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The Geography of the Middle East

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Framing the Issues

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How Does Environmental Change Affect Cultures?

Archaeologists and historians have identified significant environmental changes through the course of human history in the Middle East, and have debated the effects those changes have had on human societies in the region.

Some of these environmental changes have been caused by human action. As copper metallurgy was developed from about 5000 to 3000 BCE, the need for fuel for smelting led to extensive deforestation in the Taurus and Zagros mountains. Another example is the salinization of soil in southern Mesopotamia brought about by increasingly intensive irrigation, which arguably led to decreased crop yields. Each of these environmental impacts began in antiquity but continues to affect human settlement in the Middle East today. Although Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, has argued that environmental damage often leads to social collapse; neither deforestation nor salinization has led to such a dramatic change.

Scholars have also identified periods of climate change in the historical record or the record of pollen deposited in layers of ancient lake beds. In general terms, climate in the Middle East has been close to that of modern times for about 6,000 years, but episodes of aridity, in particular, have been associated with extensive historical disruptions and even fundamental social change.

One episode that has been particularly thoroughly discussed is a widespread drought in about 2150 BCE, which coincides with the collapse of the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia. In one model of this period, drought forced people to leave their fields in northern Mesopotamia, and the threat of these roaming nomadic bands (along with the loss of agricultural income to the empire) caused the collapse of Akkad.

The issue raised by this model is the extent to which environmental change determines social and cultural change. Many scholars have pointed out that there are a range of cultural responses to drought, for example, and that we should not take a deterministic view of the effects of climate change in history.

Supporting Links:

“Climate Change: A New Threat to Middle East Security.” Friends of the Earth Middle East. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

“Water: The Atlas of the Middle East.” The University of Texas. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

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