Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

Ellenblum, Ronnie. The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072. (Cambridge University Press, 2012) Kindle.

Everyone knows that the 900s-1200s were a great time to be in Europe – warm, good weather in general, leading to a period of cultural and economic development that is often called the High Middle Ages, when the great cathedrals were built and chivalry flourished and the Hansa cities were at their peak. That’s true, but only if you were in western or central Europe. The Levant, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, the Pontic Steppes and Egypt? Endured bitter cold, drought, plague, and economic collapse. Invasion came with the cold and drought, and pushed the Byzantine Empire into rapid decline. North Africa went from semi-bread-basket to desert with pockets of irrigation, and Jerusalem was almost abandoned. When the warriors of the First Crusade breached the gates of the holy city, they found very few people compared to the population in the year 1000 or so.

The weather patterns that warmed and moistened western and northern Europe froze and desiccated Southwest Asia.

The book’s origins stem from Ellenblum’s curiosity about the lack of water in Jerusalem vs. the population it was supposed to have supported during Roman and early Byzantine times. This led to studying the hydrology of the city, and the discovery that most of the springs had dried up by the time of the First Crusade. Why? Bad land management? Climate shifts that caused the springs to lose groundwater and fail? As it turns out, the answer is a series of cold, dry years that caused the local water table to drop. This dried the springs, many of which never returned even after the rains came back. Jerusalem had to shift to relying on rainwater caught in cistern during the winters, meaning it could no longer support even half the population it had boasted at the time of Jesus.

When the author looked farther, it proved that Egypt, the rest of the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Pontic Steppes (area north of the Black Sea) also suffered severe cold and drought during the period of roughly AD 950-1100. The lack of rain, and the bitter cold (snow on the ground in Baghdad for 40 days!) caused already tense relations between settled peoples, Bedouin nomads, and steppe nomads to collapse. The governments could not feed the people in some cases, nor could they keep the Turkic nomads out of the river valleys. When the Turks arrived, they burned, looted, carried off people to sell or ransom, interrupted trade, and eventually took over swaths of the area. The great centers of Islamic and Jewish learning in Baghdad disappeared, and Islam (Sunni) took on a different intellectual focus, one less interested in preserving the Classical philosophies and more on Islam’s own philosophy.

This is one of the books that I read and slap myself on the forehead and go “Duh.” I’d always wondered why the Seljuk Turks suddenly appeared in Southwest Asia. We went from Byzantine vs. Arab to “Turks in Charge” in the 1050s and later. Why? Where had the Seljuks come from? Why had they left the steppes? Well, they were pushed by the need for fodder and food, because the terrible weather drove them south and west. This also caused the Magyars (Hungary) and Bulgars to raid the edges of the European part of the Byzantine Empire just as Constantinople was cut off from major sources of food and military personnel. Toss in the plagues that always break out in cold, undernourished populations, and you can see why the empire started devaluing its currency and could no longer hold onto the edges of its territory, especially in Asia Minor.

Elllenblum is tightly focused on the region, so there are no cross-comparisons with western Europe or Russia (Kievan Rus). I do know from other reading that China experienced cold and drought in the 1000s, with floods and the disaster of the Yellow River floods following (1090s-1140s). The author alludes to the push to the east, and into South Asia, leading to shifts in Muslim control over northern India (the Lodi Sultanate). The book is also somewhat episodic, and focuses on weather and its direct effects, rather than on telling human stories. If you are looking for the tales of people, or a seamless, flowing narrative, you will be disappointed.

The book also lacks a bibliography. This is inexcusable on the part of Cambridge University Press. The notes are extensive, but readers are forced to comb through them at the end of each chapter to find material and primary sources if a reader wants to follow up on a topic.

I highly recommend this book for students of medieval Middle Eastern history, for those interested in the environmental history of all of Europe, and scholars wanting to fill in gaps about the causes of movements, migrations, and the shifting attitude of local Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. A basic background in the overall history of the region is good, but not really necessary depending on the reader’s focus. I found the book easy to read, but this is my baliwick. Non-specialists might not be as enthralled.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or the publisher for this review.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean

  1. “This is inexcusable deliberate on the part of Cambridge University Press.” There’s been a real trend to obliterate any references to “warm periods” or natural climate variations happening prior to the Industrial Revolution. And Cambridge University Press is just as “woke” as any other publisher.

    • Apparently they have left the bibliographies out of several recent works, not just on environmental history. I suspect it is a cost-saving measure, although why dumping five or ten pages of text is a savings escapes me. The authors have to submit bibliographies when they (we) turn in the manuscript.

      The other history books and some science titles I have from Cambridge have not attempted to erase the Roman or Medieval warm periods, or the colder periods. Perhaps I have just been lucky in my reading, since I don’t real (can’t afford) all of their releases.

  2. It should also be put on the reading list of every 12 year old being terrified by cries of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change, anthropogenic or not, is nothing new. Climate change will occur whatever we do or don’t do.

    Out efforts should be bent toward adapting.

    • Sure, we can adapt. Carbon credits! Moar Taxes! Wind and solar power subsidies! Quit burning coal to make electricity! Abolish the infernal combustion engine!
      Never mind that all these proposed “adaptations” create at least as many problems as they purport to solve.

  3. Gotta agree with NJC. Re the bibliography, that is just plain odd. Yes, authors are required to attach the bibliographies to the manuscript. Saving 10 pages is…lost in the weeds…

  4. Also clear here is how silly it is to talk about global warming (or cooling) except on vast scales. Warm here, cold there, really important to distinguish where each is happening. I can’t remember who said that only local climate matters because that’s where/how food is grown.

    • And apparently, overall climate warming/cooling *also* causes local changes that may seem quite random — I.e. global warming/cooling does not mean it is warmer or cooler *everywhere.*

      • No. It all depends on the weather patterns, although some events (the Younger Dryas, the Maunder and Dalton Minima) did have truly global effects, even if the intensities varied. Too, there were warmer and colder periods inside the larger patterns. I’m reading a book about the influence of the cooling in the 1600s-1700s on the Dutch Republic, and one thing the author hammers over and over is that there was a lot of variation inside the larger pattern.

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