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Extreme droughts on the Arabian peninsula paved the way for the rise of Islam

For nearly 300 years, the Himyarite kingdom was the dominant power in ancient Arabia.

The economy, based on agriculture and foreign trade, linked East Africa and the Mediterranean world.

But extreme droughts, combined with political unrest and war, may have paved the way for the rise of Islam in the 7th century, a new study suggests.

Researchers said drought ravaged the region throughout the 6th century, with the most severe drought occurring between 500 and 530 CE.

They believe that the sudden demise of the Himyar shortly afterwards, which culminated in its conquest by the neighboring kingdom of Aksum (now Ethiopia), suggests that there is a connection between the two events.

Extreme droughts in the Arabian Peninsula, combined with political unrest and war, may have paved the way for the rise of Islam in the 7th century, a new study suggests.  Researchers analyzed the layers of a stalagmite from Al Hoota Cave in present-day Oman (pictured)

Extreme droughts in the Arabian Peninsula, combined with political unrest and war, may have paved the way for the rise of Islam in the 7th century, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed the layers of a stalagmite from Al Hoota Cave in present-day Oman (pictured)

They believe that the sudden demise of the Himyar shortly afterwards, which culminated in its conquest by the neighboring kingdom of Aksum (now Ethiopia), suggests that there is a connection between the two events.

They believe that the sudden demise of the Himyar shortly afterwards, which culminated in its conquest by the neighboring kingdom of Aksum (now Ethiopia), suggests that there is a connection between the two events.

The experts at the University of Basel in Switzerland therefore believe that extreme drought may have been possible contribute decisively to the upheavals in ancient Arabia from which Islam emerged.

They said that “people were looking for new hope, something that could bring people back together as a society,” adding, “The new religion offered this.”

The researchers analyzed the layers of a stalagmite from Al Hoota Cave in present-day Oman.

The growth rate and chemical composition of the layers are directly related to how much precipitation falls above the cave, so the shape and isotopic composition of a stalagmite’s deposited layers represent a valuable record of its historical climate.

“Even with the naked eye you can tell from the stalagmite that there must have been a very dry period of decades,” says Professor Dominik Fleitmann of the University of Basel.

‘If less water drips onto the stalagmite, less will run down the sides. The stone grows with a smaller diameter than in years with a higher drop rate.’

When less water drips onto the stalagmite, less runs down the sides. The stone grows with a smaller diameter than in years with a higher drop rate.

Isotopic analysis of the stalagmite layers allows researchers to draw conclusions about annual rainfall.

For example, they not only discovered that there was less rain over a longer period of time, but that there must have been extreme drought.

Based on the radioactive decay of uranium, the researchers were able to date this dry period to the early sixth century CE, albeit only with an accuracy of 30 years.

“Whether there was a direct temporal correlation between this drought and the decline of the Himyarite kingdom, or whether it started after that — it was impossible to determine with certainty on the basis of these data alone,” explains Fleitmann.

Isotopic analysis of the stalagmite layers allows researchers to draw conclusions about the annual amount of precipitation

Isotopic analysis of the stalagmite layers allows researchers to draw conclusions about the annual amount of precipitation

He therefore analyzed further climatic reconstructions from the region and combed through historical sources, working with historians to narrow down the time of the extreme drought, which lasted for several years.

“It was a bit like a murder case: we have a dead kingdom and are looking for the culprit. Step by step, the evidence brought us closer to the answer,” said Fleitmann.

Helpful resources included data on the water level of the Dead Sea and historical documents describing a multi-year drought in the region dating back to 520 CE, indeed linking the extreme drought to the crisis in the Himyarite Kingdom.

“Water is definitely the most important resource. It is clear that a decrease in rainfall and especially several years of extreme drought could destabilize a vulnerable semi-desert kingdom,” says Fleitmann.

In addition, the irrigation systems required constant maintenance and repairs, which could only be achieved with tens of thousands of well-organized workers.

The water-scarce population of Himyar was presumably unable to maintain this difficult maintenance, exacerbating the situation.

Political turmoil in its own territory and a war between its northern neighbours, the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, merging into Himyar, further weakened the kingdom.

When its western neighbor Aksum eventually invaded Himyar and conquered the empire, the previously powerful state lost its significance, researchers say.

‘When we think of extreme weather events, we often only think of a short period afterwards, limited to a few years,’ adds Fleitmann.

‘The population had a hard time because of hunger and war.

‘As a result, Islam found fertile ground: people were looking for new hope, something that could bring people back together as a society. The new religion offered this.’

However, Fleitmann emphasized that this does not mean that the drought directly caused the rise of Islam.

But he said “it was an important factor in the context of the upheavals in the Arab world of the 6th century.”

The study is published in the journal Science

WHAT CAUSED THE COLLAPSE OF THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION?

For hundreds of years, the Maya dominated much of the Americas until, mysteriously in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, much of the Maya civilization collapsed.

The reason for this collapse has been hotly debated, but now scientists say they may have an answer — an intense drought that lasted a century.

Studies of sediments in the Great Blue Hole in Belize suggest that a lack of rain caused the disintegration of the Maya civilization, and a second dry spell forced them to move elsewhere.

The theory that a drought led to a decline in the Maya Classical period isn’t entirely new, but the new study, co-authored by Dr. André Droxler of Rice University in Texas provides new evidence for the claims.

The Maya who built Chichen Itza dominated the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico, pictured above, for hundreds of years before mysteriously disappearing in the 8th and 9th centuries AD

The Maya who built Chichen Itza dominated the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico, pictured above, for hundreds of years before mysteriously disappearing in the 8th and 9th centuries AD

Dozens of theories have tried to explain the classic Maya collapse, from epidemic diseases to foreign invasion.

With his team, Dr. Droxler that from AD 800 to 1000 there were no more than two tropical cyclones every two decades, when there were usually up to six.

This suggests that major droughts occurred during these years, possibly leading to famines and unrest among the Maya people.

And they also found that a second drought struck from AD 1000 to 1100, which corresponds to the time when the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá collapsed.

Researchers say a climate reversal and drying trend between AD 660 and 1000 led to political competition, increased warfare, general socio-political instability, and finally political collapse — known as the Classic Maya collapse.

This was followed by a prolonged drought between 1020 and 1100 which probably corresponded to crop failure, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.

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