A three-year drought may have led to the collapse of the ancient Hittite civilisation in the Middle East 3,000 years ago, a study suggests.

The Hittites, with their capital Hattusa situated in central Anatolia, were one of the ancient world’s great powers across five centuries. They became the main geopolitical rivals of ancient Egypt during its glittering New Kingdom period.

Scholars have long sought to understand what triggered the fall of the Hittites and broader collapse that also devastated other kingdoms in Greece, Crete and the Middle East while weakening the Egyptians.

Hattusa, enclosed by a monumental stone wall with gates adorned with lions and sphinxes, was burned and abandoned. Texts written on clay tablets using the cuneiform script common in the region – detailing Hittite society, politics, religion, economics and foreign affairs – were no more.

The collapse of the Hittite Empire – centered in modern day Turkey and spanning parts of Syria and Iraq – in the Late Bronze Age has been blamed on various factors, including war, invasion and climate change.

Now, Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, have analysed juniper trees alive at the time, showing three consecutive years of severe drought that may have caused crop failures, famine and political-societal disintegration.

They examined samples of timber from the Midas Mound Tumulus at Gordion – a structure located west of Ankara, Turkey – which may have been used in around 748 BC to build the burial chamber for a relative of Phrygia’s King Midas, who in Greek legends turned anything he touched into gold.

Analysis of the tree rings – which indicate how old a tree is and what the weather was like during each year of the tree’s life – showed “drier years, with extremes marking probable drought episodes critical to agricultural production and subsistence”.

The team’s findings were published in the journal, Nature.

“In pre-modern times, with none of our infrastructure and technology, the Hittites controlled and ruled a huge region for centuries despite myriad challenges of space, threats from neighbours and entities incorporated into their empire, and despite being centred in a semi-arid region,” said Cornell University professor of arts and sciences in classics Sturt Manning, lead author of the research.

The team found evidence which indicated three straight years of severe drought, in 1198, 1197 and 1196 BC, coinciding with the known timing of the empire’s collapse.

“There was likely near-complete crop failure for three consecutive years. The people most likely had food stores that would get them through a single year of drought. But when hit with three consecutive years, there was no food to sustain them,” said University of Georgia anthropology professor and study co-author Brita Lorentzen.

“This would have led to a collapse of the tax base, mass desertion of the large Hittite military and likely a mass movement of people seeking survival.

“The Hittites were also challenged by not having a port or other easy avenues to move food into the area.”

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Less than a century earlier, the Hittites under king Muwatalli II and the Egyptians under pharaoh Ramesses II fought the famous and inconclusive Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC – waged with thousands of chariots in Syria – and subsequently reached history’s first recorded peace treaty.

“I think this study really shows the lessons we can learn from history. The climate changes that are likely to occur for us in the next century will be much more severe than those the Hittites experienced,” said Cornell University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and study co-author Jed Sparks.

“And it begs the questions: What is our resilience? How much can we withstand?”