Weird History
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Volcanoes May Have Contributed To The Fall Of Ancient Egypt

Updated December 18, 2020 26.6k views10 items

Did volcanic eruptions destroy ancient Egypt? New research shows natural disasters did in fact contribute to the downfall of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Life under the kingdom was fairly prosperous and lasted almost three centuries from 305 B.C. to 30 B.C. But new research shows that volcanoes and Cleopatra are intrinsically linked, even if volcanoes in ancient Egypt don't exactly seem to make sense at first thought.

The queen ruled during the latter part of the Ptolemaic period, which began with Ptolemy I Soter following the death of Alexander the Great and ended with Cleopatra's death in 30 B.C. During that time, volcanoes in Alaska, Russia, and Greenland erupted and adversely affected the climate in Egypt.

Scholars have evidence that shows these eruptions made a major impact on the Nile River, which provided food and crops to the Egyptians. When the flooding of the Nile was interrupted, the people struggled to feed themselves. This, combined with a few other factors, led to the downfall of the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

  • The Link Between Eruptions & Violent Uprisings Is Crystal Clear

    When the Nile stopped flooding, people started running out of food. They began revolting under the rule of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and their actions reverberated across Africa and the Middle East. Social unrest, disease, and the lack of food plagued the empire during its final years. These events occurred at the same time as the volcanic eruptions.

    According to lead author Joseph Manning of Yale University, there is an undeniable link between volcanic eruptions and political and social activity. For example, in 245 BC Ptolemy III abruptly stopped fighting his enemy, the Seleucid Empire, which is located in Persia. Manning noted:

    “This about-face changed everything about Near East history."


  • Several Other Factors Led To Revolts Under The Ptolemaic Dynasty

    The researchers are quite clear in their paper that volcanic eruptions alone did not cause people to revolt under the Ptolemaic dynasty. The unrest was also fueled by other factors, such as disease, high taxes, and turmoil between races. Co-author Francis Ludlow commented:

    “You have all of these things coalescing at a time, and you can image it’s a powder keg. All of it puts a strain on the social system and can just ignite into revolt against the Ptolemaic Greek elites.”

    Also, not every eruption in ancient Egypt resulted in social and political dissidence. In 46 and 44 B.C., for example, the Nile stopped flooding when volcanoes erupted. This occurred during Cleopatra's reign, but her system of distributing food may have prevented people from acting out.

  • Photo: Photographed by the British Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Volcanic Eruptions Were More Common At That Time

    When a volcano erupts in the 21st century, it makes big headlines because it's such a rare occurrence. According to climate historian Francis Ludlow, large volcanic eruptions were much more common during the Ptolemaic era than they are today. In fact, it wasn't uncommon for two to three big eruptions to occur during a 10-year period. He explained:

    “They were unfortunate. They were living in a period where the Nile had extra variability because of these eruptions.”

  • The Research Is Pertinent To Today's Debate About Climate Change

    Lead author Joseph Manning points out that the research gives new insight into climate change both historically and in modern times. It demonstrates how events such as volcanic eruptions disrupt people's lives in both the short and long term. It also shows how nature influences people and their communities. He noted:

    “The study is of particular importance for the current debate about climate change."

    Michael McCormick, a professor of History at Harvard, added:

    “It really gives us pause for the future because volcanic eruptions will continue, and they will come at unpredictable times. It is sobering to see how this may have had an effect on a very productive economy in the ancient world, and we need to reflect on how it may affect us.”