Sharp Blue: Interacting causes and the collapse of states


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Margaret and I have been discussing the possible causes of the collapse of the Old Kingdom in the comments to my article “Ancient Egypt in Ten Paragraphs. I’ve just posted a long comment, which I thought was probably worth bringing to the attention of my readers:

I think that I first read about the role of climate change towards the end of the Old Kingdom in New Scientist, but now I can’t find the article so I may be wrong. I suspect that the role of climate in the history of most civilisations has been underestimated. I seem to recall, for example, that an earlier change in climate across the eastern parts of northern Africa might have been responsible for concentrating pastoral populations in the Nile valley and so putting in place the conditions for the formation of states in the first place.

Having said that, I think most of the major transformations in the histories of states and civilisations have been caused by the interaction between multiple intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Arguments are then really about the relative weights accorded to these factors and their distribution along the spectrum from proximate to ultimate causes. In centralised, autocratic states the competence of the ruler is certainly a key factor in the effectiveness of response to perturbations. Long, weak reigns followed by succession crises are clearly not conducive to effective responses to internal or external problems. So I think we might both be right: the political difficulties caused by Pepi II’s ineffectual dotage and the subsequent successional difficulties would have weakened the ability of the Old Kingdom state to deal with the issues caused by the changing climate, and if the nomarchs were more able to provide security to the people during the time of crisis then the state would have been torn apart.

The collapse of other states can be analysed along similar lines. The New Kingdom, for example, was subject to external pressures from the collapses of its neighbours and to global climate changes brought on by volcanic eruptions in Iceland. It’s unfortunate that these stresses coincided with internal political developments that saw a series of old men come to power between the long reigns of Ramesses III, IX and XI (none of whom save the first were particularly effective). The troubles of the western Roman Empire under the hopeless Honorius provide another obvious example: would the western Empire have collapsed so rapidly if its emperor had been of the calibre of Augustus or Diocletian?

Well, we're both right then. While a clear-cut answer looks good in a journal article, there are always multiple factors at work in any event, and when that event happened thousands of years ago it becomes practically impossible to pinpoint one single cause. You mention the 'weakened ability of the Old Kingdom state to deal with the issues caused by the changing climate' and the nomarchs representing an alternate source of security. All of these factors are actually what the nomarchs themselves mention in their tomb biographies. A number of them claim to have fed the people of their nome while the rest of the country was plunged in famine (e.g. Anktifi of Moalla:, or Ameni of Beni Hasan: Although they were never ones to skimp on the self-aggrandizement, perhaps for once we should actually take the nomarchs' word for what actually happened.

I think you're probably right though about the underestimation of the impact of climate on history. Detrimental environmental conditions can also be caused by human influence though. A prime example that springs to mind is the collapse of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Southern Levant. In the 7th millenium BC, there were major changes in settlement patterns with most sites being abandoned. Archaeologists have alternately suggested that it was caused by a decrease in rainfall, also reflected in pollen evidence, or a cultural degradation of the environment, in which human impact on the land resulted in erosion and deforestation. (Articles about this: and Either way, the culture was certainly a fascinating one- the products of their obsession with plaster, which may have caused their own downfall, were the extraordinary statues and plastered skulls found at Ain Ghazal (

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