Research led by Ashish Sinha, a professor of earth sciences at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), connects major changes in climate with the collapse of the great Assyrian Empire. The findings were published in the November 13 issue of Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Centered in northern Iraq and extending from western Iran to Egypt, the Neo-Assyrian Empire was the largest empire of its time. It collapsed after more than two centuries of dominance with the fall of its capital, Nineveh (modern Mosul), in 612 BCE. In spite of a plethora of textual documentation in the form of cuneiform writings and archaeological excavations, historians and archaeologists have been unable to explain the reason the empire’s collapse.
In “Role of Climate in the Rise and Fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire,” Sinha and an international team of scientists provide a “climate context for the rise, expansion, and ultimately the collapse of the Assyrian Empire.” Their research involved analyzing the age and growth of stalagmites in the region and precipitation records, alongside the historical archeological data that exists.
Sinha and fellow scientists analyzed two stalagmites from Kuna Ba, a cave located nearly 300 kilometers from Nineveh. Water preserved in the layers of stalagmites provide oxygen and uranium isotope data that provide a clear picture of climate history
The scientists synchronized their analysis of the stalagmites with archaeological records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data records for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire’s collapse, when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded.
Located in northern Mesopotamia, Assyria was an agrarian society that generated its wealth primarily from its agricultural products. They were also entirely dependent on rainfall to water their crops. To the south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation systems to nourish their crops so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought.
According to their research, the period of the megadrought coincided with a number of ways the Assyrians changed their way of life. Mesopotamian armies stopped going on long-distance battles, and the Assyrians attempted to build irrigation canals like their southern counterparts.
Sinha believes parallels can be drawn between the megadrought and climate conditions in the region today.
“Our data suggests that the severity of the megadrought matches modern droughts, but they may have lasted for decades, and that is very concerning” he said. “Much of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean region is currently in the grips of a century-long drying trend, which seems to have been accelerating since the 1980s. I may even dare to suggest that we may already have entered into the early stages of another megadrought.”