Climate change ravages the cradle of civilisation in spot excavated by Agatha Christie

This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph, December 25, 2021

25 December 2021 • 6:00am

Until recently, winter rains would transform the fields around Chagar Bazar in northeast Syria as emerald shoots of wheat and barley emerged from the fertile soil.

“It should be green around here,” said Hussein Abdi, a villager who owns the local wheat weighing station, as he surveyed a parched and dusty landscape facing one of the worst droughts on record.

An archaeological site between the Khabur and Jaghjagh tributaries of the Euphrates River in northeast Syria, Chagar Bazar’s most prominent claim to fame is being excavated by an expedition involving Agatha Christie led by her husband the British archaeologist Max Mallowan during several seasons in the 1930s.

While the mudbrick house the Mallowan expedition left to the local sheikh has long-since disappeared, Syrians living in the tidy village of Chagar Bazar still remember the eccentric British couple.

“My great grandparents knew Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, one of their books is somewhere in the village,” Mr Abdi told The Telegraph during a recent visit.

“They were looking for old things,” the 32-year-old said vaguely, gesturing to the distant archaeological mound.

The Mallowan expedition was a hunt for evidence of the earliest human civilisations when they travelled in a car dubbed the ‘Queen Mary’ from Beirut to what was once Northern Mesopotamia, where abundant water was one of the factors leading to the development of agriculture and then advanced societies in the fertile crescent.

“Here, some five thousand years ago, was the busy part of the world. Here were the beginnings of civilisation,” wrote the best-selling novelist of all time in her memoir of her time in Syria, ‘Come, Tell Me How You Live’.

Mallowan selected Chagar Bazar from the dozens of tels or archaeological mounds along the Khabur Valley because it appeared to have been uninhabited since the 15th century BC, meaning they would not have to dig through Roman ruins first.

Their two seasons excavating the site produced a wealth of artefacts, 985 of which are today catalogued in the British Museum. Pottery from the Halaf and Ubaid cultures, clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, amulets, cylinder seals, and a fired clay figurine of a woman with large breasts – likely a fertility goddess – all provided evidence of how mastery of agriculture was the key to societal development in the cradle of civilisation.

Mallowan assumed that the abundant winter rains that turned the steppe into a carpet of green grass and wildflowers during their time there had been constant throughout history. “That similar conditions prevailed in antiquity is proved by the remarkable number of agricultural settlements which are now indicated by the sites of the ancient [tels],” he wrote.

Though Mallowan attributed the abandonment of Chagar Bazar in 1500 BCE to invasion and banditry, later archaeologists believe that changing climate introduced periods of drought, making the area unsuitable for rain-fed agriculture.

Today climate change and drought is once again ravaging the region, with the historical record suggesting mass population shifts as a likely outcome.

Rostrum Abdo, a Syrian archaeologist from the nearby city of Qamishli, explained how the weather can dictate population densities in agricultural societies. “It’s a cycle, when there is no rain, there is no harvest. Settlements move based on climate.”

In the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s ongoing civil war in 2011, drought drove up to a million people from rural areas to the cities in search of work, which some cite as one of the drivers of the conflict.

Officials in Damascus say the ongoing drought is the worst in 70 years, with the worst affected region being the agricultural heartland of the northeast.

Controlled by the Kurdish-led militia the Syrian Democratic Forces, northeast Syria is today more stable and prosperous than many other parts of the country. But its economy is now in free-fall as the region faces the prospect of a second failed harvest.

In addition to climate change and over-exploitation of groundwater sources, local officials blame upstream neighbour Turkey for water shortages.

“Turkey has been cutting water to our region for the past six years,” said Khabat Suleiman, a co-chair in the Hassakeh Council.

Turkey considers the SDF a front for its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the UK also proscribes as a terrorist organisation, something officials in northeast Syria say suggests that Ankara is using water as weapon of war against them.

Mr Suleiman pointed to the Khabur River, which Turkish-backed militias in Syria have dammed, contributing to it drying up for the first time. “The Khabur will only flow now if Turkey releases the water,” he said.

Water experts say that Turkey faces shortages itself, with satellite imagery showing the heavy upstream demands placed on water resources. North of the border Turkey has built dozens of dams on the Euphrates, which water hundreds of centre-pivot irrigation systems, visible from the sky as green circles. These contrast sharply with the desiccated landscape just south of the border in Syria.

“The entire region is suffering from more erratic rainfall, and that’s going to have a particularly damaging consequences for river-dependent downstream places like northeast Syria and Iraq,” said Peter Schwartzstein, an environmental journalist and fellow at the Center for Climate and Security.

“Because as Turkey’s own water resources wobble, authorities will – and are holding back more water to meet their full domestic needs, no matter the grim consequences for others. The fact that in Syria’s case this water cut off is crippling an area that’s run by a group that Ankara despises might be considered an additional boon.”

Across northeast Syria, the effects of the drought are ubiquitous: empty water reservoirs, dying fruit trees and farm workers moving to towns in search of work.

“This was the breadbasket for all of Syria, now there is the potential for a famine,” said Mr Suleiman, as a television in his office broadcast news of the migrant crisis on the Belarusian border.

“The water issue and drought is the main driver of migration,” he continued. “People are abandoning their fields and leaving their villages to work as labourers in the city. Others are leaving the country.

“In two years if we don’t get rain there will be no one left here.”

These warnings have been amplified by experts, with a report published this month by the Turkey-based Operations & Policy Center outlining “three signs of impending famine in Syria”.

“The ability of Syria to feed itself is fast disappearing, and this is evident in spiraling food insecurity across the country,” the authors wrote, noting that “the severity of the ongoing drought… is compounded by the water management policies of neighbouring Turkey”.

Back at Chagar Bazar, where a tractor was ploughing a dusty field, Mr Abdi said farmers could not afford a second failed harvest next year.

“We want to stay on our land, we want Turkey to stop cutting water to our rivers. They used to flow, now they’re dry. If there’s no water, we will all have to go to Germany.”