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Volcano, Climatic Instability Caused Destruction of Hellenistic City in Egypt

Hellenistic Egypt
Tetradrachm depicting Ptolemy II Philadelphos, with Arsinöe II, Ptolemy I, and Berenike. Credit: Louis Aragon/Wikimedia Commons

The destruction of Berenike, a Hellenistic city in Egypt, was a combination of volcanic eruptions and drought, scientists say.

Berenike, a Hellenistic port on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, was a prosperous city and had become quite famous in antiquity.

It was founded in 275 BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BC), who named it after his mother, Berenike I of Egypt.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus (meaning “Brother-Loving” in Greek) was king of Egypt from 285 to 246 BC, the second king of the Ptolemaic dynasty, founded by Greek soldiers who had been under the command of Alexander the Great.

It was through the port of Berenike that Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers imported trade goods as well as the mighty war elephants from the southern Red Sea region.

The affluent port city went through a period of great destruction in the late third century BC,  however, which a 21st century study attributes to volcanic eruptions that affected the climate.

The climatic shift even stopped the Nile from flooding, as it normally did every year, causing a drought that not only resulted in shortages of fresh water in the city but also greatly affected agriculture.

Volcanic eruptions cause drought

A newly discovered well at Berenike provided scientists with evidence that a temporary abandonment of the city was due to a volcanic eruption in 209 BC that brought a drought and stopped the Nile floods.

The drought led to famine in Upper Egypt, generating a revolt against the Ptolemaic dynasty in Upper Egypt that lasted over 20 years (207-186 BC), during which the rulers lost control of substantial areas in Hellenistic Egypt.

The study shows that volcanic eruptions, climatic shifts, droughts and other such phenomena indirectly caused the great social upheavals in Hellenistic Egypt.

The researchers presented evidence indicating that a series of eruptions may have caused sharp drop-offs in the summer rainfall brought by the African monsoon.

The loss of monsoon rainfall likely depleted the headwaters of the Nile River and deprived Egyptians of the annual Nile flooding, the lifeblood of their agriculture.

As food became scarce, insurrections followed, including one known as the Theban revolt, which rose against the ruling Macedonian Ptolemies starting in 207 BC.

During the revolt, temples and homes were destroyed, while the state lost a great deal of tax revenues.

Berenike in need of water after monsoon failures

Berenike saw a substantial increase in population in the second half of the third century BC, something that must have placed additional demands on the city’s water supply.

At the same time, there was a contemporaneous increase in ship and caravan traffic leaving Berenike, which would have required water supplied from that particular well that archaeologists found and studied.

Scientists discovered that there had been modifications to augment the site’s water supply by increasing the well’s storage capacity and capturing rainwater runoff.

This was very likely an indication that there had been an alarming decrease in the well’s water level and there were efforts to increase its size.

According to the study, the well in the Berenike gate complex ceased to function around the end of the third century BC.

Two early Hellenistic bronze coins were recovered from the upper layers of the windblown sand that later filled the well.

Pottery also found in the sand fill was broadly dated from the late third to early second centuries BC.

Ptolemies and Hellenistic Egypt

The Ptolemies came to rule Egypt after the arrival of Alexander the Great, in 332 BCE. At the time, Egypt had been ruled as a Persian satrapy for a decade.

Alexander was fresh from conquering Persia, and when he arrived in Egypt, he had himself crowned as the ruler in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis.

Shortly afterward, Alexander left to conquer new worlds, leaving Egypt in the control of various Egyptian and Greek officers.

Three great kingdoms arose from the ashes of Alexander’s empire: Macedonia on the Greek mainland, the Seleucid empire in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Ptolemies, in Egypt and Cyrenaica.

Ptolemy, the son of Alexander’s general Lagos, was first established as the governor of the satrapy of Egypt, but officially became the first Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt in 305 BC.

Ptolemy’s territory included Egypt, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula, and he and his descendants would make up the Ptolemaic dynasty of 13 rulers for almost 300 years.

The Ptolemies attempted to expand their territory in the Greek cultural centers in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria-Palestine.
Fierce battles were waged in attempts to attain these areas, using war elephants, ships, and a trained fighting force.
The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt for 275 years, from 305 to 30 BC. They were the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

Hellenistic Egypt syrvived in Alexandria, which grew rapidly to become an important center of Hellenistic civilization.

Alexandria remained remained the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt and Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1,000 years, until it was conquered by the Arabs.

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