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4000 years ago, the Nile drastically transformed the landscape around Luxor

29 May 2024
Around 4000 years ago, there was an abrupt change in the behavior of the Nile River: from a wild, turbulent river with sandy deposits, it transformed into a river with stable banks and fertile muddy floodplains. The cause was a drying climate during that period, which led to the disappearance of vegetation and a gradual desertification in the Nile's catchment area. This allowed the river to more easily erode sediment, including clay particles.The annual Nile flood also became less extensive and violent due to less water flowing through the river valley, allowing fertile clay to settle on the floodplains. This is evident from research conducted by an international team of geoscientists, archaeologists, and Egyptologists. They show how the landscape in the Nile Valley around Luxor (Thebes, Egypt) developed over the past 11,500 years.

Landscape changes around Karnak and Luxor temples
The scientists demonstrate that these fertile floodplains may have played an important role in the rise of the regional agro-economy of the ancient Egyptians. The article is published in Nature Geoscience. In addition to providing insight into how sensitive the river Nile is to such climate changes, this study contributes to the question of where new archaeological discoveries might be made - where have traces disappeared due to erosion and where could they have been preserved, and which places were previously suitable for habitation. Particularly around the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Karnak and Luxor temples, it has become clear how the landscape has changed.

Sediment layers reveal the influence of climate on rivers
River geomorphologist Willem Toonen from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam was involved in the research. Together with leading author Jan Peeters (University of Michigan), he was responsible for the design of the geological research and the execution of >80 soil borings spread across the entire width of the Nile Valley, as well as the analysis and interpretation of the drilled sediments. He has been working in various locations in Egypt since 2014 to reconstruct the former river landscape and to examine the sediment layers deposited by rivers. “This allows us to learn more about the past occurrence of extreme floods and what role climate change plays in their occurrence. The deposits also tell us how rivers have moved through the landscape, with implications for where people could live,” says Toonen.

Follow-up research
The study can contribute to further research into why, around 4000 years ago, the power center in Egypt shifted from Memphis (near present-day Cairo) to Thebes (present-day Luxor). It is believed that around that time Thebes became one of the largest cities in the world. Did a major landscape change underlie the extreme wealth of the Theban elite, which manifested itself in megalomaniac construction projects like Karnak temple and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings?

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