Science series solving riddles of the ancient past. Exploring why the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the civilisation of the great pyramids, collapsed around 2200 BC.
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The Sphinx guards the only surviving wonder of the ancient world,
the mighty pyramids at Giza.
They were built for the pharaohs of the Egyptian Old Kingdom,
a civilisation that lasted for almost 1,000 years
before mysteriously collapsing.
Archaeologists are now discovering that the sudden end was one of most unimaginable horror.
We had a pile of three skeletons in this position - an old man, over an old woman, over a child.
All of them in contorted attitudes.
The woman like this, the man with hands up, and the child was too disintegrated to say.
5,000 years ago, long before the time of Tutankhamen,
before Queen Nefertiti,
the first great civilisation was established in Egypt.
The Egyptian Old Kingdom's lasting legacy is the Sphinx
and the great pyramids at Giza.
The pyramids are royal tombs for the Old Kingdom's pharaohs,
protecting their mummified bodies for eternity.
The pharaohs united Egypt and the Old Kingdom flourished.
They developed a unique style of art, architecture and literature.
It was a civilisation that was remarkably stable and resilient.
The daily life of the average Egyptian remained unchanged for nearly 1,000 years.
But then, 4,200 years ago, the Old Kingdom suddenly collapsed.
The pharaoh's power crumbled. Central government failed.
Egypt was plunged into a dark age which lasted for over 100 years.
It's an episode in history which has mystified Egyptologists.
For the last 30 years, Egyptian archaeologist Fekri Hassan has been looking for his own explanation
of why Egypt turned from stability to chaos.
I felt compelled
to find out why did it happen when it did?
Especially when Egypt was doing so well. We had the pyramids, temples, statues,
major achievements in arts, literature and everything else.
Why did it end at that time?
So, I had to pursue that question.
I had to find out for myself the reasons for the sudden, unprecedented collapse of the Old Kingdom.
Fekri Hassan has always challenged orthodoxy.
The conventional wisdom is that the Old Kingdom fell apart after the death of a pharaoh
and the battle for succession caused a major political conflict.
For Fekri, this just didn't ring true.
The first seed of doubt was planted in 1971
when Fekri found evidence of something far more devastating than political unrest.
This little-known tomb in southern Egypt has an astonishing story to tell.
The tomb belongs not to a pharaoh, but to a local governor called Ankhtifi,
who lived just after the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
For me, personally, it's an incredible find.
This is a remarkable tomb. This is one of the most outstanding tombs in all of Egypt.
It's in Ankhtifi's writings that Fekri found the vital clue.
The hieroglyphs tell of horrendous famines and the sufferings of ordinary people.
It is rarely that we have a voice from the past that gives us a poignant account
of what had happened, of the horrors, the famines, that happened 4,000 years ago.
And to have them reported in such a concise and clear fashion is unprecedented.
The entire country has become like a starved grasshopper.
I managed it that no-one died of hunger.
One small section is particularly moving as it tells of the despair and atrocities during the famines
which were ravaging the south of Egypt.
All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger to such a degree that they had come to eating their children.
For Fekri, the writing on the wall was far too powerful to be ignored.
But taking Ankhtifi's hieroglyphs literally brought him into conflict with most Egyptologists.
When Ankhtifi talks about people dying out of starvation,
I would take it with a pinch of salt.
This is typical Egyptian rhetoric which amounts to exaggeration.
There is no way that the statements made here are exaggerations.
It is definitely a description of actual events.
The text that we have here is not a folk tale, not a mythological statement. It's an actual account.
It's an evidence that we can read and interpret like anything else.
Like any observation, it's subject to analysis and examination.
That text can be analysed and examined and I find it credible.
Fekri felt compelled to prove that these writings were true,
that Egypt had suffered devastating famines.
But for years he was thwarted by the lack of any hard evidence of the suffering.
Then, in 1996, archaeological evidence emerged for the first time.
A new discovery in the far north revealed the scale of suffering at the end of the Old Kingdom.
Archaeologists were excavating in the Nile delta,
far removed from the glamorous tombs and pyramids of the rest of Egypt.
The site is described as, "A place that only dedicated archaeologists can get excited about."
Donald Redford is constantly excited at what he finds here.
When we began to excavate, I was surprised, and still am,
to find just under the surface poor burials under reed matting, some so tightly packed,
that you almost literally tripped over them.
They found a staggering number of bodies, nearly 9,000.
And something else was unusual about these burials.
Wherever we set pick in soil was a burial,
supine, on the back, or on the side, under a reed mat,
with very few grave goods, if any.
And so we must conclude in all cases, that these were the very poor, and they all dated to the same period.
Donald and his team were amazed at the sheer quantity of poor people buried here.
They'd found a community reduced to extreme poverty. The date coincided with the end of the Old Kingdom.
I have not actually run into this kind of thing before.
I think what we see here parallels what is happening elsewhere in Egypt.
Everything is breaking down.
It's not just in one category of human activity, but everywhere - society, art, religion, economy.
It's all breaking down. I think here for the first time we have evidence of it in dirt archaeology.
Confirmation of that final and rather sudden destruction of the Egyptian civilisation of the Old Kingdom.
Donald's discovery suggested that the descriptions in Ankhtifi's tomb of widespread famine must be true.
Fekri realised that whatever had caused devastation on such a large scale
must have been an apocalyptic event.
My hunch from the beginning was that it has to do with the environment, in which the Egyptians lived
and on which they depended for their livelihood.
That would have contributed to this sudden event because I could not see any evidence
in the archaeological record that would lead me to think that it would just suddenly break down like this.
Of all the forces in the natural environment of Egypt, one dominates.
The River Nile.
The ancient Greek author Herodotus described the Nile as "a gift from the gods,"
a belief that most modern Egyptians cling to passionately.
The relationship with the Nile, I think, is a love relationship.
I'm not the only one. I think all the Egyptians have a love affair with the Nile.
The Egyptian civilisation is about the Nile - loving the Nile. It runs in the blood, it's part of you.
You grow up with it. It's in you.
I've just been thinking that if you commit yourself for a lifelong relationship like this,
it has to be passion.
Without the Nile, Egypt would not exist
because it relied on annual floods for survival.
Every year, rains in the south would bring floodwaters to the Nile valley,
inundating the area with rich, fertile mud.
Once the water had subsided, planting could begin.
For Fekri, the fascination with the life and death powers of the Nile floods goes back a long time.
One of the major turning points in my life was when I came here with my mother when I was six years old.
I'd never seen a flood before. There was water all over the place on the banks of the Nile.
I was terrified...amazed by it.
I think, from that point on, I began to think that the Nile may not be that gentle river
that has always flowed in a steady manner nurturing Egyptian civilisation.
That there may be another side to the river, a dark side, a dangerous side.
So dangerous that Fekri believed the Nile was implicated
in the catastrophe that destroyed the Old Kingdom.
To many Egyptian historians, the very suggestion was tantamount to heresy.
I've been reading history from the very early beginnings of man in Egypt
and I can see a pattern
that's gone on for thousands of years.
The regular thing is that the Nile comes.
We know that the Nile is good, we know that the Nile is always faithful
and we know that the Nile will come next year.
I believe in that as I believe in God.
Faced with such burning conviction,
Fekri knew that he had to find some proof that the Nile was not always Egypt's faithful ally.
He decided to look back in time
to the 7th century AD when the Arabs conquered Egypt.
Every year, they measured the level of the Nile floods in Cairo on this column.
The meticulous records they kept for over 1,000 years were a revelation.
When I began to look at the Nile record, I was under the impression
that the Nile was a normal river with not that much change in the amount of water it brings every year.
But I found that there are variations from year to year, from decade to decade, from century to century,
and later found from millennium to millennium. That shattered my ideas that were based on a myth,
that assumed that the Nile is a steady river. It flows every year.
All people have to do is sow a few grains and everything is wonderful.
That is not true at all.
When I found that one out of every five floods was a bad flood, I was shocked.
And so I think that discovery changed my views totally
about not only the Nile, but about how Egyptian civilisation was developed and how it collapsed.
Alarmingly, Fekri had also discovered that only a small drop in the Nile flood
could have disastrous ramifications,
a lesson not lost on one of Europe's greatest military strategists.
In 1791 and 1792, the Nile flood was only a metre or two below average,
but people starved, there were riots,
and the political consequences were calamitous.
Hearing that the country was so debilitated, Napoleon seized the initiative and conquered Egypt.
Fekri now realised that any failure of the Nile could have far-reaching consequences.
But he was puzzled.
He'd found records of low floods for two-three years, but the dark age had lasted for up to 200 years.
It seemed impossible for the Nile to fail for such a long period.
Maybe there was something far bigger involved.
Fekri decided to look at the other natural feature that lies at the heart of Egyptian life, the desert.
Fekri has come with his wife, botanist Hala Barakat,
to the far south of Egypt to search for clues.
Today, this remote land is an inhospitable desert,
but thousands of years ago, people lived here.
Hala is scouring the desert for traces of these ancient people.
She's looking for small piles of stones, telltale signs of their campsites.
At night, they gathered wood for a fire. Fragments of charred embers still survive under the stones.
Hidden in these tiny bits of charcoal is vital evidence.
Back in the lab, Hala identifies the different firewoods.
She finds traces of the acacia tree which is no longer found in this desert.
We're looking at charcoal of the acacia tree.
It's very distinctive by the presence of the big vessels.
When we find the charcoal of acacia,
it means that, when it was growing, there was underground water.
You only find them in depressions or in oases where water accumulates.
They need water to grow.
Hala painstakingly collected and dated thousands of pieces of charcoal from all over the desert.
The result was quite startling.
About 7,000 years ago, there were trees growing here.
Not exactly a forest, but a dry savannah with grass growing between the trees after the rainy season.
It was a place where people could live.
Over time, vast swathes of North Africa dried up and became a desert.
Poets wrote of the devastation caused by sand.
Indeed the desert is throughout the land.
The desert claims the land. The land is injured. Towns are ravaged.
The sun is failed. None can live where the dust storm fails it.
We do not know what will happen throughout the land.
Could the change from grass to desert
be the cause of the sudden breakdown of the Old Kingdom 4,200 years ago?
Unfortunately for Fekri, the dates didn't fit.
I personally do not think that the gradual desiccation of North Africa
was the main cause for the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
The deserts we know today, by 4,500 years ago, were fully established by that time.
The change had abrupt events in it, but it was in general a gradual trend,
lasting for several millennia.
So the slow desert encroachment was completed well before the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
This had not caused its demise.
Fekri had to look for another culprit which would strike more swiftly.
There HAS to be another cause
to explain the sudden and dramatic event
that coincided with the end of the Old Kingdom.
Then came a breakthrough.
A new discovery in the hills of neighbouring Israel.
In these caves, Mira Bar-Matthews has found a unique record of past climates.
All the water here comes from rainfall.
As the rain filters down through the rock, it dissolves the limestone,
forming stalactites and stalagmites.
As these gradually build up over the years,
they trap ancient rainwater.
Mira has discovered a way of calculating rainfall thousands of years ago
by taking tiny samples of the stalactites.
The ancient rain contains two different types of oxygen, a light one and a heavier one.
If there is more of the light type, it was a very wet period. More of the heavy one means it was dry.
Analysing the samples in a mass spectrometer gives the ratio of light and heavy oxygen.
Mira had been analysing stalactites stretching back over thousands of years
when she got to one sample 4,200 years old.
As soon as she saw the results, she knew something unusual had happened.
The striking finding was that there is a very important change
in the amount of rainfall that was in this area.
Mira had found a staggering 20% drop in rainfall.
This suggested a sudden and significant climate change.
This drop is dramatic.
This event is the largest event over the last 5,000 years.
Even though Egypt and Israel have different weather systems, this finding was very exciting.
Rapid climate change was the culprit Fekri had been searching for.
He believed it was the prime suspect in the catastrophe that destroyed the Old Kingdom,
the reason why this powerful civilisation disintegrated at the height of its glory.
I firmly believe that in addition to gradual changes on a millennial scale,
climatic change can also happen very, very rapidly, suddenly and swiftly
with dramatic consequences for people.
Because abrupt climatic events happen very rapidly,
within a few decades they can influence the livelihood of people,
causing famines and droughts.
They are of a magnitude and rapidity that people cannot deal with them
in the way they would deal with a protracted, long-term change.
Fekri now needed to know
if the sudden climate change discovered in the Israeli cave was not a localised event,
but part of a larger weather pattern that would have affected Egypt, too.
The evidence to back him up came out of the blue...
from the glaciers of Iceland.
Geologist Gerard Bond is also searching for clues about ancient climates.
He does it by looking at icebergs.
The particular ones he's interested in are streaked with black ash.
Can you make out the black?
These are particles of volcanic material from the volcanoes here in Iceland.
Some of it is scraped up as the ice moves over the rock.
Some pours down the mountainsides that the glaciers are moving through
and some is dumped on the ice by volcanic eruptions.
Gerard follows the journey the icebergs take after they leave Iceland
and drift south in the North Atlantic.
When the icebergs reach warmer waters, they melt and specks of ash fall to the bottom of the ocean.
And that's where they stay,
embedded in the deep sea mud which gradually builds up over time.
Gerard and his team have collected mud from the world's oceans with deposits from the last 10,000 years.
As Gerard searched the mud from the North Atlantic, looking for traces of volcanic ash,
he was surprised.
He was finding ash in some very strange places.
Some were so far south, it showed that the icebergs had travelled a very long way before melting.
This could only happen in periods of extreme cold.
And what was more intriguing, there was a pattern to these mini ice ages.
What we found to our surprise was that not only were there suggestions
that the climate was not stable,
but every 1,500 years was a distinct cold period,
lasting a couple of hundred years, perhaps.
But what did a 1,500-year weather cycle have to do with famine in Egypt?
One of these cycles had an age of 4,200 years.
That means that the weather was cool enough at that time for icebergs to have got as far south as off Ireland.
And it occurred at about the same time as the event that you're interested in in Egypt.
So a mini ice age creating freezing conditions across Europe
happened when Egypt was suffering from extreme famines.
This could easily have stayed as a mere coincidence.
But Gerard's work alerted fellow geologist Peter deMenocal.
When he searched the climate records for the rest of the world,
looking at everything from pollen to sand, he found an even more dramatic change.
It was very exciting, something that we were not expecting.
We were using techniques that were meant to find small climate signals
in deep sea sediments.
When we found a whopping huge signal, we were shocked. We didn't expect that.
It's as if you're going after a mouse and you catch a lion. It's a very dramatic event.
Not only was this change sudden, but the ancient climate data revealed just how far-reaching it was.
It seems that everywhere we look, we find this event.
We see it in the Mediterranean and then we see evidence off of Africa,
we see it in many locations throughout the North Atlantic.
We also see evidence for it in Greenland. We see it in the continental United States.
Most recently, there's been evidence now that we actually see it in the Indonesian region.
That is a very important result. It shows that it's truly a global event.
What we see is that the climate change event occurs at the same time as the collapse of the Old Kingdom.
It's an event that in terms of the change in climate was profound,
not only in how large the event was, but also in how widespread it was.
Scientists were at last confirming everything Fekri believed.
Severe climate change was causing widespread human misery 4,200 years ago.
As colder and drier conditions swept the globe, harvests failed and people starved.
They were victims of a weather cycle out of their control.
It really is a very sobering thought to imagine what it must have been like to have been these people
and to have been struggling with climate as they were at the time and ultimately to have succumbed to it.
And nowhere was this human suffering more acute than in Egypt.
- Everybody has clustered here. - There's no way out.
Donald Redford and his team had already discovered that this ruined city was poverty-stricken
at the end of the Old Kingdom.
But in 1999, he made a macabre new find,
which showed in chilling detail the extent of the chaos
that Fekri believes the sudden climate change had triggered.
He found a group of skeletons lying underneath a temple wall.
I found that the destruction is everywhere.
Moreover, it's associated with what I would consider a massacre.
That puts it right out of the... realm of accidental occurrence.
Over the years, Donald has uncovered thousands of skeletons.
But he was extremely distressed when he found this particular collection of bodies.
There were 18 of them. In fact, their position was rather dramatic.
We had a pile of three skeletons in this position. An old man, over an old woman, over a child,
all in contorted attitudes, the woman like this, the man with hands up.
On top of the wall were two adult males, one sprawled over the wall,
with part of the wall having fallen on his back.
At this point, there were two males with a pig in the middle, of all things.
And in front of the temple, right on the axis, was a fallen teenager, with a rat clutched in his hand.
Sprawled like that, as though he had been in the act of running and he tripped and that was the end for him.
He lacked a head, as though someone had decapitated him.
Donald will never know exactly what happened, but he believes the 18 people who died had been murdered.
But most significantly, in a culture where the dead were always treated with respect,
these bodies had not been buried.
It was a very grisly scene. The interesting thing is that no-one ever came back to retrieve the bodies.
After an accidental conflagration with people dying by accident,
their relatives would have retrieved the bodies for burial. No-one was around to get them.
No-one was here and cared to get them. There is a real caesura.
It's almost as though, with their deaths and the destruction of the temple, the place was abandoned.
From stalactites in Israel to icebergs in Iceland,
Fekri had compelling evidence that this traumatic human crisis was linked to a global climate change.
But one piece of the puzzle was still missing.
Would he be able to find any scientific proof of climate disaster in Egypt itself?
He still needed to know if the country's lifeblood, the Nile, had failed for decade after decade.
The crucial evidence was to come from this lake.
It's an unusual place.
During the Old Kingdom, it was linked directly to the Nile by a tributary.
During the Nile floods every year, the lake would get much bigger.
If Fekri can discover the size of the lake at the end of the Old Kingdom,
he'll know if the floods failed.
He decided to search the mud at the bottom of the lake for answers.
And what he found was intriguing.
Actually, it's more what he didn't find that fascinated him.
They looked everywhere for sediments dating back to the Old Kingdom.
They looked in the middle of the lake and at the sides. It was a real mystery.
The huge surprise is that we can't find the Old Kingdom sediments at the bottom of the lake,
where they should be.
They couldn't find any mud dating back that far.
It was as if the lake didn't exist during the Old Kingdom.
But Fekri knows from the ancient records that there was a lake here.
He was quite bewildered, then one day it dawned on him why they were failing to find anything.
There's only one explanation.
The lake must have dried up completely, then the sediments have been blown away by storms.
So the Old Kingdom sediments are gone. They are vanished.
The fact that such a huge lake could vanish so dramatically was extraordinary.
The Nile must have been so low it had stopped feeding the lake.
What's remarkable is that this was the only time in its whole history that the lake completely dried up.
And it happened precisely at the end of the Old Kingdom.
Here, at last, was Fekri's clinching evidence.
A catastrophic global climate change caused a series of low Nile floods year after year,
turning the land to dust.
This was the explanation for the severe famines affecting the whole of Egypt.
Sandstorms smothered the land.
In one of the mightiest civilisations ever known, people were starving to death.
And it was these scenes that were described so vividly on the walls of Ankhtifi's tomb.
Although Fekri's quest is over, one poignant section still puzzles him.
"All of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger to such a degree
"that everyone had come to eating their children."
It's an astonishing description.
Were people so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism?
I was startled when I saw Ankhtifi's account
of people eating children in ancient Egypt because this is something we just don't think about.
We cannot imagine such events, such horrendous events, as happened in ancient Egypt.
But I was not surprised
because I knew that this has happened later in time
and that we do have a first-hand eye-witness account
of a famine, associated with a drought,
a low Nile, that lasted for a couple of years,
and have led to atrocious activities by people, including eating children, among other things.
The first-hand account came from a book written by a doctor from Baghdad
who'd witnessed a famine in Cairo in 1200 AD.
In his vivid description was a haunting echo of the tragedy that befell the Old Kingdom.
He said that the poor were so pressed by hunger
that they ate corpses, carrion, dogs and filth...
..and that they even went beyond that to eat children.
And so, at times, you can come upon people with roasted and cooked children.
A frank, straightforward account with no sentimentality,
but it reveals the...horrendous... level...of depredation that happened at that time.
If this could happen in a famine that only lasted a couple of years,
the horrors of one spanning several decades are truly unimaginable.
The collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom was a hideous end
to one of the world's great civilisations.
In the next Ancient Apocalypse,
3,500 years ago, the greatest power Europe had ever seen collapsed.
What was it that brought the Minoan civilisation
to this terrible end?
Subtitles by Dorothy Moore BBC Scotland 2001
E-mail us at [email protected]
Professor Fekri Hassan attempts to determine why the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the civilisation of the great pyramids, collapsed around 2200 BC. Can science show that terrible forces of nature were to blame - even driving people to cannibalism? Clues come from the remote deserts of southern Egypt, the glaciers of Iceland and a dramatic and unique archaeological find in the Nile delta.