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Ancient Weather and Solar Storms

18 October 2019

William sent in this link. A Japanese research team claims the Ancient Assyrians referred to a solar storm even between 679 and 655BC as a cuneiform tablets mention an unusual red sky. It would indeed be unusual to see aurorae that far south which means a powerful CME was involved, overloading the ionosphere – see https://phys.org/news/2019-10-solar-storm-surveys-ancient-assyrian.html … The Book of Maccabees also appears to refer to aurora phenomena – in the second century BC.

Not to be outdone, next we have a weather report – going back even deeper into the past (to the time of Ahmose I, first pharaoh of dynasty 18 Egypt). The university of Chicago published an article about the Tempest Stela, a 6 foot block of calcite, that came up with a variant translation. Various attempts to translate the text have been hampered by the fact the calcite block was found in pieces with important parts missing (or untranslatable). Hence, a variety of attempts have been made to understand it. It is supposed to say that heavy rainfall, darkness, and the sky in storm without cessation (lasting several days), louder than the cries of the masses etc. It has been interpreted by some as a reference to the eruption of the Thera volcano on an island off Crete – see for example https://news.uchicago.edu/2014/04/09/world-s-oldest-weather-report-could… … and in some way not quite understood, it led to flooding and the destruction of houses and temple precincts in various parts of the Nile valley and its delta. Hans Goedicke, back in the day, thought he saw a similarity with the events described in the Bible, concerning days of darkness and so on. The tempest also appears to have played a role in the defeat and expulsion of the Hyksos, a Levantine group of migrants that had established a powerful kingdom in the delta, centred around Avaris (later known as Pi-ramesse and believed to be the Biblical city of Raameses where the Hebrews claimed to have been enslaved). Jovan Kesic had a slightly different take on the events to the experts, saying what the Tempest stele described, not so much torrential rain, but a tidal wave that swept up the through the delta and caused the Nile flow to back up, flooding the Nile valley as far south as Thebes as the water had no other place to go. The tidal wave would have been caused by the volcano and is thought to have swept through the East Mediterranean Sea, affecting the delta and hinterland. It may even explain the Biblical flood of water that washed away pharoah's army, in pursuit of the fleeing motley crowd of slaves (at somewhere like the Reed Sea, just to the east of the delta, close to Baal Zephon a mound like hill). This may imply the pharoah of the Exodus was a Hyksos ruler rather than an Egyptian. Manetho, in the 3rd century BC, thought the Israelites were in fact the Hyksos themselves, but the Biblical account is quite specific – they were slaves and servants (not a ruling caste).

Whilst the Exodus story is probably an amalgum of different experiences we must also bear in mind that plenty of prisoners of war seized by dynasty 18 armies in the Levant also ended up working on construction projects, and as servants etc (as in a situation much like slaves of the Greek and Roman era), and we may assume that groups of 'slaves' fled from Egypt on a number of occasions (during periods of civil unrest for example). The core myth of the Exodus must have some foundation in an historical event and if a tidal wave (and a period of several days of darkness, hunger caused by flooded fields, and various plagues as a result of upheaval in society and nature) and then the Tempest Stela may provide the backdrop. This is why the various translations of the stela are important – as it can hardly be a report on a weather event of no magnitude.

The stela was found in pieces at Luxor, where Ahmose ruled. Hyksos power, it is thought, was based on its navy and its ability to patrol the Nile all the way down to Nubia, having the ability to contain native Egyptians in Thebes and elsewhere. Obviously, a tsunami wave would have had the means to put that navy out of action – or curtail its ability to control the native population. The stela mentions the sky in storm with a tempest of rain (it is thought) which went on for several days. It also describes bodies floating down the Nile.

Note .. it was not unusual for the weather to switch fron hot and dry to wet and cool as the normal weather system, the Red Sea Trough, was sometimes disrupted – bringing weather from the north. It is possible the eruption caused a modification of atmospheric patterns, creating a precipitation regime. On the other hand the translators may assume it refers to heavy rainfall solely because of the flooding – which appears to have been catastrophic. For this reason some historians have chosen to interpret the tempest as an unusual annual flooding event (as a result of heavy rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands and Nubia). The problem they have is the fact that not only did the flooding effect the delta region but Upper Egypt too – which is dry and relies on the annual floods to irrigate their fields. They obviously had not thought of a tsunami wave in the delta causing the Nile to back up and break its banks – and this could have occurred at any time of the year, and not just during the annual flood period.

The Tempest stela was also a feature of an article by Thomas Schneider (in 2010) in the International Journal for Egyptian Archaeology (edited by Manfred Bietak, excavator of Pi-ramesse. He begins by saying that crucial parts of the text still defy proper understanding. In addition, its religious and historical context is unclear. He then attempted to clarify some of the uncertainty. For example, there is a clear reference in the text to a 'torch' that could not provide light in overwhelming darkness. He than refers to  an epitheto of Re the sun god = a shining torch. We may assume it refers to a luminary and the sun is most likely. Therefore we have overwhelming darkness during what was daylight hours – and it continued for several days. In fact, the author of the stela even says that Re had installed Ahmose as Egypt's new pharaoh – and herein is a problem. In effect, Re the sun, was unable to shine over Egypt (or part of Egypt). The tempest itself was associated with the storm god, Amun (in one sense) but also with Seth (the Asiatic god), another form of Baal. He was deemed responsible for the tempest and yet he was the god of the Hyksos (it is thought). Was it a metaphor for the Hyksos rule over Egypt (Seth being superior to Re in this context) which is a dangerous route to take as Ahmose defeated the Hyksos and caused their expulsion ( or did he). Was it the tempest that led to the defeat of the Hyksos and if so that puts a different complexion on the text as Re ultimately reigned supreme over Seth (as the tempest passed over Egypt). Schneider also says the Egyptians may have interpreted the events as manifestation of Amun (causing Ahmose to retreat upstream and leave the Hyksos to their fate). The tempest is presented as a divine spectacle. It is that which makes the stela special – a clash between the gods = a catastrophe of unusual proportions. The Hyksos were overwhelmed and the Egyptians cast off foreign rule, leading to one of the most important periods in its history, that of the New Kingdom period (Late Bronze Age).

The idea the tempest stela referred to Thera was advanced by the likes of C Vanderleyen, H Goedicke, and EN Davis, in the 1990s, and reiterated by Foster and Ritnor in 1996 which produced a back lash by uniformitarian historians (loathe to accept catastrophic events). Even Manfred Bietak was against identifying the stela with Thera. The alternative view is that it was all just a storm in a teacup – not much out of the ordinary (ignoring the specific role of the gods). Schneider wrote his article in response to the backlash historians and in a way the debate has crystalised in that the tempest stela is now seen as an abberation of no particular importance. Jovan Kesic, however, has revived the debate recently, offering another interpretation of the text, one that does not require torrential rainfall leading to flooding. The date of the stela is fixed by the Mathematical Papyrus to the 11th year of Ahmose. He was actually beseiging the Hyksos military stronghold of Ezbat Helmi (adjacent to Avaris), it is thought, but seems to have allowed the Hyksos to retreat for some reason – or perhaps he was forced to give up the seige as a result of the tempest (and the proposed tidal wave). He retreated himself, back to Upper Egypt and ultimately to Thebes, noting the flooded countryside etc. The phrase, a darkness like the West = a darkness in the condition of the West (the Underworld = a darkness like the night). Hence, we have darkness like night during day time hours – and Re was fettered it would seem (another reason why Ahmose returned to Upper Egypt to consult the gods). The parallel with the Exodus event is remarkable – but that may just be an accident.

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