Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Bronze age weather report solves some ancient mysteries

A revised translation of a Bronze Age Egyptian stela corrects the timeline of Ahmose’s reign and offers a more precise geological and political map of the old region.

The world’s oldest weather report is here in Egypt – and it describes the devastation of the entire country due to an atypical “tempest”; a thorough and detailed description that finally helped scholars determine the precise timeline of Ahmose’s rule, and in turn shed light on the chronology of ancient events in this region.

The record of the sweeping rains and thunder described in the 3,500-year-old 6-foot block of stone, otherwise known as Tempest Stela, is not metaphor, explain the two scholars in their new translation of the record, published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Robert K. Ritner and Nadine Moeller, of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, wrote that the weather events described on the block appear to be the aftermath of a very real geological event: the famous volcano eruption at Thera (present-day Santorini, an island in the Mediterranean) whose effects reverberated across the region.

Ahmose I of Dynasty 18

Ahmose I of Dynasty 18

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ahmose I was the founder of the 18th dynasty and a pharaoh of ancient Egypt, famous for military campaigns that saw him drive the Hyksos out of Lower Egypt, clinch their stronghold in modern-day Gaza and take over lands in Syria and Nubia—heralding the birth of the New Kingdom. The stela was written down during his reign.

Scholars previously believed that the records of thunder and rain described on the stela were figurative –perhaps analogical references to Ahmose’s political conquests. But Ritner and Moeller beg to differ. The stela’s reports are not only literal, but are “further proof that the scholars under Ahmose paid close and particular attention to matters of weather,” they say.

The natural catastrophe lasted for an extended period, and was “unparalleled in intensity and extent,” as per the stela. Although the precise number of days is lost, the storm could have lasted for up to a month, according to some estimates, suggested the scholars.

The Egyptian stela mentions vivid imagery from the resulting chaos: “construction debris, household furnishings and […] human victims are washed by the driving rains into the river.” And it clearly states that the devastation extended into the “Two lands” a reference to north and south of Egypt.

“What Ahmose experienced and recorded was neither a typical storm, nor a masked reference to Hyksos destruction and royal defeat of primordial chaos,” say the researchers. “Whether the Tempest Stela records the actual events of Thera or later after-effects cannot be proved conclusively since the text cannot be expected to state that the storm ‘originated in Santorini’ or ‘among the Aegean islanders’.”

“The events described need not be testimony of the initial explosion, but rather of climactic after-effects that would have continued for some years,” the researchers added in their paper. “The Ahmose text’s further statement that those on the east and west lacked “clothing” … proves that this is a reference to the specific rain event, not a general metaphor for long term Hyksos domination.”

The researchers suggest that other scholars may have been reluctant to link the eruption at Thera to the Tempest Stela not because of the text itself, but because of chronological implications of such a link. “With newer and better dates for the eruption, there yet remains another possibility for reconciliation […] If Thera cannot be moved to Ahmose, it is becoming clearer that Ahmose might be moved toward Thera.”

The link between Ahmose’s reign plus the stela on one hand and Thera on the other has meant that scholars have now accurately placed his reign 30 to 50 years earlier than the previously recorded dating.

David Schloen, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations on ancient cultures in the Middle East told EurekAlert!, science news agency, that Ritner and Moeller’s revised translation and their new conclusions helps “realign the dates of important events such as the fall of the power of the Canaanites and the collapse of the Babylonian Empire” in the ancient Near East, fitting the dates of other events more logically.

“This new information would provide a better understanding of the role of the environment in the development and destruction of empires in the ancient Middle East,” he said.


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