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Arabic sources show extreme weather hit medieval Baghdad

Medieval manuscripts written by Arabic scholars can provide valuable meteorological information to help modern scientists reconstruct the climate of the past, a new study has revealed. The research, published in Weather, analyses the writings of scholars, historians and diarists in Iraq during the Islamic Golden Age between 816-1009 AD for evidence of extreme weather in Iraq, including snowfalls and hailstorms in Baghdad.

Reconstructing climates from the past provides historical comparison to modern weather events and valuable context for climate change. In the natural world trees, ice cores and coral provide evidence of past weather, but from human sources scientists are limited by the historical information available.

Until now researchers have relied on official records detailing weather patterns including air force reports during World War Two and 18th century ship’s logs. Now a team of Spanish scientists from the Universidad de Extremadura have turned to Arabic documentary sources from the 9th and 10th centuries (3rd and 4th in the Islamic calendar). The sources, from historians and political commentators of the era, focus on the social and religious events of the time, but do refer to abnormal weather events.

“Climate information recovered from these ancient sources mainly refers to extreme events which impacted wider society such as droughts and floods,” said lead author Dr Fernando Domínguez-Castro. “However, they also document conditions which were rarely experienced in ancient Baghdad such as hailstorms, the freezing of rivers or even cases of snow.”

Baghdad was a centre for trade, commerce and science in the ancient Islamic world. In 891 AD Berber geographer al-Ya’qubi wrote that the city had no rival in the world, with hot summers and cold winters, climatic conditions which favored strong agriculture.

While Baghdad was a cultural and scientific hub many ancient documents have been lost to a history of invasions and civil strife. However, from the surviving works of writers including al-Tabari (913 AD), Ibn al-Athir (1233 AD) and al-Suyuti (1505 AD) some meteorological information can be rescued.

When collated and analysed the manuscripts revealed an increase of cold events in the first half of the 10th century. This included a significant drop of temperatures during July 920 AD and three separate recordings of snowfall in 908, 944 and 1007.

In comparison the only record of snow in modern Baghdad was in 2008, a unique experience in the living memories of Iraqis. “These signs of a sudden cold period confirm suggestions of a temperature drop during the tenth century, immediately before the Medieval Warm Period,” said Domínguez-Castro. “We believe the drop in July 920 AD may have been linked to a great volcanic eruption but more work would be necessary to confirm this idea.”

The twelfth-century historian Ibn al-Jawzi records in the year 926 that “On 7 December, there was a great snowfall in Baghdad. Six days before that, the weather had become very cold, and after the snow, it was even more cold, being so extreme that most of the palm-trees in Baghdad and its rural area were ruined, as well as other trees, such as citron, fig, and lotus. Sherbet and rose-water froze, as well as vinegar. The great water-canals from the Tigris in Baghdad were frozen, as was the greater part of the river Euphrates on the region of al-Raqqa. The whole of the river Tigris was frozen at Mosul, so that ridden animals could cross over it. The scholar known as Abu Zakariya sat in the middle of the Tigris, on the ice, and gave there lessons of Prophetical Tradition. Afterwards the cold subsided thanks to the south winds and copious rains.” Three other sources confirm this cold weather striking Iraq.

Later on, his account for the year 1007, the Ib al-Jawzi notes, “This year, on Wednesday, the 11th of rabi’ I (25 November, 1007), there was a great fall of snow in Baghdad. Its height on the surface of the earth was of a dhira’ (c. 80cm) or a dhira’ and a half, depending on the places. The snow stayed for a week, without melting away. People threw it from their house roofs to the streets and alleys with shovels. Then the snow began to melt, but it remained in some places for twenty days. This snowfall reached Tikrit, and letters arrived from Wasit informing of snow falling between the marshes (a-Batiha) and Basra, Kufa, Abadan, and Mahruban.”

The team believes the sources show Iraq to have experienced a greater frequency of significant climate events and severe cold weather than today. While this study focused on Iraq it demonstrates the wider potential for reconstructing the climate from an era before meteorological instruments and formal records.

“Ancient Arabic documentary sources are a very useful tool for finding eye witness descriptions which support the theories made by climate models,” said Domínguez-Castro. “The ability to reconstruct past climates provides us with useful historical context for understanding our own climate. We hope this potential will encourage Arabic historians and climatologists to work together to increase the climate data rescued from across the Islamic world.”

The article, “How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate,” appears in the March 2012 issue of Weather, Volume 67, Issue 3. Click here to access this article.

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