years of glorious history had come to a close.
Historians have long laid the blame of the fall of Egypt on the last pharaoh Cleopatra. A recent ground breaking new investigation suggests a different explanation for the fall of Egypt. It reveals a drastically different series of events using Twenty-first century technology. Cleopatra’s actions were not the only thing that lead to the collapse. Was it a catastrophic global event ?
Grain was the Gold that made Egypt Rich
Egypt relied heavily on the yearly flooding of the Nile to grow the grain that fed the people. In a good year Egypt could produce more grain than any other country in the ancient world. Supplying over a thousand cargo ships a year to the city of Rome alone. Grain was the gold that made Egypt rich and Cleopatra powerful. She had plenty of what Rome wanted. But an ancient inscription reveals that the country’s vital grain supply was never guaranteed.
Known as the Canopus decree, it was carved two centuries before Cleopatra came to power. It recounts a dark chapter in Egypt’s history, when the pharaoh Ptolemy the third was forced to import grain. The decree states that the imported grain maintained the country in peace and provided law and order for all those in the country. These carefully chosen words suggest the pharaoh used grain to restore order. And that suggests the shortage of grain caused disorder.
The Fury of Mother Nature
This link between hunger and unrest was something Cleopatra would have known all too well, thanks to her dynasties turbulent history. There were 10 documented revolts in a 300 year time period between 305-30 BC. If grain supplies ran low, Cleopatra could quickly run into trouble with her Egyptian subjects and her roman clients. Pleasing both countries was a delicate balancing act.
But on March 15th, 44 BC, something happened that would throw Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome out of balance. Not a famine or a revolt, but a murder. Her lover and protector Cesar had been assassinated, and that made her incredibly exposed, politically and personally. And this was just the beginning of her troubles. Ahead lay years of failed harvests and famine and the threat of violence and war with Rome. Cleopatra was an incredibly powerful woman, but even someone with her strength and nobility was no match for the fury of mother nature.
The Nile was the Secret to Egypt’s Success
Far from Egypt, an immense force of nature was about to send the queen and her country spiraling towards destruction. Something strange was happening in the eastern Mediterranean, a darkening of the sky, and the sun was lost. In the days and weeks following Cesar’s murder, accounts describe strange dark days and three suns appearing overhead. The people thought the gods were angry following the murder of a great roman ruler. In the following year, Egypt was in drought, famine and disease.
But this wasn’t the work of the Gods. A clue to the actual cause was written in a book about a hundred years after Cleopatra’s death, by the Roman Philosopher and historian Seneca. He states that for two years in a row, the Nile river did not flood. It was the yearly flood that made crop growth possible. This was a disaster, for the mighty river Nile was the secret to Egypt’s success. The entire Egyptian economy revolved around the river.
Strange Omens in the Sky
The lush Nile valley cuts through the arid Egyptian landscape, a fertile 670-mile long green ribbon, flanked by a vast expanse of sand and rock. Each summer storms and melting snow high in the mountains of Ethiopia and Central Africa flood into the Nile. Bursting the river banks and deposit nourishing minerals that turn barren desert into fertile farmland.
If the Nile flood wasn’t high enough, the water would not deposit enough silt to nourish the fields and the crops would not grow, and it wouldn’t be long before the food would run out. With two consecutive years of failed crops, the farmers would move in search of food, leaving the fields and irrigation channels unmaintained, which made a snowball effect for years to come.
Ravaged by relentless famine, threatened by her people, her family and a newly unstable Rome and also haunted by strange omens in the sky. To Cleopatra, it must have seemed like the wrath of the gods.
A Volcanic Eruption in 44BC was the Largest in 2500 years
Ground-breaking research has revealed a different culprit. The evidence was discovered thousands of miles away, frozen in time, deep in the two-mile thick ice sheets of Greenland. Ice core samples are a natural archive that can be analyzed for their chemical composition and give information of environmental conditions going back tens of thousands of years. A particular group of chemicals trapped in the ice during the time of Cleopatra played a critical role in her story. They are called sulfates, and they are formed by sulfur dioxide.
Today sulfur dioxide is produced by burning fossil fuels, but 2000 years ago there was only one source, a volcanic eruption. Scientists have pinpointed every volcanic eruption going back to around 500 BC. But an eruption in 44 BC was the largest ever seen in the past two and a half thousand years. This eruption happened in the same year of Cesar’s murder, when strange visions filled the sky and Egypt descended into famine.
Could this be what caused the downfall of the greatest empire in history?
44BC was a terrible year for Cleopatra. Not only was her roman lover murdered, but the world itself had turned against her. Strange visions filled the skies, and it was the beginning of years of failed Nile floods and famine. Now recent evidence discovered far from Egypt, deep in Greenland ice sheets is revealing another disaster struck in 44 BC. A colossal volcano that released tens of thousands of times more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. But could a volcanic eruption have caused this famine?
In the aftermath of a major volcanic eruption, sulfates in the atmosphere block out sunlight, lowering temperatures and interrupt the cycle of evaporation and rainfall. Triggering a catastrophic chain of events that continues long after the eruption.
Cleopatra’s Extreme Measures to Keep her County Fed
The refugees left in the city didn’t know that a volcano had caused this problem. They blamed only one person, Cleopatra. In the ancient Egyptian tradition, the Pharaoh was responsible for the Nile flood. Which is great when the Nile floods every year, but when it fails to flood, it was a statement from the gods that the pharaoh was no longer legitimate. Cleopatra’s fate was bound to the Nile flood.
In 44 BC the world’s devastating volcanic eruption and its effects were global. It hit Ancient Egypt hard, causing catastrophic failures of the life-giving Nile flood and years of famine. Pushing Cleopatra and her country towards self-destruction and political ruin. Cleopatra knew that hunger makes people desperate and desperation makes people dangerous. Forcing Cleopatra to take extreme measures to keep her county fed and to keep the Roman Empire from invading.
Choosing Mark Anthony was a Fatal Mistake
To keep her people from an uprising, she gave them grain, but threatened them with death if they took the grain outside her city of Alexandria. She then decides to cozies up to one of the new roman men of power, a popular general that held a large part of the Roman Empire, Mark Anthony. In a document written by Cleopatra herself, she gave a shipment of grain to a friend of Mark Anthony for free.
Even as the country recovered, Cleopatra’s decisions would come back to haunt her. Because in choosing Mark Anthony, she had made a fatal mistake and a dangerous enemy. Mark Anthony is married to Octavia, sister to Octavian, who was the emerging power in Rome at that time. Octavian was Cesar’s great nephew and appointed heir and Mark Anthony’s rival for the top job in Rome. He loathed Mark Anthony’s affair with Cleopatra. And knew that Mark Anthony and Cleopatra together would be a serious threat.
Rome Blamed Cleopatra for Egypt’s Demise
In 31BC the situation came to a boiling point, Octavian defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in an epic naval battle. Cleopatra had backed the wrong roman. A year later, with no way out, the doomed lovers took their own lives. Cleopatra’s death made it the end of the Egyptian civilization as we know it. And slowly over the course of the next decades, Egyptian civilization as we come to know and love it, dies.
The Roman Empire would rule Egypt for another 700 years and write the history that blamed Cleopatra for the demise of Egypt’s glittering civilization. But now the story of these turbulent years can be rewritten because it’s been discovered that not only has Cleopatra’s reign been shaped by one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history, but she inherited a country already cursed by 300 years of relentless volcanic activity. In striking contrast, the period of a roman rule that followed, Cleopatra death was unusually calm.
Thanks to ice cores from Greenland, and the Egyptian’s meticulous record taking of the height of the Nile floods. Combined with 21st century technology, it’s now possible to peel back over two millennia of myth and misinformation. Have we uncovered the real reason for the fall of Ancient Egypt and the demise of its last pharaoh in its true context? The result of a colossal volcano and a political storm erupting in the same year.