Ancient Palmyra was once a thriving city in the Syrian Desert. However, after the Roman Empire conquered it in 272/273 AD, the city became a relatively minor settlement, a shadow of its former self. Now an interdisciplinary team led by Aarhus University is beginning to question the role climate change may have played in the fall of Palmyra.
“Now we see that food security, which has always been a major concern for a large urban center located in an extremely inhospitable environment, gradually declined as the climate worsened and the population of the city grew. The timing of this connection exactly coincides with the reign of Zenobia and her husband, Odaenathus marked by social upheaval, militarization, rapid conquest of neighboring lands, and dramatic conflict that brought down Palmyra,” said Dr. Iza Romanowska, one of the study’s authors.
To conduct the study, the scientific team reconstructed the area around Palmyra, which was supposed to provide basic food, and used computer models along with knowledge provided by ancient historians, archaeologists and complexity researchers. The goal was to determine how much food the city could produce in different periods.
The experts found that as Palmyra’s climate got hotter and drier, less food was produced. By the middle of the third century, there was probably not enough food to feed the population. This time period coincides with the Roman invasion.
“Despite numerous studies of the history, social composition and infrastructure of Palmyra, it is thanks to a new innovative approach that we can look at the history of this important city and the entire region from a completely new angle. By combining computational modeling with a wide range of archaeological data processed by humanities researchers with deep historical knowledge, we were able to look at the circular economy and its long-term sustainability and resilience,” said study co-author Rubina Raja.
The researchers believe their study provides a basis for determining whether other cities have suffered the same fate as Palmyra. Moreover, they hope that we can use the ancient city as an example to guide us in a different direction.
“A study like this shows that many of the problems our societies face today have had equivalents in the past,” said study co-author Eivind Heldaas Seland. “Contrary to the oft-repeated claim that people never learn from history, we can and should learn from the past”
The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.