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How climate change threatens the cradle of civilisation

April 12, 2016 at 9:37 am

Late last year, archaeologists at the Slemani Museum in Iraqi Kurdistan announced an astonishing discovery. They had found fragments of a tablet detailing 20 new lines of text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest work of literature known to humanity. Dating from around 2100 BC it came from one of the world’s first civilisations, the third dynasty of Ur in ancient Sumeria.

This discovery obviously served as a timely reminder of just how precious archaeological and historical heritage from the Middle East is, and how the on-going wars and disorders in the region – particularly involving Daesh, who have apparently taken pleasure in destroying pre-Islamic artefacts – are a threat to all of humanity’s cultural inheritance.

Deeper than that, however, it was the sheer age, intricacy and timeless beauty of the epic that invigorated my sense of wonder at this news. It is almost overwhelming to think that, when this poem was being written, Europe had still not entered the Bronze Age.

(Indeed, though the motto of MEMO is ‘creating new perspectives’ – implying a challenge to neo-colonial Eurocentric viewpoints – it is worth remembering that the Middle East’s fertile crescent is home to some of the world’s oldest civilisations and its history is valuable in its own right).

Yet, while acknowledging the importance and advancement of Middle Eastern civilisations over the past millennia is one thing, assessing how the region will fair in the coming centuries is another. Beset by innumerable contemporary challenges – for example occupation, war and neo-fascism – the immediate future is obviously likely to be turbulent. Yet it is the gravest threat – that of a rapidly changing global climate – which is most often overlooked.

A new epoch

The Anthropocene refers to a proposed demarcation in the earth’s geological time scale. It is generally understood to refer to the massive-scale changes currently being experienced in the earth’s environment which result as a product of human activity. In other words the term Anthropocene serves as a short hand way of explaining how the impact of humanity, and human behaviour in the industrialised age, is so significant that it can be compared with the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs.

Clearly this is an issue of global concern, affecting everyone. Yet, in spite of this, as it advances – and it has already begun – climate change will not affect all people in the same way. Indeed, there will be harsh differences between the impact of climate changes according to geography and other important factors. As has become popularly understood, low-lying islands and countries with large population centres near coasts are most at risk in the short term.

In the Middle East, particularly North Africa, flooding is a potential problem, according to the World Bank,

“In urban areas in North Africa, a temperature increase of 1-3 degrees could expose 6–25 million people to coastal flooding. In addition, heat waves, an increased ‘heat island effect’, water scarcity, decreasing water quality, worsening air quality, and ground ozone formation are likely to affect public health, and more generally lead to challenging living conditions.”

Indeed, to take the Egyptian city of Alexandria as an example:

“A rise of 0.5 metres would [place] 67per cent of the population, 65.9 per cent of the industrial sector, and 75.9 per cent of the service sector below sea level. Thirty percent of the city’s area would be destroyed, 1.5 million people would have to be evacuated, and over 195,000 jobs would be lost.”

For the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, the major threat is likely to be a direct product of the heat. Indeed extreme heat waves may make large parts of the region uninhabitable, while desertification – one proximate cause for the Syrian civil war – is likely to accelerate.

All this will make the mass movement of people more likely. The movement of people away from the most deadly regions will make the current refugee crisis seem ordinary. In such a climate it will be harder for everyone, including those living relatively easier lives in the receiving countries. There is little doubt that sustained pressure of that kind will have a transformative effect on even the most robust democracies.

The walls of Uruk

In the poem, Gilgamesh was a demigod and tyrant king of Uruk, a major city in ancient southern Mesopotamia not far from modern-day Samawah. The gods punished him for his cruelty when they sent a wild beast named Enkidu. After the two fought they became great friends and departed together on a great trek to find and kill the horrifying Humbaba, guardian of the god’s own Cedar Forest. However, in spite of their success in killing Humbara and returning home, tragedy struck as Enkida was killed by a spiteful goddess.

Devastated by the loss of his comrade, Gilgamesh set out on another journey. He tries and tries again to win a chance to live forever, yet he is never successful. Instead, confronted by the crushing realisation that he cannot escape his own mortality, he returns home in despair. Yet, just as he catches sight of Uruk’s city walls Gilgamesh has his epiphany. He understands that as long as his city lives on some form of immortality is assured.

This realisation is both profound and unexpected. It represents how much Gilgamesh has transformed during the story; from a ravaging consumer – a villain who mistreats his city for his own selfish needs – to a more noble and visionary leader. In the end, the king’s eyes are open. He sees that he cannot escape his own fate but also that there is virtue in conserving that, which can last beyond his own lifetime.

Climate change is already here. It’s already making the world we live in far more dangerous. In particular it is also a major driver behind the escalating crises in the Middle East. Moreover, it will get worse unless drastic steps are taken.

There is still time to mitigate some of the most catastrophic potential consequences… but we must act quickly.

Dr. Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow for the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Routledge, Forthcoming August 2016). His full profile is online at and is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.