March 15, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 12

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    Michael the Syrian’s account of natural disasters provides bigger picture of how weather impacted ancient Near East

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Wide swings in temperature and rainfall are common in Syria and nearby areas of the Middle East, and that variability probably had a broad impact on the development of civilization in ancient times, new research at the Oriental Institute shows.

    The region that includes Syria and upper reaches of Mesopotamia was a critical area for the development of civilization. Recent research at the Oriental Institute, for example, has shown that the area developed urban civilization contemporaneously with the more famous urban sites in southern Mesopotamia.

    Fields in the northern region were not irrigated, as they were in the south, making the area more vulnerable to swings in the weather, said Magnus Widell, Research Associate and Head of the Research Archives at the Oriental Institute.

    Researchers around the world studying the ancient local climate over the past decade or so have used physical analyses of soil and plant remains to determine that the area experienced drought from 2200 B.C. to 1900 B.C., a situation they contend led to sociopolitical collapse and regional abandonment.

    That research, based on one form of measurement, probably does not provide a complete analysis of the impact of weather changes on societies in the ancient Near East, said Widell, who studied textual accounts of the impact of weather change. It also underestimates people’s capacity to adapt to new situations, he said.

    Widell reported these findings in the paper, “Historical Evidence for Climate Instability and Environmental Catastrophes in Northern Syria and the Jazira: The Chronicle of Michael the Syrian” published in the current edition of Environment and History.

    The manuscript Widell studied, the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian, is an account of natural disasters and resulting economic impacts between 600 and 1196 A.D. That record provides written historical and contemporary evidence that is missing from the physical analysis. The data gathered by Michael, who was the Patriarch of Antioch from 1166 to 1199, can be compared with the ancient time period to see what the impact of disasters may have been.

    “Farming methods as well as crops did not change very much between ancient and medieval times,” Widell said. Cuneiform accounts from the late third and early second millennium B.C. refer to crops and weather conditions similar to those described in Michael’s account.

    The records show that droughts were devastating, but other disasters, including plagues of locusts and cold, freezing weather with snowstorms were equally destructive. The disasters sometimes came in clusters.

    “The cold weather killed trees, such as olives, which require a long time to become productive, as well as the draft animals,” Widell said. Some of the animals widely used during ancient and medieval times were particularly susceptible to cold weather. Donkeys, for instance, because of their tender noses, do not break ice if they need to drink.

    Locusts emerged periodically in ancient and medieval times as well, when crops were just emerging and could wipe out an entire season of grain production.

    Widell’s work plotted a statistical average for the occurrence of disasters and found that farmers had a 20 percent chance each year during the medieval period, and probably during the ancient period as well, of experiencing a serious environmental disaster.

    In modern times, locusts continue to be a peril. Michael’s records showed that a plague of locusts could be expected every 23 years, while modern accounts show that locusts about every 14 years have beset the region.

    The droughts were the reasons for widespread famine in ancient and medieval times. Countries in the region are currently damming rivers to compensate for lack of rainfall in difficult years.

    People in earlier times did not turn to irrigation and as a result resorted to other strategies to survive during difficult times, such as increasing trade by selling what goods they owned. People also moved to warmer climates and scattered into smaller villages that were easier to sustain than large cities with diversified labor, Widell said.

    By studying the work of Michael the Syrian, Widell determined that human resiliency played a big role in people’s ability to deal with the frequent hardships. Despite them, people found ways to prosper.

    “The extreme frequency and clustering trend of severe, catastrophic events recorded by Michael highlight the remarkable capacity of humans to adjust and survive,” Widell said. “Climate changes in this region are likely to change economic behavior long before they lead to sociopolitical collapse.”